An Inconvenient Truth: What Politics Is Teaching Us About the Value of Lies

By Sami McCabe

Does the truth matter any more?

Last month, 17.4 million people in the UK voted to leave the EU – a decision influenced, one assumes, by a succession of outright lies peddled by Brexit campaigners.

To the amazement of everyone who follows US politics, Donald Trump – an amusing rank outsider just 12 months ago – is the Republican Party candidate for the President of the United States, riding a wave of populism fuelled by a litany of untruths.

Image courtesy Gage Skidmore's Flickr:

Image courtesy Gage Skidmore’s Flickr:

Of course history is littered with examples of politicians who’ve achieved their goals by entertaining a somewhat relaxed relationship with the truth. But it’s hard to recall a period of such intense and apparently unchecked political falsifying on both sides of the Atlantic.

This got me thinking. Is there something about the way we disseminate and consume information today that makes the propagation and acceptance of falsehoods so easy, and therefore so dangerous? What is it about modern media that results in the lie often achieving more credibility than the truth?

Here are some initial reflections on how and why truth is increasingly irrelevant:

Traditional media has been usurped

You can’t underestimate the power of Donald Trump’s Twitter account. On average, @realDonaldTrump tweets are retweeted 2,200 times. The immediate mass dissemination of his often-incendiary comments and opinions blows any other media channel out of the water.

The New York Times dutifully runs its fact check of Trump’s speeches, but no amount of fact-checking – however well-intentioned – is going to recalibrate the opinions of many millions of people exposed to Trump’s tweets, whether directly as are his 10.1 million followers, or indirectly via a retweet.

He can say pretty much anything he likes, and even if he subsequently retracts it (usually very quietly), the damage is done. There are literally hundreds of examples of Trump tweeting outright lies.

Perhaps the most distressing and damaging example of this was his tweet that 81 percent of murders of white people in the US were perpetrated by African Americans. The actual number is 15 percent. This is a big, important difference in an election in which race is a key issue.

Images matter more than ever

When I reflect on the Leave campaign, two images stand out in my mind more than anything: Nigel Farage’s appalling ‘Breaking Point’ poster, and Iain Duncan Smith smugly pontificating next to a bus emblazoned with the promise that a post-Brexit NHS would benefit from a £350m per week boost to its budget.

Strong images have long been a key weapon in the propagandist’s arsenal, but even Leni Riefenstahl would have been impressed by the sheer ballsiness of Farage and Smith’s efforts. And Riefenstahl would surely have been envious of the ease with which these images – and the messages they communicate – reached the right people, at the right time, in their millions.

Both images, of course, were based on total fabrications. Smith subsequently backtracked from the NHS funding promise post-win, and Farage robustly defended his poster despite it actually depicting refugees fleeing war-torn Syria, not immigrants entering Britain to put additional strain on public services / take all our jobs / whatever xenophobic nonsense he was peddling.

Fear is motivating

Farrage was simply playing the game, of course. What he knows, much like Donald Trump, is that fear is hugely motivating. And the best way to create fear is to exaggerate the truth of a situation to the point that it bears no resemblance to reality.

This is common to both Trump and the Leave campaign’s approach to communications: focus first on inciting fear – by means of hyperbole and lies – then position yourself as the savior.

I noticed this week that Trump’s playing this game perfectly. After his relentless lying about black people being mainly responsible for white murders, Mexicans being rapists and Muslims being terrorists, at the GOP convention his ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan became, at times, ‘Make America Safe Again’.

People are terrified. Trump’s lies have fanned the flames of that fear. And now he’s telling frightened Americans that he’s the only man capable of making them secure again.

Ignorance is bliss

People don’t have the time or inclination to deeply consider anything today.

We live in a 140 character world in which immediately consumable information is thrown at us constantly. We therefore lap-up the sound bites, and remember the stuff that hits us hardest. And often the most startling pieces of information are those we find the most surprising – because they’re not true.

It seems to me that the information overload we’re all experiencing paradoxically makes us less well-informed. The more news we have, the less we question it. We believe and accept things on face value more readily than any population in history.

Depressingly, apparently millions of Britons who voted to leave the EU would now vote differently. Information they’ve processed in the past six weeks – probably just as immediately, and thus with just as little consideration – has persuaded them to completely change their minds.

Thanks to the way we share and consume information, honesty and integrity are qualities that simply aren’t successful in politics.

This shouldn’t mean we abandon integrity altogether. But what can we learn from Trump and the Leave campaign about how to successfully develop and share a message? In an age of information overload, how can brands communicate their value while being realistic about what they do?

