This week sees a new performative installation by Swedish artist Jonas Lund take over the third floor of The Photographers’ Gallery, London. Entitled ‘Operation Earnest Voice’, the project explores how social media can be used to disrupt public debate and manipulate public opinion.
Styling itself as an ‘online influencing agency’ and taking its name from the US government campaign designed to spread pro-American propaganda on social networking sites, the agency’s boldly stated aim is to ‘reverse Brexit’.
Using the same kind of tools and strategies as its namesake, the project consists of 12 ‘employees’, ranging from marketing experts, meme makers and photographers, to copywriters, programmers and strategists. Selected following an online callout, they are working together to develop a media campaign designed to mimic the methods employed by propaganda strategists.
The group features a number of high-profile figures, including: Alfie Bown, Guardian journalist, freelance writer and specialist in the politics of laughter; Alan Mozes, a photographer who worked on the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign and Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign; and Gina Power, a narrative production specialist.
The open call attracted around 120 applicants. Says Lund: “I was super impressed and positively surprised by the level of applications, of the quality and passion that was described on the applications. There was a bio text as part of the form and many of them were very moving. It shows that the problematic binary of leave versus remain is very engaging for a lot of people.”
Lund hopes the diverse nature of the group will result in some interesting outcomes. “It’s not often that you are in this sort of situation. It is the breeding ground for something new because most typically you are in a group in your day-to-day life where it is pretty homogeneous.”
This diversity is reflected in the age range of the participants, including Miranda Stocker, a 19-year-old youth advisor who has commented that she was frustrated at not being allowed to vote in the referendum due to her age. Lund responds: “Having a young voice is really important, particularly when they feel like they have been left out of the democratic process. It is a very direct way of being left out, simply by merit of the law.
“How do you approach this feeling of alienation? It is a really useful perspective to have and I am super curious, because you always think you know what the younger generation feels about things, but you really don’t. I’m 34, so I’m almost twice her age!”
Explaining the timely nature of the project, Lund comments: “It’s lucky in a way. When we were planning it we obviously knew article 50 executes on 29 March, so the second week of January made sense because it’s just over two months in advance. But we didn’t know there would be a vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal next Tuesday [15 January]. Hopefully this is something we can inject into.”
The programme over the four days includes a range of workshops and talks such as ‘Can The Left Win The Battle of the Bots?’ and ‘Brexit, Data and Computational Propaganda’. However, there will also be a number of break-out sessions where the team will work on defined tasks and targets.
Despite this weekend’s event being focused on Brexit, Lund says the issues have much wider importance. “It is a framework to have new types of conversations about what it means to have agencies and systems, and whether you are being manipulated or not. But also to question how you can reclaim some of this agency for different types of systems. This is a platform to explore that.”
He says that if we can’t even adjust Brexit in a propaganda influencing agency, then we are in trouble. “It is the platform to explore other topics. So, first fix Brexit, but then move onto the actual problems in the world such as global warming. Because that will be the end of all of us.”
Over the four days the performance is accessible to the public, and Lund is keen that people get involved in the debates. “It’s hard to tell whether this will happen. It depends on different things, like how many people show up at the same time. One of the things we were thinking about was asking people to observe before interacting, because it could be quite disruptive to be interrupted all the time.”
Nevertheless, Lund is hoping that representatives from the Leave camp will attend over the weekend. “I wanted to get a Leave focus group on Saturday and test the messaging to see if it works or not. It could be quite interesting, but it runs the risk of being a bit trolly and turning into Jerry Springer.”
Whether they attend in person or not, there has already been a response from the Leave Means Leave group, which has written to the Charity Commission to complain about the “blatantly political campaign” and urged that the Photographers’ Gallery has its charity status removed.
The Brexit-supporting group tweeted: “We have written to the Charity Commission regarding the anti-Brexit political campaign due to be held this week at The Photographers’ Gallery in London. The gallery is a registered charity whose objects are to advance photography as an art form. But the gallery advertises that it will transform “into a fully functioning propaganda office tasked with reversing Brexit”. This kind of political campaigning is in breach of the gallery’s charity status.”
Asked whether he actually hopes the project can help prevent Brexit, Lund says he is more interested in the journey than the arrival.
“As with a lot of my work, it is quite ambiguous about what the actual position of the artist is. Ultimately it is a performance and artwork, so it is OK to have this abstraction within this framework too. It could just end up being a four-day long therapy session where we are all depressed about the current state of the world.”
Lund says being metrics and results driven is part of the problem. “It’s good to be less neoliberal and it is enough for me if one person comes in here and gets to know something about computational politics that they didn’t know before. That for me is already a huge positive – to say we have changed the position of one person.”
‘Operation Earnest Voice’ runs 10-13 January 2019, The Photographers’ Gallery, London. The project is being livestreamed each day at www.operationearnestvoice.co.uk
1. Operation Earnest Voice posters. Photo: Jack Hutchinson
2. Artist Jonas Lund introduces Operation Earnest Voice at The Photographers’ Gallery. Photo: Jack Hutchinson
3. Operation Earnest Voice installation view. Photo: Jack Hutchinson
4. Operation Earnest Voice discussion session. Photo: Jack Hutchinson
5. Operation Earnest Voice installation view. Photo: Jack Hutchinson