29 May 2020 — Novara Media
Everything about Dominic Cummings’ press conference on Monday was absurd – his tardiness, the ill-fitting trousers and his account of events, filled with obscure and frankly dubious details.
Of all the oddities exhibited in the rose garden, however, the most perplexing remains Cummings’ admission of driving 30 miles to test his eyesight. Why the great machiavel chose to fabricate such an unlikely event, or indeed emphasise a fact so surreal it seems like a lie, has left Twitter simmeringwith incredulity at Cummings’ apparent idiocy.
— Tom Flynn (@tomflynn_photo)
But while one must be careful not to find strategic agility where none exists, the briefing was too curious, too obviously contrived, to be the result of absolute folly.
The government knows the public finds such spectacles implausible, but banks on them being sufficiently bewildering or cathartic to defuse public feeling. Recall the bizarre spectacle of Boris Johnson on Talk Radio during the 2019 Tory leadership race, confessing his penchant for crafting “wonderful model buses” from wooden crates.
The spectacle left commentators baffled, drowning criticism of Johnson’s broader campaign in opacity and confusion. Then, there is Johnson’s first and only BBC interview of this year, which descended into the prime minister repeating “bung a bob for a Big Ben bong”.
This differs from the ‘dead cat on the table’ strategy Johnson has previously confessed to favouring. If ‘dead-catting’ works through shock and awe, distracting attention away from a wider scandal, the Cummings briefing might better be described as ‘shitposting’.
Associated with social as opposed to broadcast media, shitposting involves repeatedly deploying inane, stupid or surreal content, often with the intention of derailing a discussion. It initially emerged as a culture around 4chan, but then moved into the mainstream during the 2016 presidential election, when a pro-Trump campaign group sought to support the then candidate by clogging up political threads with bad quality memes, most famously those featuring Pepe the frog.
Here though, instead of a troll-ish user posting nonsense on a Twitter thread, it’s the government turning official statements into a theatre of indecipherable tidbits – curated acts of drivel, obvious lies, surreal and excessive detail – designed to clutter the airwaves and bewilder the public.
When the aim is to spread public debate across as much minutiae as possible, the more excessive and obscure the particulars the better; hence why Cummings described in excruciating detail toilet stops for his four-year-old son.
Why else tell the public you thought driving a good idea while visually impaired? People share these details and then they go viral. In the blur of posts that follows, one struggles to see the wood for the trees, the story for the memes.
Too much noisE
It’s hard to say yet how effective this approach has been here. An event supposed to disorient has perhaps only sharpened the focus of Cummings’ critics. Yet, we should resist the temptation to see failure: Cummings is still in government and there is no sign that he will be leaving any time soon.
The strategy of using a broadcast spectacle to create noise on social media looks to have dispelled some of the anger. The grim pleasure of pouring over what appears to be miscalculated lies may have soothed the worst of the public’s wounds. Those left unmoved may simply be disoriented by the sheer range of inconsistencies in his account.
It must be emphasised that such a strategy of governance only becomes thinkable in an age of ubiquitous social media, whereby, as the Italian philosopher Bifo Berardi claims, “power is no longer constructed by silencing the crowd, but is based on the boundless intensification of noise”.
A deafened populace, Berardi worries, loses its capacity to differentiate and discern. Politics bleeds into celebrity, which bleeds into reality TV, into terrorist footage, into pictures of Jeremy Corbyn, all blaring together as a single morass of white noise.
When all becomes equivalent, belief and disbelief become inseparable – no one quite believes what they read on social media, but no one quite disbelieves it either – a climate mercilessly exploited by demagogues and populists.
Its anti-democratic consequences were perhaps at their most acute during the 2019 election campaign, where events were invented and mistruths crafted purely to suck the life out of meaningful debate.
False figures cooked up about Labour’s spending and fabricated assaults on government aideswere not simply used to deceive. They were used to create a clamour that would baffle undecided voters, sow further doubt in those already turned off politics, and suffocate the opponent’s airwaves. As echo chambers became a cacophonous din, what was relevant or true could no longer be parsed from what was trivial or false.
Opacity and confusion.
Such a strategy may work in an election campaign but during a pandemic the stakes of transparent, meaningful communication – the difference between life and death – are all too obvious to the populace.
The problem is in making an enemy of accuracy and meaning – think here of Johnson’s ambiguous command to “stay alert” – the government has made itself dependent on opacity and confusion. With each deceit, each concerted attempt to blind and hoodwink, the possibility of honest communication further recedes.
Reflecting Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic – a man to whom speech is synonymous with noise – the Tories have left themselves with few places to go. As Trump’s wider presidency has demonstrated, such a communication strategy only breeds further chaos.
That Johnson and Cummings thought they could simply vanish the scandal in smokescreens and mirrors shows just how little they understand the public’s anger around the issue.
Indeed, they have underestimated the very sentiment they exploited so well during the EU referendum and 2019 election. The anger that Johnson and Cummings in no small part cultivated is now turning against them.
A growing number of the public are realising that the government has made a gory mess of the Covid-19 crisis, of which Cummings and his obnoxious press conference are now an emblem. They are banking on the fact that, mired in the details, the disoriented public will simply be left with no choice but to move on.
But no amount of online noise can drown out the pain of an economic depression more extreme than any in living memory, or the agony of the countless people who have needlessly lost loved ones.
The Tories, of course, care little for those suffering; they care only for power and protecting their own. Amid the noise, this is what we must remember.
Phil Jones is a research affiliate at Autonomy and a phD researcher at the University of Sussex. He is currently writing a book about tasking and crowdwork.