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The Chinese Google

Baidu is the search engine of choice for 85 per cent of China’s net users. But what kind of window on the world is it when it claims Tiananmen Square is nothing more than a tourist attraction?

Imagine you meet some people from China and they ask your views on the 1989 demonstration in Trafalgar Square, when the British army killed thousands of people protesting against Margaret Thatcher's poll tax. Then they talk about their spiritual hero, a religious cult leader in Northern Ireland, whom you vaguely recall seeing traduced in the media as a conman. Finally, they congratulate you on the Nobel Peace Prize won by a British thinker of whom you've never heard.

None of what your Chinese friends say about Britain makes sense to you. You go home a little unsettled, but your suspicion that they are deluded - or perhaps just brainwashed - is confirmed by a few Google searches. There is no mention anywhere of the massacre, the religious leader or the thinker.

Sounds implausible? That is the situation in China in relation to Tiananmen Square, the Dalai Lama and Liu Xiaobo - even among the internet-savvy youth. And some responsibility for this state of affairs must fall on the Chinese equivalent of Google, a fast-growing search engine named Baidu.
Just a few months ago, I was in a bar in a provincial Chinese city with a group of postgraduate students at a decent, if not leading, university. After a few drinks, tongues were loose. One particularly feisty MBA student, who had given herself the western name Lily, after Lily Allen, identified herself as a bit of a rebel. "Everybody with education hates the Chinese government," she said.

On my iPad I happened to have a BBC2 documentary from 2009, China's Capitalist Revolution. It was freeze-framed at the point where the lone "Tank Man" is seen in Tiananmen Square. Curious to know what these bright young Chinese knew about the events of that day, and about him, I showed them the footage. They looked confused. "Have you ever seen this?"

I asked. Lily was the first to speak. "I don't get it. What movie is this?" she asked. I explained that it was BBC news footage.

The students remained baffled. There was a wifi connection in the bar, as there is almost everywhere in China, so I logged on to Google. In spite of the "Great Firewall of China", the state apparatus designed to monitor the internet and censor material unwelcome to the authorities, Google often works as well as in the west. But the students stopped me. "No," they all said, "not Google, Baidu."

Baidu dominates the search market in China - all the more so since Google abandoned its mainland-based search operation last year. Its existence is the result of a chance comment made to its chief executive, the US-educated Robin Li. In the early 1990s, Li was working on a Master's degree in computer science at the State University of New York and was stung by a remark from a professor: "Do they have computers in China?" He became determined to change the perception that China was technologically backward.

He went on to work on Wall Street and, according to Baidu, patented an internet search method he called RankDex shortly before a certain Larry Page patented a different method that became Google. When Baidu was set up in 2000, there were fewer than a million internet users in China, but it is now the search engine of choice for some 85 per cent of China's 470 million avid web users, who spend 20 hours a week on average online. It also operates Baidu-branded social networking and other sites. If growth of internet use in China continues on its present curve - that 470 million figure is expected to be 750 million within five years - the Nasdaq-listed Baidu could soon be as big a search monopoly and revenue power plant as Google. Google's profits, at $7bn, currently dwarf Baidu's, which are roughly $0.5bn. In July, however, Baidu reported a 95 per cent increase in quarterly profits, up to $253m, and its shares have jumped 65 per cent this year after more than doubling in 2010.

Let the music play

At about 400 million, Baidu already has almost as many users just in China as the 425 million Google has worldwide. Furthermore, the Baidu-using ranks expand every day as more Chinese citizens become "netizens". So confident is the company of its potential for profits that last month it voluntarily reduced its own income by agreeing to stop linking users to western websites where you can download music illegally, which is almost a Chinese tradition. Instead, Baidu has signed a groundbreaking deal with Universal Music, Warner Music and Sony Music to offer copyrighted songs on a new music platform called Ting! - Mandarin for "listen".

Baidu is China's window on itself and the world, its ultimate arbiter of reality, the source of truth for a quarter of humanity. It is rapidly becoming nearly as important as the Communist Party - perhaps more so, because the broad masses trust it implicitly but grumble incessantly about the ruling elite. "Baidu" means "hundreds of times", and comes from a Song Dynasty poem about searching for a rare beauty among the teeming crowds. Its logo is a friendly-looking paw print.

