July 20, 2020 - 11:44am

The internet outdid itself this weekend with a brand-new conspiracy theory: Boris Johnson’s baby is a fake.

An official photo was released, showing Boris Johnson alongside Carrie Symonds and their newborn baby. On cue, the more barmy of those internet-dwellers who automatically suspect anything Boris-related of foul play took to Twitter to cancel Wilfred Lawrie Nicholas Johnson.

Or, more accurately perhaps, to unperson him, on the grounds of not being a real baby but a Photoshop edit. Or being real, but actually a rented toddler. Or a real baby, but much older than claimed, and possibly the child of one of Boris’ other lovers. Or perhaps being a fake baby and also a Russian asset.

To help understand what happened, here’s a photo of my own giant baby:

At first glance the picture seems to show a six-foot toddler on a pub bench. In fact she’s a normal-sized child, 18 months old in that photo, and that’s a miniature picnic bench.

Anyone actually standing in my back garden looking at a toddler on a child-sized table would see both the illusion and also how absurd it is, because the rest of the scene provides scale and context. Adrift from its setting, though, the idea that I might have a six-foot toddler becomes almost plausible, and the image almost disturbing.

Our politics increasingly comprises such images, shorn of their context and released into the wild to accrue ever more unhinged re-interpretations, in no small part because we don’t do politics – or anything much – face to face any more.

Politics was first relentlessly centralised by successive governments of both left and right, eroding local civic engagement in favour of politics-as-spectator-sport conducted with growing peevishness at national level. This has been compounded by the virtualisation of nearly everything under lockdown, which has stripped us almost completely of opportunities to reality-check our increasingly hyper-mediated debate.

What’s emerging in the smoking ruins of the public square is a political discourse in which facts are largely beside the point. Despite their name, the aim of truthers – of the Boris baby variety, or any other variety – is not to establish truth at all, but rather to frolic in the intoxicating waters of speculation and counter-narrative that now comprise the majority of our politics. The closest analogy I can think of is children’s play, in which the storyline is understood as factually pretend but also deeply serious, and at an emotional level deeply real.

If this mindset replaces our existing rationalist one as the principal register for politics (and I think it will) this will have profound implications. Those leaders who flourish will be the ones most adept at shaping the narrative of a game with no outside, and an internal logic more mythic than fact-based, in a world where truth is increasingly of secondary importance.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.