“It’s been a funny old year,” muses Thomas as we three kings of the Small Data Forum podcast begin our last ramblechat of 2021, with Thomas sounding like a football manager trying to sum up the most bizarre of seasons.
Sam believes that Thomas’ question as to whether we should see this oddest of odd years as “Plus ça change …” (and so “… plus ç’est la même chose”) is spot on.
Accusations of a series of catered parties at Number 10 are becoming more tangible and less tittle-tattle by the day – parties hosted when London was under Tier 3 restrictions and “mingerlin’” was definitely verboten. Screenshots and grainy footage of canapés and revellers crawl out of the digital woodwork to add the fire of verity to the smoke of accusations.
Spokesperson after government PR flack is being hung out to dry, resign, and spend more time with their families. The lies are mounting up like yet another set of Covid mortality statistics, and the mud sticks to everyone but the leader himself.
For Neville, the PM is deploying Steve Jobs’ notorious “reality distortion field”, and if Johnson declares black is white or up is down, everyone around him is required either to agree or get out … preferably by the back door so that no waiting media can spot and snap them, adding to the evidence pile.
Johnson really does appear to have become the Teflon PM to whom nothing sticks. So, despite 100 Tory MPs voting against new vaccine passport legislation the night before we recorded this episode, and an utterly humiliating by-election defeat at the hands of the Liberal Democrats the day after in North Shropshire – a seat the Tories have held since 1832 – the odds on getting a new PM for Christmas are close to zero. Even if that would be the best Christmas present the residents of our beleaguered Plague Island could receive.
Sam observes that some of the possible contenders to replace Johnson have been remarkably silent in recent weeks, most notably Chancellor “Dishy” Rishi, “Eat-Out-To-Help-Out” Sunak. The same cannot be said for the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Affairs, Liz Truss – whom Sam inexcusably confuses for Lynne Truss; sorry, Lynne – who recently set out her stall as a potential replacement for Johnson in a speech.
Thomas enjoys recounting some of the more acerbic comments from former Tory PM and Times’ columnist, Matthew Parris, who admonishes the British electorate: “Don’t replace a charlatan with another sham”.
Truss’ speech was given at Chatham House, but clearly not under the Chatham House Rule, as Parris informs us that her speech leapt “from one overweening vacuity to the next”. He concludes: “As a leadership hopeful, Truss puts me in mind of those dreadful kebabs that, legless after a pub-crawl, you lurch towards at midnight. They seem like a good idea at the time, but, peer into the bread pouch and the contents do not live up to the promise.”
I expect letters from the Kebab Marketing Board have been flooding The Thunderer’s office ever since.
Neville believes that talk of Tory leadership challenges and possible runners and riders will be swept away by the apparent on-rushing tsunami of cases of SARS-Cov-2: This Time It’s Omicron, which he – and the popular media, Cassandra-like – think will Cancel Christmas for the second year in a row.
Ever the early-morning optimist, Sam wonders whether – following reports from South Africa, which has a month-long head-start on the rest of the world – Omicron might be much more infectious but much less deadly. And therefore, possibly, be the beginning of the end for this particular pandemic.
The classicist in Sam then gets side-tracked by the WHO’s running roughshod over the Greek alphabet. Omicron was originally ‘nu’, the 13th letter, but officials in Geneva thought the public might think this was “new Covid” (like new Labour). The 14th letter is ‘ksi’ – sometimes rendered ‘xi’ – which could either be mistaken for a YouTuber with 24m subscribers or a river in Yunnan province, Southern China. So they skipped along to the 15th letter, Omicron. Little ‘o’.
Watch out for variant 24 – Omega, Big O – that’ll be the real daddy.
Somehow, Thomas pulls us out of this philologist’s nose dive, albeit via the Greek stepping stone of Meta.
The Onus of Responsibility
Since we last met, “long-time Facebook veteran” Andrew Bosworth – soon to be elevated to CTO of Zuckerberg’s new holding company – has been arguing that social networks are not the cause of Covid or political disinformation. In fact, he’s been saying they’re nothing to do with it, despite copious evidence to the contrary.
In a careworn Facebook switcheroo, Bosworth told the excellent Axios that these are “societal problems rather than issues that have been magnified by social networks”. Neville informs us of a new TLA – Three Letter Acronym, or in this case initialism: PKA. “Meta PKA Facebook”, PKA for ‘Previously Known As’. It’s the corporate version of Prince’s metamorphosis into Squiggle, an icon pronounced as TAFKAP, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.
Neville’s having none of Bosworth’s Pfeffel-like piffle – “It’s another example of a spokesperson parroting denial” – and he links the latest outburst from Meta’s leadership to the Online Safety Bill that’s currently making relatively stately progress through the U.K. Houses of Parliament.
He gives us all a timely reminder of Charles Arthur’s book Social Warming: The Dangerous and Polarising Effects of Social Media. Arthur documents how Facebook was in part responsible for accelerating the destruction of culture in Myanmar, and the same is evident in comedian David Baddiel’s recent BBC documentary, Social Media, Anger and Us.