However, as a de facto Chinese institution, although privately rather than state-owned (it is registered in the Cayman Islands), Baidu is obliged by Chinese law - probably against the will of its westernised principals - to work within the government's ever-stricter censorship parameters, thereby bolstering its obsession with stability and "harmoniousness". The recent celebrations of the Communist Party's 90th anniversary required executives of the country's main internet companies - Li the former Silicon Valley entrepreneur among them - to gather in Shanghai to sing revolutionary songs and wave red flags. Li reportedly declared at the event: "Socialism with Chinese characteristics drives the development of the Chinese internet." It is hard to imagine Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who says he would love to extend the site to China, where it is now blocked, going through the same rituals to keep the communist leadership sweet.

China's increasingly vocal consumer jour­nalists sporadically accuse Baidu not just of “collaborating" with the party, but of selling all-important top rankings to state-owned and private commercial interests, including some that sell fake pharmaceuticals. (It is only fair to add that Google's dealings with adver­tisers are similarly being investigated, in its case by the US justice department and the European Commission.)

China's super-intelligentsia see Baidu as working hand-in-glove with both the Communist Party and often disreputable businesses, but any scepticism about its integrity had not affected my group in the bar. So we switched from Google to Baidu and put in the search term "Tiananmen". The students - who were certainly sceptical about these alleged massacres - agreed we could put in the Pinyin (Roman) letters as Baidu works fine with both these and Chinese characters. What came up was hardly surprising - a list of 53 million very interesting tourist and historical references, but none, so far as we could see, related to anything untoward happening in 1989.

More interestingly, when we put in "Tian­anmen" and "1989", every one of the few hundred references was in English or another western language. The results were impressive. Surprisingly, the first one came from the state-controlled People's Daily online, where by paragraph two we were reading that the 1989 "protest by pro-democracy supporters ended when hundreds of these protesters were killed by government troops in the streets leading from the square". The students, none of whom was old enough to remember 1989, were curious, but remained unconvinced because the content we were finding was not in Chinese. When we tried again, with "Tiananmen" in Chinese, we were greeted with a warning in bold Chinese characters that read: "According to relevant laws and regulations and policies, some search results have not been shown."

The internet, and a knowledge-hunting tool such as Baidu in particular, has presented a big challenge to the power of China, even with 50,000 internet police patrolling its electronic borders. This was a country where authority spoke and the public shut up, where the dictator dictated. Not any more. In 15 years it has gone from a culture where hardly anyone had a telephone to one of the most connected societies in the world. Hundreds of millions of people chat, around the clock, with friends and family on QQ, the Chinese Windows Messenger, from their computers and mobile phones. And China has an estimated 200 million bloggers, producing trillions of words a day for public consumption.

Yet such is the high level of patriotism-cum-nationalism that, despite the background noise of complaint about the government and bureaucracy, even dissidents accept a bit of inconvenience, such as being mysteriously excluded from obscure, foreign bits of information on Baidu, as the necessary price of being part of the world's greatest nation. They can communicate and inquire day and night about millions of subjects, from love to business to celebrities to recipes. What does it matter if a few dull, worthy political topics are off-limits because they weirdly upset the powers that be?

Not only that, but even the masses, who remain hazy about recent history, are powerfully aware that the life they live thanks to China's special brand of communism is incalculably better than it would be if China had stuck to hardline Maoism - or had never become communist and remained feudal. Being a Chinese citizen is not easy, but it's fantastic for the vast majority of people compared to any time in recent Chinese history. Their trusted friend Baidu with its big, floppy paw print, plus Tencent QQ and Sina Weibo (the Chinese equi­valents of Twitter) and RenRen and Kaixin (Chinese Facebook), make it that much more fun and sociable. "I love Baidu," Lily told me in the bar, her friends nodding in agreement, "because if you want to know something about China, why would you ask a foreigner or trust what he says? In China, we say, 'If you want to know something, just Baidu.' Nobody would say, 'Just Google.'"

A Baidu TV commercial made some years ago has stayed in many young netizens' minds, even though it never made it on to TV and was shown online only. It shows a bumbling white foreigner, representing Google, trying to pick up a girl at a wedding some time in the Ming Dynasty. He speaks badly accented, ungrammatical Chinese and gets nowhere. Then a character representing Tang Yin, a painter/poet of the era, corrects his Chinese and gets the girl. The message is clear: you need a Chinese search engine for Chinese searches.

Astrid Chang, a mainlander from Beijing who is studying for an MPhil in anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has identified what she calls a "nationalist paradox" in the diaspora's dealings with the censored web on the mainland. Even among people who have long lived abroad, she has found, there is still a desire to defend China against foreign criticism, though they may also feel ashamed of their government and recent Chinese history.

