After the Fact?

Marcus Gilroy-Ware

Back when I was a university undergraduate, my chosen major in studying the effects and efficacy of propaganda systems didn't render me very amicable. For a while it caused me to act irrationally, with my fear of commercial advertising approaching that of a phobia, making many of my friends beg—more often threaten—me to chill the fuck out. So obscure a topic it was, my masochistic indulgences transformed me into some woebegone inspector from a cosmic horror novel; that I had made the self-destructive choice to gain insight into something forbidden and arcane, whilst “normal people” could only view me as a jibbering madman locked away in an asylum of my own making.

How innocent those halcyon days were! So quickly and suddenly it all changed... Ever since the 02015 US Presidential Elections and the British Referendums on European Union Membership, everyone and their dog is worried about the current state of misinformation and propaganda. (Often unstated, the current state of other people's misinformation and propaganda... Never a bad word about their own!) Yet for how things were suddenly different, from my perspective, it was as if nothing changed at all. My reaction to the “sudden appearance” of these “new problems” was more muted, seeing things like the Cambridge Analytica scandal as little more than extensions of Facebook's piss-poor cybersecurity policies, or Youtube's runaway recommendation algorithm a result of exploitable flaws in its core design. None of these issues—which would've been easy to fix were it not for the poor management and leadership at those companies—dared approach the systemic mass and complexity the persuasive systems of old commercial broadcasting would employ on the regular, or in how spin-doctors embedded within the halls of government could willingly and knowingly abuse the intricate structures of the fourth estate to begin multiple wars under false pretenses. ... which even now remain largely unsolved problems! The appearance of “misinformation” suddenly being “everywhere” had less to do with an increase in propaganda overall, and more to do with how the exact quality of propaganda degraded past the point of necessary function. The propaganda was of poorer make, less expertly designed compared to what it managed one decade earlier, and started to demand more difficult things of its audience: that they willingly spend more effort to ignore their own degrading material conditions, incorporate a higher amount of mental gymnastics into its past-come-current justifications, and adopt new political stances which were more likely to cause active disagreements with the people they knew in their lives. The rampant narcissism of the Trump administration in the United States tested the everyday functioning of the national media, as “highly respectable mainstream outlets” who were nonetheless beholden to the state apparatus, began bending over backwards to accommodate Trump's wild and unpredictable antics. It revealed an unfortunate system of “garbage goes in, garbage comes out,” with the federal government as the point of input; an odd thing for a supposedly free-and-independent press to start doing. The Trump administration's professional and personal stubbornness meant they had difficulty adapting to the political marketing systems that were already in place, which the earlier Bush administration used effectively to support their false war efforts, and the later Obama administration continued with characteristic smooth-talking aplomb. The Biden administration's purported “return to normal” would've likely meant the old marketing systems could resume their once-usual operation, implicitly-but-not-outrightly admitting their institutions required this high level of marketing finesse and propaganda throughput to maintain function. (Would they even survive without it?) Fortunately or not, the neoliberal Biden administration's rank incompetence in handling the novel coronavirus pandemic has prevented such, for now. ... and thus this “epistemic crisis,” as some have taken to calling it, continues unabated.

The information disorder caused... what might best be described as a veil cracking. It rent across the already-extant and ubiquitous propaganda systems of the world's English-speaking mass media, turning them less invisible and “suddenly” much harder to ignore. What we consider to be the new problem was always there, always with us, and we only now noticed because of the more recent malfunctions. There was always a problem, but we only ever dared to admit it after the fact. ... and yet, what “market” is there for such a defeatist observation? What liberal or conservative has any use for the cold comfort that their worlds were already enslaved by propaganda? Both massive and far-reaching? And that they were either too blind, or too dumb, to notice? My well-educated expertise in the matter commanded no attention before the veil cracked, and it continues to command no attention even now. ... and yet, I'm drawn to it all the same. Perhaps because having a degree in the field makes me think I have a responsibility toward it, however impotently. ... or perhaps for the same wildly emotional non-reasons I once got the harebrained idea to try and discover a “cure” for corporate branding. That there might be a “cure” for this too? ... a foolish idea, naturally. The ongoing cybersecurity disaster known as surveillance capitalism will continue its ravages no matter how many ad-blockers, automated tracking over-writers, algorithm-generated content removers, and well-curated HOSTS files I huddle behind. Still, there might be mitigating strategies, which one could use to prevent trouble on a more local level when these errant mass systems start—eventually, invariably—causing problems for everyone.

