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24 February 2020

The Question Time rant shows that the clipification of politics is complete

A culture in which complex subjects are reduced to short, sensationalist videos is profoundly damaging to political debate.

By George Grylls

Last week, a woman reported to be linked to the National Front delivered a xenophobic rant live on Question Time (“you’ve got people flooding into this country that cannot speak English”). Her initial audience, one presumes, totalled around 2.7 million people – the average weekly viewing figure for the flagship programme. But because the BBC decided to clip the video and promote it on its social media accounts, the woman’s message continues to spread far and wide. Thus far, on Twitter alone, 6.7 million people have watched a helpfully edited version of her vitriol.

Fortunately, there was a rebuttal. Ash Sarkar of Novara Media delivered an eloquent response, all the more impressive because of the short amount of time she was given to defend the entire concept of “immigration” (“migrants to this country bring more and contribute more in tax than they take out of the system … Facts don’t care about your feelings”). The problem is that Sarkar’s comments have been watched by 4.2 million fewer people than the ranting woman’s.

The dominant media form of the present day is the viral clip. YouTube is the second most-popular website in the world after its parent company Google. The feeds of Facebook and Twitter are now dominated by videos after both companies decided – with some foresight – to buy the audiovisual apps Instagram and Vine in 2012 (since 2016 Facebook has operated a “video-first” policy). Articles on most websites are now supplemented by a short video. TikTok, and to some extent, Instagram – the apps of sustained growth – are almost entirely dedicated to the viral clip.

[See also: The radicalisation of Laurence Fox shows the worrying power of right-wing YouTube]

This is because online video is the easiest form of media to consume. There is no effort involved in watching a dog woof charmingly or a teenager fall through a trampoline. It requires neither time nor critical engagement, merely a scroll.

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But, as a society, we should be concerned if our politics is now being defined through short, sensationalised, online videos. The first UK politician to grasp the power of the viral clip was Nigel Farage, who would often deliver speeches at the European parliament that had nothing to do with the debate in which he was speaking. 

“Farage turns up once a month and often what he talks about has absolutely nothing to do with what’s being discussed,” Richard Corbett, Labour’s former  European parliament leader, once observed. “You think, what’s going on? And then you realise it’s got nothing to do with the parliament. It’s just for his social media output. Sometimes he doesn’t even hang around for the answers. Two minutes later, he’s back on the Eurostar and gone.”

This is now the template for many House of Commons debates. Politicians intervene so that their parliamentary staff can clip their speech and upload it to social media. And the same is true of journalists. Talking heads no longer go on TV for the watching audience, they go on for the viral clip afterwards. Politics is undergoing a gradual process of clipification.

Why is this so bad though? Surely the viral clip democratises media? When Dutch writer Rutger Bregman’s speech about tax at Davos last year went viral, it opened up valuable discussions about inequality across the world.

The problem is that, for the most part, political questions are not simple. If the BBC puts out two 60-second viral clips, one that essentially boils down to saying immigration is bad and the other immigration is good, it is not democratising political discussion, but debasing it. Can the viral clip really do justice to the question of how the government will fund social care? Or what divergence from EU standards will mean? Or whether pension tax relief is justified?

Furthermore, in the words of Ben Guerin – the social media guru whose firm led the Conservative Party’s 2019 election strategy – to get someone to pay attention to something on social media, you need to tap into “arousal emotions” such as “anger, excitement, pride, fear”. When the internet user’s attention span is flitting between videos, sensationalist headlines and extreme images will always win out over detailed analyses. Knowing this, politicians and journalists on social media frame debates as battles, concessions as humiliations and errors as fails. This is how you end up with the BBC broadcasting a xenophobic rant to 6.7 million people on Twitter.

Since the Conservatives’ election victory, Boris Johnson has not appeared on the Today programme or been interviewed by Andrew Neil. What he has done is release a sensationalist clip on social media in which he surprises a first-time Tory voter. The video is entitled “Boris Johnson walks in on SHOCKED voter”. This is digital marketing masquerading as politics. The clipification of our age is complete.

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