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CapX Weekly Briefing

How post-truth went prime-time

In the wake of this week’s bombing in Manchester, the nation was united in grief for the victims.

Well, almost united. From the dark corners of the internet seeped up a counter-narrative. The bombing was a false flag operation (a “#reichstagfire” affair, to quote the comedian Rufus Hound). Or MI5 allowed it to happen. Or the bombing itself was genuine, but the threat level in its wake was artificially exaggerated. All because Jeremy Corbyn was finally getting through to the British public, and Theresa May and the British Establishment were desperate to stop him.

Such claims were ludicrous, hurtful and hateful. Not to mention flagrantly illogical in claiming that a government the conspiracists view as catastrophically incompetent can somehow cajole or coerce dozens if not hundreds of public servants into becoming accessories to murder (an idea lampooned in this classic sketch about the death of Diana).

There has always been a conspiratorial fringe in politics. What’s different now is that conspiracy thinking has gone prime-time. In the US, the Fox host Sean Hannity is busy peddling bizarre stories about the murder of a Democratic aide. Donald Trump has invited the “alt-Right” into the White House press corps and merrily regurgitates favourable nonsense about election fraud or the size of the crowds at his inauguration.

In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn – always something of a tinfoil-hatter on foreign policy – professes to be a keen reader of The Canary, the slavishly loyal fan site which brought us such sensationalist bullshit as the HSBC “dark money” scandal and the Sun 'smearing' Corbyn over the Manchester attack.

It no longer makes sense, in other words, to talk about a lunatic fringe – it’s now the full haircut. Recently, a firm called NewsWhip looked at which UK sites were getting the most Facebook engagement on their election stories. There was a clear picture of ultra-partisan sites like the Canary (and on the other side the Express) pulling ahead of their more restrained rivals.

Yes, the presence of The Independent at the top of the pile may seem reassuring – but much of the coverage that got it there consisted of clickbait-ish claims that Theresa May had been “destroyed” over the dementia tax or that Corbyn was “finally” getting fair treatment from the biased media.

There’s a parallel here with politics. The reason that the 2015 general election result came as such a surprise was that the Tories ran a “dark” campaign – precision-targeting individual voters with mailshots and online advertisements that played to the issues they were interested in.

The 2017 election will be even darker: as Rory Sutherland pointed out at the Spectator, someone in Richmond, Yorkshire, will be hearing all about the Tories’ pledge to un-ban foxhunting; someone in Richmond upon Thames may never hear a peep.

In such an environment, the idea of a national manifesto, or a national campaign, slowly withers away - replaced by a strategy of telling millions of voters exactly what they alone most want to hear.

Of course, we have not reached that stage yet. The irony is that the very Corbyn surge which so delights his acolytes proved the enduring power of the national narrative: the spectacle of Laura Kuenssberg tearing into Theresa May on News at Ten over her social care U-turn must have been worth a couple of points in the polls on its own. And, of course, the reaction to Manchester proved that there are still some events that can – for most of us at least – puncture the filter bubble.

But it’s also worth pointing out that the speed with so many of us are disappearing down our own conspiratorial rabbit holes isn’t an inevitability: it’s been fostered, and hastened, by the internet’s architecture. On Facebook, those liking UKIP get prompted to follow Britain First or the BNP. On Google, sites like The Canary or Russia Today sit proudly within the Google News corpus, popping up in answer to thousands of search queries – and able, via Google’s AMP instant articles, to appear just as respectable as the BBC or Washington Post.

Over the last few months, the idea that we are in a “post-truth” age has become widely accepted – indeed, there are three separate books with that title currently fighting for space on the shelves. But it’s more accurate to say we’re in an age when truth is not just relative but personal: known in the heart rather than sifted by the brain.

In the Conservative manifesto, there is a mysterious and tantalising line that promises to “ensure there is a sustainable business model for high-quality media online, to create a level playing field for our media and creative industries”.

But it’s not just about creating a level playing field – it’s about creating a field where we’re all actually playing and watching the same game, rather than a thousand different ones. And, in the process, to stop politics becoming even more of a dialogue of the deaf and dumb.

Below you'll find our usual selection of the week's best articles, plus our latest podcast, featuring Lord Owen. And if you're interested in applying for our summer internship programme, please contact our Executive Editor, Sally Chatterton.

Have a great weekend,

Robert Colvile
Editor, CapX

How should Thatcherites respond to May?

By Daniel Hannan
There is an argument doing the rounds that in moving on from Thatcherism, Theresa May is abandoning Toryism. But free-market, small-state Conservatives have always been a minority even in their own party. The trick - mastered by the late Ralph Harris, and by Thatcher herself - is to coax the Tories into following the right path by focusing on those areas where interventionists and libertarians agree

Nato is like a loveless marriage

By Edward Lucas
In many senses, the big picture for Nato has improved in recent months. Donald Trump has been reined in by his advisers and the alliance has bolstered its defences in the Baltic states, making Russian mischief-making less likely. But Trump's behaviour at this week's summit, where he refused to commit to the collective-defence clause and took a hectoring tone with America's oldest allies, was tone-deaf, corrosive and destabilising.

May's manifesto U-turn doesn't bode well for Brexit

By Andrew Lilico
The section of the Conservative Party's manifesto that deals with social care is fairly innocuous. It proposes modest changes to correct the distortions of the current system and lightens the care burden on the state only marginally. And yet a few days of bad headlines forced Theresa May into an unprecedented U-turn. What hope do we have during the Brexit negotiations if the Prime Minister is this easily swayed?

A city of Northern grit, Northern wit - and undefeatable spirit

By Chris Deerin
Manchester is a city with sass and swagger, with cultural confidence and an uncompromising, slightly chippy, non-Londonness. Chris Deerin fell in love with Manchester - its music, its football - as a child in small-town Scotland. His belief in the United Kingdom derives from a lifetime steeped in Mancunian culture. In the wake of this week's tragedy, the city's display of love and comity is something to lift the spirits.

Inside the cruellest country in the world

By J.P. Floru
When the chance to run in the Pyongyang marathon arose, J.P. Floru couldn't resist the opportunity to visit such a notoriously secretive and cut-off state. Under the gaze of his government minders, he found a mixture of the bizarre and the cruel. In North Korea, the state is responsible for everything. So, in theory, it can be blamed for everything - yet through ruthless terror, the Kim dynasty survives.

Free Exchange: CapX meets David Owen

By CapX
Lord Owen is a doctor, author, diplomat and Britain's youngest ever Foreign Secretary - as well as being the founder of the SDP and a key figure in making Brexit a genuinely cross-party cause. In the latest episode of Free Exchange, he talks to CapX's Editor Robert Colvile about the referendum, Labour under Corbyn, what makes and breaks a politician's career, and why Enoch Powell was wrong.

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