“The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduce them. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.” (Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd, p. 64)
What would Monsieur le Professeur Le Bon make of the fact that his 1895 masterpiece The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind is as timely and relevant today as it was then?
Written under the influence of his experience of the Paris Commune, the civil war between Paris and the rest of France which killed thousands and saw the burning of Tuileries Palace on 25th May 1871, some 150 years before the storming of the Capitol on 6th January 2021 (see this remarkable report from the Guardian archive), he was wary of “our savage destructive instincts” and the “cowardly ferocity” of crowds.
He should have come and watched a match at the New Den pre-lockdown.
Of course, the first SDF convention of 2021 (the sixth year of our chatventure, no less) on Friday 15th – still a Zoom affair, plus ça change – had a lot to say about that Capitol offence from nine days earlier.
And about the latest zigzagging from the government of Plague Island (thanks Sam), about trust in general and the Trust Barometer in particular – with differing opinions, though less so than on the topic of whether and how, or not, The Platforms are publishers. More of that later.
On the matter of trust and the government, Sam sets the scene with a pop-cultural reference – though it’s neither The Kaiser Chiefs, nor The Communards, but rather his go-to repository for such matters, Marillion’s Fish, who in State of Mind proclaims “I don’t trust the government, I don’t trust alternatives. It’s not that I’m paranoid, it’s just that’s the way it is.”
Ah yes, fish. Happy fish. Again, more of that later.
Our jolly Xmas episode from what feels like a very long time ago had a number of predictions for this eagerly expected year. I’m sorry, Auld Lang Syne, nice song and all, but this ain’t the time for the sake of old times.
Forward we looked, and Neville predicted, well, not quite a riot but – “an all-round chaotic start to 2021.” What a polished crystal ball he must have. From convoluted COVID rules in the UK, lack of trust and diminishing understanding leading to people falling foul of regulation, to the prospect of violence in pretty much every US State capital, Neville challenges me as resident Cassandra in his bleak reflection and outlook on a chaos continuum.
Sam – feeling mentally all sleek from his newly curbed news diet – revisits his oracular stance on who might reside at 10 Downing Street come April.
Ever the Bayesian-Keynesian, he states that now the facts have changed, so has his mind. Thus no Prime Minister Gove for the time being, and sadly the Lady Macbeth re-enactment society also need to wait their turn.
Sam does venture a new prediction though: a vaccine-boosted snap election to provide this hapless confederacy of dunces with a refreshed mandate, all on the back of Superboris finally wrestling the pesky coronavillain to the ground.
Meanwhile, I’m waxing academical about the difference between permanent campaigning and the daily grind of governance in times of multiple mega crises (thanks Professor Lilleker, and yes the next draft of the paper is almost ready…). Both Neville and Sam see some improvement in government COVID comms, and moving seamlessly from Cassandra to Eeyore, I foresee an imminent return to bad form as soon as expert voices become inconvenient again.
And with that, we turn our attention to the 21st edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer and its declaration of an ‘information bankruptcy’.
I’m not a big fan: too much marketing, too little ‘actionable insight’ (I assume that’s reserved for paying clients). Sam sort of agrees, and calls Edelman “hoisted by their own petard” – having to create trust news that sells. And bad news usually sells better…
Still, we can’t disagree with Neville: they’ve set an industry standard that we are all working with, declining trend after declining trend – from the Growing Inequality of Trust (2016) to Trust in Crisis (2017), to The Battle for Truth (2018), to Trust at Work (2019), to Competence and Ethics (2020), and now, Declaring Information Bankruptcy (2021).
The world of trust is not a happy place. But then, right now, which place is?
Perhaps the natural habitat of British fish. At least according to that standard-bearer of political comedy, Jacob Rees-Mogg. In my twenty odd years in the UK, I don’t know how many times I had that lazy “German sense of humour” trope lobbed at me. And by all means – I love John Cleese and yes we started it. But having to bear Rees-Moggian attempts at bantery fishy rhetoric is just a bit too much to stomach.
