How Boris Johnson's "model bus hobby" non sequitur manipulated the public discourse and his search results

Boris Johnson is a racist, sexist, homophobic lying buffoon who has been repeatedly caught out using lies to sway public opinion, and that's why he's likely to lead the UK Conservative party and become the country's Prime Minister.

Johnson is a master of media manipulation (right down to his bufoonish public persona), but his powers were taxed by the police responding to a seeming incident of domestic violence at his home, after which Johnson went into hiding, refusing to talk to the media. This silence was a major impediment to Johnson's ability to campaign for leadership of the Conservatives and the country, so eventually he was going to have to talk to a reporter and answer questions about what had gone on at his home that night.

Finally, on June 25, Johnson gave a bizarre interview with Talkradio in which he announced, apropos of nothing, that he liked to turn wine-crates into models of buses: "I have a thing where I make models of buses. What I make is, I get old, I don't know, wooden crates, and I paint them. It's a box that's been used to contain two wine bottles, right, and it will have a dividing thing. And I turn it into a bus."

As Glyn Moody writes, the derision and satire that followed might well have been a deliberate strategy. First, it downshifted the Boris Johnson scandal: instead of asking "Did Boris Johnson beat up his wife?" the press started asking "Does Boris Johnson really make buses out of old wine-crates?" The former is (presumably) a disqualifier in a campaign to be Prime Minister; the latter is merely faintly absurd.

Indeed, Johnson has explicitly described this gambit before, calling it the dead cat maneuver: if you've been caught out doing something terrible, just throw a dead cat in the middle of the dining room table. People will still be angry at you, but they'll be angry at you about the dead cat, not about the thing you were trying to bury.

But even more sinister is what this did to Johnson's SEO.

Prior to the model-bus interview, if you googled "boris johnson bus" you would learn about Johnson's infamous "Brexit Battle Bus" which was driven around the UK in the runup to the Brexit vote, emblazoned with the lie that "We send the EU £350 million a week, let's fund our NHS instead. Vote Leave." This is unequivocally false, and according to polls, it was an extremely compelling one, which may have tipped the Brexit vote for Leave (this can be said of many factors, of course, because the final vote was 51.9% to 48.1%, and would have gone the other way if only 634,751 people out of 33,551,983 had changed their votes).

Today, the results are a mix of stories about the model bus hobby and the Brexit bus (as well as stories about whether this was a media manipulation gambit). In a month or a year, the Brexit bus might be off the page altogether.

Remember, any time a politician deliberately acts like an idiot in public, there's a good chance that they're doing it deliberately, and even if they're not, public idiocy can be very useful indeed.

A day after the dead cat was thrown on the table, twitter user @MrKennyCampbell realized that Johnson's incoherent rambling about model buses was also a Google bomb. Previously, searches for "boris bus" on Google threw up that lie about how much the UK sent to the EU, and Johnson's tacit agreement with it. Now the same search shows stories about Johnson's passion for making model buses. References to the big red Brexit bus and its slogan have been pushed off the top Google hits, effectively consigning the story about Johnson to relative digital oblivion.

This is such a brilliant example of political search engine optimization that it's hard to believe someone as buffoonish as Johnson would be capable of pulling it off intentionally. Nonetheless, whether it was fiendishly clever planning, or an unbelievably lucky improvisation, there's no denying the episode stands as an object lesson in how to combine the dead cat strategy with a Google bomb to great effect.

Boris Johnson, UK's Answer To Trump, Offers A Masterclass In How To Use The Dead Cat Strategy Combined With A Google Bomb [Glyn Moody/Techdirt]

(Image: Dr Dunno/B3ta)