Photo Illustration by Adam Maida
It is strange to watch the creation of a new culture-war meme in real time. Talking directly to the camera from a fishing trawler, Nigel Farage takes a concerned and somber tone. The pro-Brexit politician says he has uncovered a huge scandal—migrant boats traveling from France to England, escorted into British waters by the French navy. He is worried for those on board: Once in Britain, they risk becoming “modern-day slave labor.” Gesturing offscreen, Farage adds: “You might as well have a big sign on the White Cliffs of Dover, over there, that says ‘Anyone that comes to Britain illegally can stay’ … We are being taken for a ride by everybody, including the French navy.”
Farage is a well-known figure in Britain, thanks to his leadership of the U.K. Independence Party, and then his own Brexit Party. Since Brexit was secured, he has reinvented himself as the closest thing Britain has to a Rush Limbaugh–style provocateur. His video has more than 250,000 views on YouTube, and has also been distributed to his 1.5 million Twitter followers and 974,000 Facebook followers. To put those figures in context, after years of decline and a precipitous drop caused by the coronavirus lockdown, no British newspaper now has a circulation as large as Farage’s Twitter following. Social media gives him the reach of a traditional media organization, but few of its obligations.
If you want to understand the conspiracist turn in modern politics, then Farage’s video series, shot during the pandemic, is a good place to start. His reports on migrant boats coming to Britain are filed on his YouTube channel under “Investigations” and are designed to look like traditional investigative journalism. They even adopt the tropes of British television-news reporting—the sad, falling intonation; the piece to camera; the languorous establishing shots of the sea.
They are, however, better seen as a dare: Unless media outlets repeat and amplify whatever he says, they are “sneering” and corrupt. Farage’s videos tell a simple story, with a victim—Britain, which is “being taken for a ride”—and a villain: not the migrants themselves, which might trigger accusations of racism, but France, a country typically presented in British folk mythology as arrogant and lazy. (Look at them with their short working weeks and their Gauloise-smoking intellectuals!)
What makes the series uniquely suited to this political era is the dash of gasoline he adds by suggesting that he is the only person brave and heretical enough to expose this hidden injustice. Three minutes into the trawler video, he says: “You do get the feeling this is a story that isn’t to be told. Well, you know what—today, we’re going to tell it.”
When journalism is hijacked by activists, a phrase like that is often invoked. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson: The louder someone talks about how “the mainstream media won’t cover this,” the faster you need to count your spoons. Nothing is so flimsy, so overspun, or so poorly sourced that it cannot be made to look like a scandal by conjuring the specter of a vast media conspiracy that’s repressing it. A story’s weakness becomes a strength: Other outlets’ refusal to follow up on it can be depicted as sinister. Viewers are seduced by the promise of access to hidden knowledge, which will ensure that they alone know what’s really going on. The best-rated comments on Farage’s trawler video give an idea of how his claims are being received. “This should be the lead story on the national news,” one states. “Anyone remember the BBC doing this with our money? Nah me neither,” another adds.
Of course, the BBC has reported on the migrant boats—at least seven times in the past month. Far from being a story that “isn’t to be told,” a parliamentary committee recently heard evidence on the issue, with testimony from a former head of Britain’s Border Force. The right-wing Telegraph and Daily Mail have both covered the story, as has the left-wing Guardian. The mainstream media’s treatment of the story does, in fairness, differ from Farage’s, largely by putting the actions into context: The French navy has a duty under maritime law to help boats in distress, and many migrants threaten to jump into the water if the vessel is boarded. The navy is then left with no option but to shadow the boats. (Also, although Channel crossings have risen, asylum applications in the U.K. have fallen since the start of the pandemic.)
