At Trajectory, we love data. You may have heard of ideas like ‘Coolhunting’ or ‘Trendspotting’ when it comes to identifying societal trends – themselves trendy ways to refer to the very traditional research method of observation – however there’s nothing quite like having quantitative data to investigate anecdotal observations.
When Donald Trump speaks to those who feel that America has become unsafe, we can look at historical crime figures and show that crime has fallen enormously in the Unites States in the last 25 years. We can go one step further. We can show that while crime has been falling consistently for this sustained period, there is nonetheless an inherent tendency to over-estimate the growth of crime, making people vulnerable to overtures about making America ‘safe again’.
At this peculiar point in our history, having data to ground our beliefs can be remarkably worrying or reassuring, but how do we discuss things that aren’t quantifiable – like the difficulty of navigating the media landscape in the 21st century?
The invocation of concepts like ‘echo chambers’ and ‘fake news’ has been suffocating in the last 6 months and while we can see growth in their use in the chart below, understanding their impacts requires qualitative observation.
Echo chambers have contributed to political polarisation, and the concept of ‘fake news’ (originally coined to describe widely shared news headlines such as “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Trump for President Releases Statement”) has been appropriated and turned on traditional media outlets by political figures and the “alt-right” which has made covering the White House particularly problematic.
The destabilising nature of these changes are challenging the status quo and where the status quo is challenged, there are opportunities for loss and gain – whether you’ve got your eyes on the White House or business growth. Navigating this media hinterland is incredibly difficult, however, with traditional media strategies struggling to cope with unprecedented political events and bold new strategies laden with the risks of pioneering new methods.
One cautionary tale of this Brave New World is that of Milo Yiannopoulos, whose strategy has been described as the “Trolling Playbook”. This counter-intuitive strategy of confrontation – written about by Ryan Holiday, writer and media strategist and author of the book “Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a media manipulator” – involves the use of deliberately offensive and divisive rhetoric in order to gain free publicity from “controversy-loving reporters”, to leverage the “size and platform of their not-audience (i.e. their haters in the mainstream) to attract attention and build an actual audience.”
It’s possible that Holiday underestimates the potential efficacy of these strategies. They are written about in Holiday’s article as ‘moneyball’ underdogs – using the existing infrastructure in an original way in order to vastly outperform their budgets. While this is still the case in many ways, the current socio-political reality of fragmentation and political polarisation makes it clear just how well-suited this type of approach is in 2017.
The mainstream is not what is was, and these small subgroups are likely to grow with society so divided – creating larger audiences receptive to messaging that elicits headline-generating hatred in those at the other end of the political spectrum.
This strategy is inherently risky, however. Yiannopoulos’ controversial stances on many issues have seen his popularity rise in small subgroups at the extreme right of the political spectrum and he has been met with a place atop the Amazon Bestseller list. Miscalculating the views within your support however, can be enormously damaging, with Yiannopoulos’ defence of relationships between 13 year olds and 25 & 28 year olds proving what seems to have been a step too far among his own support – Simon & Schuster have cancelled his contract and the release of his book and he has subsequently resigned his role at Breitbart News.
Time will tell whether this simply represents another masterstroke from the ‘trolling playbook’ or a major gaffe, but with institutional trust so low and our society so fragmented, appealing to the mainstream (either commercially or politically) might be old news.