Sunday, August 21, 2016

feature at The Guardian on "How technology disrupted the truth"; fivethirtyeight author asks "Who WIll Debunk the Debunkers?"; and Jacques Ellul's definition of sociological propaganda (Big Brother can let us make our own spin on social media)

As regular readers no doubt already know, this year one of the books WtH has blogged about extensively is Propaganda, by Jacques Ellul.

Translated from the French by Konrad Kellen & Jean Lerner
Vintage Books Edition, February 1973
Copyright (c) 1965 by Alfred A Knopf Inc.
ISBN 0-394-71874-7
There's a concept Ellul described in his book called sociological propaganda and before we get to that definition he provided in his book, let's stroll through a couple of articles from this year's journalism about the problem of social media allowing for rumors and legends to circulate more quickly than anyone in the mainstream press can debunk them. As reported by Katharine Viner:


But while the possibilities for journalism have been strengthened by the digital developments of the last few years, the business model is under grave threat, because no matter how many clicks you get, it will never be enough. And if you charge readers to access your journalism you have a big challenge to persuade the digital consumer who is used to getting information for free to part with their cash.

News publishers everywhere are seeing profits and revenue drop dramatically. If you want a stark illustration of the new realities of digital media, consider the first-quarter financial results announced by the New York Times and Facebook within a week of one another earlier this year. The New York Times announced that its operating profits had fallen by 13%, to $51.5m – healthier than most of the rest of the publishing industry, but quite a drop. Facebook, meanwhile, revealed that its net income had tripled in the same period – to a quite staggering $1.51bn.

The impact on journalism of the crisis in the business model is that, in chasing down cheap clicks at the expense of accuracy and veracity, news organisations undermine the very reason they exist: to find things out and tell readers the truth – to report, report, report.

Many newsrooms are in danger of losing what matters most about journalism: the valuable, civic, pounding-the-streets, sifting-the-database, asking-challenging-questions hard graft of uncovering things that someone doesn’t want you to know. Serious, public-interest journalism is demanding, and there is more of a need for it than ever. It helps keep the powerful honest; it helps people make sense of the world and their place in it. Facts and reliable information are essential for the functioning of democracy – and the digital era has made that even more obvious.
Earlier this year over at fivethirtyeight we had one Daniel Engber asking who will debunk those who make it a point of debunking? Along the way we get some stories about classic cases of unheeded researchers that turn out to be, well, "supermyths".

Emerging from the rabbit hole, Sutton began to puzzle over what he’d found. This wasn’t just any sort of myth, he decided, but something he would term a “supermyth”: A story concocted by respected scholars and then credulously disseminated in order to promote skeptical thinking and “to help us overcome our tendency towards credulous bias.”  [emphasis added] The convolution of this scenario inspired him to look for more examples. “I’m rather a sucker for such complexity,” he told me.

Could [Mike] Sutton be a modern-day version of Ignaz Semmelweis, the Hungarian physician who noticed in the 1840s that doctors were themselves the source of childbed fever in his hospital’s obstetric ward? Semmelweis had reduced disease mortality by a factor of 10 — a fully displaced decimal point — simply by having doctors wash their hands in a solution of chlorinated lime. But according to the famous tale, his innovations were too radical for the time. Ignored and ridiculed for his outlandish thinking, Semmelweis eventually went insane and died in an asylum. Arbesman, author of “The Half-Life of Facts,” has written about the moral of this story too. “Even if we are confronted with facts that should cause us to update our understanding of the way the world works,” he wrote, “we often neglect to do so.”

Of course, there’s always one more twist: Sutton doesn’t believe this story about Semmelweis. That’s another myth, he says — another tall tale, favored by academics, that ironically demonstrates the very point that it pretends to make. Citing the work of Sherwin Nuland, Sutton argues that Semmelweis didn’t go mad from being ostracized, and further that other physicians had already recommended hand-washing in chlorinated lime. The myth of Semmelweis, says Sutton, may have originated in the late 19th century, when a “massive nationally funded Hungarian public relations machine” placed biased articles into the scientific literature. Semmelweis scholar Kay Codell Carter concurs, at least insofar as Semmelweis was not, in fact, ignored by the medical establishment: From 1863 through 1883, he was cited dozens of times, Carter writes, “more frequently than almost anyone else.”

