Fake News & Little Fictions

2016 was a momentous year.  A watershed.

History may look back on it as the point where we all woke up to the power of social media as propaganda, or the point where the role of good journalism in digging out important stories, establishing the truth and educating the world to that truth became irrelevant.

In the UK for example we had the spectacle of the “leave” campaigners touring in a bus emblazoned with a claim that was blatantly wrong, deliberately misleading, and of course undelivered in the period following the vote.  Our media failed to express sufficient outrage (partly due to the vested interests they represent) and experts who demonstrated the “truth” were dismissed as irrelevant and unreliable.  Opinion was more important than reality.

I’m not close enough to the American political system to comment in detail about Trump’s rise to power, but it seems that something similar happened.  Regardless of which group he demonised, insulted or ignored, the electorate seemed ready to ignore that in favour of promises and dreams with no underpinning detail about how they would be delivered.

Is the world so full of woe that we find fantasy a more palatable alternative.  Has this become Marx’s opiate of the people?  Perhaps the global response to Game of Thrones was a clue.

Last year I went to Croatia for a marriage ceremony.  Or rather I didn’t.  Over the summer a number of events in Jane’s life brought sufficient pressures that we cancelled our civil ceremony in this country.  We had planned to follow that with a symbolic event in Croatia with close friends in attendance, and so rather than cancel everyone’s summer holiday we went ahead with this event that was intended to symbolise our relationship.

We had a great location, local musicians, fantastic weather, and lots to eat and drink.  What we didn’t have was a marriage and perhaps with that knowledge the pressures that had been building before the event took their toll, and in the weeks after our return, even our friendship cooled, sputtered and eventually ended.  (Jane did agree to my posting this)

 

What has that to do with fake news?

In the midst of all of this, one of my daughters posted her pictures from the Croatia trip to Facebook.  One of which showed Jane & I in character as bride & groom.

Twelve months later and people still ask how married life is treating me.  The power of a single Facebook posting supplanted the reality.  I wonder how many times that has happened in the more important events that have, and continue to take the world by surprise?  Are we just so lazy that a photograph or an internet meme becomes sufficient evidence upon which to base important decisions?  Do we accept what we see with our eyes instead of engaging our brains?

Imagery is powerful and it was Facebook’s reaction to an image that saw me suspend my profile there, when they blocked a post by the Norwegian Prime Minister that incorporated the famous “Napalm Girl” image.  Mr Zuckerman’s people simply saw child nudity.  If the original publishers of that image had also taken such a superficial view then one of the most influential images of the Vietnam conflict would never have seen the light of day.

Perhaps it stems from our leadership.

Maybe the day will come when Trump explores the facts before he reacts it will serve as an example to the world.  I’m not holding my breath.

 

 

Thanks to Dani McLachlan who was the Sorcerer’s Apprentice capturing some of these shots on the day.  She even made me look ok!

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Multi-cultural Part 2

_PW_2578_79_80-EditNote – although published 15th July, this post was written before the dreadful Bastille Day attack in Nice.  I’ve no wish to make political points based on that tragedy so have left the post unchanged.  I’m sure those on both sides of the argument about our relationship with Europe will find justification for their views from it.

My visit to London coincided with Theresa May’s ascension to the role of Prime Minister, just one of the many unforeseen consequences of the recent vote to leave the European Union.  May kept a low profile in the campaign and allied herself with David Cameron and Remain, which allowed her to demonstrate to her peers a degree of loyalty that Boris Johnson, and Michael Gove did not.  At the same time her invisibility prevented her from incurring the enmity of those in her party who detest the European project and everything about it.

It could be argued that compared to those who lead the Brexit campaign she has played a very canny game – she can claim to be onside with those who wished to remain, but in declaring that she will deliver the will of the electorate (“Brexit means Brexit”) she has earned the respect of those who did not.  Would it be cynical to suggest that this week’s outcome was exactly what she sought, and the referendum was just a means to an end?

So much of what we have seen since that date in June has seemed to be about the pursuit of power at any means.  The inaccuracies in the information both sides shared showed that the result was more important than allowing people to make balanced judgements.  Consequently there were people campaigning in social media for the opportunity to go back to the days of eating fish and chips from newspaper because trying to understand the real issues and their consequences was impossible in a fog of misinformation.

_PW_2581Those who espoused that and similar arguments seem to think there is a Golden Age that our exit will take us back to.  An age before immigration (not sure how far back that age would be), when Britain ruled the waves, and a major proportion of the world map was pink.  These are the people who would staunchly defend our right to retain the Elgin Marbles referred in the previous post for no other reason than that we’re British and we were the prevailing world power at the time, so perfectly within our rights to take ownership.  They look to Churchill as our greatest leader and plunder his speeches for evidence of views on immigration.

_PW_2596We are already seeing an increase in racist attacks in the country as those of the far right take encouragement from our new-found insularity.  No wonder I spotted Mark Darcy, one of the BBC’s political correspondents, staring out into space from Westminster Bridge.  He must be wondering where this will lead.  Behind him on the other side of Westminster Bridge stands Boudicca, perhaps another inspiration to the xenophobic in our midst.