At home, she says, "Freedom of speech is much more of a problem than freedom of in­formation. If you're searching for something like entertainment news, or help with a school essay or a new cover for your iPhone, Baidu is fine. And if it's not, people always find a way to discover the truth. They can access Google."

Baidu's director of international communications, the US-born Kaiser Kuo, points out that it is rare for Chinese people to want information about China from overseas sources. The US state department may have pledged $19m in May to help blocked internet content make
it through to China, Iran and other states that censor politically sensitive material, but Kuo suggests that Chinese citizens may be left nonplussed by the move.

“It's a kind of hubris, this belief that truth resides in the world outside China, that everyone must be clamouring to get out," he says. "The fact is that the vast majority of people simply don't bump up against this. They're not interested any more than you are in reading Portuguese-language sites.

“That's not to trivialise the problems of people who do want more information. As with all things, to make sense of how the internet works here you need to have a high tolerance of cognitive dissonance - to be able to keep two contradictory things in your head at the same time. But it's also true that the internet in China has become a fully fledged public sphere where people are exchanging a greater volume of increasingly critical ideas."

China is complicated and its firewall is also vastly more subtle than is often portrayed. Take the 50,000 techies, in and out of uniform, who patrol the web. In truth, this figure understates the numbers who censor content, given that the country's internet service providers are obliged to monitor output on their own networks before it reaches the internet police. RenRen, a social networking site similar to Facebook, has 500 internal monitors.

Cat and mouse

Baidu won't say how many net police it has on its campus outside Beijing, but I learn from a Canadian-Chinese former employee that it operates an automated censoring system on its sites to filter out flagged words, including close homonyms and Pinyin versions.

All posts on Baidu's social networking site go into one of three buckets - green for posts with nothing "unharmonious", red for objectionable and yellow if there is ambiguity, in which case a decision is taken by a human being. A tiny proportion of time is spent blocking problematic foreign content - the company is far more concerned with stopping internal debate online.

Yet China's internet monitors are bound to be defeated by the scale of their task. There are more censors per online head than there are food safety inspectors to protect the population from the much more urgent problem of contaminated food. But, as Kuo points out: "It's a tiny fraction of a per cent of traffic that's monitored. It's a game of cat and mouse, but played on a continent-sized field where there's a handful of cats and just gazillions of mice, most of whom are very smart mice."

Furthermore, there are battles within the bureaucracy over who censors what. At best, it is organised chaos. This year the government announced a new cyber-policing body to oversee the 14 government units that have a hand in controlling the online sphere, but its terms of reference are vague.
According to Lifen Zhang, editor of the Financial Times's Chinese site, which recently moved from London to Beijing: "Different levels and different authorities all have a hand in the fire. It isn't only the foreign media that are subject to heavy-handed censorship. I have heard many examples of government organisations and websites being subjected to the same treatment. At provincial level, people want to make their website credible, so they will try to bypass their internal firewalls."

Ftchinese.com often pushes the censorship boundaries further than other sites yet is rarely blocked - probably, it is thought, because government ministers rely on it for untainted information. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Zhang says, it was far more critical of official Chinese conduct than, say, the BBC - but was not blocked.

Discuss internet censorship in China for any length of time, and it becomes difficult not to conclude that the country's attempt to control the web will fail. Within minutes of last month's fatal bullet-train crash near Wenzhou in south-east China, hundreds of thousands of bloggers and micro­bloggers, some of them reporting from inside the wrecked train, drowned out the weak attempts by officials to play down the disaster and developed into a powerful chorus against the government in general. The clamour for transparency over the causes of the crash - along with the inevitable conspiracy theories - was such that, within days, Premier Wen Jia­bao was visiting the scene and explaining, most unusually for a Chinese leader, that he had not been able to make it earlier because he had been unwell.

The comment was widely interpreted as meaning there had been disagreement among the leadership over how to respond to a disaster whose causes, because of the internet revolution, and Twitter-type sites in particular, could no longer be covered up. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences noted in a report on new media, published just before the crash, that microblogs have become one of the main original sources of information that "arouse public opinion", and that this constitutes "a certain risk to ideological security".

But even in China, web censors are mostly young, and can only be assumed to be curious to know the truth behind such events, once routinely dismissed by official media as "one of those things". "I've met these guys from the secret police, the Public Security Bureau," a Chinese web entrepreneur told me, "and because they know the kind of information that is held back from the public, I'm sure some of them are especially curious, in private, to learn what's really happening in the world."

Those in the private sector helping the government keep a lid on the web are likely to be similarly unwilling to let outright censorship survive much longer. "These are cool guys, but they are working in one of the strictest regulatory environments in the world," the Canadian programmer said of his time at Baidu. "It's not North Korea, not even Iran. But the authorities don't care how you do it as long as it gets done, and the consequences of not getting it done can be dire indeed.

“Nobody there is so stupid as to think the users prefer a sanitised, bowdlerised internet experience. What they want is unexpurgated and Baidu wants to give them that experience in so far as is possible. If that means being liberal in their interpretation of official strictures, then they are. Absolutely nobody there wants to be some willing, eager tool of oppression."

Jonathan Margolis writes on consumer technology for the Financial Times

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy

JIM WATSON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Welcome to the zoo: what it feels like to report a presidential campaign

Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both the Republican and Democratic conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault?

Here’s how you cover an American political convention: you get up inhumanly early to fire off your first emails, chugging down hotel coffee that tastes like burnt leather. Then you put on your least-squashed outfit and you drag yourself through crowds of sweating delegates to an event or a talk (or, if you’re unlucky, the treadless circus of the convention floor), and you watch and listen with your phone in your hand and one eye on social media until you run across something that you think might be worth writing about.

You email your editor from the phone to see if your sense is correct, and the idea is saleable. Meanwhile, you’ve started looking for somewhere to open your laptop and bang out your copy. You write it. You buy a coffee so they don’t kick you out of the café. You scramble for healthy wifi. You talk your way into the giant car park repurposed as a crèche for journalists outside the arena, where your organisation has a tiny table, and Google and Facebook have giant booths distributing free snacks, just to remind you who’s really in charge of the media.

Then you file your copy. You send the link out all over social media, because that’s part of your job, and you go in search of food with your eyes all glassy from screen glare, until you have to do it again. Whenever your editor goes to bed, you think about wrapping up and relocating to a bar where you can flirt with half of your attention while drinking beer and scrolling, constantly, through social media.

At some point around 4am, you clock off and spend an hour searching for a cab that you hope you’re going to be able to put against expenses, and you chat to the driver on your way to your overpriced, out-of-town hotel, too tired to register the shock of a conversation with an actual human being. Later on, in a hotel room that you can’t afford, you ask yourself: how does it feel to have made something that hates you?

In the two heat-drunk, deadline-crazed weeks that I spent at the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer, that line kept echoing in my mind. It’s spoken by an android to its creator in the Alex Garland film Ex Machina, but the 15,000 journalists, reporters, columnists, television crew members and media flunkies gathered to watch the biggest American political showdown of this half-decade could have asked ourselves the same question. Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault? And what can we do to stop it?

This is a story about stories, the people who tell them and the price we pay. In all the thousands of essays, reports, video diaries, interviews and listicles produced at and around the lumbering pageant of the US presidential race, one class of person is supposed to be almost invisible, and that is the people who do the work of production: the journalists. But what is happening in politics today, particularly in the United States, and particularly in this election, has everything to do with the media – the industry, yes, but also the people in it. If the media are the message, the message is anxious, incoherent and mired in a money crisis that it has no idea how to handle. Not unlike America, as it happens.

***

Just in case you’ve had the good fortune to have spent the past two years under a rock, let’s recap. These US conventions are the official nominating ceremonies for the presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republican Parties, as well as four-day pageants at which lobbyists and media flunkies come to flirt and network and make whatever passes (in professional political terms) for friends. The candidate selection is merely the excuse for this shindig, and this time the fix was in before it had even begun.

The Democrats had chosen the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, representing the centre-liberal status quo with a corporate feminist twist and a side order of hawkish sabre-rattling. Her main challenger was the veteran socialist Bernie Sanders, who believes in wealth redistribution, free university education and social justice and gained an enormous following among young voters who have not yet accepted that they owe their votes to any candidate with a blue ribbon.

On the Republican side, a field of whey-faced religious extremists had been cleared for Donald Trump, the real-estate tycoon and reality-television star, who stands on a platform of imposing a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, building a border wall with Mexico and replacing the entire US electoral system with a giant statue of his gelatinous face, sculpted from misdirected class rage. This, more than anyone, was the man we had all come to see.

