Political spin and how it works: the lead up to 31 October and what to look out for in the media

Anyone engaging in discussion of Brexit online will see the spike in exchanges each time Boris Johnson’s Communications team put out text and videos, detailing what the Prime Minister is offering to do and deliver pre- and post-31-October. Traffic spikes in the wake of such online announcements.

Those in agreement commend; those who are set on challenging such declarations pounce not only on the releases themselves but on those who reinforce their message. They often pounce irrespective of the demographic of those in agreement – be you MP or milkman, the gloves are off. And so the wheel turns: individuals then turn on each other, moving further and further away from the precise content of the original announcement. This includes announcements both by government and the opposing parties.

But while we are all busy making our judgments of each other, how many of us actually stop and consider the language (and images) being utilised to deliver such official messages? What is being said that can make us turn on others so quickly? And how many of us pause to realise that each time we do this we are, in fact, being distracted by the handle-to-handle, lunge and parry of social media exchange?

We are too easily enmeshed in exchanges that lead us further and further into tribalism (see my previous post) and away from analysis of the statement as pronounced. The spin gets lost in the human need to defend or attack.

Today (26 August 2019) I tweeted a few observations on how spin works, and a number of people have asked me to include these basic guidelines here. If they help you pause for a moment each time you read official blurb, then they serve their purpose. If they enable you to engage with others on how political spin works, all the better.

For those ready to jump in and ask who I am to make such pronouncements on political strategy: my PhD was on the rise of political spin in the public domain. I’ve spent 20+ years researching the ways in which political announcements in the media are used to manipulate public thought. Bottom line: politicians want you to agree with them so that they can stay in (or gain) office. I am merely pulling back the curtain (on myself included) as to how this works.

What is spin?

In a nutshell, spin (in public relations and politics) is a form of propaganda, which utilises words and/or images to persuade the public to agree with what an organisation or public figure says. Spin often (but not always) incorporates disingenuous or deceptive representation of material, utilising manipulation techniques (in language, ‘rhetorical strategies’) to persuade the reader, listener or viewer to agree with the figure or group in need of overall public approval.

It is utilised in politics when, without public approval, the figure or group will be unlikely to achieve their aims. It is therefore an essential tool in the arsenal of the politician who stands on shaky ground, who wants to gain power or retain it, come what may.

Techniques employed

In order to spot spin in action, there are a few simple litmus tests we can do on the language being used. Each of the techniques identified are classic spin, and are key to winning over public opinion, if not seen for what they are (manipulation, plain and simple).

1. Heroes and villains

This is a classic technique playing to our primeval instincts: are you with me or against me? Which tribe are you in?

Politicians love to give you an enemy, to distract from their own actions and their own inadequacies.

Having an enemy gives us a sense of place. We are right, they are wrong. It’s not my fault, it’s their fault. It apportions blame. Humans love to deflect and blame others, in the main. Look at the media on immigrants as a case in point.

Some spin will have you looking for the enemy within: are they really with me or against me? Can I rise by lowering them? But remember what Alexander the Great did, and consider who is encouraging you to look for that enemy within: Divide and Conquer will ensure others rise to the top while you are busy on internal squabbles.

2. Religion verses the state

This is a classic cover for a government looking to get the masses enraged about one topic while they quietly do something else. Look at what gets pushed through when the public are busy railing about real or manufactured confessional conflict. Put immigrant and religion into the same pot and the spin moves you further and further away from what politicians don’t want you to see elsewhere. Machiavelli was all over this technique. It has worked for centuries. Look to who gains what while a populous is being outraged at ‘others’.

3. Othering

‘Othering’ is the technique of branding people different to your target audience as the villain. Such rhetoric emphasises (or manufactures) cultural differences from the target group at which the spin is aimed. It forges a wedge between groups, seemingly insurmountable and incongruous, attempting to negate any shared human or cultural attributes, such as love, empathy, work ethic, and so on. Question why those in power want you to disassociate from such (usually minority or distant) groups. What do they have to gain from doing so?

4. Target demographic

At whom is the spin targeted – specifically? There will be those who need persuading, and those who need convincing. Remember: when a majority opinion is needed, those not yet brought to heel will be targeted. Detailed assessment will be made as to where they get their information, and those platforms targeted. Remember: we live in the age of big data; we are all targeted by those who have something to gain from our acquiescence – be it for good or ill.

A steady drip-feed of such spin is a sure-fire way of breaking down any resistance to such claims. Conditioning comes when you see the same material day after day – so much so that it becomes normalised. That’s just the way it is. But I can tell you a thousand times that the tooth fairy exists; it does make it real…

5. Dehumanising the enemy: stereotypes

Stereotypes are one of the most pernicious and dangerous forms of spin. They can win mass agreement but, if mismanaged, can also lose an audience. There is a real art to making them work for gain in the public domain. They can be used to reinforce a tribe, and to ostracize another.

Stereotypes, once engrained, can be summed up in quick soundbites. These pigeonhole ‘others’ into categories, through simple but persistent association with a particular (negative) association (often a disproportionately exaggerated or entirely false one). Take, for example, the heinous stereotypes of the stingy Jew or terrorist Muslim.

These pernicious stereotypes reach back to before the rise of print and have proven an effective weapon for those who seek to utilise hate to control people and to gain or maintain power. Now, perhaps more than ever, we must be attuned to who uses them and why. Why are they reinforced at certain moments? What do those who utilise them hope to gain from doing so?

These are just five of the techniques used by spindoctors – those who create and script political soundbites. But they are five of the most prevalent and pernicious.

Harnessing the skills we already have

Brexit has afforded one opportunity in the UK, perhaps, above all others: it has more people engaged in politics across the generations that we have seen ever before. Technology has played a significant part in this – for better and for worse.

But what remains lacking in this country – as elsewhere – is a public awareness of how to question what we read in our fast-paced lives, overflowing with pronouncements from multiple sources. So many are lacking – or think they lack – the skills to really see what’s going on.

At a number of fora in my professional life of late I have been advocating for greater public access to and engagement with media literacy across the generations. We have these skills – even at a most basic level – within the curriculum already. We are yet to utilise them for emerging and newly established technologies.

We are too focused on legislation – legislation that runs too far behind the ways in which technology and access to big data expands and varies. Put a Shakespearean play or a poem in front of most school students or adults, and they think it perfectly normal if you asked them what the author wants you to think when reading this text, or watching this play. They get what you’re asking and why: the author intends to provoke a particular response. Generation after generation have been taught these techniques at school. All perfectly normal, contained within the classroom or lecture theatre. But what about beyond these realms?

We forget to ask these basic questions when we pick up a tabloid or click on a social media post. What do they want me to think? What reaction are they looking to provoke? Who benefits from it?

There is enough research out there now to show that we choose certain media platforms regularly because they reinforce what we already believe. How many of us look at a different source, holding our preconceived ideas close, only to dismiss another’s viewpoint, because it doesn’t match with our tribe? ‘Others’ aren’t like me. ‘Others’ are wrong. ‘Others’ are the source of my woes. This source understands me. This source makes me feel good about myself. And on I go with my day.

Spin relies on this – indeed it feeds on this. Spin assesses, watches, targets. But we have the tools to challenge it. As any physiotherapist will tell you: you have to use your muscles regularly if you are to maintain them. Our assessment of media language and image is no different. Just as a teacher may ask a pupil what Shakespeare wanted you to think, so too must we all remain vigilant of text and image. Who has the most to gain from utilising the techniques outlined above?

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