How a simplistic, manipulative and anti-democratic short film went viral

A couple of days ago VICE launched a short film made exclusively by Adam Curtis to promote his new project for the BBC — HyperNormalisation.

Living in an Unreal World manages to cram an impressive amount of sweeping generalisations, misleading statements, unfounded accusations and manipulative frames into the space of four minutes.

Sadly, the film has gathered more than 5 million views within a few days and is passionately shared by many people who feel that Adam Curtis articulates their grievances.

Actually, some of the problems that Adam Curtis identifies (in an excessive and overly dramatic way) are due precisely to the fact that his kind of simplistic, emotive, manipulative and populist way of thinking is so successful and widespread across social media.

Here is a closer look at some of the points made and phrases used by Adam Curtis (I would recommend watching the film first and then returning here).

“This is the normal world” — manipulative & sweeping generalisation: the “normal world” is not one single image or location and it’s certainly not a dark dystopic landscape with ominous music.

“All around you are enormous new buildings” — sweeping generalisation: only if you live in Hong Kong, Manhattan or Canary Wharf. Most of London is surprisingly low-rise and most people don’t live in the middle of financial districts.

“They look alike” — ignorant generalisation: no they don’t.

“But you will never be able to afford to live in them” — populist generalisation: some people are able to afford living in them; many may be able to do that if they accumulate enough wealth in the future; many will never be able to live in them. Presumably this is directed at that last category of people. Be honest about your audience.

“Because they are not really homes” — sweeping generalisation: who are you to judge what is or isn’t “really” a home?

“They are blocks of money” — like all expensive man-made structures presumably

“Brexit happened” — manipulative/arbitrary jump cut — not related to previous point; also Brexit was not a natural phenomenon that just accidentally “happened”

“It showed that all the people who are supposed to tell you about the world — the journalists, the politicians, the think tank experts — know nothing” — ludicrous generalisation; logical fallacy (in which parallel universe does Brexit prove that experts know nothing?); fundamentally totalitarian (treats politicians as one homogenous class); cheap and manipulative populism (uses second-person singular “you” to frame the viewer as an innocent victim, while “Othering” politicians, journalists and experts); this is the cornerstone of the populist rhetoric of extremists, anti-democratic movements and conspiracy theorists

“they and you live in a dream world, detached from reality” — patronising, elitist and arbitrary generalisation: who are you to judge what is reality? Are you implying that you can see/recognise reality while everybody else (including politicians and viewers) can’t?

“You spend your days and nights on social media” — guilt-oriented manipulative generalisation: no, most people have jobs, families, lives; only a small minority (around 5–10%) of users demonstrate what we call patterns of problematic/heavy internet use. In either case, this is their choice. Is that a problem?

“The original vision” — whose original vision?

“was that it was going to open up a new paradise” — actually that was the narrative promoted by a relatively small group of technological determinists in the late 90s; it was very swiftly rejected by the great majority of researchers and academics as utopian

“but maybe it is a fake job” — what does that even mean? How can you pass judgment on other people’s working lives and achievements?

“Your real job is shopping” — um, not quite sure what to say here… Poetic licence?

“You are managed with performance targets and measured outcomes” — as opposed to? Working without targets and outcomes?

“But as you sit in the glass-walled offices” — as relatively few people work in “glass-walled offices” presumably now Curtis is talking to people who can after all afford to live in enormous towers

“You know that the targets are manipulated and fake” — is this still a “documentary”? Is he referring to a particular corporation?

“But you all sit there and pretend it is objective and rational” — arbitrary generalisation; clearly for some organisations and corporations it works well

“The original idea of cool” — so in addition to knowing what a “home” is and what “reality” is and what the “original vision” of social media was, Curtis is also an expert on the history of “cool”

“was that you would pull back and see the world for what it really was” — manipulative hidden assumption: the statement takes it for granted that the world you see is different from the “real” world

“The violence and brutal power hidden under the surface”; violence and brutal power is everywhere and has been everywhere since the beginning of time. It is usually hidden only in totalitarian regimes, like the Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Communist China.