One of the liturgies of doctrinal Trumpism is that there is a thing called “the mainstream media”, which tries to control what “ordinary” people think, despite knowing next to nothing about their lives. The mainstream media are assumed to be homogeneous, cosmopolitan, well paid, based almost exclusively in New York and the Beltway of Washington, and liberal to its core. This is a more accurate description of Trump than it is of most US journalists I know.

Trump did not invent performative hostility towards the “mainstream media”. Every insurgent politician in recent years has taunted the press in public, while giving hacks hungry for copy exactly what they want: a story that draws in readers. And a great many journalists, at least those who have not yet given up on the notion of speaking truth to power, feel less comfortable when power tries to court us than we do when it pretends to hate us.

The ways in which we create and consume media today are not the same as they were even four years ago, during what was dubbed in the US as “the social media election”. Rapid changes in communications technology have reshaped the terrain more thoroughly than those employed to scry in the entrails of the internet for the future of human thought can anticipate. What is clear is that power flows to those who can understand and exploit the hysterical reality engine called the media – and that has always been the case.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt swayed the nation with his deft use of radio – and so did Adolf Hitler. In the 1960s, John F Kennedy became the first “television president”, beating his opponent, Richard Nixon, in televised debates that radio listeners felt that Nixon had won. Ronald Reagan, a professional actor, perfected that position. Barack Obama is the first US president to understand and exploit the full potential of the internet, recognising that social media can be used to reshape the calcified structures of money and messaging that are still, across the West, called democracy.

This year, Donald Trump – a reality TV mogul before he is anything else – has taken control of the narrative, understanding, like Europe’s right-wing populist pundits, that it is possible to bypass facts altogether and hit the electorate in the incoherent space of pure emotion. What, at a time like this, does journalism mean? What does it mean to be a member of the press in an age when there is no longer a clear distinction between media and meatspace, between reality and television?

***

 American political conventions are not the staid, rainwashed yearly affairs that we are used to in Britain. Every four years, the Republican and Democratic Parties throw a festival for thousands of lawmakers, lawyers, reporters, lobbyists and the occasional actual voter on their break from handing around snacks at press parties. It lasts four days, because that’s how long it took originally to count up delegates from every state, and now the rest of the time is filled up with boozing, hobnobbing and wearing clothes that make everyone look like they’re live-action role-playing the most depressing parts of the mid-1980s. There are speeches, and more speeches, musical interludes by tame celebrities, blind children singing the national anthem, and quite a lot of God-bothering – and much of the main action doesn’t start until 4pm every day, in order to give people time to recover from the night before.

This would not work in Britain. America still takes itself too seriously to consider how crass this looks to an outside world that also has reason to fear a vicious, swollen toddler with alarming hair being given access to the US nuclear codes. This year, the Republican convention in Cleveland, Ohio, came first, as befits the case for the prosecution of the political status quo. On the Saturday before it began, the airport was already lousy with journalists looking for Trump people to interview.

Armed police circled the terminal as a choir of children from local schools sang patriotic lullabies to soothe us into what would be a two-week fever dream of nativist fear-mongering and empty political pageantry. The candidates, remember, had already been decided by a grudging, deeply divided electorate. All that was left was ritual, and the dim, thrilling possibility that someone might do something off-message.

I bought the first coffee of the week and got in a cab to call my editor while my synapses soaked in diluted stimulants. The roads were jammed with thousands of hacks doing the same, some of whom already had deadlines to meet. Nothing had happened yet. That didn’t matter. We were here to create news, not report it.

“The threshold for news now is very low,” said Matt Pearce, a reporter for the LA Times and an old friend from (where else?) the internet. “There are more of us running around and there’s less to do. A lot of us were bracing for something potentially as bad as the protests at the DNC [Democratic National Convention] in Chicago in 1968 . . . That’s always the conflicted part of the business. Chaos and mayhem make for selling newspapers, but if you live here in Cleveland, you want nothing to go wrong.”

Why did we come here? To see the show. We had heard that there would be protests, which always make good copy, and dissent on the convention floor. And we knew without doubt that there would be frothing cryptofascism, which makes better copy. The more Trump claims to hate the press, the more we fall over ourselves to give him the attention he craves. He is an insider trader in the attention economy.

I heard the word “zoo” repeatedly. The reporters had “come to see the zoo”. A zoo: where you pay to see dumb and dangerous beasts in cages, and then eat ice cream. Is that where we thought we were? There were wire fences around the convention zone and the people there knew that they were on show, putting on a spectacle for the liberal media that they claimed roundly to despise. Trump’s people made it clear that this convention was about showbiz, although the celebrity roll-call was Lynyrd Skynyrd, a man from a TV show called Duck Dynasty and a handful of C-list actors. The DNC had Snoop Dogg.

As delegates, lobbyists and reporters continued to flood into Cleveland, nothing – at least nothing resembling substantive news of any kind – continued to happen relentlessly. But we were all hoping for a moment of transcendence, a big breakthrough. A great observation or piece of writing that would make our editors proud and our landlords happy, back in the places we were from – sorry, the places we were based. None of the reporters, it seemed, was from anywhere. Instead, we were based in New York, or based in Washington, or based in a small village in Finland. We were transient half-people, scrapping for meaning and a living.

It quickly became apparent that the promised protests would not be occurring. We had prepared ourselves for open-carry gun marches and riots in the streets, and so had the police of every local district, who had been shipped in to bristle on every corner, but anyone with a sensible point to make had decided to stay at home. The gun protest turned out mainly to consist of a man with two guns, with dozens of reporters circling him like hungry vultures that had heard the dying screams of political discourse.

Mark Twain is apocryphally said to have observed that there were only three real American cities – New York, New Orleans and San Francisco – and everywhere else was Cleveland. The place did look like it had been hastily constructed out of plywood and the overwhelming impression was of being backstage on a giant movie set, which helped with the sense of unreality not one jot. Nor did the way that everyone in town seemed to spend between a third and half of their waking hours staring at a phone or a laptop screen. The screen-time/real-time distinction had disintegrated completely and we had all come a long way to be in the same place, looking at our phones.

Still hazy from jet lag, I dunked myself in a basement swimming pool; its acid-blue water was the temperature of fresh urine. I dried off in the bar, chlorine tightening my skin. Next to me on an unforgiving leather sofa, Adele M Stan, a reporter from the American Prospect, was wrapped in a shawl, checking her phone. This, she told me, was the strangest political convention of the seven that she had attended. Many of the major Republican political players, unwilling to yoke themselves to Trump’s toxic popularity, had decided to skip it, and so had most activists with any sense. Instead, the space around the stadium was a clear field for ranters, ravers and swivel-eyed performance artists masquerading as political actors – just like the stage.

For two weeks, in two cities, I met almost nobody who was local. The town centres had been cleared and scrubbed for the event, the local tramps and beggars ungently encouraged to move on. Often, even the waiting staff and Uber drivers had come from out of town. Many of the real citizens had left to rent out their homes on Airbnb. 

Everyone in the action zones seemed to be from somewhere else.

I know nobody from Cleveland and yet, within an hour of arriving, I had run into five people I know. They had come to get the story. It quickly became apparent that they had also come to get laid. I have never been so consistently hit on as I was in those first three days in Cleveland. Tinder was lit with people “in town for the week, trying this out for the first time”.

I ended up having some of my most honest conversations of the trip with other reporters on the instant dating app, where we seemed to feel more free to voice our political opinions. We would start off straight-up flirting, then ease into confidences about how bizarre the experience was and intimate existential panic about the nature of sanity, bracketed in plaintive requests for the sort of sex you have with strangers as the world is ending. I matched with two people from The Daily Show. The week was a stew of pre-fascist panic: mate or die.

***

On the walk down to the convention centre in Cleveland, the streets seemed empty except for stray reporters, security guards and a giant billboard howling: “Don’t believe the liberal media!” Overhead, a chartered plane flew the slogan “Hillary for Prison”. This line was available over the next few days on buttons, badges, T-shirts, baseball caps and mugs, announcing to the world that the trolls had taken the wheel of political discourse. Hillary for Prison. Like much of what passes for political conversation in this election, it makes sense only if you say it in an American accent, and it’s not as funny as it seems.
Outside on the corner, two enterprising young men with button-down shirts and ice-white smiles that did not flicker were selling Clinton- and Trump-themed boxes of cereal for $40 each, because they had college debts that they couldn’t rely on the Democrats to cancel. I switched on the recorder, a decision I almost immediately regretted. The spiel they gave me was so polished that I was unsurprised, a quick Google search later, to find five articles about them already published.

There was still little to do but drink coffee, so a square mile of cleared city was full of reporters running around, wired and jumpy, wondering what we were missing. We were desperate for something, anything to kick off, not because we liked the idea of civil unrest but – hey, it had to be better than cluttering up the hotel lobby.

Speaking of hotel lobbies, one thing bears repeating: most of the reporters in Cleveland weren’t as fancy as we were making out. For every well-known news anchor and overpaid op-ed writer, there were dozens of production crew, staff bloggers and freelance reporters living from pay cheque to pay cheque. On Monday afternoon in the aptly named Public Square, I met up with five reporters whom I had known since we all got our start together covering Occupy Wall Street in 2011. They had driven down from New York and found a floor to crash on in the hope of making enough money covering the convention to pay for the trip. Back in 2011, it seemed that new media had the power to reframe democracy. Five years later, that turned out to be entirely true – but not in the way we expected.

We gathered to reminisce about that time, about the protests, the excitement, the arrests, the brief, gorgeous sense that a different world was possible. We’d also heard that Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine would perform an impromptu concert in the square for the protesters, so we sat at a café table, waiting for that to begin. Rage had been all over Occupy like a rash and could be relied on to drum up some modest mayhem.

In the opposite corner, a few dozen young people were gathered around a speaker stage. We spent an hour checking social ­media with one eye, while catching up on what had happened in each other’s lives – who had got married, who had broken up, who’d been made redundant, who had got custody of the dog. We met covering Occupy Wall Street; now we are, apparently, the liberal media establishment. It took us an hour to realise that the people crowded around the small stage were not the warm-up for the protest. They were the protest. By that time, it was over.

***

I turned up to the Washington Post’s convention-viewing party with a gaggle of other young hacks, all of our well-honed powers of observation focused on predicting when the snack table would be restocked and how long we could stay before somebody noticed that we were freeloading freelancers who came here to pinch the wifi. The Washington Post, underwritten by Amazon money, took over a bar near the convention centre and offered on-site massages and craft beers. There were also speaking events throughout the day. Nick Pinto of the Village Voice was not the only one to notice that those who had sponsored the shindig, including representatives of Big Oil, got to put their point of view across unchallenged at these events. So much for liberal bias.

On the big screens behind the free bar, the convention speeches were playing, but almost nobody was watching. Nobody was watching as Willie Robertson, one of the stars of the Duck Dynasty TV show, took to the stage to curse out the “mainstream media”, which lived in a different world from “regular folks like us, who like to hunt and fish and pray and actually work for a living”. “It’s been a rough year for media experts,” he said. “It must be humbling to be so wrong about so much for so long.”

At the Republican convention, I saw 15,000 reporters trying to find a new, original angle on the only story that mattered – that a dark mood of nationalist populism had taken hold in the world’s only superpower and whatever the outcome of this election, there will be suffering. There will be pain, distributed among millions. I saw the flags in the arena, the pomp and excess, the hundreds of fists raised. Country-rock music played throughout. It was like a nightmare marriage of Nuremberg in 1933 and the Eurovision Song Contest, and I knew that this story was not new.

***

Journalists have a way of acting as if we were not political animals with political appetites, as if we were spectators. There may have been a time, in a previous generation, when this was true, when commentators and editors got to play politics like it was a game. But times are changing and so is the industry, and we’ve got skin in this game. Nobody who expects to be personally unaffected by a Donald Trump presidency would, for instance, steal an entire jar of BuzzFeed-branded pens (including the jar), which is what I saw a young freelancer doing at the Washington Post party. By the end of the first week, we were all ready for a little bit of hope. But that wasn’t the story the Democrats were selling, given their reluctance to lie with such lucrative momentum as their rivals.

Philadelphia in late July was hotter than the underbelly of the sun and the air was soupy with moisture. This is not a place where Europeans should ever have settled, for a number of good reasons of which the weather is not the least. The heat sent everyone a bit loopy, as if we were walking through treacle in a dream. And, like in a dream, the narrative kept slipping out of focus. From the start, the messaging was all about the grand story of America, a nation that does not need to be made “great again” because it is already great, a nation that survives by hallucinating its own legend – but the gathered press could not help but share the sense of having been cheated. The awkward truth that Trump and his followers have tapped into is that there are millions of people for whom America is not, and never has been, all that great.

A few days before the speeches started, the crypto-justice trolls WikiLeaks dropped an enormous cache of emails from the Democratic National Committee’s server that had probably been hacked by Russian agents. These appeared to show, to the surprise of nobody, that the Democratic Party had been manoeuvring against Bernie Sanders from the start.

The convention opened with accusations of corruption and the announcement that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic chair, was resigning. That afternoon, hundreds of Sanders supporters braved the heat to stand outside City Hall to make their feelings known. The one thing I heard from everyone I interviewed – and the one point of agreement between the Bernie supporters and Trump’s people – was that the mainstream media were not to be trusted.

