In the aftermath of the upheavals of 2016, there was a lot of handwringing about “post-truth politics” and “fake news”. Did the victory of Leave in the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump mean that politics had left behind evidence and truth forever?
I used to think that the whole “post-truth” thing was mostly hyperbole, a fundamental misunderstanding of how political “truth” had always been indexed to the interests of the establishment, whose main objection to Leave and Trump was that they didn’t expect them to happen.
But now, in 2019, the UK is fighting what may as well be called “The Lying Election”, a campaign in which the strategy most contenders appear to have decided upon is: “basically just lie”. Arguments? Policies? These are like dog shit. Vision? Hope? What are you, a child? Lies – that is how you win votes.
(Well: not quite everyone has switched their campaign strategy to lying wholesale. The Labour leadership are attempting to win not by lying but by “promising to implement a transformative manifesto”. In this, they seem hopelessly trapped in an old politics paradigm.)
Of course, you might think that politicians, after all, have always lied. True enough, but this election, the lies seem different. The lies this time are constant, and petty, and obvious: politicians and journalists operating on the same intellectual level as a toddler claiming that they need more chocolate, because the last square you gave them was eaten by their imaginary friend. Moreover, the lies seem not to result in any consequences. Most of the lies simply happen, are exposed, and then forgotten about.
Here, just off the top of my head, is a list of the lies that have defined the 2019 UK general election campaign thus far:
– The Lib Dems then started distributing flagrantly misleading bar charts based on scenarios in which they'd asked voters to imagine that only the Lib Dems could win.
– The Tories then released a dossier in which they insisted that Labour's manifesto would cost the country “£1.2 trillion”, before Labour's manifesto had been released, based on a lot of made up figures and wild assumptions. They also insisted that this would cost “the average taxpayer” £2,400 a year, which it would not.
– The Tories have repeatedly insisted they have plans to build 40 new hospitals, despite their actual plans being a whole lot less ambitious than that: six new hospitals, with a further 34 future projects sharing a small pot of money to develop plans.
– The Tories then doctored a video to make it look like Keir Starmer couldn't answer questions about Labour's Brexit policy during an interview on Good Morning Britain, even though he could.
– The Evening Standard claimed that Jeremy Corbyn had angrily “bellowed” that “there is NO anti-Semitism in the Labour Party” during an interview. It then had to admit that he had never said this, let alone bellowed it.
– The Lib Dems kept insisting that Jeremy Corbyn was campaigning for a “Labour Brexit” despite the party’s offer of a referendum.
– The Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) changed their Twitter account during the ITV leaders debate to look like it was a factchecking account called “factcheckUK.”
– Lee Anderson, the Tory candidate for the marginal seat of Ashfield in Nottinghamshire was recorded arranging a “spontaneous” doorstepping encounter with a local supporter, who turned out to be his friend.
– The Tories were discovered to have literally distributed a manual to candidates on how to lie about their opponents.
– Boris Johnson lied repeatedly in his interview with Andrew Marr.
So why is this happening? In part the lying seems a consequence of how much of this election is being fought online, on social media. Traditional broadcast media is bound by Ofcom impartiality guidelines during election campaigns, which help balance coverage of the two major parties – but there is no real regulation for digital media. Problems are posed, to an extent, by the novelty of the medium: no-one really knows what to do about the Tories' “factcheckUK” stunt, for example, because it doesn't really have any precedent.
But social media doesn’t just enable lies – it also makes it easier for people to spot them. The Lib Dems have long campaigned using dodgy bar charts, but now people can call them into question in real time. Social media produces a more democratic critical context – and that's bad for politicians who don't want to be caught out.
Much of the media seems to no longer be interested in holding a lot of the politicians they cover to account. In an article for the Guardian, veteran politics reporter Peter Oborne detailed an exchange with some “senior BBC executives” who told him that “they personally think it’s wrong to expose lies told by a British prime minister because it undermines trust in British politics.”
What's so shocking about this statement is not only that the BBC executives involved are so obviously unprofessional. It's also that they're just so obviously wrong. What undermines people's faith in politics is not the fact that politicians are seen to lie – it's the fact they keep on getting away with it that makes voters feel powerless. This is what makes people shrug their shoulders, huff “they're all the same” and switch off.
But it’s not just establishment journalists or politicians who have spent this campaign producing election-defining lies. Left-wing shitposters have been doing it as well, but to an altogether different effect. In fact, they are he;ping us break out of the establishment monopoly on truth that all this handwringing about “post-truth” was always supposed to reinforce.
Take, for instance, a fake Mirror article by a reporter named “Wurrence Telephene” claiming that Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson likes to kill squirrels, that she calls “pleb bunnies”. Swinson later helped turn the fake story into real news by denying it during an interview with LBC radio – and so “killing squirrels” has become Swinson's own personal dead pig's head.
Swinson has tried to dismiss the squirrels story as “very fake news” – that we are living in the age of “post-truth politics”.
The obviously ridiculous claim that Jo Swinson gets her kicks by killing squirrels helps undermine her faux-reasonable image. As a “sensible” centrist politician she voted repeatedly to impoverish large swathes of the population and would sensibly take the decision to blow up half the earth with nuclear weapons if she thought it was what was expected of her. These viral shitpost stories go beyond truths and lies in the ordinary sense, and tell us something profound about our politics.
Following the Tories; factcheckUK debacle, in what seemed to be a ham-fisted clampdown on fake news, Twitter temporarily banned a number of left-wing shitposting accounts. This should concern us. Political insiders are getting ever more unscrupulous about their dishonesty. In the face of a politics built on lies, shitposters could just be the last bastion of our democracy.