‘Normalisation’ is real and has consequences
‘Normalisation’ is the idea that if the media gives too much exposure to extreme views or those without any basis in fact or science, they become the political mainstream and will come to be widely accepted as fact, or people will feel obliged to accommodate them despite disagreeing with them or knowing that they are baseless. I have heard this word used a lot in recent years, mainly by the left who are rightly concerned about the effect of the rise of the “alt-right” on things such as women’s rights, the right of minorities to live in peace and in some cases the rule of law itself. Peter Hurst, who writes mainly on Medium as “Post Liberal Bot”, calls the “normalisation narrative” an example of left-wing authoritarianism in which we lament the “loss of traditional gatekeepers to news and information, due to the decline of old media and the advent of social media”. He cites calls by politicians for bans on anonymous accounts and closed forums on social media and for a social media regulator.
In my experience, the normalisation narrative is not so much that people are getting their news and views through alternative means; most of us think that is no bad thing. In the last month or so, for example, I have seen a lot of tweets from Scots advocating a refusal to pay the British TV licence fee on the grounds that it funds the BBC which they see as a biased, English-establishment broadcaster which gives too much airtime to English Brexiteers and too little to Scottish, pro-EU progressive or nationalist viewpoints. I also know many people on the Left who firmly reject any ban on anonymity because it allows people such as abuse survivors (or people currently suffering abuse) to talk about their situation without fear of retaliation from their abusers or of being exposed to friends and relatives who do not know about their situation. Most of us use social media. It allows us to keep in touch, to make friends, to announce things such as events and blog postings, to share writing and other content we like.
The chief complaint is that traditional ‘gatekeepers’ allow fringe voices airtime out of proportion to either their popular support, their respect for truth or how well-founded their argument is. A classic example is the regular slots on programmes such as Question Time given to Nigel Farage despite the fact that his party had never persuaded a single constituency to give him a plurality of votes (as well as burnishing his “man of the people” image by showing him drinking beer in a pub, then calling it a “Kent village pub” when in fact it was in an expensive corner of a wealthy London borough). They may justify this with the result of the 2016 referendum and the party’s better (though not overwhelming) showing in European elections, but one has to ask whether his access to the media is a cause or a consequence of the popularity of his party, which produced no other politicians of note (Douglas Carswell was a Tory for most of his parliamentary career).
Often the reason for amplifying extreme voices is that they treat news and discussion as entertainment and deliberately bring on people with inflammatory views so that they can have a row on air. In other cases, an insistence on ‘balance’ means that an ‘expert’ who denies the science that points to the fact of man-made global warming will be brought on to argue with a real expert when in fact there is no great debate among climate scientists that it is a fact; the ‘sceptics’ are often funded by the oil industry or other moneyed interests and sometimes use a scientific background as a justification when their specialisation is not climate. They present other industry-funded lobby groups as grassroots affairs (e.g. Forest, which is funded by the tobacco industry, presented as a “smokers’ group”) and think-tank spokespeople get regular slots on news and analysis programmes without any question about their qualifications or funding.
This has consequences. The media regularly allowed Omar Bakri Muhammad and Anjum Choudary, the leaders of the Muslim extremist group originally called Al-Muhajiroun, to promote their ideas on local and national news on TV and radio, allowing people to think that the group had support among Muslims whereas in fact they were tiny and dwindling and were fond of gate-crashing other Muslims’ demonstrations (they were openly contemptuous of the groups that organised the demos they invaded — they claimed that Cage, then Cage Prisoners, was “close to becoming munaafiqeen”, i.e. not really Muslims). A lot of Muslims thought they were agents provocateurs retained by someone or other’s secret services. It was their demonstration (attended by about 20 people) at a procession by returning soldiers in Luton, and the sensationalist media coverage of it, that led to the formation of the English Defence League. The EDL itself has peaked (though the hooligans reformed as the “Democratic Football Lads’ Alliance”), but we now have Steven Yaxley-Lennon being made a martyr while interfering in the legal process and being dishonestly promoted by racists and other malefactors in the UK and overseas as a defender of western values against “Muslim extremism” and/or cowardice when he is in fact an ignorant thug with a criminal record. We have not heard the end of this and if the media had not hyped the Muhajiroun throughout the 2000s his ‘career’ may never have got off the ground.
