The Sun, 1984. Three decades later and it’s still singing the same song.
There’s an interesting piece in The Walrus about the radicalisation of “incels”, celibate men who increasingly turn to violence. Frustratingly the reporting of these men as mentally ill lone wolves disguises the fact that there’s something much more serious going on: the online radicalisation of angry young men on a very large scale.
There are three pillars of radicalisation: needs, narratives and networks. These are the critical drivers that can turn perfectly nice, normal people into something much more dangerous. And social media brings them together more effectively than ever before.
Needs are people’s motivations: what drives them. That could be a need to feel special, or a need to feel part of something, or it could be a negative such as having experienced trauma.
Narratives are the stories these people can become part of, and many of those narratives are conspiracy theories. They’re incredibly appealing because they tell you that you’re special, that you have knowledge that the wider population is too stupid, too brainwashed or too evil to see.
And finally there are networks, which are the people who will give you the approval and status you crave and who will constantly reinforce the narrative of your particular group. These networks have always existed to some extent but social media has supercharged them and brought them into every home. As a result the time between someone, say, expressing doubts about the government’s COVID strategy and attending anti-mask, anti-5G marches because the Coronavirus is a global conspiracy can be measured in weeks.
“QAnon feeds on widespread conspiracy theories, new age, and occult belief systems,”said Chamila Liyanage of the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right. “QAnon will not be able to influence UK politics right away, but it will first gain a foothold among the enthusiasts of fringe belief systems and conspiracy theories. This is metapolitics, changing minds, then cultures can be changed in the long run.”
QAnon is still relatively small in the UK, but we shouldn’t be complacent. In a few years we’ve gone from laughing at American cranks to waving QAnon banners outside Buckingham Palace. From incels to anti-trans conspiracy theories to QAnon, social media is radicalising people like never before. It’s truly terrifying.
You’ve got to feel sorry for ageing conservative men who believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that while they have all the power in this country they are nevertheless an oppressed minority. The latest media outlet pandering to their victim narrative is the soon to be launched GB News, which has poached the loathsome Andrew Neil from the BBC to broadcast to people who feel “underserved and unheard by their media.”
Not people who are unheard; people who feel unheard. People whose only representation is in The Times, The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Express, The Spectator, The Sun, The Economist, Spiked, LBC, The Herald, The Scotsman, most of the BBC’s current affairs output, every bloody phone-in in the country, all the right-wing US news sites that dominate news sharing on Facebook and so on.
I think it’s safe to predict that the dominant skin colour on GB News will be white and that its representation of minorities will largely be Eton alumni talking about how these days, right, if you say you’re English, they’ll arrest you and put you in jail.
The New York Times famously promised “All The News That’s Fit To Print”. Perhaps GB News should adapt it: all the news that’s fit for pricks.
GB News is the latest attempt to bring more Fox News-style partisan bullshit to UK broadcasting, and in a sane world OFCOM would make that very difficult. But this isn’t a sane world and the UK government has told The Sunday Times that it’s going to make Paul Dacre the chair of OFCOM. That’s Dacre of Daily Mail fame. If you haven’t already read it, this foul-mouthed evisceration of him in the London Review of Books by Andrew O’Hagan is masterful.
As many people on Twitter have noted, putting Dacre at the top of OFCOM is like appointing Harold Shipman as chair of Help The Aged.
But there’s more. The government also apparently intends to appoint former Telegraph and Spectator editor Charles Moore as head of the BBC. Moore is another loathsome figure with right-wing views; he has claimed for a long time that the BBC is packed to the gills with leftie agitators and he was famously fined in 2010 for not paying his BBC licence fee. It’s hard to imagine a worse candidate for the job except perhaps Paul Dacre.
It’s possible that with these leaks the UK government is throwing two dead cats on the table to distract us from its woeful performance over COVID and the increasing evidence of corruption and incompetence on a truly epic scale; maybe the leak is to soften us up so when two slightly less appalling people are put in place we’ll feel we dodged a bullet. But it does seem to fit with the wider movement within the UK government to take us further to the right.
For example, just this week it announced new guidance for schools that prohibited the use of resources “produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters”. One such stance is a desire to overthrow capitalism, something a certain Jesus of Nazareth had a few opinions on.
