Aggression Trumping Nuance? The rise of the commentator as General of the troll army

I was reading an excellent blog by fellow communications professional Karan Chadda last week, when an idea for this blog started to crystallise. Karan was considering the technique of the professional commentator and their use of rhetorical tricks to communicate their attention grabbing point of view. It’s a short piece but makes some punchy points about how much opinion is spouted and how a lot of it is pretty tenuous if exposed to calm, sober analysis. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/inside-mind-mediocre-opinion-writer-karan-chadda?trk=hp-feed-article-title-like

Simultaneously, I observed a twitter dust up between Piers Morgan and David Baddiel, regarding the content of the US Presidential communication to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day. Baddiel believed ignoring the unique targeting of Jews for racial extermination and instead considering the Holocaust as a period of more generalised mass slaughter and repression could be seen as deriving from a seemingly moderate and therefore insidious form of Holocaust denial. Morgan was pugnacious in his responses, essentially defending the content of the speech by saying that there was no way that President Trump and his team could be anti Semitic because the author of the speech is Jewish and that Trump is very pro Israel.

Most of the discussion can be found here: https://twitter.com/Baddiel and here: https://twitter.com/piersmorgan on 1 February.

What interested me as a communications advisor was the technique. Linking back to Karan’s article, there was a certain amount of “whataboutery” and “straw man” going on from both sides, but what really jumped out were a number of issues that seem to be something of a trend in the universe of the commentariat:

Generalist commentators lack detailed / sophisticated subject knowledge. Morgan chose to engage on a high profile historical issue that has contemporary political relevance about which he would appear to have a limited historiographical understanding compared to his counterpart. Something similar happened a few days later when he was interviewing Owen Jones http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/piers-morgan-owen-jones-awkward-argument-live-tv-good-morning-britain-anti-donald-trump-muslim-ban-a7555721.html

Aggression. Morgan’s short, clipped responses on twitter did not engage in the nuance of the wider issue of the perception but attempted to turn the debate into a binary question: “is Trump racist / anti Semitic?” Baddiel acknowledged that the subject was too complex for 140 characters when posting a JPEG of Deborah Lipstadt’s detailed analysis of the historical development Holocaust denial. Morgan however eschewed nuance with threatening and bombastic language designed to threaten and belittle his opponent – https://twitter.com/piersmorgan/status/826846995893669890

Perhaps some commentators are playing a game. Morgan has turned himself from a fairly respected journalist and media executive into a showbiz brand and mouth for hire. He represents a self fulfilling prophesy; the more the likes of Morgan speaks aggressively, the more high profile he becomes and the more he can monetise his fame / notoriety. A recent profile in the Guardian bears this out “Everyone on TV is [trying to maximise publicity]. I’m just better at it than most of them.” Then there’s the old columnist get out: “But I’m just putting opinions out there. I’m a columnist, it’s my job.” https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/jan/28/piers-morgan-im-just-putting-opinions-out-there-its-my-job

Anyone reading this might think that I’m complaining about a long standing media position of commentator as provocateur and therefore income stream. We buy newspapers because they fit our personal views and we like having our preconceptions confirmed. Whether it’s Richard Littlejohn or Nick Cohen, newspapers have used columnists to get people talking about the product and therefore drive demand. However, it’s the interactive nature of social media that adds a new and scary element – that of the commentator acting as a general directing an army of supporters.

I used the above scenario because I studied the Holocaust in depth as an undergraduate and it caught my imagination. I also used it because I don’t think Morgan is a denier and / or anti Semitic, but he got involved due to his wish to self publicise as much as possible and he’s ended up in the position where he has to play to a certain constituency. Unlike Littlejohn or Hopkins, I think Morgan is more of a gun for hire, rather than committed crusader; which adds a layer of dramatic irony and nuance to the situation. But. Take a look at the comments connected to this “debate” and you’ll see two sides of tweeters drawn up for war, mimicking the bile of their commentator generals and attacking the other side with passion.

Perhaps I’m just a sensitive snowflake. However I have a bit of personal experience in being on the end of digital attack. Thanks to some poor decision making, I was attached to an article that placed me on one side of a divide. It went viral. I suddenly acquired a LOT of followers. Threats to my well being were made. Due to professional confidentiality issues, I couldn’t (and still cant) say anything and therefore ignored the issue, bar one particularly dramatic evening where I consumed most of a bottle of Manzanilla. Don’t judge me, I was in Spain on holiday and it was very tasty.

The connection between my scenario and the other is the role of the commentator. I felt that the attacks were permitted by the poorly researched and aggressive tone taken by a bunch of commentators who should perhaps have known better. They didn’t tell people to troll me, but their pieces created the atmosphere where trolling me seemed morally acceptable. I was the bad guy that needed to be told what I bad guy I’d been.

I hate anything that has the whiff of bullying, and when it comes down to it, this is what has motivated me to write 1000 words on this subject. Whether it’s the left of right, all sides have weaponised comment for use by their provisional wings. There’s probably no way back from this abyss, but as communications advisors potentially involved around this dynamic (or members of the church of Wittertainment) we should be aware of the result of looking into the abyss for too long.

 

Post script: A few days after publishing this blog, the #shitgibbon issue went public. President Trump threatened to “ruin the career” of a Texas legislator who opposes a policy that is a favourite of  the conservative Trump supporting constituency. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-destroy-state-lawmaker_us_5899fde8e4b09bd304bdd5b9

The casual and brutal comment, made as an aside in a meeting with Texas Sherrifs was later described as a “joke” by a White House spokesperson. A Pennsylvania Senator, Daylin Leach, then referred to Trump as a “Shit-Gibbon” on twitter – which is what originally grabbed my attention and made me and Kirsty chuckle at 0630 this morning. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/pennsylvania-senator-calls-trump-a-facist-loofa-faced-st-gibbon_us_589b6cd2e4b0c1284f2a1456

This is a good example of violent language that can enable a violent response from a supportive constituency. We all know that “it was a joke” is often the excuse of last resort of the prejudiced who can’t quite bring themselves to publicly identify with political extremists.  It’s something I recognise from my own experience. I’ve been called “working class Irish navvy scum” and been asked for “90 years back rent from my ancestral lands” by 2 very senior PR professionals. When I suggested they back down or face an aggressive physical response they said “calm down, I’m only kidding”.

What is interesting for professional communicators is that Trump is normalising the communications tactics of the extremes of political society. Trump’s use of the alt-right as cheerleaders and footsoldiers (or are they using him to further their agenda?) has brought what had been the periphery to the centre, both ideologically but also in terms of multi channel communication tactics. One could make similar arguments to the current UK Labour Party leadership’s alliance with Momentum. This is not just an issue of right wing communications. As communications advisors, we have to get our heads around the fact that, for now at least, the rules have changed.

This could mark the point of departure of radical long term change. We must not ignore this. The trouble with  sticking your head in the sand is that you can still get your arse shot off; and the other side in this dynamic has a lot of guns.

 

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One thought on “Aggression Trumping Nuance? The rise of the commentator as General of the troll army

  1. Pingback: Reading on Wednesday 15 February – Brian's Blog

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