As Jeremy Corbyn looks earnestly into the camera, his words emanate out of a beige cloud. Face, hair, jacket, and lampshade are a blur of magnolia, cream, grey and brown. In this video about the floods at the end of last year, Corbyn and his team have composed a frame that is almost outrageously boring. And yet he’s racked up a quarter of a million Facebook views.
Hillary Clinton takes a different approach. In a video saturated with royal blue text, red furniture and warm lighting, she confidently addresses the camera, centre-frame. Whereas Corbyn is as vivid as a custard-cream in a cup of tea, Clinton is in sharp focus, vibrantly pronounced in front of a blurred background that highlights her blue eyes. And, rather than Corbyn’s teletext Arial subtitles, Clinton’s words dissolve in and out, in a deep blue from her campaign colour palette, and in her custom typeface ‘Unity’. But despite its pizzazz, and a following six times the size of Corbyn’s, Clinton only gets half the views. Corbyn appears to know something Clinton doesn’t.
As video quickly becomes the language of the Internet, we find ourselves encountering a new political rhetoric. Most politicians have entered the ring with big money and high production values. David Cameron offers his face in full HD, cool and blue like the Conservative brand. Ed Milliband went so far as to hire Paul Greengrass, director of the Bourne trilogy, to make ‘Ed Milliband: A Portrait’. Liz Kendall’s Netflix aesthetic seems to have been made after watching a few too many episodes of House of Cards. But while video is a foreign tongue for most politicians, Corbyn is fluent. The only politician who comes close is Donald Trump, and that’s because Trump invented the language.
In 2012, a 24-year-old intern named Justin McConney convinced Trump to shoot vlogs from-the-desk. He would edit them himself, he insisted, and they would look bad. ‘I wanted them to not feel professional’, McConney explained, ‘but feel like your friend’s video blog.’ It was crucial, McConney believed, for Trump to appear authentic, and the way he would ensure this was through low production values. Fast-forward four years, and Trump’s social media following has increased from 300,000 to over 11 million – providing Trump with an indispensable weapon in his presidential campaign – and his 15 second Instagram videos, shot on a smartphone, are being hailed as ‘the future of American politics’.
The genius of Trump’s videos isn’t just that they make him appear authentic and relatable, but the light they shed on their audience and the landscape of modern media. Never longer than 15 seconds, they offer a bitesize message that can catch even the most flickering attention span. Their miniature length also make them eminently shareable, not to mention perfect for TV segments (a medium his rivals have paid heavily to muscle into). Meanwhile, their visual idiom reinforces Trump’s core messaging: the plush workplace setting, with leather chair and wall certificates, present him as a high-flying businessman, while the grainy, smartphone aesthetic presents him as a man of the people. Together, this means that Trump gets heard when he wants, where he wants, the way he wants, all for free. Corbyn depends on a similar rhetorical sleight of hand.
Corbyn’s paradox – and one that makes him politically compelling – is that his personality is based on a rejection of personality politics. This is most pronounced in his videos: he must star in a video without drawing too much attention to himself; he must self-promote with self-effacement. And so, by camouflaging with his beige surroundings, Corbyn is both there and not there, hovering in a state of semi-presence, pointing to the issues, not himself. The low-production only adds to this, demonstrating a laissez-faire attitude towards his appearance (he happily posts photos with his eyes closed). Modest, self-effacing, straight-talking – the video’s aesthetic skillfully navigates Corbyn’s complex public persona, while seeming clumsily put together.
The appearance of artlessness is a key weapon in many politicians’ armoury. ‘Our leaders are stupid. Our politicians are stupid’’, Trump will declare, showing that he’s a straight shooter, setting himself apart from the Washington wonks like Clinton, who is known to come out with phrases like ‘geologic sequestration’. Emma Brockes has dubbed this technique ‘rehearsed inarticulacy’. At best, it crudely insists, ‘I’m just like you’; at worst, it manipulates audiences into letting their guard down. The intentional use of this device is an ancient rhetorical technique called ars celare artem, literally ‘art to conceal art’. In his 95CE manual on rhetoric, Institutio Oratoria, Quintilian explains its origins:
A scrupulous judge is always specially ready to listen to an advocate whom he does not suspect to have designs on his integrity. Hence arose the tendency of ancient orators to pretend to conceal their eloquence (4.pr.9-10)
Though he may be less rehearsed in his inarticulacy, Corbyn’s stutters and flat delivery contribute to an image of being authentic and un-spun, as does his videos’ PowerPoint aesthetic. In a political world of set pieces and soundbites, Trump and Corbyn’s rhetoric, despite occupying opposite ends of the spectrum, succeeds by being concealed. Verbally and visually, they say to us: ‘we are unfiltered’.
Ars celare artem may not be anything new, but it is becoming a defining tactic of digital politics, and is set to peak with the spread of virtual reality technology. That social media is moving at some speed towards virtual reality is well known; Trump’s first-person videos anticipate this. How will politicians capitalise on virtual reality as it becomes widespread? This recent video by Barack Obama, shot in first-person and broadcast live, gives us a clue. With virtual reality, the filters between citizen and politician will appear to dissolve entirely, and we will experience an illusion of intimacy. The only thing missing is a personalised message. Enter political micro-targeting.
During the 2012 US presidential election, Obama’s team (which included Chris Hughes, one of Facebook’s founders) purchased an extraordinary amount of data about voters from Microsoft and Yahoo, and then proceeded to segment voters into simpler categories ‘simpler categories of voters’. They then used these categories to inform variants of a single campaign message, each of which centered on ‘particular issues the campaigns believed those voters would be responsive to.’ By understanding everything from who voters’ friends were to which websites they’d visited, Obama’s campaign was able to tailor what to say to whom with unparalleled precision.
That was four years ago. How will elections work in four years’ time, or forty? Will we have private encounters with virtual politicians, who use your lifetime’s worth of data to algorithmically personalise your conversation? Politicians have always sought, as Quintilian put it, to ‘conceal their eloquence’. Yet as politicians conceal a new kind of digital eloquence, resisting seduction becomes ever more futile.
 ‘Strategic Communication in a Networked Age’, Daniel Kriess and Creighton Welch, p 8 [https://danielkreiss.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/kreisswelch_strategiccommunication.pdf]