The most chilling bit for me was in the section on knowing the importance of respecting others “even when they are very different… for example physically, in character, personality or background), or make different choices or have different preferences or beliefs”. That’s clearly intended to foster a climate of mutual respect for people of other religions and none, of people of different backgrounds, genders and sexual orientation, but the UK government has turned it into a Spectator editorial.
Here’s the new guidance:
Our entire democracy is based on seeking to have people removed from their position of authority because we disagree with them. It’s called voting.
In that context, I’m disinclined to believe that Dacre and Moore are dead cats; I worry that instead, they’re dead certs.
I don’t want to go on too much about the UK government’s pathetic response to its gender recognition consultation, but I thought it was worth drawing attention to The Times and Sunday Times’ assertions that the consultation was “skewed” by an “avalanche” of responses by “trans rights groups” who twisted the consultation to say 70% of people were in favour of self-ID.
Here’s a blog by the GRA consultation analysis team.
We spent a long time with the data and employed a number of advanced analytical techniques to investigate the influence of potential campaigns on the consultation responses. However, we have seen little evidence that supports the view that the results were “skewed” by an “avalanche” of responses from trans rights groups. Furthermore, we are not sure where the reported figure of 70% in favour of self-identification has come from. This question was not directly asked in the consultation and this figure does not arise from our analysis.
What they did find, however, was that one anti-trans group was responsible for nearly one-fifth of all responses – and unlike the majority of responses from other sources, particularly trans rights groups, these were identical posts created by a one-click online form “which had a pre-populated set of answers”.
We would like to acknowledge the amount of care, attention and often depth of feeling that went into the submissions that we read, from people and organisations taking a range of positions. There were some long submissions – some over 5000 words – in response to one individual question, and it was apparent that a large percentage of those who completed the consultation spent a long time writing their answers. We were struck by many of the accounts that people provided detailing their personal experiences or those of loved ones. It is sometimes easy to lose sight, in the arguments that surround GRA reform, that at the centre of this are real people living real and often difficult lives. Due to the need to be brief in order to write a succinct report and the confidentiality required for ethical reasons, the specific stories that were contained within many individual submissions cannot be published. However, reading them, as we have been able to as a team, paints a nuanced and complex picture of the lived experience of people working through these issues in their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.
Interviewing isn’t always easy: if you’re poorly prepared or if you’re trying to lead the subject down a road they don’t want to go down, you can easily find yourself getting your arse handed to you on a plate. It happened to me once with Terry Pratchett, a brilliant author who taught me a valuable lesson about the importance of preparation for even the most trivial interview.
That was mortifying enough, so imagine how it must feel to be publicly owned by an interviewee when you’re interviewing a major figure for a popular current affairs magazine. That appears to be the case in this New Statesman interview with Judith Butler, in which the interviewer attempts to tell Butler what her own work is about. It’s the kind of interview that, as a writer, you read from behind your fingers.
It’s also really interesting in what it says about coverage of gender: Butler is a key figure in third wave feminism and her 1990 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity is considered a key text in feminist and queer scholarship. She has a lot of interesting things to say and a body of work going back very many years, but the interviewer seems determined to force her into the JK Rowling vs Evil Trans Activists dialogue so beloved of so much of the UK and US press right now. And Butler is having none of it.
Let us be clear that the debate here is not between feminists and trans activists… So one clear problem is the framing that acts as if the debate is between feminists and trans people. It is not.
…It is a sad day when some feminists promote the anti-gender ideology position of the most reactionary forces in our society.
Interviewer: But people have been nasty to JK Rowling on the internet!
I confess to being perplexed by the fact that you point out the abuse levelled against JK Rowling, but you do not cite the abuse against trans people and their allies that happens online and in person.
I disagree with JK Rowling’s view on trans people, but I do not think she should suffer harassment and threats. Let us also remember, though, the threats against trans people in places like Brazil, the harassment of trans people in the streets and on the job in places like Poland and Romania – or indeed right here in the US.
So if we are going to object to harassment and threats, as we surely should, we should also make sure we have a large picture of where that is happening, who is most profoundly affected, and whether it is tolerated by those who should be opposing it. It won’t do to say that threats against some people are tolerable but against others are intolerable.
