Probing for Meaning in the Media
Gaslighting, data overload, and “Propaganda 2.0”
“We are in a universe where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.”
Jean Baudrillard, The Implosion of Meaning in the Media
On a recent Wednesday evening in a Political Media seminar I was talking about the well-known Herman and Chomsky propaganda model — media ownership, advertising dependence, reliance on official sources, defining an enemy. Al Jazeera made a great video about it last year. Even after watching this I soon found myself feeling disengaged and inadequate to the task of describing what propaganda has become in 2018. Maybe I was picking up the mood of the students, for whom Chomsky’s 1988 is a literal lifetime ago. If we have entered the tunnel of the death of truth, as Carl Bernstein, Michiko Kakutani and just about everyone I know has asserted, our political vocabulary and radar need a makeover, too, in ways that have pragmatic more than academic consequences.
The idea that government and corporations manufacture consent by communicating propaganda to the “masses” rather than the popular illusion that ideas move upward from the “people” is a foundational idea of political media. Despite the fact that most of the propaganda model is still useful, it and other classic propaganda categories like Herman and Chomsky simply do not stretch far enough to map onto the current media and political landscape.
20th Century Propaganda
Let’s take as a starting point the assertions that, in general, propaganda 1) benefits the source; 2) does not benefit the receiver; 3) is intended to conceal motives; and 4) is often repeated, sometimes using multiple media. Many of us pick up on the most common list of propaganda devices as early as high school:
- Testimonial support (Typically from a highly credible source, like in those commercials with actor Tom Selleck sonorously pitching reverse mortgages.)
- Pandering to plain folks (Establishing common ground — a prevalent rhetorical device even outside of propaganda.)
- Jumping on the bandwagon (Wearing your MAGA gear! )
- Glittering generalities (“I have done more than any president.”)
- Card stacking and cherry picking (Often used in climate change denial.)
- Name-calling (“The press is the enemy of the people.”)
- Loaded language (Like when “taking a knee” is called unpatriotic.)
- Mis/disinformation (Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction)
Some of these tactics can be traced to Edward Bernays, often called the “father” of both public relations and propaganda (he was also Sigmund Freud’s nephew). In 1929, Bernays created the “Torches of Freedom” ad campaign to link female emancipation with smoking – all too successfully one might conclude. By identifying smoking with both patriotism and emancipation as bandwagon issues, Bernays created a potent and persuasive “meme” as we might say today — thanks to Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976). (Watch this video from HowStuffWorks for a sense of campaign’s impact.)
Classic propaganda tactics are still serviceable concepts, but in today’s treacherous terrain propaganda strategies need more contemporary clear-minded attention. While a propaganda tactic can appear one or more times as a message in single or multiple media, propaganda strategies are patterns of multiple or repeated messages potentially across multiple media and across time operating at one or more semantic levels. To put it simply, if a tactic is intended to portray a worldly phenomenon, a strategy attempts to portray a world.
What The Economist called “Propaganda 2.0” has many more moving parts and is based on a more complex set of assumptions than the “truth/lie,” “either/or,” two-valued logic of its classic predecessor. To understand the context of evolving propaganda practice, it is helpful to take a look at some relevant history and philosophy. I distinguish propaganda as a tool used by power and control factions from the inventive strategies of counter-power, as enacted by the Occupy movement and described by Indivisible. For an excellent framework for a vocabulary about agitation and control strategies, John Bowers and Donovan Ochs’ Rhetoric of Agitation and Control is a standard source.