Boudicca Overshadowed
Boudicca Overshadowed

The great warrior queen of the Iceni who portrayed herself as an ordinary Briton whose freedoms had been lost to foreign invaders, rose to drive the Romans from our lands may be an exemplar to those who tell immigrants to go home.  They should remember that she failed.

My birth town of Sunderland was one of the most vocal in calling for Brexit.  It’s easy to blame the unemployment there on immigration, though in my experience there are more complex factors of education and motivation in the mix.  Will the vote for Brexit give them the cosy Anglo-Saxon nation they crave?  A walk around the capital provides the answer.

_PW_2612-Edit

BTW – the pic of the two guys playing with the basketball was shot in poor light and through some fencing so I was having to focus manually on a moving target.  That’s my excuse for it not being very sharp.  Nonetheless there’s something about the two expressions and the movement in the shot that I really like.  In the split second that followed it the guy in glasses shifted the ball around to his left side and made a perfect pass behind himself.  You’ll just have to take my word for it!

Proms in the Dark

In 2013 Darlington held its first Proms in the Park concert; an event aimed at bringing the people of Darlington together and promoting a sense of civic pride in the town.  This weekend saw the fourth of these events and brought me back to the town’s South Park.

The local newspaper’s headline from the 2015 event spoke volumes “Best of British on Display” for indeed this is a quintessentially British event; deckchairs and picnic blankets, champagne and ice cream, the gentle jingoism of a military band proclaiming that

The Army, The Navy and The Air Force have made old England’s name

Our soldiers, our sailors and our airmen have always played the game

They’re steady, they’re true and always ready

They fight for you and me

The Army, The Navy and The Air Force leading us to victory.

The irony of British  service men singing of what they have done for England went over the heads of most, but this weekend it had a particular irony.  We are no longer a united kingdom.  We have endured a bitterly divisive political campaign over our membership of the European Union, a campaign marked by lies, distortions and utter disrespect on both sides of the argument and we face an uncertain future.  Both of our main political parties are now riven by in-fighting, and politicians who have long know that the public lacked confidence and respect in them have behaved in ways likely to see their standing eroded further.  I fear this will result in greater division within the population too as more extremism gains a voice.  I may seem needlessly pessimistic – but Michael White, a political journalist who I have always respected if not always agreed with puts it well here.

The regional splits in how the country voted mean that Scotland has a justifiable reason to demand a second independence vote; they voted to remain in the EU.  Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, will pursue this vigorously, but she may not be alone in wanting to break away from the UK.  _PW_1681Across the Irish Sea, a majority in Northern Ireland voted Remain too, giving Sinn Féin grounds to pursue their agenda of a united Ireland once more, the Republic of Ireland being the only part of the EU where we have a shared border.

_PW_1664The band leader who fronted the performance explained that in choosing his programme he had opted for the theme of “music from around the world”, yet we have just turned our back on internationalism in favour of division and subdivision.

I have no idea how most of the audience around me may have voted (though there were some obvious indications), but it already seems that those who desired a Britain apart may well have a Britain torn apart.  Those who wanted to reject a European flag in favour of the “Union Jack” had better enjoy their victory while it lasts.  That flag may soon be missing the blue and white of Scotland very soon.

All of that seemed far from the minds of those celebrating Armed Forces Weekend and enjoying the music.

Or maybe we were just fiddling while Rome burns.

 

State of Independence (SOS 2)

I’ve posted previously about the Cuban flag and it’s role in the independence movement of that nation, and I can see the logic of a country separated by thousands of miles of Atlantic Ocean from its European rulers seeking more autonomy, whether that be Cuba from Spain or the US from Britain.

I mention this because on my first morning in Barcelona, while making my way towards Gaudi’s confection of a cathedral, I noticed a number of flags hanging from windows that were similar to the Cuban emblem.  The same white star in a triangle against a striped background, though the individual components were coloured differently.  So similar was it that I assumed that I was walking through a neighbourhood populated by immigrants from some other former colony.

I was wrong of course and the flag was so ubiquitous I soon realised that this was the Estelada, the flag of the Catalan independence movement, though the Cuban flag and experience were inspirational._PW_9639

To me though the world seems bent on division.

In my lifetime I’ve seen both Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia fragment into smaller nations and although we’ve just seen Scotland vote narrowly to remain in the UK, the issue has only gone away temporarily.  There are those in Wales who would also pursue their own route and then there’s Cornwall.  The UK as a whole is about to reconsider its membership of the European Union.  I hear lots of objections to having laws made in Brussels imposed upon us, but really why does it matter where the law is made so long as its appropriate?

This trend concerns me.  This focus on difference seems to be at the heart of so many of the conflicts in the world; Muslim against Christian, Sunni versus Shia, Protestant and Catholic.

