This post is part of the Thoughts on Black Mirror series. It analyzes the first episode of season 1 (S01E01 – The National Anthem) and it contains spoilers. If you haven’t watched the episode yet and you’re planning to watch it soon, proceed at your own discretion.
What is the Black Mirror series?
Before we dive into the episode, let’s first talk about the series. Black Mirror is a thought provoking series that explores some unanticipated consequences of new technologies. It shows us scenarios that could happen in the near future, where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide. Every episode is unique and shares a stand-alone story. While watching Black Mirror, you start to see how technology can bring up and magnify the ugliest aspects of human nature. From social media to AI to the constant seeking of public approval, the series portrays a lot of ideas and makes you think about the future. Will technology lead us to an age of enlightenment and equality, or will it drown us into black and dark ages?
Recap of “The National Anthem”
In “The National Anthem”, the British prime minister faces a huge dilemma after someone kidnaps Princess Susannah. There’s only one demand for her safe return: that the PM has sexual intercourse with a pig at 4:00 pm the next day, broadcast live on national TV. The PM strictly opposes the demand and asks that the ransom video doesn’t reach the public. However, it was too late for that. The video had been uploaded on YouTube, and even though it was taken down within 9 minutes, people had already downloaded it and made duplicates.
The PM asked that his team takes all measures to find the kidnapper, and made it clear that he won’t comply to the demands. However, his team was also working on a contingency plan behind his back. They tried figuring out a way to fake the video. The public was on the PM’s side: they thought that this was horrible and disgusting and that he shouldn’t do it.
When the kidnapper discovers their plan to fake the footage, he sends Princess Susannah’s finger to a UK news station as a warning. Right after that, the public opinion shifted. Now they all want the PM to comply, saying that his humiliation is nothing compared to the Princess’s suffering. To make it worse, the rescue operation to find the kidnapper fails and the PM runs out of time. And with threats to his and his family’s safety, he finally decides to comply.
The PM has sex with the pig in front of a live global audience, and the princess is released as promised. In addition to that, they discover that she was released (unnoticed) 30 minutes before the broadcast started and that the finger wasn’t hers. The kidnapper then is shown committing suicide. A year after the broadcast, the PM’s public image is intact and his approval rates are still high, but his relationship with his wife in private didn’t survive the strike. The kidnapper was also discovered to be a past award winning artist, which made some people say that what he did was one of the greatest artwork of the century.
1. The uncontrollable nature of viral content
The main reason why this scandal took place is because it went viral on social media platforms and the government could do nothing about it. The video of the ransom was trending on Twitter, in addition to being cloned and re-uploaded every time it was taken down. This can be both a blessing and a curse. The good thing about it is that governments can no longer suppress information from going public. On the other side, it means that once something goes online, it’s nearly impossible to fully delete it from the Internet. When the nature of the content going viral is personal, it can cause psychological damage to the person it concerns. The effects of this damage can be seen in the content that bullies people (especially teenagers), and causes them to lose their self confidence.
Even after one year of the broadcast, the PM’s personal life is still damaged. Even though his wife makes public appearances with him, she’s not over what happened yet. We see her refusing to talk to him when they’re in private at their home. The damage done by viral content portrayed in the media can be sometimes irreparable.
2. The enjoyment of humiliation
Even though at first a lot of people were against complying with the ransom demands, some people were making fun of it and laughing at the situation. The PM’s wife summarizes what was happening in one line: “I know people. We love humiliation. We can’t not laugh. […] It’s already happening in their heads”. Despite the disgusting nature of the act, people were still determined to watch it. Even though it adds no value to their life, they saw it as some sort of entertainment. And even after they witnessed how psychologically and emotionally damaged the PM was on the broadcast, they kept watching. For an entire hour.
The ironic thing is that the princess was released 30 minutes before the broadcast was supposed to start, but no one noticed. They were too busy looking at the TV and waiting for their show. If anyone saw the princess in time, the entire thing wouldn’t have necessarily happened.
3. The public opinion can always shift dramatically
When the media started covering the kidnapping event, online polls showed that 72% of the people were against compliance with the ransom demand. Those who were interviewed all talked about how horrible the act would be. However, after the kidnapper sent a warning in the form of a chopped finger, everything changed. Everyone was now expecting the PM to do as the kidnapper demanded. If we think about it, the circumstances didn’t change dramatically. Even before the warning, the people knew that the princess would be killed if the kidnapper’s demand wasn’t met. However, they didn’t see the PM as responsible for that. Seeing a chopped finger was enough to shift their opinion. Not only the PM was now expected to comply, he was also threatened in case he didn’t do it.
This makes us think about how easy it is to manipulate mass opinion towards something. Even small acts can shift people’s perspectives in an opposite direction.
We hope you enjoyed reading today’s article, and we’ll cover more episodes in the future. Make sure to subscribe so that you don’t miss the next episode!