From fish to lemmings. Or whatever species is most likely to follow the alluring tune of the Pied Piper.
On the 6th January 2021 in Washington DC, it was the wound up Trumpers, the patriotic MAGA crowd, the misled Stop the Stealers, the menacing Don’t Tread on Mes with their rattlesnake banners. We reflect on the faux surprise – “who could have seen that happening…?” – and an excellent Buzzfeed report on just how out in the open of the online sphere the event prepping actually was.
Equally insightful is a video montage by The Daily Show, parading some of the Heroes of the Insurrection and their kindling contributions to the events of 6th January, punctuated by the dramatic appearance of that bald-headed, bare-footed all American warrior of Positive Populism, Steve Hilton. Yes, Dave’s Dom, Steve Hilton. Intellectual arsonists of the Anglosphere unite!
On these points, the three of us easily agree.
When it comes to assessing the roles of the social media ecosystem and in particular its big beasts, positions diverge and the discussion heats up. “Publishers”, cries Sam (and I nod vigorously). “Leeching and parasiting on others’ journalism, stealing people’s work to get users to stick around.” No no no, counters Neville, equally agitated. Nobody holds the phone companies responsible for their users’ conversations.
Then again, Neville is the first to criticise Sheryl Sandberg for her rather hypocritical and self-serving defence, denying responsibility and pointing the finger at other platforms. But that’s just Facebook’s Chief Deflection Officer meeting her objectives.
Sheryl Sandberg became a billionaire by understanding earlier than most the lure of social media’s modus operandi for advertising. First she helped turn Google into a money making machine, then she did the same for Facebook.
Not for the first time, I refer to Shoshana Zuboff’s magisterial Surveillance Capitalism and its central argument of optimised prediction and loss of free will. Advertising is at the heart of that too.
Sam reminds us that extremists are nothing new, and that social psychology and ingroup activation can also teach us about the many prosocial effects of social media. Well, yes and… the way news works, evidence points to extreme right radicalisation, especially under conditions of anonymity, to be the more pressing issue.
I point to a whole series of excellent, chilling new books about off- and online radicalisation, based on research (mostly under cover). With extremism growing faster and more extreme in darkness, the de-platforming of Parler and its noisy parleurs isn’t exactly helping.
We finish with further reflections on the disunited state of the United States.
Neville praises historian and authoritarianism expert Tim Snyder’s New York Times feature, The American Abyss (complete with extraordinary images from the storming of the Capitol – including the image we borrowed for our title). Post-truth is pre-fascism, says Snyder.
As we’re seeing reports of the FBI warning of armed protests in all state capitals, and of the billionaires backing Republicans who (still) want to reverse the election, as well as eye and ear witness accounts of what actually happened, from “Kill him with his own gun” to “It could have been much much worse”, it’s worth bearing Snyder’s warning in mind.
It’s also worth bearing in mind, as Neville reminds us, that 74m Americans voted for Donald Trump in November, and even after the Capitol riots, most Republicans stand by their man: a recent Axios-Ipsos poll found that 57% of Republicans said Trump should be the 2024 GOP candidate.
Which reminds me – that stanza from Fish’s State of Mind continues with “Every day I hear a little scream inside. Every day I find it’s getting’ louder.” Don’t we all, Mr. Derek William Dick, don’t we all.
Yet for his 125 year old pertinence, we should allow Gustave Le Bon the final word on this:
“An isolated individual knows well enough that alone he cannot set fire to a palace or loot a shop, and should he be tempted to do so, he will easily resist the temptation. Making part of a crowd, he is conscious of the power given him by number, and it is sufficient to suggest to him ideas of murder or pillage for him to yield immediately to temptation. An unexpected obstacle will be destroyed with frenzied rage.” (The Crowd, P. 22)
The SmallDataForum will reconvene in about a month or so for its 44th episode.
Listen to Episode 43: