Ridiculous statements go viral. From Boris’s bombastic Libya remarks to Trump’s daily Twitter toddler tantrums, nothing gets our thumb tapping that retweet button faster than outrageous political buffoonery. Be it virtue signalling, endorsing or simply showing our sheer shock and dismay, social media users love reacting to silly soundbites as newsfeeds are coloured with witty one line responses and hastily published news articles looking to cash in on clicks.
Welcome to the age of pantomime politics. The digital marketplace where politics is reduced to its entertainment value while social and monetary capital is earned through the capture and re-sale of human attention.
And few have capitalized more by capturing the human brain by the shareable click than Jonah Peretti the creator of Buzzfeed. Peretti was a pioneer in understanding what makes us click and share.
Buzzfeed discovered that humans are programmed to react impulsively with either alarm or allure to images of Sex, food, death and gossip the fundamental components of the survival instinct. This neurological understanding allowed Buzzfeed to create an incredibly effective albeit cynical digital media strategy premised upon producing content that hacked the basic impulses of human biology.
As Tim Wu, author of “The Attention Merchants” explains: “These modern day clickbait things are getting at very basic principles of our neurobiology that are there for a reason,”
Developing tricks of the trade to attract attention was by no means a new phenomenon but with the changing medium of human interaction from the physical to digital landscape mastering the art of clickbait became a revolutionary development to trap and capture consumer attention like never before. The smartphone era enabled media companies to become omnipresent in our lives, pressing biological and psychological buttons every second of the day with the aid of addictive technologies, push notifications and personalized algorithms enslaving us to their ‘ping’.
“Be it the emails that induce you to buy right away, the apps and games that rivet your attention, or the online forms that nudge you towards one decision over another: all are designed to hack the human brain and capitalise on its instincts, quirks and flaws. The techniques they use are often crude and blatantly manipulative, but they are getting steadily more refined, and, as they do so, less noticeable.”
If this phenomenon was confined to the online arena of cat videos and “5 things you have to do before you turn 25” it would be worrying enough but it’s the invasion of clickbait into the sphere of political commentary that is such a threat to democracy and social order itself.
As the commercial viability of print journalism has dramatically declined, traditional media outlets have began marketing their content in the style of Buzzfeed while new digital media outlets have simultaneously begun branding themselves as reputable news sources competing in the same space as The New York Times or the BBC.
The 2016 U.S election is a recent example of how this plays out in practice harming democracy on a number of fronts. A current Senate hearing investigating Trump’s ties with Russia has heard that 1,000 people were hired to create anti-Clinton misinformation “news” sites in key US states during election. Most of the supposed “Fake News” outlets were coming from countries in the Balkans allegedly being bankrolled by the Kremlin.
Post truth became a popular reference describing how people were believing things that “feel right” or that “should be true” as opposed to facts. But with the barrage of information and the reality thaat reputable news sources were often exaggerating stories for clicks It was almost impossible to disentangle the “fake news” for the purposes of political subterfuge from the hyper exaggerated junk stories published for the purposes of simply drawing clicks.
The culture of clickbait has led to the demise of journalistic standards and ethics as more and more stories are selected on their potential virality rather than their public interest value. Important investigative journalism is no longer funded by traditional media as it simply isn’t generating website traffic while snapshot stories pitting social subgroups against one another has shown to be far more effective at drawing in the crowds.
Our political discussion and headlines are now dominated by personal spats and horse race politics while significant analysis on policy substance is continuously being downgraded beneath political entertainment.
A tragic play featuring 140 characters
Jacob Rees-Mogg is the latest pantomime villain to pop up in the British political sphere with his caricature Tory persona and playful media interviews.
Mogg became a viral internet icon after a video of him casually dropping the word ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’ in parliament spread like wildfire. In a similar vein to Farage and Trump, Mogg is admired for his “Tell it like it is” attitude unafraid and unapologetic of his conservative, Christian views.
Admittedly, he is an infectiously entertaining character. Watching a Mogg interview is like watching a 13th Century pampered Prince John transported through time and put in a suit. There is a complete disconnect between the reality of Rees- Mogg as a politician and the playful character who’s every word is an opportunity to create memes, gain social credit and personal brand points by mocking.
Mogg, Boris and Trump oh what will they say next?
Welcome to the world of pantomime politics.