Some people vote out of a kind of loyalty. They support the side their families or neighbours have always supported. Those loyalties can change under pressure. For example, if an area gets poorer because a large employer has closed and incomes drop, votes might look for someone new to provide a solution.
Another kind of loyalty might mean you read the same newspaper as your friends and family. This gives you a certain image of the world, a version of it that all the readers like and support but is only one point of view. Other papers have different points of view but, as you don’t read them, you don’t consider them. The stories on radio and t.v. might or might not be reliable, but they are always presented from a certain point of view. It would be difficult for an individual to check for themselves, and hard work to read all the different points of view, so the very least we need to do is spot when their might be obvious bias and try to allow for it. That is not as easy as it sounds.
Sometimes it is a matter of careless reporting, sometimes deliberate lies and sometimes having a point of view or a party loyalty. Newspapers, radio stations and t.v. channels supporting a certain side may decide to repeat ‘facts’ that influence opinion, or spread rumours. Donald Trump likes to appear popular so he claimed the crowd at his inauguration rally was massive and he had received lots of votes but they we not counted properly because of widespread voting fraud. Neither claim was true, but news outlets could choose whether to repeat them or examine and deny them. Different channels made different choices.
Social media are more of a problem. It is common knowledge that lots of people lie on Facebook to make themselves look better. But lots of stories and images are fed into Google and Wikipedia too. Anyone can do it and who is responsible for checking the facts? If a scare story started on Facebook about milk being radioactive lots of people would stop drinking it, but how would you know if it was just a joke? If you wanted to make people think a certain way in an election wouldn’t it be useful to put lots of stories on Facebook and twitter that nudged them in a certain direction? How can we know when something is true or reliable? You can use fact-checking web sites.
But you can also keep an eye out for certain signals. There are obvious key words to watch out for. Some are always hurrah words, like ‘moderate’ and ‘freedom fighter’. Others are always boo words, like ‘extremist’ and ‘terrorist’. The problem is that people tend to apply boo words to their enemies to try to persuade other people to condemn them too, whatever the facts. So, for example, Nelson Mandela was called a terrorist by the British government until we changed our minds and called him a freedom fighter, then a hero and a good example. Martin McGuiness was an IRA terrorist until he became deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and shook hands with The Queen. At that point most newspapers changed the way they spoke about him.
There are lots of different groups fighting each other in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq etc. UK, US and Russian governments have changed their minds, over time, about who they support, who is a freedom fighter and who is a terrorist.
Politics is sometimes like advertising – words are used to persuade people to buy an opinion or attitude. In some ways they might be meaningless but they carry little signals about things being good or bad and we might not even notice how we are being influenced. Look at adverts and packaging that says things like ‘farm fresh’ or ‘premium’. Sounds good, but what do the really mean? You could hardly label it ‘factory stale’, could you? And does ‘premium’ mean good, expensive or cheap?
Some people are very good at choosing words which make ‘bad’ things sound acceptable. This is not a new problem. In 1979, arguing about our attitude to the EU, a politician was interviewed by the Guardian and accused of being one-sided in his negotiations:
A large part of Dr Owen’s reply was taken up with a rebuttal of the charge that Britain was pursuing selfish policies towards the European Community. “We do not act selfishly, we are motivated by our own interests,” he stressed.
In August 2017, as the UK is negotiating with the EU over Brexit, the British side call for “flexibility and imagination” while the European side claims we are trying to have our cake and eat it. Are they being inflexible or are we being selfish? It often depends how you choose your words.
There used to be an advertisement for Swiss hotels that claimed they were good value because they did not raise their prices in summer, and prices were even lower in winter.
What is the difference between:
|admitting defeat||giving up|
|running away||strategic withdrawal|
|getting old||becoming a senior citizen|
|group of protesters||mob|
|young people on motorcycles off to the seaside||bikers pouring into a coastal town|
|someone running away from a dangerous place||refugee/immigrant|
|someone dedicated to a cause||fanatic|
|dying||going to your rest/reward/passing over|
|wanting change for the better||trying to destroy old values|
|rejecting society’s artificial rules||being unable to fit in|
|upholding standards||imposing a rigid regime|
Patriotism is loving your country, being loyal to it. Nationalism is thinking your country should always come first, and even that it is in some way better than others. It is not the same as racism – thinking one race is superior to another – but if you start to argue that being French or German or Irish is better than being anything else then you have to be clear whether you mean holding a French passport, even if your grandparents were born in Algeria, or being ‘racially’ French. It can get confusing. And some people will use that confusion to get votes.
Perhaps the most difficult problem for 2017 is the difference between words like Muslim, Islamic, Islamist, extremist and terrorist. Islam is a religion and a Muslim someone who follows it. There are about 1.8 billion Muslims in the world and they don’t all have the same views. Just as Catholics and Protestants disagreed in Ireland, Sunni and Shia are just two of the different forms of Islam. Just as Protestants can be Church of England or Baptist or Pentecostal, Muslims can have differences within their own groups. Likewise, Jews can be orthodox, strict or ‘liberal’ in their practice. Some Christian groups oppose abortion to the extent they demonstrate outside clinics, and think being gay is a sin so they pray for someone to recover from their ‘illness’. Some Christians won’t marry outside their own sect and sometimes communities are formed that won’t even talk to people from outside their own group, in case of ‘contamination’. Outsiders might call that ‘extremism’. They would call outsiders ‘sinners’.
The fact that one group of Muslims decided to fight for an extreme version of their religion meant commentators in the West started to refer to ‘Islamic terrorists’ and ‘lslamists’. The words were attached to bombings and beheadings. The people got confused about the difference between Islamist and Islamic, turning against Muslims in general. Some groups encouraged that confusion because it suited their racist political arguments. Even the President of the USA thought he had to ban Muslims from certain countries from entering America, just in case they carried bombs. Fear creates a reaction and ignorance can be exploited. The best defence to keep a close eye on how people use language
For example, how would you react to a web site called The Voice of The Martyrs? Is it Islamist propaganda? Actually it is a Christian site, about people persecuted for their faith, but the word ‘martyr’ usually appears in the news now associated with suicide vests, so it has become one of those ‘bad’ words.
That’s why you need a crapometer, so when you see something labelled premium farm fresh you know that doesn’t actually mean anything, and when someone says “vote for me to uphold standards” or “only my party can save the country from extremists” you need to look very carefully at what they are really selling.