The fact is that if you have access to the media, you have a greater degree of freedom of speech in this country than if you only have access to the Internet, as laws that ban ‘offensive’ or ‘malicious’ communications using the phone system (which have more recently been extended to the Internet) do not apply to newspapers or to things said on a stage, such that people have been convicted for taunting football supporters about a plane crash decades ago, inducing a dog to give a Nazi salute and denying the Holocaust on online videos which they would not have been if they had done it in a mainstream newspaper or on TV. The thing that gets someone prosecuted does not even have to be illegal in itself, just judged (after the event) to cause offence. The mainstream media are not governed by any such laws; they are free to print lies as long as they are not against an individual, and even then the penalties are civil, not criminal. It is even legal for political campaign ads to contain obvious falsehoods.
Social media does present avenues for the promotion of extremism. People can very easily circulate images which are doctored or which do not reflect what they say they do — they may be taken at a different time in a different country, for example, but any footage of brown-skinned people celebrating could be misrepresented as Palestinians celebrating the 9/11 attacks, for example. It is an ideal forum for circulating fake news, i.e. false stories on fake newspaper websites or fake clippings (an older method). The Right accuses the Left of existing in a Twitter-based echo chamber (as does Hurst’s article), but racists often use social media to spread misinformation far more cheaply and easily than they could when they had to actually put together and run off fliers or mini-newspapers and distribute them. And racists and fascists have been complaining about being shut out of the mainstream media for a lot longer then the mainstream Left have been complaining about ‘normalisation’ — in some cases it was almost a boast, that the “Jewish controlled media” would not touch them.
But nobody wants social media to disappear. As already stated, most of us use it for both personal and political reasons. It’s actually quite easy to rebut misinformation on social media as an image can be reverse-searched and a newspaper can be contacted to see if they really printed a given story, or if they exist. The same is not true of mainstream media; it takes months to even get a complaint examined and even then, the correction will be nowhere near as prominent as the original story, which many people will continue to believe. It is easier to get an account shut down or a story taken down because it is false or offensive than a newspaper story, even on their website. How many times has a newspaper been closed because a story they printed caused offence? Just once — the News of the World in 2011, because of outrage over a murdered teenage girl’s voice mails being illegally accessed, which it was thought might have delayed finding her or her body — and its owner promptly launched another Sunday paper based on its own weekday title.
But ultimately, what the likes of Peter Hurst calls ‘populism’, the rest of us calls racism, and the reason why we want to see racism suppressed rather than ‘debated’ is because it has consequences: people discriminated against, harassed or abused in the street or as they do their job, made to feel unable to live in the country they had been led to believe was their own, or unjustly expelled from it and separated from their families. You may think “Is rising ethnic diversity a threat to the West?” is a worthy or necessary ‘debate’ that the “metropolitan élite” has been shirking for too long — despite it having been on the front pages of tabloids in one form or another on a regular basis for decades — but it’s their life. For all the claims about white people “feeling that their country is no longer their own” because of the brown faces and foreign languages they see and hear in the local high street, it’s not them being told to “go home” or stopped by police demanding their ‘papers’ (which they are not actually obliged to carry) outside London tube stations. And when racist attitudes are normalised by being exposed on the radio or in the papers (this includes whinges about immigration, health/benefit tourism etc., particularly when they take liberties with the facts), especially if unchallenged, it makes life difficult for anyone who is, or may be mistaken for an immigrant, or has personal connections with them. This is not academic. It’s not the university debating society. It’s not a nice bit of entertainment on a Friday evening. It’s people’s lives.
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