Yet despite all this complicating evidence, scholars still tell the simple version of the Semmelweis story and use it as an example of how other people — never them, of course — tend to reject information that conflicts with their beliefs. That is to say, the scholars reject conflicting information about Semmelweis, evincing the Semmelweis reflex, even as they tell the story of that reflex. It’s a classic supermyth! [emphasis added]

The story about Semmelweis may not be true but it's got a shelf life because it's the false story that conveys what people consider philosophically true.  But this kind of supermyth, in which an idea promulgated by scholars that's promoted as factually accurate in spite of a dearth of evidence, might not just be an example of how academics are human, too (and in his book discussing King David Jacob Wright essentially demonstrated that one of the pervasive supermyths in biblical scholarship is that the Samuel narratives "whitewash" David of wrongdoing when anyone who spends any time at all with the actual narratives and knows how ancient hagiographies worked across the region would find otherwise).  The supermyth may well be, for the sake of discussion, the scholastic variation of the dynamic at play in social media that Viner has lamented. 

It doesn't seem too huge a stretch to propose that Jacques Ellul's "sociological propaganda" might be able to encompass the echo chambers of social media on the one hand and the supermyths of academics on the other (and Ellul, for those who have read him, described education within state-sponsored contexts as a kind of necessary pre-propaganda).

So here's Ellul on what he meant:

Propaganda, page 64

Sociological propaganda springs up spontaneously; it is not the result of deliberate propaganda action. No propagandists deliberately use this method, though many practice it unwittingly, and tend in this direction without realizing it. For example, when an American producer makes a film, he has certain definite ideas he wants to express, which are not intended to be propaganda. Rather, the propaganda element is in the American way of life with which he is permeated and which he expresses in his film without realizing it. [emphases added] We see here the force of expansion of a vigorous society, which is totalitarian in the sense of the integration of the individual, and which leads to involuntary behavior.

from pages 64-65

Sociological propaganda expresses itself in many different ways--in advertising, in movies (commercial and non-political films), in technology in general, in education ... All these influences are in basic accord with each other and lead spontaneously in the same direction; one hesitates to call this propaganda.  Such influences, which mold behavior, seem a far cry from Hitler's propaganda setup. Unintentional (at least in the first stage), non-political, organized along spontaneous patterns and rhythms, the activities we have lumped together ... are not considered propaganda by either sociologists or the average public. [emphasis added]

And  yet with deeper and more objective analysis, what do we find? These influences are expressed through the same media as propaganda. They are really directed by those who make propaganda. To me this fact seems essential. A government, for example, will have is own public relations, and will also make propaganda. Most of the activities described in this chapter have identical purposes. Besides, these influences follow the same stereotypes and prejudices as propaganda; they stir the same feelings and act on the individual in the same fashion. These are the similarities, which bring these two aspects of propaganda closer together ...

... Such activities are propaganda to the extent that the combination of advertising, public relations, social welfare, and so on produces a certain general conception of society, a particular way of life. ... the individual in the clutches of such sociological propaganda believes that those who live this way are on the side of angels, and those who don't are bad; those who have this conception of society are right, and those who have another conception are in error. Consequently, just as with ordinary propaganda, it is a matter of propagating behavior and myths both good and bad. Furthermore, such propaganda becomes increasingly effective when those subjected to it accept its doctrines on what is good or bad (for example, the American Way of Life). There, a whole society actually expresses itself through this propaganda by advertising it's kind of life.

By doing that, a society engages in propaganda on the deepest level. ... [emphasis added]

If you take to Facebook to share how those people are spreading propaganda on this or that political issue you are yourself engaging in propaganda, sociological propaganda in Ellul's taxonomy of the behavior.
It's hardly a stretch to propose that the way we see ourselves treating each other on Facebook and Twitter and the comments sections of news articles seems to affirm this. 

Social media has become the vector for what Ellul described as sociological propaganda.  Big Brother never needs to make this kind of propaganda, though, because Big Brother gets the basic idea that whenever you take to social media you will voluntarily choose to make this kind of propaganda yourself simply by how you participate in social media. When you take to Facebook or Twitter to opine on the political world and promote your political views you aren't serving Big Brother, you are Big Brother to the extent that you participate in a cycle of sociological propaganda.  Ellul's warning that in order to understand contemporary propagandistic techniques we must understand that they are scientific might need to get revisited. Ellul proposed that the sociologist and the psychologist are no more off the hook for the application of their discoveries than physicists can disclaim credit for discoveries applied in the use of nuclear weapons.  Ellul even went so far as to propose that in order to understand the foundation of American propagandistic approaches you have to understand the ideas of Dewey. 

