Tony Blair, the Honeywell Bubble Count, and the political struggle to understand the Internet’s rage machine

Tony Blair (yes, that Tony Blair) has been desperately trying to understand the outrage and energy that will see Jeremy Corbyn, a desperate Cold War-era hard-left throwback, become head of his precious UK Labour Party.

There is a politics of parallel reality going on, in which reason is an irritation, evidence a distraction, emotional impact is king and the only thing that counts is feeling good about it all.

Blair has astutely observed a global trend in rage politics:

Donald Trump leads the field of Republican candidates with thousands at his meetings, despite remarks about women and Mexicans that you might think would be a disqualification in a nation where half the voters are women and Latinos, the fastest growing group of voters.

Bernie Sanders is wowing the Democrats on a platform that wouldn’t carry more than a handful of states. The SNP win a landslide in Scotland after the collapse of the oil price means that the course they advised the Scottish people to take last year would have landed the country in the economic trauma unit.

The former Greek prime minister led in the polls on a bailout programme significantly harsher than that of the government he put out of office precisely on the issue of the bailout. Marine Le Pen rides high in France advocating an extreme nationalism combined with a quasi-socialist economic policy, with small business appeal, when, let us say, the historical precedents for such a combination aren’t exactly comforting.

People do not naturally enjoy being told that their opinions are wrong, and tend to seek out people who share similar ideas.

Twenty or thirty years ago, whether you liked it or not, you would have had precious little choice in the media you were able to consume, and your friendships were naturally limited by geography. Whether or not you liked it, ideas that contradicted yours would be likely to permeate that social bubble of yours.

Social media, and the ease of reinforcing your ideas by talking only to those who agree with you, has changed that substantially.

The inevitable result has been that rational debate and reasonable compromise have gone out the window.

Let’s call that bubble a filter.

Rating your filters

People have gotten really good at filtering out opinions they’re not interested in and, in so doing, reinforcing and re-energising their prior opinions.

Jon Evans, a friend who blogs at TechCrunch, who has come up with a rough guide to how diverse your filter bubble is. He calls it the Honeywell Bubble Count.

Here’s how he does it:

  • Go to the social network on which you’re most active. (For me: Twitter.)
  • Of the people you actively follow, what percentage are a different gender than your own?
  • Of the people you actively follow, what percentage are members of a different ethnic group to your own?
  • Of the people you actively follow, what percentage are residents of a nation other than the one in which you were born/raised, and/or the one in which you live?

Jon arbitrarily chooses 50 as a reasonable cut-off below which you’re probably just listening to your own ideas and opinions being thrown back at you.

Mine is 90, which seems reasonable.

Politicians running from politics

Blair again accurately puts his finger on the nature of the outrage:

The explanation for this parallel reality is something to do with people feeling empowered by their ability through it, to “fight back” against “the system”, the traditional ways of thinking about politics with all its compromises, hard decisions and gradual increments.

What he fails to acknowledge, though, is that politicians have been ducking their leadership role for decades.

Think through some of the biggest, and most controversial, legal rulings in the last few decades. Notice how politicians have pushed difficult and unpopular decisions onto the courts (abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration, corporate rights), or have hidden behind supranational organisations (like the UN, the WTO, or EU) to excuse themselves from responsibility for unpopular legislation.

Which is rubbish. Governments have the power to legislate, and then have the confidence that the courts, police and – if necessary – military will enforce that legislation.

Politicians, though, are the popular kids from school. They are not only likeable, they want to remain that way. Likeability means a long career in politics. Unlikeability means a career in telesales (apologies to the people calling me at 4am to sell me things).

As people have become more reactionary, politicians have become more fearful.

Voters have taken politicians’ excuses seriously and now believe that government has been hijacked by people unable to get legislation through because they are held in thrall to (choose your poison): big business, big unions, big international organisations, terrorists, faceless conspiracies.

Those people have latched onto politicians that express their rage and ensured they get a place at the table.

But this brand of reactionary outrage means that there is no chance of “politics with all its compromises, hard decisions and gradual increments.”

If you know you’re right, and everyone you talk to says you’re right, why on earth would you feel any need to compromise with those angry firebrands over there who you know are wrong?

The turbulence of rage politics

Blair poses himself the question: “what to do? Do we go full frontal and take it on or do we try to build a bridge between the two realities?”

Which, if you like, is the same question those attempting to respond to the attraction ISIL poses for disaffected youth heading to Syria are asking themselves. The same question anti-racism campaigners, anti-gun campaigners, climate-response campaigners … you get the picture.

How do we deal with all this rage?

Part of it has to be for politicians and those with a pulpit (who are vested in moderation, rather than the rage machine) to be rational and reasonable in their own discussions.

If everything is a matter of life and death, it’s a bit hard to get heard above the noise and prioritise. But, most importantly, politicians should actually do the job they’re elected for.

If all they do is shout at each other, stall decisions, and pretend that they have no power, then we’ll get nowhere, and the rage machine will lead to much noise and little to be proud of.

1 reply »

  1. As painful as it is to agree with anything that weasel Blair says, I do. And your points are excellent. Nice piece and some terrific language, e.g., your description of pols in terms of high school.