“A detached gaze, free of political manipulation” — this sentence is so problematic I don’t even know where to begin. What does “free of political manipulation” even mean? Can an opinion, idea, viewpoint ever be pure, innocent, free of influences, ideologies, rhetoric? Is there a singular objective truth out there that someone is hiding from us? What exactly is that pure reality, that “free” state of being? Who is in that state and how do you get there? What does “political manipulation” mean? Does that mean persuasion? I.e. rhetoric? I.e. the components of speech? I.e. communication? Does being “free” mean that you don’t communicate with others? That you are somehow “sterile” of other people’s influence? How is that compatible with us being part of a collective society? Of having to coexist, interact and compromise? And why does Curtis put the word “political” — politics being the process through which we try to coexist rather than kill each other — before the clearly negatively charged word “manipulation”?

“But then the politics fell away” — when did that exactly happen? When particular social movements failed? (And why did they fail?) When Curtis’ favoured politicians failed? (And why did they fail?) When Communism collapsed?

“You know that the politicians today have no idea what is happening” — almost laughable attempt at manipulating the viewer by telling “you” what “you know”; sweeping and pro-totalitarian generalisation, implying that *all* politicians are the same; that they are all useless.

“They pretend to be in control” — hasn’t that been a core element of leadership since the dawn of organised societies? Isn’t that part of human nature?

“but they are helpless in the face of the refugee crisis” — incorrect and misleading accusation: actually it is precisely because of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership that millions of refugees were allowed into Germany and because of the efforts of thousands of civil servants, policy-makers, social workers, government agencies, international organisations and, yes, politicians, that our social fabric didn’t collapse, that refugees didn’t die in the streets of Europe, that they were placed in temporary accommodation and were given basic provisions.

“And they do nothing to stop the corruption, to stop the growing inequality” — again, vastly sweeping, misleading and fundamentally anti-democratic/anti-liberal generalisation: a lot of politicians in Europe and the United States are campaigning and working very hard to do precisely that. We live in a free society and most people have access to the public sphere. If you have a more persuasive plan for dealing with poverty and inequality then by all means go ahead and try to mobilise public support. See if the people (that you treat as powerless victims) support it or not.

“the emptying of the cities by the waves of money”- yet one more incorrect statement; 54% of the world’s population live in urban areas; this is expected to increase to 66% by 2050 (UN data). Two and half billion people will be added to urban populations. People are flocking into cities because cities provide opportunities, diversity and vibrant life, not the other way around.

“They have become instead pantomime villains” — deeply populist and proto-totalitarian framing of elected politicians

“And clicks feed the ever-growing power and wealth of the corporations that run social media” — a completely arbitrary and problematic causal relationship is implied here: Curtis implies that politicians make us angry so that “we click more” and so that social media corporations make money. Actually what makes us angry and makes us “click more” is precisely this kind of simplistic, ignorant, manipulative and Manichean language that Curtis uses and which has become widespread and popular in many parts of liberal democracies.

“But really we are just components in their system” — the architecture and algorithms of social media have a lot of problems and present us with many challenges. Curtis is right that social media promote echo chambers and can give users a false sense of empowerment. But the way we use social media is essentially our choice and this sentence is deeply patronising, elitist and disempowering. It lacks evidence. It is a sweeping generalisation that portrays IT corporations as an external villain and users as innocent victims.

“Which is why nothing ever changes” — sweeping and incorrect generalisation; over the last decade we have seen numerous changes in legislation, awareness and mobilisation across the world, often facilitated by mobile and social networks. The phrase “which is why nothing ever changes” is very cleverly constructed because it takes as granted that “nothing ever changes”, without actually providing any evidence. In fact according to Pulitzer prize-winning author and Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, we now live through one of the most peaceful times in the history of humanity; war casualties have steadily declined over the last few decades.

Living in an Unreal World is excellent as gripping, manipulative fiction or as a mockumentary that attempts to cross the boundaries between fact and fiction. It is not a documentary — not in a million years — and it’s a shame that it has been promoted as such and that the BBC is giving it precious airtime.