If truth is essentially irrelevant to politicians’ relationships with the electorate, is it also irrelevant to brands’ relationships with consumers?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to comment below, tweet me @samimccabe or email me ([email protected]).

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An Inconvenient Truth: What Politics Is Teaching Us About the Value of Lies

The London Startup Scene: An American’s Perspective

By Bethany Hill

A few weeks ago, I took a train from London to York to indulge my inner medieval nerd. I’d lived for three years in New York before finally visiting its quaint namesake. One of the common themes throughout the weekend was that the city had such an abundance of history, it didn’t actually need to be discovered. Our pubs and ghost walks and B&Bs were above medieval manors and Viking compounds and Roman garrisons, but the archaeological attitude towards digging was nonchalance.

Who knows what’s under this field. Literally.

Having written my thesis on medieval English history, it was baffling to me that researchers would simply decline to excavate this treasure trove of primary evidence. Their view: these millennia of objects weren’t going anywhere, what was the rush? Instead, there was value in the knowledge that entire societies were built over ruins and relics, which literally support a cosmopolitan city today.

At a time when another ages-old city is undergoing a technology startup boom, it is precisely this approach that makes London so different from New York. Both cities incubate thriving tech communities, one bolstered by bagels and Dunkin, the other by digestive biscuits and Costa. Yet London presents a larger context to the boom of gadgets and apps: unlike the eager capitalism exemplified by New York and currently propelling San Francisco, London’s been here. (Not to mention, Karl’s got nothing on London fog.)

And what makes these two cities’ tech industries similar, compared to the atmosphere of Silicon Valley SaaSies, is that New York and London have both seamlessly integrated startups into the plethora of other fields that call these metropolises home: banking, fashion, advertising, the arts. These industries thrive because of their diversity, and these cities thrive because of their internationalization.

Where in the world can you walk from SoHo to Little Italy to Chinatown in a few blocks? There are two correct answers.

Time Out London, the week after Brexit (click on image to read).

Time Out London, the week after Brexit (click to read).

What London lends to its residents is a sense of sangfroid, of composure under pressure. New York fast is New York fast. There’s nothing like it. “I couldn’t live in New York, it’s too busy,” is a common refrain I hear from out-of-town friends. London is certainly busy, but it’s a meticulous sort of busy: the loud tick of a clock’s second hand instead of the scream of an alarm. When Brexit happened, there was disbelief and outrage and anger, but not violence or hate. Instead, Time Out London said, “thank you for making YOUR city your home.”

Along with this, Londoners possess the sort of rituals that help us keep calm and carry on. Why doesn’t New York have an evening paper? (My immediate gut response: “Well, I’d be too busy to read it.”) But now, reading the Evening Standard on the way home — and then parking myself at the kitchen table to finish it — has become a daily habit. During what has been one of the most stressful news months of recent memory, physically holding a prudent summary of the day’s events provides a way to process and reflect on our world.

What else is quintessentially London? Even after many trips to the UK, and a semester here in college, little cultural quirks continue to surprise me. For example:

  • Drinking outside in public is OK, but uncommon.
  • Apparently gym buddies are much more of a thing here.
  • Phones and data are much more competitively priced than in the US. A decent UK plan costs a fraction of its American equivalent.
  • It’s difficult to shake the paranoia that I am tipping incorrectly. As someone who’s worked in the service industry (thank you, Tripps Steakhouse!) I’m sensitive to stiffing someone, but don’t want to embarrass with a grossly disproportionate tip.
  • I never knew what “American food” was before coming here, but there’s a whole case of it at the supermarket.

America: giving the world cheese and chorizo macaroni, chicken burritos and Chilli Philly Steak Bake since 1776.

In the UK, I was prepared for my favorite Netflix shows not to work, for the bacon to be thick-cut and for the salmon to be much more affordable. But what’s surprised me is how much these cities have in common. New York tech is rushing ahead, but London moves with alacrity despite the weight of her history. In other words, New York may set the pace of the non-Valley tech grind, but London will match this pace with a steady stride. No matter what happens in the coming months, London will remain a crucial access point between European and American tech markets.

As we enter into a more uncertain time of this city’s history, I encourage entrepreneurs and startups not to take the wealth of international resources they have for granted. Be mindful of what we’ve created, but focus on the people and backgrounds that continue to make this city a progressive place to live and work. Digging up the past can wait. It’s time to keep moving forward.

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The London Startup Scene: An American’s Perspective