And here we are with journalists and scholars wondering how on earth it all came to this and yet it would seem the overall process, however long it has taken, is ultimately not that complex.  If the institutional formal media has not fully appreciated the speed with which social media has allowed for sociological propaganda to, er, propagate, there's time to catch up.  And if scholars have wondered how it is that people who it seems shouldn't have been able to move in the directions they moved step back a moment, maybe in our urging students to question everything on the basis of, say, supermyths, we didn't stop to consider that one of the side effects of a "supermyth" is that it can boomerang. 

One of the more popular and pervasive internet myths about Mark Driscoll that has been promoted by folks like Lindy West, and other writers with progressive/secularist/feminist interests is that Mark Driscoll said Ted Haggard's wife let herself go.  This is so easily debunked that doing it a sixth or seventh time isn't worth the trouble.  At this point it is enough to point out that the reason this internet legend stuck with progressives and secularists about Mark Driscoll is because it was something they wanted to be true because it appealed to the stereotype with which they have assessed Mark Driscoll as a stand-in for the entire twenty year history of Mars Hill and for Mark Driscoll as some kind of preacher in general.  So if it turns out that there were people at Mars Hill who were into Christian anarchism or sympathetic to socialism or politically progressive policies, well, it doesn't matter who those people were even if they did exist for the kinds of writers who contribute to AlterNet or Salon or even Slate.

Journalists have had their say about Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll but scholars are, no doubt, setting about to writing books and one of the things that will happen is that supermyths will form.   There will probably be no shortage of scholars who are ready to run with the idea that Mars Hill was right wing and the stereotypes about people on the right wing will inform their work.  If it were to turn out that a co-founding pastor of Mars Hill was happy to endorse Obama, whatever, Mark Driscoll has become the sole personality through which people attempt the history of the community that was known as Mars Hill.  That a former Mars Hill pastor recommended Ellul to me (before he was a pastor, granted) won't be of interest. 

Which is to say I'm proposing in advance that sociological propaganda can happen in the academy as well as social media. 

But there's the fact that we're here in 2016 with an election cycle and people have asked how we've gotten so balkanized toward each other, how it is that people red and blue seem so incapable of imagining that the other people are really American.  Well, Ellul wrote it wasn't clear what the long term impact of the two parties in the United States embracing the methods of propaganda might be, but if they went for it the likely result would be that third parties could never possibly catch up to having comparable levels of influence and that the two would remain the only two formal options. 

I'm not an optimist about the future of the United States and it's not because we don't have a wonderful nation in so many respects, it's because so many are in the thrall of a propaganda war between red state and blue state, between left and right, between groups who have fashioned mythologies for themselves in which they and their constituencies are the heroes and the other folks are villains, but all these folks are fellow citizens.  Ellul's warning was that once democracy had been transformed from a process of government into a way of life that it would in the end prove as emotionally and intellectually and socially totalitarian in its conduct as a bunch of storm troopers. 

The way people behave on Facebook and Twitter seem to have proven Ellul right there.

1 comment:

Cal P said...

The amazing thing about this election is how a NY real-estate mogul with his fingers in strip-clubs and all kinds of decadence, remarried multiple times, and has a significantly younger wife is running as the family candidate. And the Democrats have produced the most hawkish and conservative candidate since, perhaps, Lyndon Johnson (maybe Polk!).

The read-blue anger keeps the election cycle going. It's politics as war and necessity that keeps the flames burning. It's a sort-of reversal of Madison's warning about factionalism. If there were little to no antagonism, no one would show up at the polls for Clinton or Trump and a 30-40% voter turnout might cause a crisis for the American system.

Self-propagating social propaganda is the balm for this, as it refreshes and rejuvenates the hatred so it might continue in dynamic and elastic form. In someways, it's the only way things keep going, a sort of virtual-violence reenactment of the Spartans slaughtering the Helots annually to keep the fear at bay. Scapegoating is a way of life.

America is a spiritual Assyria.