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How the news is framed & how it affects your brain

“Radical” memes & “radical” churnalism

Brass Eye - radical“the Left’s been infected, too.”
- David Foster Wallace

“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement.  But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”
- attributed to Niels Bohr

Nick Davies did us all a favour by popularising the term “churnalism“. Now, with one word, we can refer to a common, insidious media process without having to resort to vague terms such as “propaganda”. (That term has its uses, of course).

Most talk of churnalism seems to focus on “mainstream” media and corp/gov PR, but there’s also a “radical” churnalism (eg of the left). For example, if a popular dissident figure publishes a piece on a newsworthy issue, it will likely be republished, reposted, reblogged, facebooked, retweeted, mass-emailed, etc, to an audience of hundreds of thousands. And it soon acquires an “authoritative” status (almost as if it’s been peer-reviewed by a panel of Nobel Prize-Winning Saints). This seems to happen almost every day.

Given that most of my readers, like myself, probably regard most of this “radical” content as somehow on the side of “good” (to the extent that it opposes warmongering, power-hungry, profit-obsessed interests, etc) what comes next may be a little hard to take. David Foster Wallace put it eloquently:

As of 2003, the rhetoric of the enterprise is fucked. 95% of political commentary, whether spoken or written, is now polluted by the very politics it’s supposed to be about. Meaning it’s become totally ideological and reductive: The writer/speaker has certain political convictions or affiliations, and proceeds to filter all reality and spin all assertion according to those convictions and loyalties.

Everybody’s pissed off and exasperated and impervious to argument from any other side. Opposing viewpoints are not just incorrect but contemptible, corrupt, evil. Conservative thinkers are balder about this kind of attitude… But the Left’s been infected, too. (David Foster Wallace, interview)

You don’t have to look far – in blogs, Twitter, newspaper comment sections, etc – to see what DFW refers to. It looks as if the “ideological and reductive” aspects thrive most in the fast, unreflecting, copy-n-paste, repost, retweet, mass-mailing environment characteristic of churnalism (“radical” or otherwise). But let’s pause here…

Questioning the status quo has always needed time. Changing your thinking requires time away from economic demands of work and “productivity”. Noam Chomsky pointed out that you can’t undermine conventional pieties in a 15-second soundbite – you need more time. But you need more time, also – much more – to arrive at a state in which you are capable of “undermining” (or even just fundamentally questioning) your own thinking.

Why would you want to undermine your thinking? Well, isn’t that exactly what we demand from others who fundamentally disagree with us? Whether they’re “mainstream” journalists, bloggers or drinking buddies with the “wrong” opinion – we want them to see how deeply wrong they’ve got it. (“You’d have to be an idiot to believe that…”, etc).

We expect those who disagree with us to “be reasonable”, “face the facts”. But it doesn’t work that way, even when the “facts” seem clear-cut and verifiable. It usually takes more than grudging admission of factual error to get someone to change their “position”. We don’t think in facts – our thoughts aren’t strung-together facts. Every “fact” requires a frame to make sense of it (or, as Lakoff puts it, “we think and reason using frames and metaphors”). What we’re really demanding of our political, ideological or informal ‘opponents’ is that they change their worldviews, their cognitive framings (ie their “position”), to more closely match ours.

Imagine such a thing being demanded of yourself. Most of us, even if we had the inclination to seriously question our own “positions”, probably wouldn’t have the time to do a good job of it. For a start, you’d have to trace back through all the “authorities” you accepted since childhood, and ask yourself which claims you checked, and which you took on faith – and whether there were any alternatives you overlooked, etc. A huge task. There are too many other things urgently demanding our attention. So, for now, it’s more convenient (and fairly satisfying, “politically”) to just do a bit of reposting, retweeting, reblogging: “RT new Pilger piece on Assange. I haven’t got time to read it properly, but he always says it better than I could”, etc.

“Radical” memes

“The meme is the basic unit of cultural transmission, or imitation.”
- Richard Dawkins

There are several different versions of “meme”, but since Dawkins coined the term, I’ll stick with his biological definition. Memes compete with one another to replicate themselves in our minds. A “good” meme is one which spreads easily throughout a population. A good meme doesn’t necessarily imply a “good idea” (eg in the sense of high-quality information) – it’s just good at spreading. As Richard Brodie (author of Virus of the Mind) puts it:

Truth is not one of the strong selectors for memes.
Making sense is a selector… (Richard Brodie)

In other words, people are quick to accept flawed ideas which “make sense” (to them) over accurate-but-challenging ones. Other “strong selectors” for memes (as noted by Brodie, who cites evolutionary reasons) include: Crisis, Danger, Approval, Mission, Authority.

“Radical” discourse isn’t immune from this – one sees the same meme ‘selectors’ here: enemies, heroes, crisis, experts, the battle against nefarious forces, etc. The presence of these elements – more than accuracy, perspicacity, insight, originality, etc – determines the “success” of the “radical” idea/meme, according to memetics.

Continuing with David Foster Wallace:

… political discourse is now a formulaic matter of preaching to one’s own choir and demonizing the opposition. Everything’s relentlessly black-and-whitened. Since the truth is way, way more gray and complicated than any one ideology can capture, the whole thing seems to me not just stupid but stupefying. (David Foster Wallace, interview)

If the “other side” is seen as corrupt/evil, then this “relentless black-and-whitening” makes sense as being uncompromising. You don’t compromise with evil. In some “radical left” circles I’m familiar with, “radical” has become a measure of the ability to see things “clearly” and starkly in black and white. This seems to precisely mirror (albeit inverted) the “authoritarian” moral logic of what Lakoff calls the “Radical Right”: no room for moral grey, intolerance of “moral contamination”/relativism, and hatred and/or distrust of “liberals” (whatever that term connotes).