The overwhelming impression of being a reporter at the DNC was of being held hostage – literally, as well as figuratively. Everyone was too tired to move and certainly too tired to flirt. Where the Republican convention was a slosh of sexual energy, of directionless desire, the Democrats’ was all about desire deferred. I deleted Tinder from my phone to make more space for interviews.

The convention centre was miles out of town and getting in involved a system of passes and checkpoints so complicated that you would have been loath to go outside the media zone, even if it weren’t more than 30°C in the shade. The press was stashed in a system of speciously air-conditioned marquees outside the convention hall, with three stinking porta-potties to service thousands of reporters and no water available. Jerry Springer was there, and I had no idea why. Is he a Democrat? Or does he simply materialise wherever reality television meets Freudian psychodrama, wherever people try to pretend that working-class people screaming at each other is entertainment?

It was, more than anything, a physical slog. The tone was set by the way in which the perimeter had been given over to Uber, so that it was hard to get close without taking the on-demand car service. Entry to the security zone was through an oasis-like Uber tent, where you could pick up free water in exchange for your lingering discomfort with Silicon Valley economics. It’s like being in a rewrite of Children of Men for the gig economy. A new adventure in bleak.

Many of the reporters in attendance had just come from Cleveland and were already worn out from a week of frantic deadline-wrangling and late-night networking – not optional in an industry in which job security is based largely on personal connections. Here, the reporters were taken for granted and so was our good coverage. The understanding was that we would encourage our readers, implicitly or explicitly, to support the nominee because we had no other option. By the end of the second day, it wasn’t clear if we would even be allowed to leave without at least a tweet declaring ourselves #WithHer.

On day two, after the roll-call of states was read out and Clinton was officially nominated, some Sanders delegates – who had hoped for something more than the status quo with a feminist varnish – staged a walkout. The first I saw of this was movement in the media tent, that unmistakable herd motion of reporters who realise potential copy is happening near them, like chickens moving as one at the rattle of the seed trough.

Finally, something off-message was happening. After days of manoeuvring to ensure that no left-wing protesters got near the press, they came right to us. T-shirted delegates from Alabama, Ohio and Tennessee stood in the press tent with hand-drawn signs and sticky tape half hanging off their mouths. They had taped their mouths shut to symbolise their silencing by the Democratic committee but were having to untape themselves every few minutes to give interviews and, after the third or fourth time of doing this, the tape started to lose its stickiness. Those trapped outside chanted: “The whole world is watching!” For once, at least for those with a broadband connection, this was true.

They played us like Slick Willie plays the saxophone. It was masterful. We heat-exhausted copy-monkeys, strung out on hours of refreshing TweetDeck, found ourselves standing on tables, holding our phones aloft like protective amulets, trying to capture whatever it was that was happening, because something, for the first time in days, was definitely happening. Something unplanned. Something off-script.

The decision to occupy the media tent was borderline genius. It was one of the best-played protest moves I had ever seen, placing the dissenters instantly in front of the world’s cameras. Like the convention, it was staged not for those who were present but for readers and viewers elsewhere. The internet was the invisible current in the room. The rest of America and the rest of the world were not here, but we were haunted by them – by the sense that real life was going on just outside the room.

Yet, like in a horror movie from the scrag-end of the 1990s, it turned out that we were the ghosts all along. It turned out that we, the delegates, the lobbyists, the spectators and the precarious, anxious press corps, were the ones haunting the real world through the internet, trying to make sense of a story that had run far ahead of us, trying to form the narratives of which material life is made. We sneer at reality TV without understanding that we are active producers in the greatest reality show of all: US politics.

It was enough. I didn’t care enough about what Hillary Clinton had to say to drag myself through the sweltering nightmare of the convention centre for another minute, so my colleague and I fought our way to a cab and watched it on TV, at home. It turned out that Clinton had little to add to the story that America has been trying to tell about itself for decades, apart from a fantastic array of pantsuits and a series of promises that she will be under no obligation to keep.

With the world facing the alternative of Donald Trump, it is now on us – those who create and sustain the narratives of identity and change in the US and beyond – to make that sell, in order to avert disaster. We may not be the establishment but we find ourselves in a position of having to advocate for it, and to do so convincingly to those for whom the prospect of a woman president is not sufficient to inspire faith in a better future. That’s what the media are good for right now, in this fever dream of an election – and it might not be enough.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser