If The Nice Way Code did one thing, it at least focused a number of people’s minds on the issue that public perception doesn’t match up with facts.
Time, perhaps, to take a step back and view The Nice Way Code in the context of this, not to berate the Code itself (“see someone berating The Nice Way Code, think flogging a dead horse”, as they might themselves say), but to ask how its perfectly reasonable supposed aims of improving inter-modal relationships on shared roads could actually be achieved.
A horrific incident in New York
Yesterday, in New York, a yellow cab mounted the pavement, injuring three pedestrians and severing the leg of one of them, also hitting a cyclist before leaving the road. It’s not easy to pick apart all of the information from the various witnesses and news sources (NBC, New York Post, Daily News – note, some graphic photos on that one), especially as much of the reporting seems sensationalist or even partisan, but it is clear that the cabbie had already been told to slow down by a cyclist before hitting the accelerator and mounting the pavement.
So, sifting through things – and don’t take my word for it, read the reports and form your own opinion – it seems evident that the cabbie was driving in a reckless manner. (A pithy vignette of his outlook on others is that he is quoted in the Daily News after the incident as saying – and the added emphasis is mine – “I am in shock. Nothing like this has happened to me before.”)
All utterly horrible. But we’re yet to get to the matter at the heart of this blog post.
Whose fault was this?
Not long after the news broke, the Daily Mail picked up the story in the UK. I’m not going to link to it, but their headline was (and, at the time of writing, still is): “British tourist, 23, has leg severed when New York yellow cab swerves to avoid cyclist under the Rockefeller Center“.
That’s right. “Yellow cab swerves to avoid cyclist”.
This neatly overlooks the facts that (a) the cabbie didn’t avoid the cyclist, and (b) he careered off the road and then 60ft across the pavement; both of which seem a little at odds with the traditional and well-tested avoidance method of steering away from things and applying the brake.
What it does, of course, is blame the cyclist.
“Typical cyclist’s fault as per usual, if we had my way anyone using eco-friendly transport would be hung drawn and quartered like in the good old days when there used to be a sense of community” commented angry and mentally deficient oxygen thief “Rusty Shackleford” from York, where communities across the city pine for the long lost sense of peace togetherness that comes from torturing and killing people you just don’t like very much.
The curious thing is that I can’t see what Rusty is complaining about: a pedestrian has lost at least one, perhaps two, legs; thus, surely thanks to this cyclist causing the poor cab driver to swerve, someone using eco-friendly transport has actually undergone a significant part of the quartering process.
But, the essential thing to note is that the headline is confirmation bias. It’s a bloody cyclist again; I knew they were bastards. It’s confirming the stuff that the Daily Mail likes to foster: people who you can perceive as somehow different from you, people who do things you don’t, are to be despised. The Mail’s divisive content is emblematic of the false dichotomy that exists in the maelstrom of a supposed war between supposed tribes on the road.
This is just one report I’m focusing on, but it’s a cog in a big machine – whether sinister or merely subliminal and lazy – that manufactures a vicious spiral of resentment and misinformation.
There must be another Nice Way
Social media-savvy marketers know that campaigns are more effective if they are careful about whom they target. Rather than a scattergun approach of simply buying arbitrary newspaper space, TV slots and billboards, a focused social media campaign will seek out and target those who have influence in social networks. They’ll track people with lots of followers, see how sentiment passes outwards from them, and then get their message to them in a way that will make those key people inclined to propagate it. In other forms it’s a marketing technique as old as the hills: give a top footballer or a pop start some free trainers, and if they wear them, brace yourself at the cash registers.
And just as it is with trainers, so it is with both information and opinion.
I hesitate to keep kicking The Nice Way Code, but doing so here is quite illustrative. Their blog states that they sought (are they still seeking?) “to ferment a culture of acceptance, and in time empathy between all road users“. Their approach to influence people is, in a totally non-social media-savvy way, to subject the general population to their campaign material. Ignoring the fact that much of it has been thrown angrily back in their face, it’s unlikely to have any effect.
The problem is, of course, that they’re not targeting the key entities in the social network of opinion and information. They’re going for the little fish. The beta thinkers at best.
Leaving aside the absurd and harmful messages from the actual Nice Way Code material, why would anyone, generally alone when viewing the material, change their opinon when they see the newspapers and other media every day peddling partisan views and palpable untruths about road users?
The national and local media are a non-stop stream of misrepresentation, inaccuracy and editorial opinion that ranges from the misinformed to the outright bilious.
Day in, day out, this material goes largely unchallenged. The Mail may be the worst offender (and that’s true no matter what subject matter we choose) but it’s everywhere. Even The Times, now a staunchly pro-cycling paper, initially misreported presumed liability as placing blame on drivers, which is not true; and the universal misrepresentation of this policy makes it politically much, much harder to implement.
This is a crucial point. We live in a country that is generally democratic. People with civic and governmental power have accountability, and must respond to the demands of the public. So every time a news report twists the facts, every time an editor pays a venomous opinion-writer, every time a reporter fails to investigate the facts, every time an interviewer asks populist rather than pertinent questions, the news is poisoned. When the news is poisoned, the debate is poisoned. When the debate is poisoned, the voters are poisoned. And when they are poisoned, the wrong things get done.
All because the facts were lost, the popular opinion was pandered to, and the incendiary pen of hatred and divisiveness attracts the inhabitants of the bottom half of the internet to a web page like shitty, self-important moths to the flame of a candle made from Satan’s own ear wax.
£424,000 has been spent on an untargeted press campaign. A campaign whose implementors have backed up with words like “hope” and “suggest”, language that’s indicative of an ill-researched and untargeted launch-and-pray manner of campaigning.
That sum of money represents maybe 20 man years (in terms of pure labour cost) of effort in breaking down the poison in the media, by informing media outlets of the facts, of filing complaints to watchdogs about harmful opinion, of getting into the media. Not easy, perhaps, but with 20 man-years of activity? Surely possible to some degree.
But maybe a campaign to do this can still be run.
Why not do it as a grass roots campaign? If a number of people can be directed en masse to make specific, consistent points to relevant parties; to simply state the facts; to petition watchdogs and regulators where the truth is not told, then maybe something can be achieved. Numbers can be heard, if all the voices say the same thing.
Maybe there’s something in that.
One thing is certain: trying to convince individuals to change whilst the newspapers, TV channels and organisations that they (rightly or wrongly) respect and are influenced by are telling them that their incorrect views are right, is never going to work.
The poison of incorrect reporting is powerful in poisoning individual opinion, and it’s that flow of poison that must stop if we are all to “just get along”.