Beware groupthink

The perils of “following the crowd” in this unpredictable election.

Yesterday, I flagged up Alex Barker's "unpacking" of the consensus view among Britain's top pollsters that the Tories will indeed secure a Commons majority on 6 May -- despite a narrowing in the polls.

Writing on the FT blog, Alex pointed out that "a unanimous consensus is always something to be wary of, particularly when it doesn't quite reflect the evidence available".

Today, the excellent Aditya Chakrabortty has a piece in the Guardian dissecting the cult of the "expert commentator" and dismissing the "high-intensity forecasting" of the nation's political pundits as "largely worthless".

Aditya writes:

Cast your mind back to June last year, when yet another Labour putsch was being launched against the Prime Minister. Trawling through the comment pages published in the week when the coup was at its height -- with ministers resigning, and local and European elections looming -- I found 20 columns and leading articles in the Times, Telegraph, Independent and Guardian discussing whether Brown would survive. Of those, half predicted he would go, while only a quarter thought he might stay (the rest, perhaps wisely, didn't chance their arm). If the broadsheet fortune-tellers could not assess the outcome of a backroom plot featuring a few ministers and MPs, how far should we trust their judgement on what tens of millions of voters will do?

This is probably unfair, and certainly unscientific. Brown did come close to being toppled last summer, and cabinet conspirators tend to duck out of ICM-style opinion polls. But, on the broad question of whether we should set much store by political predictions, the answer is a flat no.

Aditya also flags up a fascinating book by the University of California, Berkeley psychiatrist Phil Tetlock, based on his 20-year study of predictions by political, media and economic experts, which found that they are no better than the rest of us at prognostication.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The economics of outrage: Why you haven't seen the end of Katie Hopkins

Her distasteful tweet may have cost her a job at LBC, but this isn't the last we've seen of Britain's biggest troll. 

Another atrocity, other surge of grief and fear, and there like clockwork was the UK’s biggest troll. Hours after the explosion at the Manchester Arena that killed 22 mostly young and female concert goers, Katie Hopkins weighed in with a very on-brand tweet calling for a “final solution” to the complex issue of terrorism.

She quickly deleted it, replacing the offending phrase with the words “true solution”, but did not tone down the essentially fascist message. Few thought it had been an innocent mistake on the part of someone unaware of the historical connotations of those two words.  And no matter how many urged their fellow web users not to give Hopkins the attention she craved, it still sparked angry tweets, condemnatory news articles and even reports to the police.

Hopkins has lost her presenting job at LBC radio, but she is yet to lose her column at Mail Online, and it’s quite likely she won’t.

Mail Online and its print counterpart The Daily Mail have regularly shown they are prepared to go down the deliberately divisive path Hopkins was signposting. But even if the site's managing editor Martin Clarke was secretly a liberal sandal-wearer, there are also very good economic reasons for Mail Online to stick with her. The extreme and outrageous is great at gaining attention, and attention is what makes money for Mail Online.

It is ironic that Hopkins’s career was initially helped by TV’s attempts to provide balance. Producers could rely on her to provide a counterweight to even the most committed and rational bleeding-heart liberal.

As Patrick Smith, a former media specialist who is currently a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News points out: “It’s very difficult for producers who are legally bound to be balanced, they will sometimes literally have lawyers in the room.”

“That in a way is why some people who are skirting very close or beyond the bounds of taste and decency get on air.”

But while TV may have made Hopkins, it is online where her extreme views perform best.  As digital publishers have learned, the best way to get the shares, clicks and page views that make them money is to provoke an emotional response. And there are few things as good at provoking an emotional response as extreme and outrageous political views.

And in many ways it doesn’t matter whether that response is negative or positive. Those who complain about what Hopkins says are also the ones who draw attention to it – many will read what she writes in order to know exactly why they should hate her.

Of course using outrageous views as a sales tactic is not confined to the web – The Daily Mail prints columns by Sarah Vine for a reason - but the risks of pushing the boundaries of taste and decency are greater in a linear, analogue world. Cancelling a newspaper subscription or changing radio station is a simpler and often longer-lasting act than pledging to never click on a tempting link on Twitter or Facebook. LBC may have had far more to lose from sticking with Hopkins than Mail Online does, and much less to gain. Someone prepared to say what Hopkins says will not be out of work for long. 

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