The Anodyne, The Bloody Circus and the Trolls

It seems that the BBC TV baking competition ‘The Great British Bake Off’ is more popular than football. It demonstrates that the skill of the artisan baker has not been lost to the food technologists and the supermarket bakery counters. The popularity of the programme must surely stem from the human love of competition – mano a mano – and, of course, food – the naughtier the better.  And what more naughty than cake? Mary Berry, as fragrant as apple blossom, is a temptress of the  plate. And blue-eyed Paul Hollywood has more appeal than James Bond, when he is slugging it out with a bag of flour and flirting with the ladies.

The popularity of this programme – and those with similar competition-based themes – is intriguing. Its appeal at superficial level is something to do with anodyne distraction at first bite – a modern take on bread and circuses.  However, the programme generated as much interest for the sniping – sometimes cruel and bitter – from internet trolls – when contestants were seen to be treated unfairly. A particular incident had serious consequences. It became more like ‘blood and circuses’. It seems that the public take their telly so seriously they will demand blood in retribution for their favourites . There was more than a whiff of Coliseum adrenalin. The Twitter trolls whipped up  a storm of vituperation against a particular contestant who, due to the way the programme was edited, was shown as seemingly sabotaging the cake of another. Given that the argument was about a cake, the reaction was disproportionate, no matter what the truth of the situation.

Contestants of the Bake-Off had been warned that trolling was an issue for anyone appearing on a television programme. Walk into the media spotlight, and it seems that trolls lurk under every bridge, waiting to drag unsuspecting folk into a river of spite and hatefulness. The internet has brought us almost instant, often unmediated, information. We are able to react almost instantly, and small things escalate rapidly.

With social media, we are experimenting with human behaviour on a massive scale.  Technology amplifies our behaviour – each issue played out to an enormous public – an amphitheatre for the technologically enabled to cheer or hiss, to give the thumbs up or down. This is the stuff of dystopias. The technology has perhaps gone faster than society’s capability to deal with it in a civilised fashion. We confuse the living room squabble with a serious issue. The television bakery contest becomes personal. What we see on our screens is often seen as real and believable because it is written and presented to be easily assimable by the public – pre-digested for us. Programmes, be they fiction or news, are designed to reach the visceral emotions. We could be watching a soap opera or a manifesto of an extremist party.  Someone has gone to great trouble to excite our emotions. And now we have the scope via social media to react immediately things can really take off.   Now we have a lot to fear – terrorists, immigrants, single mothers, unemployed youth, old people, lethal diseases. Those who wish to spread fear have a powerful tool to manipulate us. There is a fear of the ‘politically incorrect’  from official organisations, and we are at a loss as to what is  honest language. Nothing can be honest  unless we have a clearly understood context and common linguistic framework – pretty much impossible – even for our closest friends and family. We are more afraid of making a mistake with ‘correctness’ than in trying to speak honestly. We have the emergence of the soundbite and the desire to sensationalise for the sake of a ‘story’. We see less of the moderates and the deep thinkers in our broadcasts, because they are naturally more restrained, and less newsable. There are worries of ‘elitism’ if clever people are trying to explain serious and technically challenging material. News companies want to sell their broadcasts, and demand sensation. The recent success of extremist political movements in Europe is a barometer of how media is working to influence the public. We are becoming protectionist, and antagonistic towards those we have learned to fear. I admit that the material pulls me along; I am aware that my mind is being influenced by induced emotional states. I use ‘we’ in this blog when I mean ‘I’. No one is immune. We must learn to question and reflect upon the world beamed into in our minds.

Today, I made, by hand, using time-honoured methods, a birthday cake for my daughter, now 25. When she was born, TV was much less sophisticated, and the internet had not reached home users. A few years earlier people were inflamed by an April Fool news item about regulating carrots to EU parameters, and a newsreader was shown holding a test funnel through which a regulation, straight- barrelled, EU-compliant carrot had to pass before it was allowed to market. Anti-EU feeling surged to scorch the paper media of the time. We should have known about the carrot, and the stick that beats the drum to which we so readily march.

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