To that end, I made the choice to brave this book. I view it as a much more effective version of what Weatherall and O'Connor tried, and failed, to accomplish earlier. Gilroy-Ware takes the anti-commercial curriculum I had quite ravenously downed in my undergraduate years when the primary object of study was still the erstwhile broadcast media, and marries it to the now-modern context of the Internet, with current endemic problems as natural continuations of unsolved issues from the past. Yet that same continuation is as much of a strength of Gilroy-Ware's historiography of information disorder as it is a weakness; where the main topic is both chased through and away from a mountain of prerequisites on so many other things: the history and development of neoliberal capitalism, how neoliberal capitalism's conception of itself changed and modified throughout its development, the changing political situation and how various sub-publics of differing orientations reacted... Get through all these topics, and then, eventually, we can talk about information disorder. A little. As a treat.

As frustrating as that description is, all of the requisite material is—unfortunately—well and truly necessary. There are multiple different mass audiences with dire cravings for misinformation: be it ungrounded lies about politicians or political parties they dislike, slanderous gossip about minority groups they may have an unhealthy fixation on, mostly-invented hero narratives about some mysterious figure who will solve all their personal or political problems (but often won't), or soothsayers who in more recent times might say things about the coronavirus pandemic more agreeable—or less liable to induce inconvenience—than what some faceless “scientific consensus” might say. To get into why these specific mass audiences even came about is to understand the material conditions which gave rise to them in the first place, and the blame for that will inevitably lay at the feet of the neoliberal world order and its “market-driven society,” which Gilroy-Ware frames as the academic antagonist of the book.

The market-driven society has a clear and obvious need for the existence of misinformation. Given the result of the Second World War, the utopian ideals of the libertarian and objectivist thinkers who gave rise to the neoliberal world order did so under the fear governments of any stripe would once again trend towards “totalitarianism,” of ever-nebulous definition. It was their belief that placing more and more of the apparatus of the state (be it the American state, British state, or any state at all) in the hands of private businesspeople at an arms-length from public political machinations, would promote long-term stability in those respective countries, based on their belief in economic persons being fully rational agents with access to perfect information. With the benefit of historical hindsight, we can see just how hopelessly naïve these ideals were. Never once did any of these original neoliberals stop to ask the question if private business even wanted the responsibility of arranging the affairs of a nation, extending well beyond their own company's realm of expertise. The early warning signs happened when the cigarette lobby throughout the world began to collate their research correlating their products with lung cancer, and when fossil fuel companies had the same advance notice about their industry and the greenhouse gas effect. In both instances, the industries opted for short-term private interests over long-term public safety, and begat systems of mass persuasion to service those aims for as long as possible. Thus was the need for “professional misinformation” within the modern context, with its only limiting feature, for the time, being the otherwise limited bandwidth of mass-broadcast media systems. (Circumstances which they nonetheless exploited to their benefit.)

What prevented this form of professional misinformation from being dealt with as a once-off aberration were the workings of power and how power tries to retain itself by obscuring its functioning, such that the people within their thralls remain fully enthralled, without becoming immune to power's force. Gilroy-Ware quotes Marx by saying “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.” This applies even when, perhaps especially when, the ruling class is composed entirely of brain-dead morons who might only have a tenuous grasp of the society they supposedly lead. Marx and Engels used the metaphor of a “camera obscura” to describe how people react to this process. The ruling ideas are promulgated by large sections of the state apparatus which form the society one resides in: from large systems like the mainstream media to other dominance-enforcing things like schools, the church, and police forces. ... but those ruling ideas, despite their wide spread, only cover a limited real use case at best; conforming super-well to the needs and circumstances of society's elite, with little consideration given to how those ideas would serve anyone else of differing circumstance. The result for anyone who has to carry these widely-available ideas, while being ill-suited to actually apply them, is a feeling that everything is perfectly right—and perfectly wrong—simultaneously. Like the man living in the film projection of a pinhole camera, everything he sees is right-side up, yet he can't shake the feeling that the whole world is upside down. This skewed perspective causes people to misconstrue their relationship to power, and inadvertently allows power to perpetuate further.

... yet, these ancient (and sometimes needlessly complicated) propaganda systems only addresses the need for professional misinformation among the society's elite. What about society's non-elite, who nonetheless also participate in the creation and spread of misinformation? The world of social media has shown us that misinformation is not a solely elite affair, be it as a target or a creator thereof. Much research has been done into the hold of group affiliations, and how group belonging determines which orthodoxies (or heresies) one is likely to hold fast to, even should it fly in the face of plainly-observable material conditions. While needs and motives of the elite are easily traced, what are we to make of non-elite actors doing the same? What motives could they possess? What possible power could these powerless peoples still seek to perpetuate? ... the answer to this may prove a bit more complicated.

The highly capitalistic societies of the Euro-Atlantic world produce widespread suspicion. Accounts in the media of “real” conspiracy may in some cases be telling us what we already know: we are always in danger of being “fucked over” under capitalism, and this is celebrated as a strength, rather than being considered a weakness. Long before he became president, for example, Donald Trump bragged on TV about how he had “screwed” then Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi when he came to New York and wanted to lease some space.

