I was struck by an image today of Dominic Cummings, the master of the dark arts of campaigning and political advertising, now Johnson’s chief SPAD at No. 10, whom this author describes as a Svengali-like figure. In the 1895 du Maurier novel, Svengali is a figure who seduces, manipulates, dominates and exploits his victim. Behind the jovial, bumbling, jokey but false front of Boris Johnson’s pre-election campaigning (it seems), lurks this arch-manipulator. Perhaps he symbolises what Brexit is about, a fraud on the British people, no doubt sincerely believed in by huge numbers but cleverly sold in 2016 by this Vote Leave team now in power, a massive wrench to the country with no plausible, developed policy and programme, with a claim to being democratic while their behaviour demonstrates otherwise, and with behind them an actual policy of a further neoliberal upheaval for which Brexit provides the opportunity.
The manipulation of social media users
This is another campaign being conducted in what is now becoming the main news source for many people, social media, a largely unregulated field as regards political advertising and where specifically targeted people can be sold fake news and presented with political ads. whose source and funding is unknown. A key advice here is check and know your sources, of course, but we are probably not the target but those already identified by data harvesting to be potential Leave voters.
Yet beyond all this, the actual dark clouds of an impending battle may seem strangely distant in this sunny, balmy holiday month, as many of us are perhaps taking time out and enjoying the warmth. However this is a phoney war period and the war cabinet is, we’re told, hard at it preparing us for the cataclysmic leap into the dark on 31 October. Interestingly that was the date of the end of the Battle of Britain that raged from 10 July 1940, 79 years ago, another gargantuan struggle against the forces of the dark, as it seemed to people at the time.
In the midst of this atmosphere of what to many seems like impending doom, the practitioners of the dark arts of political advertising are hard at work. Already a stream of social media messages have been streamed out. One, right after Johnson’s appointment, had a picture of him staring forward and with words like “These are my priorities. What are your’s?” Online, there are still massive opportunities to run campaigns with funding from unknown sources. For example, we still do not know the source of the £435,154 that a company called Britain’s Future has spent on pro-Brexit Facebook ads since last October.
A culture war with dark forces
It feels to many like we are engaged in a Battle for Britain now, for the Britain many want, open, outward-looking, connected to Europe and respectful and at peace with our fellow citizens of whatever ethnicity, culture, background, or religion, as against what feels like an almost neofascist advance of intolerance, prejudice, xenophobia, racism, nationalism, separatism, manipulation and authoritarianism. Many are now calling it a culture war.