There are two notable quotes that “Honest Abe” has imparted on me lately:
“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”
And the second one:
“The problem with quotes on the internet is that you can never be certain that they’re authentic.”
The facts on the ground are that the terrorist cell linked to the Paris attack was being rounded up in Belgium. Members from that group detonated explosives at an American airlines desk and at a Brussels Metro Station. There were 30 people killed and hundreds injured.
The lies are these: Terrorists are an existential threat; immigrants from Muslim counties are responsible; liberalism is responsible; the security services could have stopped it; people should allow the government to do “things” to stop this from reoccurring. In my opinion the biggest lie about terrorism is that terrorism is novel and somehow an existential threat to the way of life we know.
It is hard to debate in the face of real facts but for some reason debate comes never the less, just louder and with generous interspersing of ignorance and lies. The ignorance and lies don’t change the facts just as a bucket of shit doesn’t change the performance of a Rolls Royce. But that shit on the bonnet sure makes it harder to appreciate the fine craftsmanship that goes into making that beautiful piece of British engineering!
I’ll build my vehicle anyway.
There have been studies which found that up to 45% to 71% of the press and radio news was about deviance and its control. While the news media shows an understandable interest in crime and violence, the image is distorted. The distortions are many. The media make it seem that all age groups get involved in murder. A toddler shoots his mother, an old lady burns her lover with chicken grease, a woman kills her children. Elderly people, women and children are disproportionately emphasized as victims of violent and egregious crime. Criminals are seen as masterminds, clever scheming conspirators, superhumans who occupy the time of entire security forces and still escape to plan their next attack. Conversely the police are also promoted as being capable, clever, competent and careful.
News items are not facts. Just because we haven’t heard any items about Donetsk doesn’t mean there aren’t regular battles between the belligerents. The country that is East of Europe and West of Russia is an item of news that greatly concerns geopolitics but is seen as something that does not concern the public right now. The UK will not be required to send troops or money because we are not at war with Russia. Whatever troops and/or money go to Ukrainian nationalists will continue to do so below the radar of the public. A more parochial example of the divergence of news and fact is that while actual crime in England continues to decline, fear of crime and reportage of crime correlate upwards. The news media curate truth and therefore helps to define the agenda.
News providers have a standard set of tools at their disposal: immediacy, drama, human interest, high status, simplification, novelty, risk and violence. Listen to any breaking news and you will identify at least half of these elements. People love this formula: crime thrillers, war movies, violent video games, happy endings to all of the above. All of these things sell well and the news is following a similar market force: “If it bleeds it leads”. It’s not a conspiracy to lie to us about the state of the world; it’s simply presenting only the facts that stimulate the most reaction. It’s informational sugar: stimulating but not healthy.
What’s the negative effect of all of this bloody news filled with explosions and smoke and people in distress? Again, research shows that heavy consumers of television and tabloids express greater fear of going out at night and more xenophobia. Heavy consumers of Facebook show higher levels of anxiety and depression. Children that are heavy consumers of both traditional and digital media show developmental difficulties. The internet is not a panacea of objectivity either. It lies more often and distorts the truth more often than traditional media. It’s filled with porn, trolls, chicken littles, liberal crusaders and the worst of human expression. It is filled with many good things as well, but on the internet there are few engineers crafting worthwhile stories….and buckets and buckets of waste.
The pith of this article is about the negative effects of media during a crisis, especially in a crisis caused by terrorist action. What would ISIS be without video websites and twitter? What would Al Qaeda be without two buildings falling down in the middle of the city most featured in movies? Obviously, to the Gulf, Asian, US, Russian and British governments these groups would be quite serious no matter the publicity, but the point is that these groups would be less fearful if they didn’t capitalise on the eagerly waiting camera lenses and publishing platforms of traditional and new media.
The terrorist playbook reads like this: violence, dramatic, human targets, high valued targets, randomness, simplified justifications, increased perception of risk in target audience. This aligns neatly with media’s own playbook. For a terrorist, the number of people don’t count for as much as evidence of the graphic nature of their death. High body counts are valued but high audiences and click-through rates are even more highly valued.
War is terrifying. Reading the experiences of the common soldier, you understand what real terror is: Stout ships chewed to kindling by cannon fire; friends dying daily; the smell of human death palpable and constant for months on end; leaders showing a brave face and getting it blown away moments after; swarms of the enemy descending on weak positions. It’s worse when you’re a civilian trapped in a battleground.
When going to work, going to a gig or taking a trip on a plane, death remains a highly unlikely occurrence. In war, death is a near certainty. At the end of war, the question is not “why did that person die” but “how is that person still alive?”. Young people tend to forget that in the “heart of Europe”, this was the case for centuries. Starting from the original “la Terreur” and ending at the late part of the 20th Century, millions of Europeans experienced genuine terror. Generations were born, lived and died with death present in the streets and fields. Then machines rolled across those fields and planes flew overhead designed to kill and bearing enough firepower to wipe out several branches of the European population. There were few places to hide from this type of terror and fewer places to run to. The final war of the 20th century which did not happen would have been the final war. For decades we lived with the threat of nuclear annihilation and two world powers who, on many occasions, could have done it. Had one side or the other fallen prey to uncontrolled irrationality or the need to prove a point about the superiority of ideology, our last moments would have been the most terrifying collective experience history could have ever offered.
The Unholy Trinity
Terrorism on the other hand is more accurately aligned with reality television and the Trump candidacy than the actual horrors of war. Flying a civilian jet into a building of civilians isn’t war, walking into an airport departure lounge with a suitcase full of homemade explosives isn’t war either. Just as how “Pop Idol” isn’t singing auditions or talent, “Big Brother” isn’t living with housemates and voting for Donald Trump isn’t about electing politicians, terrorism is not war. Terrorists, like other media actors, are playing at war for the camera. Their performance is deadly but it is a performance none the less. Terrorism is common criminality but for an audience.
The final actor I’d like to remind you about is the state. In many cases the state pays for, regulates and informs the media. The state also purportedly fights terrorists on our behalf. Less than 100 years ago in the “heart of Europe”, governments were killing each other’s citizens on their citizens’ behalf. The horrors of the last century weren’t carried out by a terrorist cell or by hackers, online drug markets, bankers, pedophiles or any of the other media bogey men of the modern age. So why are we so afraid of them? Are any of these things worthy of declaring a war or crisis?
Not the crisis you’re looking for
Terrorism unfortunately isn’t the national crisis that we’re looking for. While a plane or some Kalashnikovs or a bag full of explosives or the presence of people fleeing war might seem like we’re under existential threat, this is just the media doing its thing again. Traditional media is definitely under existential threat (a crisis even) from falling ad revenue and new and social media channels. The Government is under existential threat and crisis from the cost of living, national debt, lack of trust and digital alternatives to all of its usual bribes towards the populace. Fundamental religion and the ignorance surrounding it is also under existential threat from liberalism, truth and reality. There is one area where the nation is under existential threat. We are still under threat from submarines patrolling the Baltic and Atlantic. If the government decides this, Armageddon would be upon us in less time than it takes to seduce a reality starlet in the back of a Rolls Royce.
The media, the government and fundamentalists share a common cause in that they defend themselves against their existential crises by pretending that we the people are under the same threat that they are. If we are helpless, afraid, angry and irrational then it justifies their existence. The truth is, we’re not under the same threat that they are. These actors do not believe in truth or presenting us with real facts. Unfortunately for them, people are finding out the truth for themselves and with the certainty of death, these actors (along with taxes) will be relegated to the dustbin of history.