As Max Morgan put it on Twitter:
If I was this interviewer I would have told my editor that the dog ate the emails and they’d have to run something else.
Journalist Jane Fae writes on Medium about the bogeymen and women the press likes to call “activists”.
Just last week, for instance, Gillian Phillip kicked off in the Mail about the “violent, hate-filled language that has become chillingly familiar to anyone who has had the temerity to question the prevailing orthodoxy of the transgender activist brigade”. Meanwhile, over in the Times, James Kirkup contributed a piece that totally lived up to its headline: “Trans activists hate Rowling because she’s a woman”.
Catherine Bennet was at it in the Observer this weekend too, arguing that anybody who criticised JK Rowling – a hugely significant cultural figure whose views are taken very seriously by very many people, and whose books were very important to many trans people – but not the aforementioned Kirkup – an insignificant arse who’s made a career of having bad opinions for money – is a woman-hating misogynist.
There’s no middle ground in any of this coverage. Any trans person with the slightest opinion on anything is portrayed as ISIS in makeup. Trans people aren’t allowed to talk about the vicious abuse they get simply for being trans, usually in the wake of yet another anti-trans blog post or column. Trans people as vulnerable? As victims? As too scared to leave the house because they’re expecting to see the transphobia from the papers reflected in other people’s eyes? That doesn’t fit the narrative. All trans people are violent, hate-filled activists. Never people.
It’s the oldest trick in the book: portray the other as a monolithic bloc where the opinion or actions of the very worst extremes are presented as the opinions and actions of all. It’s known by many names, but the one I think suits it best is the Klan Fallacy: because one black person committed a crime, all black people are criminals and it’s okay to be a racist piece of shit.
Why do they print this stuff? For starters, it allows commentators to put the boot into minorities without appearing to do so. Who us? Having a go at trans people? Or black people? Or any other sort of people? Nah. We’re just calling out the bad ones.
The definition is infinitely flexible.
If you want to demonise a whole group of people, you can absolutely go on Twitter and find some hothead. That hothead might not even be trans – the person behind the supposed bomb threat from trans activists, a story Fae writes about in the article, was a right-wing cisgender teenage gamer from the US trying to stir some shit against trans people – but that doesn’t matter. The columnist’s feelings don’t leave any room for facts.
Trans activists: the “trans lobby”, cabal, ideology; these all furnish a target and an enemy to fight against. Much easier than owning to the fact that your own position is itself fundamentally ideological — often evangelical Christian, occasionally a reductive and back-to-the-stone-age feminism. Sexier, too than admitting that your primary goal is to resist minority demands for basic civil rights.
Director of British Future, Sunder Katwala, has posted an interesting twitter thread about whether the UK is undergoing a culture war.
One of the points he makes is that a great deal of culture war stuff in our media is manufactured by the media. For example, a few weeks ago there was a kerfuffle about the singer Adele’s hair: was it cultural appropriation? Most people couldn’t care less, but it was puffed up by a media that thrives on reporting conflict – and which will create conflict if there’s nothing to report. Katwala:
Almost nobody in Britain thought there was any issue with Adele’s hair. Broadcasters had to get some muppet from Philadelphia on to pretend there was a controversy.
This happens all the time, and it’s getting worse: some media outlets deliberately trawl social media for the most extreme opinions they can find and pretend that they’re representative of a wider group or movement. They file their non-story and the rest of the media picks up on it – so other newspapers will rerun the story and the BBC will get a bunch of people into the studio to discuss it. Cue endless column inches and broadcast hours about a movement that doesn’t exist.
Most of the time these supposed controversies don’t reflect public opinion, but people largely agreeing with each other doesn’t make for dramatic conflict on radio or TV. I know from experience that contributors to discussions are sometimes asked to take a particularly extreme point of view in order to make the debate more spicy (I’ve refused to do so; I’m not asked to go on those programmes any more). This is why contrarians get so much airtime.
So I’m not sure I agree with Katwala on this:
The media should be less credulous in reporting every tweet as if it reflects a movement
I don’t think much of the media is credulous; I think it knows exactly what it’s doing and it gets what Katwala brilliantly describes as a “sugar rush from platforming conflict, however trivial”. It knows that the voices it platforms are extreme. That’s why it platforms them.
I’ve been listening to the You’re Wrong About podcast, this time about the infamous Ford Pinto. It seems that almost everything I thought I knew about it was incorrect and largely based on a single Mother Jones article.
The podcast makes an interesting point about that, and about journalism more widely: a lot of bad journalism comes from writers who are operating in good faith, or at least partial good faith. They believe that they have uncovered something so huge that they must tell the world. That belief can cause a kind of myopia.
Journalism is as much about what you choose to leave out as what you choose to put in. Let’s say you’ve got a whistleblower from inside an organisation with a suitably salacious tale. If it’s a really good story, if it’s the kind of story that’ll have people gasping over their morning paper, how much consideration will you give to the things that contradict or cast doubt over what the whistleblower is telling you?
People like to be heroes, and journalists are no exception – so if you think you’re the hero who’s going to break the story, you’re not going to consider that perhaps you’re being misled, or seeing connections that aren’t there, or ignoring evidence that shows that you’re not the hero here but the villain.
The MMR scare is a good example of that. How many journalists telling their readers of the entirely invented dangers thought they were doing Pulitzer-worthy public service journalism? And how many lives have been destroyed by the anti-vaccination movement they helped spawn?
Vogue contributor and trans woman Paris Lees posted something online yesterday that sounded too crazy to be true:
More Americans claim to have seen a ghost than to have met a transgender person.
But it is true. Huffington Post points out that a 2009 Pew Research Center survey found that 18% of Americans claim to have seen a ghost; a 2015 GLAAD study found that only 16% of Americans say they know someone who’s trans. I’ve looked at a number of more recent surveys and across the entire population the numbers for the latter question are consistently between 11% and 20%.
It’s interesting to look at lots of these surveys because a clear pattern emerges: younger people are much more likely to know someone who’s openly trans or non-binary, while older, more conservative people are more likely to think they’ve seen a ghost.
Among Fox News viewers, the number of people who say they’ve personally seen a ghost is a whopping 60%. And of course, you’re much more likely to be personally visited by a spirit from the other side than see a positive portrayal of trans people on Fox News.
I’ve written before about the links between the Religious Right and supposedly grass-roots pressure groups with “reasonable concerns” about inclusive education, trans kids and so on. Writing in Byline Times, Sian Norris details some of those links.
Groups such as Parent Power, Authentic RSE, 40 Days, and the School Gate Campaign provide a Trojan horse for beliefs around ‘family rights’ and so-called ‘gender ideology’ – a term used by the far and religious right to discredit the fight for reproductive and sexual rights. Their attacks on RSE help to mainstream a narrative attacking women’s and LGBTIQ rights.
You don’t need to dig too deep to find the connections between these groups and the usual anti-abortion, anti-LGBT+ organisations. Sometimes they share the same offices, or the same lawyers, or the same key people.
…by using a Trojan horse of parental freedom and moral panic, the UK’s religious right has created a network of astroturf groups that provide cover for a far-right ‘family rights’ agenda.
None of this is particularly hidden. You can find the links between, say, a supposedly pro-gay but definitely anti-trans lobby group and the US Heritage Foundation on a founder’s Facebook page. Until very recently the Hands Across The Aisle website, a US evangelical project, proudly listed the UK anti-trans groups and writers it had brought together with US evangelical groups. Anti-abortion, anti-inclusive education and anti-trans groups share resources and legal counsel. The use of crowdfunding, where donors’ identities can be kept a secret, has put half a million pounds into supposedly grass-roots UK anti-trans groups in the last two years, and many of those crowdfunders were promoted overseas by US religious groups. Supposedly grass-roots groups with no apparent source of income suddenly find themselves able to pay for multiple full-page newspaper adverts. And so on.
This is happening in plain sight, and yet whenever well-funded, well-connected lobby groups representing the Christian Right or its interests go on TV or radio they are described as “concerned parents” or “family campaigners”, the children the use to front their legal test cases just ordinary kids rather than pawns in a culture war. If the people in media giving these groups an uncritical platform aren’t aware of who they really are, they’re incompetent. And if they are aware, they’re complicit.