The original neoliberals in 1947 might have extolled the virtues of the free market, and thought that it would prevent totalitarianism from happening again, but they assumed the trading it involved would take place according to a certain moral and ethical standard, which was forgotten during the “greed is good” phase of the 1980s. As the market-driven society took shape during this period, the system of “you scratch my back, I scratch yours,” became “even if you scratch my back a lot, I will only scratch your back to the minimum possible threshold I can get away with,” and the burden of responsibility shifted from an honest seller to a cautious buyer, whose goal was not to get “screwed.” To normalise a perverse game in which everybody is expected to try to extract the best possible result for themselves from every co-operative interaction outside their immediate family, be it a profit margin or some other outcome, makes a degree of suspicion virtually guaranteed. How serious Milton Friedman really was in the suggestion that the free market would “foster harmony and peace among the peoples of the world” we will never know, but capitalism’s widely felt adversarial transactionalism is a key part of the politics of suspicion because it means swimming in waters that you know for a fact contain sharks.

The adversarial transactionalism of the market-driven society produces a lot of well-earned suspicion, and thus that suspicion has to go somewhere and be applied to something. When obvious culprits are not available, shifting this suspicion onto the “mainstream media” (or what at least appears as such) might seem like a logical conclusion. It is, after a fashion, not wrong. If there is a fundamental problem with the ruling ideas of a society, then the state apparatchiks which keep breathlessly repeating them are not blameless in the damage it generates. This focus on “the politics of suspicion” forms Gilroy-Ware's primary thesis throughout the book, and effort is spent to trace its effects. While everyone carries this high degree of suspicion, what is not evenly distributed is the necessary context to know its cause. As shown with the “camera obscura” problem, not everyone has the information that their fermenting levels of suspicion results from the market-driven society; and even those who might have that inclination are not guaranteed to have any answers as to what to do about it. (So intractable a problem it is...) Thus when trying to find outlets—or targets—for this suspicion, we often end up in something of a mess, with everyone agreeing on the existence of the general malaise and mistrust, but very little agreement on a proper response. So you may have identified the “mainstream media” as a problem. Good for you! Have you decided on any alternatives? Will they do a better job? Are they free from the problems which caused the issues in the first place? The more such questions posed, the less likely a consensus will hold. The organized elements of the right-wing media might paint a target on minority groups or immigrants who, like Schrödinger's cat, might or might not even exist despite the widespread media coverage they're given. The less organized elements of the right-wing have instead opted for conspiracies of their own imagining, which again blame imaginary concepts and organizations, or to real groups and peoples about issues which either don't actually concern them at all, or only through other people's misunderstandings. Even the perfectly centrist liberals were not above plays towards conspiration, with them reacting to the failures of their institutions and ideologies by assigning blame: to Russia, to China, to “fake news,” to “echo chambers,” to a need for more education, to a lack of critical thinking... to literally anyone or anything other than themselves.

This is in some way the trouble with the “sudden” appearance of information disorder. The entire happenstance curricula based on misinformation—what it is, how to identify it, what dangers it poses to democracy—always had less to do with propaganda systems as I understood it a decade ago, and more to do with bourgeois centrists having a panicked reaction to their own degrading circumstance. ... a circumstance which they, themselves, created through their actions and ideologies by propping up the market-driven society in the first place. To that end, finding a “cure” for information disorder might be less helpful overall, for the only thing the existence of such a “cure” would do, is free those same bourgeois elites from the consequences of their own actions. Even if I were to take the reasonable-sounding route to things that Fisher and Ury claimed in their studies on conflict mediation—to acknowledge that this amount of suspicion is perfectly healthy, and the goal shouldn't be to try and suppress it or combat it, but rather to simply be smarter about how one reacts to it—that would solve one problem, only to invite a means of abuse. (... as already happened in the world of conflict arbitration.) This is more or less what the elite elements of the right wing already do when they promulgate racism, make scapegoats of vulnerable peoples, or instead try to direct that same suspicion towards their competitors within the business world. A less openly-partisan technocrat might employ similar methods, to look for some type of “release valve” to keep the suspicion levels managed and controlled, but not fundamentally addressed: the marketing and mass propaganda system offering itself in solution to the very problems it caused!

At the end of the day, though... I think this is a book I'm only going to keep around for the utility of its citations and bibliography. As much as I might “like” the subject matter, this is most decidedly not a book one reads for enjoyment. While reading, I grew quite disheartened at every new section and chapter, to the point of almost not wanting to even finish it. The one thing I regret—something a past version of myself would be aghast by—is not using a yellow highlighter on the pages, or making notes-for-later in the margins. While a useful book, it is also a thoroughly unpleasant one, and I'm almost dreading the day I might need to revisit its material.



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