Recently I’ve been on a bit of a binge-watch of Super Bunnyhop – a YouTube channel that dissects video games and the culture surrounding them in a fascinating way, a way that reinforces the idea of video games as both an art form and a creative medium. One video that stuck out to me was ‘Examining the FBI’s Counter-Terrorism Game’ which is a thorough break-down of the FBI propaganda website ‘Don’t Be a Puppet: Pull Back the Curtain on Violent Extremism’. Thank goodness we don’t have such ludicrous things over in Blighty.
Except, as I discovered this evening on Facebook, we do. And, perhaps just because I’m a lot better acquainted with British far-right movements than American terrorism, ours seems actively harmful rather than mostly confused.
‘The Choice is Yours’ is an “interactive video” from ‘Upstanding Neighbourhoods’ and their recent campaign ‘Open Your Eyes to Hate’ which “rejects extremism in all its forms”. In it, you play the role of Liam, a 19-year old with a disabled mum who lives in an unnamed urban, ethnically diverse, area. Except, when you’re first given the ability to interact with the video – which is the choice between sharing discriminatory posts from ‘British Defenders’ or an anti-hate post from an old friend – the video makes sure to let you know that actually, the choice isn’t yours, it’s Liam’s. “Smart move.” It says if you choose the anti-hate posts, “You know your own mind.” – because sharing one type of post on social media is ‘having your own opinion’ whereas sharing another type is ‘being a sheep’, I suppose – “But Liam shared the British Defenders’ posts.”
Already, two minutes into the film and it’s failed at it being an interactive video. Normally with such things you want to give the viewer some agency and show that their decisions have an impact – unless the true message of the video is that no matter your own actions you can never change the will of other people, in which case it’s a very effective piece. The only choice you can actually make throughout is whether or not to molotov an old lady’s house (this is just the natural consequence of sharing posts on Facebook), and even if you don’t the result is the same.
The rest of the “interactive video” continues in the same manner. Liam meets up with some like-minded members of the ‘British Defenders’ page, creates a meme-font piece of propaganda for himself, attends a march that turns violent, and eventually winds up either starting a fire in a shop suspected of aiding terrorists or chickening out at the last moment, it doesn’t matter which as either way he’ll be caught by police and charged for arson and potential murder. At each of these points the viewer will be presented with the “choice” of whether or not to go through with Liam’s actions, but refusing always results in the same “Good one, but that’s not what Liam did”-style message, while complying plays the story without any messages to the viewer at all.
Which really is the laziest form of storytelling. Why even bother with the illusion of choice if you only ever wanted to show one side of the story anyway? The only things that ‘interactivity’ brings to this production are condescending messages that remind you how great your not-racist decision making skills are, but that Liam, who, given the first-person perspective, you’re supposed to be controlling, didn’t do that.
Even more frustrating is that there was a lot of care put into the creation of this video, in some areas at least. The cinematography is great, with a lot of nice shots and montages that convey ideas perfectly well. The casting is pretty good too, the actors aren’t wooden or amateurish at all, they’re quite believable even, the production values are clearly pretty high, which makes the heavy-handed writing and overall shoddy execution of the “interactive video” even more apparent.
But my issue with this thing goes far beyond its execution. It’s not just a bad video, it’s an actively dangerous one. It characterises the right as racist, xenophobic, intentionally misleading, working-class, young, and violent. Yes, it’s supposed to be aimed at ‘far-right extremism’, but the overuse of the term is leading to collocation. ‘Far-right’ is, at this point, a slur and an accusation, almost synonymous with ‘extremist’ itself. This is marginalisation, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that leads to the kinds of marches and attacks that the videos portray.
Hell, one of the videos even touches on this itself. “I’m sick of being ignored mate” begins Ronnie, the character who first leads Liam down this ‘dark path’, “by the government, the council, the media…” Gee Ronnie, you’re right, the media does give people with these types of concerns a pretty bad rap. Immigration is a huge issue for huge swathes of the British population, and was, if not the biggest, then certainly an extremely salient contributing factor in the Brexit referendum. But left-wing media, and the left-wing at large, is pretty quick to call these people racist or xenophobic. These are people that have strong British values, and they see the rise in British multiculturalism to be an affront to their values. They’re not values that I agree with, but they are the ones that were encouraged by such campaign slogans as “Take Back Control” and “a Red, White, and Blue Brexit”, if the latter can be said to mean anything at all. “We’re going to make ourselves heard,” which had me genuinely worried for a second, “we’re gunna march” he finishes, handing over a crumpled leaflet from the ‘British Defenders’ which reads “No Sharia Law Here – Take Our Country Back”. Remind you of anything?
