There’s method in the madness

People feel disillusioned by the form of politics which has prevailed over the past twenty years which says the right words, dresses the right way but short-changes them

In December 2007, the Obama presidential campaign tested a simple and, at the time, seemingly inconsequential idea. What if, rather than having one website, there were 20 personalised websites? Each would have a different message and different photo and set-up. If you’re a person from the older age bracket and felt strongly about healthcare, you’d get a website front page picturing Barack Obama with elderly people, and a message about healthcare. If you’re a millennial with strong feeling about equality, you’d find that. The filtering took place through data analytics and voter profiling.

The idea was tried, and the results were incredible. Email sign-ups, volunteer sign-ups and donations exploded. The latter by $60 million. It was an up-and-coming online marketing technique weaponised for politics.

From then on, A/B testing took over the 2008 Obama campaign. It was not a thoroughly new marketing concept, it was old school test marketing in essence, but it was the first time it was used so aggressively and in such volume in the political sphere. The algorithm is simple: you have a field of 100 different messages and test them with a thousand random voters. You measure the success of each and based on the one which is most successful (which can take different forms such of social engagement or donations) you prioritise and push forward. The ones which are not successful you discard (Facebook uses a similar algorithm to rank posts on people’s walls). Rinse and repeat. It was a powerful tool which delivered strong results online and helped catapult Barack Obama in the digital sphere, giving him a solid edge.

We’re seeing this technique used differently today. Rather than test messages and visuals, politicians began trialling policy positions. The idea was as simple as it was effective. Say or do something, wait for the polls/data/reaction and focus or recalibrate accordingly. If the reaction was not good, either discard it by not mentioning it again or take it back. If it was good, juice it as much as possible until it stopped giving results. Keep refining it. Again, rinse and repeat. The crux was that data trumps all ¬– including moral or ethical lines. Perhaps these politicians rationalised it by saying they were ultimately being guided by the people. The scary thing? It was mightily effective.

This was not only used in terms of policies and positions, but even according to the medium used. Donald Trump, for example, had tried and tested everything prior to his campaign. The crass Howard Stern Show, Comedy Central roast and cheap tabloid magazines were among the media he tried and tested. These are places where no politician would normally go. But in this process, nothing is off-bounds. In the end, it’s the numbers that count. This methodology works because in the past, if you’d said something wrong it would stick with you. Ten years ago, political careers would be ruined if someone said the wrong thing. But today, in the age of so much content, it simply doesn’t stick. There’s too much to digest for enough people to take notice.

The political world feels chaotic because we seemingly cannot understand these words or policies. But there is method in the madness. It’s not just random brute force. It works because it prioritises efficiency over principles, honesty and the truth. Whatever helps the cause of pushing up poll numbers must be used. In Brexit this was used very effectively, especially the now-notorious pledge on the NHS and painting a picture that the UK can have all the advantages and none of the disadvantages of the EU. The numbers showed it was effective so they pushed it, and be damned with facts or reality. We’re seeing it happen in the United States, in the UK and now, Italy. Barack Obama this week defined it as the strongman politics prevailing, but I feel that is too simplistic. There’s more to it than just people acting and talking tough. There’s a clear method and process that is being used. It is a well-oiled machine.

One of the reasons we’re in this situation is people’s scepticism with politics across the Western world. People feel disillusioned by the form of politics which has prevailed over the past twenty years which says the right words, dresses the right way but short-changes them. This is one of the reasons why nothing sticks anymore: disengagement and disillusionment. One of the solutions out of this mess is to reverse this and for people to re-engage in politics. This type of process only works if we’re passive participants, not if we’re engaged with the discourse and the policies. If we don’t call bull on what is being said and done, and expose it for the rotten populism it truly is, it will prevail. It will prevail because the model itself is a model of efficiency. If there are repercussions for what you say or do, then the testing itself cannot take place anymore, or at least, the ethical and moral lines would become walls.

The other solution would be for the adversaries of these political factions that are using these tactics to do the same. This would not be good for our democracies or well-being, because we cannot all emigrate to fantasy land and lose touch with reality.

Just like Henry Ford’s assembly line, we can use new technologies to create prosperity. We used the assembly line model to build the cars, machines, computers through the industrial process that is the foundation of the modern age. But we also used the industrial model to create the greatest horrors in human history.

It ultimately will depend on us, but in order to defeat this evolved populist machine we must understand it and never underestimate it, because there is method in the madness. And it works.

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