Tuesday 11 December 2018

It's no secret that the world is really one big Spin Unit

Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

According to the men from Cambridge Analytica, their job is to work on the darker emotions of people, to "drop the bucket further down the well than anyone else, to understand what really are those deep-seated underlying fears, concerns".

Dropping the bucket further down the well than anyone else... down, down, deeper and down. Because "it's no good fighting an election campaign on the facts... it's all about emotion. It's all about emotion".

Having had several of these encounters filmed secretly by Channel 4 News, having passed on these horrible little secrets of the game of politics, the men from Cambridge Analytica then had to listen to gasps of disapproval from some of the delicate souls who know that game.

Maybe it's the secret filming itself which gives us the impression that more is being said here than is really being said. Maybe if two people were secretly filmed having coffee in Bewley's talking about whether Liverpool FC will be able to hang on to Mo Salah for next season, it would look considerably more sinister than it is, like they were mulling over the broad outlines of some international conspiracy.

But as it stands - if you leave out Alexander Nix's line about the Ukrainian girls calling to the candidate's house, and if you put to one side the stuff about the 50m Facebook users - it isn't really all that remarkable, this spiel about dropping the bucket down the well, about emotion. About pumping nonsense into "the bloodstream of the internet".

Even if they were being openly filmed, you could find your regular political commentators speaking knowingly of such things, of these urges to connect with the lower instincts of the populace, of the irrelevance of truth. Indeed, they speak of such things with no embarrassment, more a kind of a wry acknowledgement that this is how the world works, a world which for these purposes would include Ireland too, and not just Sri Lanka or Kenya or any of those other fine places to which Cambridge Analytica has brought its bespoke package of highly specialised services.

Indeed, it was truly amazing that at no point in all this international sleazebaggery did the men from Cambridge Analytica use the word "bespoke", but maybe it just didn't make the final edit. They would be expected to throw that one in, to distinguish what they are bringing to the table, from what your bog-standard political fixer might be bringing, but maybe it's enough that they just sound so urbane, so... Etonian.

Otherwise they might be claiming that they will send their bucket further down the well than anyone else, but it's still the same well that every other political "adviser" is using. And after this, given that these "advisers" are always copying what they think has worked already, it may even be the same bucket.

Deep in the heart of such "advisers" is this desire to be carrying on exactly like the men from Cambridge Analytica, to be giving the impression that they and not the candidate are running the show, to be drawling in this understated manner about how they have rearranged the affairs of nations with their extreme cleverness.

Indeed, the way that they dismissed the involvement of the candidate in any of this important stuff was almost too belittling of the notion of political leadership in the old-fashioned sense, that ancient concept of a prime minister or a president who actually had some ideas of his own - one of those types who now seem as distant as Gladstone and Disraeli.

Personally, I was a bit disappointed with them here. I thought they might pretend for a few moments that the candidate is at least bringing some raw material that the wizards can polish into something presentable. But no, they regard the candidate as someone who'd be roughly in the same bracket as the driver of the campaign bus - someone you need there to perform a basic function, while all the thinking is done by really smart people like Alexander Nix.

And why wouldn't they be seeing it this way? This supposedly startling vision laid out by these arch-manipulators seems on reflection like a fairly straightforward presentation of much that we know already, and not just in relation to global politics - there are probably county council elections in which these are the unspoken rules accepted by all.

So when I hear all these complaints about Leo's "Spin Unit" from Opposition parties in the Dail, I am inclined to wonder are these people seriously involved in professional politics at all - or are they just trying to fool the people, in the same way that the "Spin Unit" is supposedly fooling us?

Because, of course, it isn't really fooling us at all. We realise now that this is how it works, we know that governments don't really do much any more, indeed they seem bamboozled by challenges such as the building of a few houses, projects which Irish governments were apparently well able to accomplish back in the 1950s.

Perhaps the definitive line on the culture of politics in our time was that of funnyman Frankie Boyle describing David Cameron as being like "a sort of bored viceroy, engaged in the handover of power from government to corporations". And that was before Cameron allowed his PR man's instincts to persuade him that he could spin the benefits of the EU to a people who had never liked it anyway.

So yes, we know how it works, for the most part. We know they're always sending the proverbial bucket down the well, that that is their core business, that a "Spin Unit" is not some entity that exists on the fringes of government, or way off in the background, but is in many ways the government itself.

"Spinning" is what a government does.

It doesn't do much about housing or other related matters such as vulture funds or banks who still somehow refuse to do the right thing, even when they're asked nicely. It doesn't do much about bus strikes, it doesn't do much about anything, on the whole, apart from whatever needs to be done to get elected again, the grants to private schools and golf clubs being a particularly striking example of what a minister does, and what he doesn't do.

And we may be sure that many of those who are complaining about all this shallowness, this manipulation, are themselves already commissioning "research" into exactly the sort of things that the men from Cambridge Analytica were drawling about, the buttons to be pressed, the "concerns" of the voters.

They think they're so smart. And I suppose they are too, in their terms, when you consider that there's a large tribe of these insiders loitering in the engine-rooms of our "democracies", getting paid impressive amounts of public money to run their various "playbooks", to live out their Machiavellian fantasies.

So the pleasure of the Cambridge Analytica story is not that it will change anything, it's just the normal enjoyment we derive from seeing things that they don't want us to see - these characters who have worked out exactly how to give the people what they want, but never what they need.

Sunday Independent

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