For Sam, this latest example of a pound-shop magician (Bosworth) trying to divert attention from what really matters is reminiscent of the long-running Monty Python punchline: “Society is to blame!”. He dubs social media “the Smith & Wesson” of the internet age, and as Thomas pours saccharine scorn on the abnegation of corporate responsibility evident in all corners of the Metaverse and Zuckerberg’s insistence on individual responsibility, Sam is drawn back to Python, this time The Life of Brian, crying out: “Yes, we’re all individuals” with a virtual chorus of Judaeans in the background.
In a classic phase of SDF back-and-forth badinage, Thomas retorts that this was the initial defence of Purdue Pharma, and things didn’t end prettily for the pedlars and mislabelers of the synthetic opioid, OxyContin, that addicted and blighted hundreds of thousands of Americans. Unless you think a $3.8bn settlement and corporate collapse constitutes “ending prettily”.
As Thomas notes, like Brian, some of those who adopt this defence are, indeed, ‘very naughty boys’. And Python fan as he is, Sam slightly regrets hollering “Brian – come and clean your room” towards the end of this interchange. He fears morphing into John Hannah’s slightly wankerish character in Sliding Doors, who overdosed on Python and mysteriously achieved high social esteem by repeatedly quoting it.
Thomas wants to know what the psychological tipping point might be for individuals, societies, governments might be to take action? How many more images of self-harm? How many more Molly Russells?
Sam believes there just isn’t the will, and that for every parent who sees their teenager a bit glum because of cyberbullying, they’re prepared to tolerate that angst because WhatsApp is oh-so-useful for organising their college reunion or local street party. Just as there isn’t will en masse to depose Johnson – “He cuts taxes, doesn’t he?” (err, no) – so there’s not enough high-level, personal outrage to see off or severely limit the actions and behaviours of Big Tech.
For Neville (like Jessie J before him), it’s all about the money (money, money). He’s convinced that if big advertisers pulled their funds from Alphabet and Meta, real change would come. Sam’s not so sure.
Big Tech has been allowed – encouraged – to grow so big, so quickly that even regular billion-dollar punishments would only be an irritating midge in a Scottish glen of cash. In any case, digital advertising’s behemoths make 70% of their revenue from ‘mom and pop’ advertisers, so Thomas wants to know what could finally persuade them to advertise elsewhere.
With unprecedented numbers of micro-businesses set up and flourishing under-Covid – and with this approach thought likely to drive the economy for at least the coming decade – the outlook is bleak for everyone. Everyone, that is, apart from Alphabet and Meta and Amazon and a pitiful handful of others.
PR’s double standards
The last tale we tackle in this hour-long Christmas special – recorded, for once, BEFORE our Christmas lunch / party (it DID happen, honest, in an otherwise empty restaurant) – we turn to the role that PR firms have played in taking mullah from the fossil fuel industry and undermining progress to mitigate and reverse climate change.
All three of us have been PR flacks at some stage in our careers, however much Sam may claim to be “a reformed PR man”. In a (rare – but only because it’s so important) article not behind the paywall of The Washington Post, we learn of a peer-reviewed article charting the hundreds of millions trousered by the PR industry to obfuscate the climate debate.
The methodology adopted by the academic article’s original authors – using public records and Internal Revenue Service data to meticulously chart the PR landscape from 1989 to 2020 – is impressive.
The world’s biggest PR firm, Edelman, is said to have received $440m from the U.S. Petroleum Institute alone in that time, gratefully accepting 99% of funds in this category from big oil and gas and a scant 1% from environmental and renewable energy businesses.
PR has created whole new categories and oxymoronic ways of thinking about energy, from “clean coal” to “renewable natural gas”. Ironically, there’s no mention of Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer, and Neville is amused by the echoes of Meta’s claims that climate change is all about “individual responsibility”. Not corporate.
Sam remembers a day early in his PR career when: (a) he promoted an insurance company’s new policies, while his flatmates were putting in a bogus insurance claim (note: it didn’t succeed); (b) he promoted a rally run by a European collective of doctors against the tobacco industry, smoking while he hit the phones; and, (c) he attended a meeting on sensible drinking with the alcoholic drinks industry while nursing a monster hangover.
He may be reformed now and not be quite so much of a hypocrite, but he does suspect that the article reported in The Washington Post may suggest double standards still obtain in the industry, as highlighted in Guardian journalist Nick Davies’ 2008 book, Flat Earth News.
Neville suggests we all have another watch of 2005’s Thank You for Smoking, even if it’s not – strictly-speaking – a Christmas movie.
We wrap up with predictions for 2022.
Neville believes that the Online Safety Bill will become law in the U.K. and – though far from perfect and needing tweaks as it evolves – it will do more to protect the individual rights of citizens.
Thomas thinks that Germany will win its fifth World Cup, 368 days into the future, in Qatar.
And Sam has three predictions, in decreasing levels of frivolity:
- Ralf Rangnick will not be kept on as Manchester United manager, despite stopping the rot.
- PM Johnson will enter the Metaverse – perhaps as the host of virtual Peppa Pig World, but certainly no parties of any sort whatsoever. “Oh, and would you mind leaving by the back door?”
- Alphabet and Meta will announce increased profits, quarter-on-quarter.
Happy Blooming Christmas.
Listen to Episode 52