Perhaps I’m inherently conservative.  In my tattered history of relationships I’ve tended to be the one who wanted to hang on and give things another go, though it seems that others find me harder to persevere with!  My point is that we’re capable of more when we work together than when we’re working in opposite directions.  It’s the basis of teamwork.  Of course when things go wrong it’s easier to blame others than to acknowledge our own role and think about what we’ll do differently next time.

In my day job I often discuss Sir Alex Ferguson when teaching about leadership, and there are two things relevant to his success that have parallels here.  The first is his history of working with assistant managers who had very different personalities to his own, which in many respects compensated for his personal shortcomings in some areas.  The second is that he wasn’t initially successful, but that Manchester United gave him time to deliver – it was four seasons before the team won anything under his leadership but his potential was recognised and valued.  He’s the most successful manager in the history of English football but he achieved it by recognising the power of working with others who are different to you, and by virtue of tolerance.

_PW_9637

Catalonia isn’t the only region of Spain seeking self-rule, nor are Spain and the UK the only European countries facing this challenge, in fact Greece, Portugal and Sweden seem to be in a minority of unified nations.  The European Union was originally seen as a deterrent against another world war, yet we seem more intent on building new walls.  Tolerance?  Working with others?_PW_1845

Finally after walking for miles I spotted a Spanish flag.

It was flying over a government building.

The final irony was that even that building represented a regional division.

_PW_0148-Edit-Edit

Oh, this is futile*

*Monty PythonThe Argument Sketch.

A good proportion of the UK is under water at present as successive weather fronts deposit rain and snow at an alarming rate on towns and villages already sodden from weeks of wet weather.

Those in the west have had the additional tribulation of hurricane force winds driving high tides onto battered shorelines.  Dramatic images for those who like me love the photographic opportunities that our coastlines supply though in many locations people have been warned to stay away.  One unfortunate young photographer has been swept to his death in recent weeks.

These freakish conditions inevitably give rise to speculation as to whether man-made climate change is to blame and this morning, stuck in a 30 minute tailback of exhaust fumes and with the forest of industrial chimneys that is Teesside to my left, I heard on Radio 4’s Today programme a discussion of this very question.  Sir Brian Hoskins, one of the world’s greatest authorities on climate was faced with the extreme scepticism of former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Lawson.tees sunrise worked

The exchange, which I found quite exasperating reminding me of the Python sketch referred to above, in which Michael Palin pays to have an argument; “a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition” and is met with a wall of nothing more than contradiction “No it isn’t!”  Lord Lawson’s response to any evidence  proposed by Hoskins was one of pure denial, and culminated in this patronising statement:

I don’t blame the climate scientists for not knowing. Climate and weather is quite extraordinarily complex and this is a new form of science. All I blame them for is pretending they know when they don’t.

No wonder politicians in this country see their credibility at an all time low in the eyes of the voting population.

Anyway, the argument proved serendipitous for it gives me an opportunity to post these sublime images which I captured earlier in the week.  Draw your own conclusions.

APW_7080

 

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A Question Of Belief

Spinning away on my turbo trainer on Sunday morning I caught most of a short radio programme in which political philosopher John Gray was reflecting on the power of human beings to eschew all rational thought, burying inconvenient truths that are discordant with our preferred view of the world.  We cling to beliefs in direct contravention of the evidence, “choosing” not to know any better.  The lack of evidence between Saddam Hussein and terrorism, which Donald Rumsfeld refused to comment upon as it didn’t support the need to invade Iraq, or humanity’s ability never to learn from the financial crashes of the past, preferring instead to believe that we will be the ones who make a killing until the next financial crisis comes along amply demonstrate his point.

I’ve seen evidence of this in my own life, sublimating my own distrust of financial mis-selling when persuaded to attend a property sales event by my former spouse.  We’re both still paying for that one!

To some extent this failing contributes to the volatility of markets.  Market theory on share pricing expects that the price of an investment will reflect all of the information available about that particular stock (excuse me if I’m a little woolly on Efficient-market hypothesis, it’s a few years since I studied it!).  That may be all well and good, but it’s people who trade in those

Bodnath

investments, and their beliefs come into play.  Consequently stocks are traded by those who may “choose” not to know the full picture because it doesn’t fit with their original beliefs about the investment.

We see this in debates about religion.  Richard Dawkins may write perfectly argued books as to why there is no god and pointing to the lack of evidence but in return he is faced with the argument “Of course there is none, religion is a matter of faith”  We’re back to belief again.

_MG_0633-Edit The tendency extends to so many walks of life.  The debate between those on either side of the climate change agenda, has been damaged by those who might dismiss scientific data that doesn’t fully support them as a blip or statistical aberration, whilst those with vested interests choose find logical ways to dismiss the findings of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change.

We decide not to think about the unnerving, the uncomfortable, the embarrassing etc.

I argued with a friend recently over her belief that men don’t look for the same degree of love in a relationship as women, partly outraged that a woman could make such a generalisation from a male perspective.  She was completely wrong.  Or so I believe.sadhu-Edit

 

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