Propaganda in philosophy
Underlying the question of old or new propaganda as well as more neutral use of language is the sticky wicket of “truth.” Truth is a short simple word that holds within it a universe of linguistics, philosophy, and science. Greek philosopher Heraclitus contemplated contradiction and later Zeno of Elea tantalized with his examples of paradox. Corax of Syracuse made an equally important contribution by introducing the idea of argument from probability when factual documents are unavailable. He was trying in court to reclaim land that had been seized and the original deeds were missing. Corax demonstrated that probability could be used for good ends, but his student Tisias perhaps learned too well. The legend goes that when Tisias refused to pay Corax for his teaching, Corax took him to court. Tisias argued that if he won the argument he of course would not have to pay, and if he lost the argument it confirmed the case that his education from Corax was worthless, so he would not have to pay anyway. With this circular feat, Tisias demonstrated that probability could be employed for better or worse ends. Not only does a probabilistic view of “truth” place it along a continuum of more or less likely rather than true or false, but it introduces circular logic as human tendency, as Tisias shows us. It is only a small step from this to “alternative facts,” and soon we are going around in circles and back and forth at the same time.
Plato hated the idea of truth as variable — truth had a capital–T — it was an absolute, if only in the abstract world of ideal forms. In the Gorgias and Phaedrus dialogues, Plato’s Socrates argues strenuously against the value of argument from probability. For his own part, Plato saw it as a hallmark of the despised Sophists, who only wanted to win but claimed to understand Truth. Some suggest that Plato hated the Sophists because they were more popular than he, which is an entertaining thought regardless of authenticity.
Sophistry is so pervasive today that even Plato would be spinning to keep up with it. Broadcast and social media have both spawned not only a gaggle of televangelists, radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, and many advertising, marketing and branding wizards, but as far as we can tell thousands of bots who prove that it is not only humans who can spread tall tales and lies by the millions. When the barrier to entry for using media to broadcast was high, the playing field was small and knowing who to trust was taken for granted. Now that opinion leaders like trusted news anchors have been replaced by internet “influencers” like the teenager next door in his basement, the playing field is infinite and the game is on.
Probably even more influential than Plato was his contrarian star student Aristotle with the “law of noncontradiction” (i.e., “A” cannot be not “-A”) in the Metaphysics. As a result, contradiction and paradox were banished from Western thinking for all practical purposes. Add this to the linear structure of the syllogism (also codified by Aristotle), and binary linear logic drives a one-dimensional one-way epistemology that by accident more than intent (with help from the Catholic church) has predominated in Western thought ever since. Eastern thinkers like Confucius and Lao Tzu construct more of a “both/and” frame, but that is a subject for another time. (For more, see Richard Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought.)
The problem with polar, “either/or” thinking (unless you are a computer programmer) is that human communication — and even more so political communication — does not behave tidily along a flat line. It is richer than binary and evidently can be multileveled, diachronic, shaded, context-dependent, transactional, and recursive. Even the Washington Post’s measurement of Donald Trump’s lies expands beyond binary “true/false” to “false/misleading” vis-à-vis their scale of 1-4 “Pinocchios.”
I don’t believe that the rejection of absolutism necessarily leads to relativism — another problematic binary. Radical constructivism can end up eating its own tail. But truth is fungible. Marshall McLuhan called his explorations in media “probes,” not “packages.”
The toxic political polarization and partisanship in the U.S. and much of Europe and Latin America is only the latest manifestation of the dangers of binary thinking. Add this to the radical fragmentation of media and the concomitant inclination of audiences to attend exclusively to sources that are consistent with their initial biases and, like it or not, here we are. As Baudrillard, our Patron Saint of Hyperreality, wrote “More and more information and less and less meaning.”
During the year of run up to the first Gulf War in 1990, I noticed that every other day the newspaper headlines were different: war/peace, war/peace, war/peace. This kept any anti-war mobilization off balance because it was a months-long trend that had the effect of mass hypnotism. The resultant study done with my students, “The Rhetorical Roller Coaster to War,” was published in the literary magazine at San Francisco State. Indeed, when the students and I examined five months of headlines
this war/peace pattern predominated — but why? The terminally paranoid like myself suggested that a single headline was not important, but the pattern might be strategic, designed to keep potential anti-war activists confused and unable to build momentum. You would have to draw your own conclusions from the data, since we had no supporting government documents (yet), but it is not wild speculation to imagine that the “confusion technique,” well-known in therapy and hypnotherapy — might have played a role.