What does “radical” mean?

Several different uses for the word ‘radical’ seem widely accepted. It comes from the Latin “radix”, for “root”. Literally “of the root”, but used in the metaphorical sense of “root” as “origin”, “source”, “basis”, “foundation”, etc – and also “primary”, “essential”, “fundamental”.

The term has acquired various political uses/”meanings” – eg via the metaphorical notion of “change from the roots”, as in “affecting the foundations”, fundamentally (rather than superficially) “reformed”, etc. Also, “extreme” – it was once used to describe those belonging to the “extreme section” of the British Liberal party (early 19th C.), etc. Ominously, UK and US governments/authorities increasingly seem to regard “radical” as synonymous with “terrorist”.

Other (better established) synonyms (n. & adj.) for radical include: “avant-garde”, “original”, “iconoclast”, “revolutionary”, “cardinal”, “primal”, etc. Bear those in mind for what follows…

My earliest “intellectual” influences (as a student) were Jung and Surrealism, not Chomsky or Socialist Worker, and this probably explains my perception (or bias) that most of what passes for “radical” in the political realm (via alt-churnalism and meme-spread) looks pretty much the opposite of what’s defined above as “radical” (with the possible exception of “radical” as synonym for “extreme”).

I see little that’s “radical” in copy-n-pasting (or social-media linking, etc) of recycled variations on a “relentlessly black-and-whitened” line whose main function is to identify and denounce the enemy (eg corporate/Western-state) in a tough and uncompromising – but hackneyed – way. (I wouldn’t describe anything I’ve written as “radical”).

With a similar thought in mind, I once tweeted (to nobody in particular):

To me, “radical” is primarily a measure of originality, not of intensity (or frequency) with which you equate “corporate” with “bad”.

That got me an immediate reply (out of the blue) from the radical website, Medialens:

“Nothing to do with originality”? After I pointed out the etymology of “radical” and “original” (root is metaphor for origin/source; originality refers to non-derivative origin/source), Medialens replied again:

Which kind of illustrates what Twitter is good for.

(At the other end of this spectrum, a Guardian piece titled ‘Britain’s 50 new radicals’ seemed to confuse “radical” with “entrepreneur”. See the resulting complaints in the Guardian comments section).

“Radical”: How do you measure information?

“the more probable the message, the less information it gives.
Clichés, for example, are less illuminating than great poems”

- Norbert Wiener, on Cybernetics and Society

With the above, Norbert Wiener simplified Claude Shannon’s equation for quantifying the information contained in a message. In Information Theory, it’s a measure of unpredictability – the information in a message equals the negative of the probabilities that you can predict what comes next. In short, the easier it is to predict, the less information it contains. Dante meets Bosch in a crack lounge.

Thus, as Wiener puts it, great poems contain more information than clichés. Political speech/discourse tends to be among the most predictable & clichéd of all communications – whether it’s hard right, “liberal” or “radical” left. Churnalism of all kinds appears to increase this predictability.

Given a version/definition of “radical” in terms of information, as above (ie unpredictable, non-derivative, original), then what typically passes for “radical” in the political realm looks, to me, like nothing of the sort.

Written by NewsFrames

September 21, 2012 at 12:27 am

8 Responses

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  1. This so perfectly expresses my frustrated (but jumbled up) thoughts on the laziness and stupidity of twitter politics (left and liberal as well as right). Brilliant.


    September 21, 2012 at 10:41 am

  2. What amazes me is that the purveyors of “radical churnalism” are still repeating the tired old argument that I heard 20 years ago: that they have the Truth about the world and about how the economy needs to be run etc. And that this Truth must be disseminated to combat the Big Corporate Capitalist Propaganda Lie.

    Of course, the many lies and propaganda from various interests (corporate and ideological) do need to be exposed. But these so-called radicals (most of them probably work for corporations) are deluded to think that they themselves aren’t immersed in a deluded, narrow worldview of their own. Reading Chomsky is great, but those who spend most of their free time doing so may not be equipped to work out the positive solutions we need to so many problems. In fact, when you ask them for solutions, they often sound as bad (and ultimately authoritarian) as the ones they’d have us replace. Not very radical.

    Good piece, thanks.

    Alex G

    September 21, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    • Sorry if there seemed to be a blip with your comment for a moment there. WordPress has a pretty ruthless automatic spam detector which often puts valid comments into a spam folder for review.

      Thanks, Carole & Alex, for your kind comments. I’m pleased to see this piece getting a lot of hits this morning – more than usual for this type of topic.


      September 21, 2012 at 12:38 pm

  3. Sunny Hundal, of the ‘Liberal Conspiracy’ blog (and occasional Guardian writer) said to me that the above piece makes good points, but is “disjointed”. If only more pieces were disjointed in that way with good points. ;) I prefer to see it as non-linear & refreshingly uncompartmentalised. Keep up the thought-provoking work.

  4. Lovely thought provoking ideas which manage to capture a frustration i felt but could not articulate or even really identify.

    frank cooper

    September 24, 2012 at 7:52 pm

  5. I’m glad I followed George Monbiot’s recommendation to look at this article. It’s very very good. And your previous entry, ‘Essentials of Framing’, is a rewarding read. Essential indeed. Keep up good work.


    September 25, 2012 at 10:14 am

  6. See also my new post about Medialens’s “polite” smear campaign:


    October 1, 2012 at 11:39 am

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