None of this suits Farage’s simple, clean story of French treachery and immigrant invasion. The “migrant boats” are best thought of as what movie fans call a MacGuffin—a story element that drives the narrative, but whose actual nature is irrelevant, like Avatar’s unobtainium or the holy grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Here, the broader narrative is about British sovereignty, border security, and the alleged threat of immigration from Muslim-majority countries. Farage’s videos show him literally chasing after a boat—a classic use of a MacGuffin—but he doesn’t interview the migrants on board, attempt to tell their stories or uncover their motivations, or find out what happens after the Border Force intercepts them.
We could call this Potemkin journalism, after the villages consisting only of external facades designed to deceive outsiders. It looks like an investigation, but the conclusion is already determined, and any inconvenient facts are quickly airbrushed. And yet it gains gravitas and authority by copying the grammar of news reporting.
It’s tempting to say Potemkin journalism can flourish because trust in the media is so low. But that is only partly right. Farage is using the form of television reporting precisely because we recognize it, and instinctively believe it. Behind the external facade, though, there is nothing solid. Yet the mirrored hall of social media reflects the facade, over and over, making the illusion more convincing.
The political right saw the possibilities of appropriating journalistic forms to distribute content more than a decade ago. In 2009, an American conservative activist, James O’Keefe, and a friend filmed undercover at offices of the community organization ACORN, posing as a sex worker and a pimp asking for advice on how to run their illegal business. The videos were misleadingly edited: For example, O’Keefe appeared in stereotypical “pimp” clothes in the introductions, but wore business clothes when filming. The “investigation” would never have been published by traditional news organizations—most of which have clear rules about the use of subterfuge to obtain information—but superficially, it was damning enough to get ACORN shut down. (A report by the California attorney general, Edmund G. Brown, into the affected ACORN branches in its jurisdiction found that one receptionist “knew it to be a prank and made outrageous and false statements” and that O’Keefe and his associate “lied to engender compassion, but then edited their statements from the released videos.” He concluded that ACORN staff had acted inappropriately, but had not committed prosecutable crimes, adding: “Things are not always as partisan zealots portray them through highly selective editing of reality. Sometimes a fuller truth is found on the cutting room floor.”) Organizations such as O’Keefe’s Project Veritas continue to use undercover filming today.
In Britain, this style has been adopted by Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, also known as Tommy Robinson, a member of the British far right who framed his activism as a quest to uncover the hidden scandal of “Asian sex gangs.” In 2019, he was jailed for contempt of court after he live-streamed footage on Facebook of defendants in a child-grooming trial. Under English law, the case was subject to reporting restrictions, designed to prevent prejudicing juries in future linked trials. A court ruling later revealed that one of the defendants tried to appeal his conviction by citing Yaxley-Lennon’s actions. The activist nearly collapsed the trial, yet his conviction encouraged supporters to present him as “persecuted.”
Farage’s story has also been boosted by claims of martyrdom: After he made his first 100-mile round trip to film a video on migrant crossings in April, the police visited him at home to remind him of lockdown restrictions, which at that point forbade nonessential journeys. Farage claimed that he was a key worker: a journalist covering the pandemic. No further action was taken, and he was neither fined nor arrested.
In moments like that, or when he’s hosting his radio show or writing for The Telegraph, Farage is a journalist. When he’s attacking the “mainstream media,” he is not. The story he is reporting also exists simultaneously in two opposing states: One minute it is totally ignored; the next he is boasting about the “millions of people” who have viewed his work. All the power, none of the responsibility. (On June 11, his radio show was taken off air “with immediate effect.” The broadcaster, LBC, did not explain its decision beyond saying his contract had come to an end.)
Potemkin journalism has more in common with conspiracy theories than with traditional news reporting. It offers sweeping, totalizing narratives, without the complications and caveats that make many genuine investigations a chore to read. (Look at The New York Times’ initial reporting on sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein and see how focused and specific the allegations are, and how much space is allocated to rebuttal. Journalists can report only what they can prove to be true—and what they are confident they can demonstrate in court.)
As for MacGuffins, Barack Obama’s long-form birth certificate is another example. For several months in his first term, American conservatives demanded to see it, claiming that it was being withheld to cover up the fact that Obama had been born in Kenya and thus was ineligible for the presidency. In 2011, the White House gave in and published the certificate, which confirmed Obama’s birth in Hawaii, hoping to end the suggestions that his government lacked legitimacy. Instead, the conversation moved on to the next “scandal.”
This conspiracy theory, “birtherism,” galvanized Donald Trump’s run for the White House, so it should be no surprise that he has embraced Potemkin journalism. “A lot of interest in this story about Psycho Joe Scarborough,” he tweeted on May 24 about the congressman turned TV host. “So a young marathon runner just happened to faint in his office, hit her head on his desk, & die? I would think there is a lot more to this story than that? An affair? What about the so-called investigator? Read story!” The link provided was to a site called True Pundit, which has a well-known modus operandi, perfected during the 2016 U.S. election: running baseless stories and then asking leading questions such as: “MSM Quiet on This One—Wonder Why?” (The pejorative use of MSM for “mainstream media” is another tell for activism posing as journalism.)
The husband of that “young marathon runner” begged Twitter to remove Trump’s tweet. Timothy Klausutis reiterated the facts: His wife, Lori, had an “undiagnosed heart condition, fell and hit her head on her desk at work.” However, just like the family of the Democratic staffer Seth Rich and the parents of children murdered at Sandy Hook, Klausutis was faced with an impossible task. There is no standard of evidence that Trump, or his outriders, would accept to prove that Lori Klausutis died of natural causes. Trump is not interested in the answer, anyway; his tweets quickly moved on. The story was another MacGuffin. The “just asking questions” style of fake investigative journalism is designed to be undebunkable. It is the logic of psychosis: Any attempt to deny the existence of a conspiracy means that you must be in on it too.
One of Trump’s innovations in the genre of Potemkin journalism is to gamify it on a large scale. Those questions act as prompts—encouraging onlookers to join the hunt for the missing piece of the puzzle. Forums pore over “evidence” that contradicts the “official story.” Rather than being passive recipients of news doled out by elite gatekeepers, audiences can adopt the more flattering role of participants in a treasure hunt. For those caught up in such MacGuffin quests, the toll is high. The gamification of the Sandy Hook conspiracy theories led to one grieving father going into hiding, after his personal details were repeatedly distributed by a “truther.”
Perhaps it’s just the pandemic, but it’s easy to see these examples and think of viruses. Just as investigative journalism has evolved certain standards, tropes, and forms, so has its evil twin. Potemkin journalism exposes the weaknesses of the media. It exploits journalism’s porous boundary, to which there is no solution—it would be profoundly illiberal to license reporters. It exploits the caution necessary when running a news organization that can be sued by private individuals, or prosecuted under laws governing contempt of court or espionage. It exploits the fact that news judgments are inevitably subjective, and that the media are inarguably prone to groupthink.
It also satisfies a popular hunger for vivid tales of villains and victims, at the exact same time that the news industry is struggling financially and traditional, intensive, shoe-leather reporting is starting to feel like a luxury. At minimum, reporters need time—more time than internet commenters feel is reasonable—to “stand up” a complicated story. (Think of the clamor over The New York Times’ alleged slowness to report Tara Reade’s allegations against Joe Biden, then the comparative lack of interest in the nuanced, exhaustive article that it eventually produced on May 31 based on nearly 100 interviews.)
In our trustless, conspiracy-soaked age, it doesn’t matter that the case Stephen Yaxley-Lennon disrupted was eventually reported widely, once doing so did not endanger the integrity of other trials. It doesn’t matter that there is no evidence linking Joe Scarborough to his staffer’s death, or that no one with any serious knowledge of the case is pushing for it to be reopened. It doesn’t matter that the “hidden scandal” of the migrant boats has been covered by outlets across the political spectrum, and on Britain’s state broadcaster. These stories are not designed to lead to an outcome—an inquiry, a conviction, a change in policy. They exist to seed the internet with culture-war talking points. We live in a world of hollow facades.