It is certainly the case that some classical propaganda techniques (e.g., glittering generalities, bandwagon, plain folks) did not much matter. Those that did, like name-calling, were not sufficient to explain the widespread passive acceptance of the war. One strategy of counter-protest is occupation. The SFSU students, who constructed an entire multi-building shantytown in the middle of campus in protest, were the exception. I remember fondly the ramshackle “Huey P. Newton Dining Hall,” the “Angela Davis Library,” and the mock graveyard that provoked very real feelings. One surreal memory was standing in the early evening with Angela Davis, a colleague, surveying the candlelit village. After more than a month the bulldozers and SFPD came, as they are wont to do when protest becomes too effective. Counter-groups are often allowed to use petition, promulgation, and physical protest, but usually not for long. As my friend and dual veteran (of activism and Vietnam) S. Brian Willson says, “You are free to protest in the U.S. as long as you are not effective at it.”
Three features distinguish classic propaganda from “propaganda 2.0.” First, classic propaganda generally focuses on single messages, even if repeated; new propaganda focuses on patterns of messages. Where classic propaganda employed mono or dual media, new propaganda is radically multi-media. Finally, classical propaganda is tactical, based on limited scope; new propaganda is strategic, always with an eye toward the big picture.
Take, for instance, the cinemagenic (film borne) practice of “gaslighting,” a concept not even imagined in the heyday of Bernays. To gaslight is to manipulate the perception of another person to destabilize them and, usually, make them think they are crazy. The term comes from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play of the same name, better popularized by the later film adaptation starring Ingrid Bergman. In that 1944 thriller, Bergman’s Paula Alquist is driven insane by her husband, who denies his changing of the gas lights and also manipulates many small things in her environment, further denying doing so to challenge her perception of reality and hide his bloody secret. It doesn’t end well (see Vox’s explanation for more). This is a strategic pattern involving multiple messages, and is not in any way accounted for by classic propaganda.
Let’s take a look at a sample of other types of Propaganda 2.0, some serious, some a little more whimsical:
- Words vs evidence from the senses (“Who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”)
- Mixed/contradictory messaging
- Mind-bending/mind-fucking/mind games
- Confusion technique (Milton Erickson)
- Numbing/desensitization (“So many lies, so little time.”)
- Omission (“Lies often hide in the things left unmentioned.”)
- Alternative facts (Sarah Sanders using a doctored video of Jim Acosta’s White House brouhaha as back-up)
- “Truthiness” (Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2006, which Stephen Colbert invented for the pilot of The Colbert Report)
- False attribution (Donald Trump referring to Democrats as an “angry, left-wing mob” and the “party of crime”)
- The truth of words vs. truth of actions (“Don’t piss on my foot and tell me it’s raining.”)
- Shooting the messenger (“The media is the enemy of the people.”)
- Double bind (the inability to meta-communicate)
- False equivalency or balance (“I know 99.5% of scientists believe in humans can cause climate change, but it was so cold last summer.“)
What all of these have in common is an underlying attempt to obscure the truth, be it physical or environmental or political. These cunning tactics and strategies are amplified by today’s entropic media environment and the dissolution of traditional community opinion leadership, norms and practices.
We keep hearing that we are in a new age of both media and politics, but we do not hear enough about how these developments require new ways of thinking: more complex, more ecological, more mindful; more humane. Gregory Bateson spoke often of the “pattern that connects” all things. Thinking in patterns is helpful if you are growing a garden, a baby, a book, or a life. Or if you are growing a vocabulary to counter those whose disrespect for the earth and others requires right mind, right words, and right action.
Carol Wilder is Professor and Dean of Media Studies at The New School, professor emerita at San Francisco State University and a Fulbright Scholar. She is an award-winning filmmaker, as well as the author of Rigor and Imagination: Essays From the Legacy of Gregory Bateson, Crossing the Street in Hanoi: Teaching and Learning About Vietnam, and numerous essays and articles.