In Britain we are familiar with the concept of propoganda. In Major Tom’s War I write of how Tom is appalled when he hears of the rape of German nuns, which has him describing the enemy as ‘brute beasts’. 100 years on, we know this to have been a calculated piece of motivational propoganda, which clearly did its job, and yet was still a lie. It was communicated through visual representations (drawings of nuns cowering before bayonet-wielding Germans) and newspaper reports by journalists who were either ‘in on it’ or content to pass on a story they were given rather to report something they had witnessed.
We study propoganda in school and think of it in terms of posters with strong visual messages communicated through words or images or a combination of the two. Traditional marketing grew out of propoganda. Today, however, we have ‘nudge’ to contend with too.
Nudge shapes the way we think through a number of small suggestions embedded within other media – rather than clearly and openly, as something with which we can make a choice to agree or disagree.
It can be as subtle as the taming of errant locks. What might the flattening of a Prime Ministerial candidate’s hairstyle say to us all subliminally? Ah, look. He’s settling down. Taking the job seriously. That’s good. No – that’s nudge.
In nudge, tiny nuances of language count too. If a pro-Brexit focus group says that it wishes Westminster would ‘just get on with it’ then you can bet your bottom dollar this wording will be reflected in speeches from those at the top.
This is nothing new. The whole political fiasco since the Brexit referendum is not, I believe, the comedy of errors it appears to have been, but a change of leadership which has been clinically planned. It began when a gullible David Cameron was duped by his old school chums into calling the catastrophic and manipulated vote on European membership. Dice have been thrown since, yes, but those dice have always been loaded.
If you have two political candidates standing against each other in a leadership context, one, say, called Robert Smith and the other Peter Jones, they should have equal media coverage, yes? Peter Jones is consistently referred to as Jones, or by both his names. Robert Smith, however, has friends in the media: he used to be a journalist. His pictures are everywhere. He isn’t ever referred to as Smith but as ‘Bob Smith’, more likely ‘Bob the Job’, after a hilarious Jobcentre incident, or just plain Bob, like he is the bloke from next door. This is in spite of the fact that his real name is Rupert St John Roberto de Smythe.
We all know Bob’s bluff and cheery ways, or think we do. The papers love him. He can do woefully crass and stupid things, but we have been conditioned by nudge to think that he’s a bit of a laugh, that he’s one of us.
He’s not, of course. He’s a power-hungry millionaire who surrounds himself with people who can manipulate the way we think. Peter Jones, a worthy but boring ex-dentist, doesn’t stand a chance.
Supposing a national newspaper wrote a piece about how youngsters from deprived areas of London are being given access to a top public school? Fantastic for these hard-working pupils and their visionary parents, and an enlightened school, one might think. But embedded within that article are dozens of references to none other than good old Bob the Job, who happened to be educated at the same fine establishment. Very subtly the language equates ‘Bob’ with the young, bright, ambitious lad from the sink estate. But they are not the same and the timing of the appearance of the piece can be no coincidence. Nudge.
Bob takes power by assembling a ‘war cabinet’. Bob is ‘getting on with it’. Bob admires Churchill and if he manages to nudge us all over a cliff on October 31st this will be heralded as a D-Day-esque victory and a ‘proud day’. What would my grandfather Tom, a real soldier, think of such twisting of reality? That’s easy. In 1918 he was already talking about ‘disgusting politicians’.
I identify as European first, a Scot second and a Briton third. Brexit will render me partially stateless. I object to an imperfect yet peaceful Europe being cast in the role of the Third Reich. I can imagine those Bob has employed writing the ‘war cabinet’ concept on a brainstorming wall in Sharpie and standing back to nod and smirk agreement.
So why talk about ‘Bob’? Because the people hunched in the shadows who are collecting social media data on behalf of those now in power will not have their algorithms set to ‘Bob’. Our reactions are being monitored as well as manipulated. And I am afraid of what is happening to my poor country, our fragile democracy, right now.
Three ways to resist nudge:
1. Ask ‘why now’ when any opponent of the new regime is suddenly alleged to be perverted, or corrupt, or incompetent.
2. Consider ‘who benefits’ from the same allegations or indeed any piece of unlikely positive pro-Brexit news.
3. Believe what you believe, for as long as you possibly can. And care about being able to do so.