Keir Starmer is not safe from fake news when some people are intent on believing it

There are some people for whom Starmer will always embody Remain, managerial professionalism, metropolitan liberalism and the rest, and for whom it will always be a pleasure to believe just about anything about him

James A. Smith
Friday 15 May 2020 14:03 BST
Original Keir Starmer clip that was edited and shared by Tory MPs

In Hillbilly Elegy, the memoir of the conservative commentator and venture capitalist J D Vance, he addresses the persistent belief of his Kentuckian schoolmates and family members that Barack Obama is Muslim and was born in Kenya.

He notes, “Every major news organisation, even the oft-maligned Fox News, has always told the truth about Obama’s citizenship status and religious views. The people I know are well aware of what the major news organisations have to say about the issue.”

Vance is generous to Fox News, which bears at least some responsibility for platforming the views he describes, and he doesn’t get far in offering his own explanation for why his old friends think as they do. Yet the episode is suggestive for holding out an alternative to the liberal idea that people are passively “brainwashed” by fake news. In a good example of what psychoanalysts call “fetishist disavowal”, it is possible to be “well aware” of the official truth of a matter (even according to sources one trusts), and yet all the same, follow the desire of believing something else.

The Labour leader Keir Starmer had his own brush with fake news this week when three Conservative MPs – including a whip and a cabinet minister – tweeted and hastily deleted a doctored video from a far-right account, making it look as if Starmer had cast blame on sexual abuse victims during his time as director of public prosecutions (DPP).

It is tempting to dismiss this as an example of the mere “social media cut and thrust” that Dominic Raab claimed “no one gives a toss about” after the Tories controversially disguised their official Twitter account as a neutral “fact checker” during a General Election television debate. Others have even congratulated Starmer for evidently having the Tories “rattled”. But both interpretations miss the lesson of Vance’s Obama-hating friends.

For most liberal commentators and many Labour members, Starmer’s remarkable professional background is unimpeachable, as well as a profound relief, after five years of scrutiny of his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn’s past as a campaigner for often controversial, radical causes. Yet there is a large constituency of people for whom Starmer will always embody Remain, managerial professionalism, metropolitan liberalism and the rest, and for whom it will always be a pleasure to believe just about anything about him. As was the case with Obama or Hillary Clinton, deleting tweets and clarifying the facts (or scoffing at the MPs involved) is often not enough to fight against beliefs people hold not so much rationally, but because it suits their desire to do so.

Starmer’s record as DPP received remarkably little scrutiny during Labour’s recent leadership election, despite the argument from some on the left that anyone who has held such a high establishment post will be associated with complex and contentious cases that are vulnerable to political exploitation. The jumbled accusations about Rotherham grooming gangs, the Black Cab rapist John Worboys, and Jimmy Savile abounding under posts about Starmer on social media suggest that the pleasure of believing the worst about his tenure as DPP has been underestimated, and will have every opportunity to grow as this parliament wears on.

Deliberate or otherwise on the part of the Conservatives who gave this discourse a boost, their tweet-and-delete shows an intuitively better understanding of the dynamics of fake news than that of Starmer’s liberal defenders.

The liberal commentators who think the Conservatives come out of this looking unscrupulous and foolish, while Starmer remains the consummate professional, miss that some lies are just too good to stop believing.

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