It’s all good and well to poke fun at fringe EDL-alikes and the lies of the Vote Leave campaign, but it’s also important to remember that it’s those same messages that resonated with 51.9% of the electorate turnout. Remember the vox-pop news reports of everyday people feeling lied to about what Brexit entailed? Or the interview with Farage in which he was repeatedly questioned about the £350 million pledge to the NHS? They may seem ludicrous to the point of hilarity now, but over half of the people that voted in the referendum believed in those principles, and it’s extremely dangerous to try and tar all of those people with the same brush as these videos do.
And besides that, a march, in theory, is actually just good democracy. Nobody can condone the sorts of marches depicted here, the ones we do see occasionally from groups such as the EDL which spout hate and turn to violence with no real purpose other than to spread xenophobia, but in theory standing up for what you believe in and making peaceful protest is a cornerstone of our democracy. How can we be expected to hold sympathy for, say, junior doctors or train guards on strike, but hold only contempt when the same tools are used by the right? And yet, knowing nothing more than what’s printed on that crumpled poster, refusing to go on the march prompts this text, “That was close. You know this doesn’t feel right.”
Well sure, I personally know that it doesn’t feel right, because everything I’m shown by the media about a right-wing march suggests that it will turn violent, and besides, I’m an immigrant-loving, liberal leftie, so it doesn’t really seem like my scene. But Liam? Liam has already liked and shared posts from the ‘British Defenders’ before I was even allowed to have input in this story, not that my input accounts for anything anyway. For someone new to the world of politics, disillusioned by the state and by the media, going on a march with friends that share similar views seems like a perfectly reasonable idea. And the fact that this video is trying to discourage actual political activism like this, rewarding you instead for choosing to share a picture of a friend holding a sign that reads “#stopthehate”. Change the world one Facebook post at a time kids.
But perhaps the most ominously self-aware part of the video is just after agreeing to turn up to the march, when Lisa, Liam’s #stopthehate friend, confronts him about his association with the ‘British Defenders’. “You know who they are right? They’re proper racists” – oh good, let’s not attempt to disprove anything that they’ve said, or discuss disenfranchisement or our beliefs on immigration, they’re racist and that’s that, racists are the baddies, stop being a baddie Liam! – “They say they’re not, but they’re lying” – racists and liars Liam! They’re like the baddest baddies ever – “They twist stuff just to get people angry” – can you imagine if a group used social media to depict the people they don’t like as racists and murderers? “Don’t fall for it Liam, that’s what they want.”
If there’s anything that should be taken away from this encounter it should be how much the language of the left mirrors that of the right. Making over-generalisations to demonise all members of a large group, check. Using the media to portray their enemies as violent and rallying people through fear, check. Utilising an “Us vs Them” mentality to separate ideologies and groups, check. Lisa approaches Liam in completely the wrong way, tells him that everything he is doing and everything he believes is wrong, insults his new-found friends calling them racists and liars, and then allows him to walk away from her without bothering to ask his opinion, or discuss any politics or even actual facts. Everything she says is an accusation.
What’s the overall message to this video? Don’t be a far-right extremist? If that’s the case, then how exactly does this discourage that? You might hurt someone, but that doesn’t seem overly concerning if you’ve purposefully set a shop on fire because you earnestly believe they’re connected to terrorists and you genuinely worry that immigrants are flooding your country. I guess Liam’s mum was disappointed in him, but that hardly seems a concern for the 19-year-old ideologue that Liam represents. Going to jail appears to be the biggest repercussion, but even then, institutionalised punishment for trying to speak out against institutions just seems authoritarian. This video made me more angry at the government and the video’s creators than it did at ‘far-right extremists’ which, if Liam is anything to go by, are primarily young and confused men who are jaded by a society that simultaneously encourages them to be proud of their national identity and chastises them when they feel it comes under threat.
It’s true that the political left isn’t very well known for its extremism, but instead of hurling molotovs it is prone to hurling regressive rhetoric – “racist”, “sexist”, “homophobic”, even “extremist” are words being used too loosely, too carelessly, and the effect of making these strong accusations so casually is that we become desensitised to actual racism, actual sexism, actual homophobia, and actual extremism. Moreover, by repeatedly tarring an entire wing of politics into a corner, we give them no choice but to turn to more shocking methods of communication. Say what you will about extremists of any variety, but they know how to get their point across.