The new political incentives

This is a segment from a recent piece in the London Review of Books, which covers the confusing Conservative Party behaviour in the UK – from all free markets and deregulation, to Brexit and protectionism. But this point is particularly interesting:

In his book Propaganda, published in 1928, Edward Bernays, the creator of modern public relations (and Sigmund Freud’s nephew), expressed his optimism that expert communication strategies could protect democracy from the psychological excesses of mass society (it is sometimes forgotten that Bernays saw ‘propaganda’ as a positive and civilising force). Modern democracy would have to draw on the most advanced techniques of communication and persuasion, just as modern business had done with advertising, if the masses were to be satisfied with the policies and leaders that were available.

Bernays believed that politicians struggle to understand the importance of communication strategy, because they never have to struggle hard enough to win public attention. Unlike businesses, which have to work hard to attract publicity, political parties and politicians get attention from the media regardless of how well thought-out their message is. Bernays believed there was a risk that mass democracies would come undone unless politicians gave more thought to how they presented themselves in the media. Recent history suggests that he was worrying about the wrong thing. The professionalisation of politics and the rise of spin led to the opposite problem: politicians began to think too carefully about how they presented themselves in the media. The image management of the Blair and Clinton era smacked of inauthenticity, a charge that was later levelled at mainstream political parties in general, leading to the populist upheavals of the past few years.

But there is a further risk lurking in Bernays’s analysis, which he seemingly didn’t anticipate. If professional politicians have an unearned advantage over others when it comes to attracting public attention, there is a danger that politics comes to attract people who only want public attention – such as Johnson – and others who only know how to exploit it, such as Rees-Mogg. While Rees-Mogg may be a firm believer in the Victorian moral vision of Brexit, there can be no denying that his currently elevated status is largely down to the fact that he is recognisable and provides good media ‘content’. When the media report his latest comments, it’s because he is someone whom everyone recognises from the media. Everything he says or does must be calculated to ensure that this remains the case. As any troll understands, wit and disruption are the best tactics for succeeding in the ‘attention economy’.

Lost in the language of politicians I have never heard of is the concept that we are currently living in an attention based economy more than anything – success is often measured in how much attention you are getting (Not only for powerful people via traditional news, but culturally for everyone via Instagram, Twitter, Facebook which are all about attention). Basic economic theory says that scarcity is a key driver in decision making, and in an abundant first world, one of the few scarce elements is our fellow human’s attention spans. But there has been little discussion as to the second and third level distortion effects of this on society as a whole and particularly politicians. Previously going into politics was thought to be about power and ideology, but as this piece outlines, politics is a profession that is guaranteed to get attention. It is not a stretch to think that the attention could become a  motivating factor to get into politics – to be guaranteed coverage and a platform for your own use (no matter how useless you are).

The new world of social media and trolls has also led to a desensitisation of difficult, negative feedback. If you have any prominence on the internet, people are going to (unfortunately) abuse you and tell you that you are rubbish. A reason a famous person (or any person) would have wanted to avoid getting into politics in the past would be to avoid being disliked, because in politics you naturally have to take positions that are not going to please everyone. But now, if you are on the internet at all in any remotely prominent context, people are going to be slamming you. If you haven’t left the internet completely, you will be used to the abuse, and have figured out how to take it and to carry on. That next step to political abuse might not be that bad if everyone is already trained to ignore it. And with the guaranteed increase of attention, the incentive structure has changed.

This idea would have been a bit more absurd if 2016 hadn’t happened. But it is clearly less absurd now. Attention is becoming a marker of political success, and cultural relevance. Sure it always has been, but we are trending towards a world in which those who shout the loudest and do the most absurd things get the most coverage (certainly not those with the best ideas). So is it worth developing meaningful ideas, or worth finding a platform and then figuring it out on the run? We might see more of the latter, which bodes well for more attention obsessed people ending up in the most powerful positions in the world.

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