So, Is That The Truth?

Peter Kruger

So, Harold Wilson had Bert to assist him should an interviewer catch him off guard. Midway through answers to an awkward questions the Prime Minister put a pipe in his mouth: but before doing so said ‘but’ which, due to his Yorkshire accent, was pronounced ‘Bert.’ The interviewer, and television viewers, were forced to wait while Wilson lit his pipe, inhaled smoke and, more importantly, thought of a suitable answer. This is not, in the age of 24hr news, with smoking and prolonged periods of silence both prohibited, a trick you could employ today. So, instead of Bert there is the far simpler but arguably more effective, ‘so’ - essential for any politician ambushed in a BBC studio at 8-o-clock in the morning.

The magic word ‘so,’ which admittedly works better during an interrogation by Emily Maitlis than as the first word of an article, is a linguistic trick fooling an interviewer into believing that even before the interviewee starts speaking the question has been answered. It relies on the assumption ‘so’ is only used at the beginning of the last, rather than the first, sentence in a paragraph (see example above). Grant Shapps and Rishi Sunak are selective, using ‘so’ only when blindsided: Nadhim Zahawi, on the other hand, is a serial offender prefixing responses to even the simplest of enquiries with the magic word.

So, (I will try stop doing that) how did it start? From where did British politicians learn this form of evasion, distraction, deception or let us call it what it is, lying by omission? Blame Mark Zucker because anyone who had endured a grilling from a parliamentary committee would have been impressed by the ease with which the high-tech entrepreneur tied his interrogators in knots during a congressional hearing into data sharing. Admittedly few senators know how to change a printer cartridge let alone understand how Cambridge Analytica used our Facebook data and Zuckerberg managed to confine his embarrassing explanations to those non-existent parts of his testimony preceding a series of robotically repeated sos.

So, (sorry), why did no one challenge Zuckerberg or for that matter Britain’s so-so MPs? Unfortunately, interviewers are reluctant to pick up on something regarded as a verbal tick. When questioning a politician who stutters it would be deemed impertinent a say. “Prime Minister the people are expecting an explanation on the state of the economy, not your impression of a motorboat.” Even so, now most of us understand how the ‘so’ trick works, why has no interviewer said ‘Sorry, you said ‘so’ but I’m afraid I missed the first part of your answer: which, as this would go viral on social media, would close down the ‘so’ business overnight. The closest anyone has come to doing this was BBC’s Charlie Stayt interrupting Nadhim Zahawi because he no longer understood what he was talking about. Zahawi, the government minister for education, had thought, with good reason, that having provided an imaginary answer, he was free to fill in the redundant space with a collection of random words: useful when taking on the role of unofficial spokesman for Boris Johnson.

For the most part the liberal use of ‘so’ is either tedious or annoyingly amusing. Nadhim Zahawi comes across as someone with nothing to say but feeling compelled to say it. More pernicious is Dr Jenny Harries Chief Executive UK Health Security Agency inserting ‘so’ at the beginning of her partial explanations of Britain’s Covid 19 vaccination strategy.

A small army of highly paid linguists and psychologists conjured up the magic Zuckerberg performs during interviews and the tricks built into Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. The more pervasive these networks become, the more our language is corrupted and used to distort the truth. ‘I’m not a great fan of politician A but …’ is a common opening gambit in social media posts, especially in the run up to general elections. It is a lie of course because here is an ardent supporter of politician A going head-to-head with people claiming ‘Up to now I’ve supported politician B but this time they are totally wrong …’ The aim is to break the resolve of political opponents by creating uncertainty and doubt. The demise of Cambridge Analytica failed to draw a line under the use of social media to nudge waverers: the techniques merely became less automated and, as they corrupted our language, more personal. We are all Dominic Cummings now.

So, (last time, I promise) what of truth in the social media age? Perhaps what technology took away it can give back. A group of Chinese researchers, having convinced one of Britain’s provincial universities to provide them with a high speed, high-definition video camera, experiment with the analysis of micro expressions. These tiny movements of facial muscles last not much longer than half a second, and while often the prelude to a smile or frown they are on occasions suppressed when a person hides their true feelings. Micro expressions are beyond our conscious control and therefore provide an insight into what we are thinking. Their monitoring is the holy grail of social media companies which earn most of their revenue from results-based advertising and will weaponise our mobile phone’s forward-facing camera to gain an insight into our beliefs and desires.

In the 1980s it was possible to display grainy video images on personal computers, but it would be another thirty years before we could make video calls with an iPhone. Given we have entered what the author Azeem Azhar describes as a period of exponential, technology driven, acceleration, no surprise that China is already using that micro expression analysis software to determine if Uyghurs have been successfully re-educated: one is constantly amazed by British universities’ lack of moral compass. Once a person’s innermost thoughts can be transmitted using the Internet there will be little difference between communicating via Zoom and speaking to someone face to face. Then online consultations with a GP will work with patients confident important information is not being withheld. On the other hand, how comfortable will you be knowing your children are exposed to subliminal communication with individuals and companies on Zuckerberg’s social media networks? And how will our politicians cope, because it will become blindingly obvious that every time Nadhim Zahawi or Jenny Harries begins a sentence with ‘so’ they are being economical with the truth. No doubt an enterprising software company will produce an app which uses a mobile phone’s camera as a lie detector. There may even be a traffic light-based ‘sincerity monitor’ on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

So (OK, I lied) the truth is out there somewhere, we just have to wait for tech companies to digitise it.