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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Witch-hunts – the social media trend


I wrote the original of this article before Twitter existed – for Anxiety Culture in 2006. It recently got a lot of hits, prompting me to re-read it. I think its relevance has increased over the last decade, since Twitter, Facebook, etc, seem diabolically suited to spreading rumours and smears – much more so than the “email and self-publishing” that I referred to in the original (updated here to mention social media).

“What started as a legitimate effort by the townspeople of Salem to identify, capture and kill those who did Satan’s bidding quickly deteriorated into a witch hunt” (from Army Man, a satirical US zine)

Global village McCarthyism

“Witch-hunts” occur through various media. The newsreel and TV coverage of the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings (1947) raised anti-Communist hysteria to a national level. The Internet – social media, blogs, email lists, etc – now provides the means for fast-spreading “global village” rumour/smear campaigns. Marshall McLuhan’s ideas on the media “retrieval” of obsolesced social phenomena, etc, seem relevant here, so that’s where we begin…

“The medium is the message”

McLuhan’s aphorism, “the medium is the message”, loses its subtlety if read as meaning that content doesn’t matter. Content matters, of course, and a medium can be seen as content – eg the medium of thought as content of speech; the medium of speech as content of radio; radio as content of the web, etc.

Media criticism often describes how content is edited and “framed”. In the case of TV, you might experience the framed content in the same way you experience a strong emotion – ie you are captured by it, or lost in it. Stepping back from content requires awareness of different levels of media within media. In terms of “news”, low-level “facts” may be accurately recorded, but their selection and framing at a higher level provides a different type of content/medium (eg a “report”, editorial content). This, in turn, reflects, but doesn’t necessarily reveal, a higher level still (eg a “news” policy for coverage of a given subject).

People generally engage with mid-level content/media – eg TV news reports about “rising crime”. The low-level facts may be unremarkable, but their selection and framing provides emotion-rousing content, while the high-level editorial decisions are unknown to the viewer. As McLuhan put it, “The ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind”.

Mid-level content/media is the hardest level to pin down as inaccurate or “biased”. Low-level facts can be shown to be inaccurate, and high level “bias” can be demonstrated by statistical analysis, but mid-level content/media generally proves more slippery. Independent, dissident “alt” mid-level content/media may be just as slippery as its mainstream opposition.

Side-stepping the gatekeepers

In his book, Digital McLuhan (Routledge, 1999), Paul Levinson gives a brief history of “gatekeepers” (those who control and regulate the flow of information). The logic of gatekeeping, whether by church, state or corporate media, “is that information is like a food or drug, which […] requires inspection or certification before it can be made available to the public. To offer information unvetted is, on this reasoning, to risk poisoning the public.” (Levinson, chapter 10). Of course, gatekeeping implies that media outlets aren’t “free”, but controlled by authority-hierarchies, whether economic-political or ideological in some other form.

The web has allowed people to bypass gatekeeping (although access to a computer/device is required – a sort of economic gatekeeping). But evolution of media doesn’t necessarily result in the diminishing power of gatekeepers. Professor Levinson points out that new media may “retrieve” (to use McLuhanite terminology) aspects of earlier media which favour the gatekeepers, as for example radio “retrieved” aspects of family/tribal “media” (verbal, one-way, from a father-figure/elder to an obedient tribe), allowing Stalin, Hitler, Roosevelt and Churchill to effectively deliver monologues into the homes of passive listeners who couldn’t answer back.

Recipe for a witch-hunt

New media may also “retrieve” non-gatekeeping, but otherwise insidious, social effects. Prior to the web, “rapid response” letter-writing was used by campaigning groups to raise issues with governments, institutions, etc. A primary message of this medium was (as also with mass demonstrations) the sheer number of people expressing a view ignored by the powerful. Email (and then Facebook, Twitter, etc) extended this type of campaign and, importantly, made it easier to target individuals and small groups as well as gatekeepers. But the medium’s message is fundamentally altered by this change of target. A mass demonstration held outside a powerless individual’s private home would convey a different message than one held outside government buildings. Social media campaigns targeting individuals or small groups may have the effect of “retrieving” unpleasant aspects of earlier media – eg the unstoppable effectiveness of “village” rumour campaigns, “witch-hunts”, or forms of “degradation ceremonies” as described by sociologist Harold Garfinkle. The dark flip-side of McLuhan’s “global village” metaphor.

The ingredients necessary for a “witch-hunt”, in sociological terms, include a perceived threat to “moral boundaries”, availability of a vilifiable target (individual or group) and a social ritual which makes the threat tangible and which clarifies the roles of those involved (eg a “degradation ceremony”). Social media seem particularly suited to the kind of “shaming” that rapidly escalates into full-blown witch-hunts. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Jon Ronson, 2015) describes some of the disturbing examples.

Ressentiment “morality”

“There are no moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation of phenomena”
(Friedrich Nietzsche)

“Those who do battle with monsters must take care that they do not thereby become a monster”
(Friedrich Nietzsche)

When a new and powerful medium (eg web, social media) unites people in their frustrations against the gatekeepers (eg newspaper and TV news editors), but doesn’t have the desired impact on those gatekeepers (who’d probably rather defend their privileged positions), what happens next? Readers of Nietzsche might think there’s a likelihood that those susceptible to “ressentiment” would wage campaigns which focus on the “immorality” of their opponents. These campaigns would predictably aim at easier targets than the chief gatekeepers – eg individuals with a perceived taint-by-association, groups which don’t have the “correct” beliefs, those who blur the “moral boundaries” which are seen as separating the “evil” gatekeepers from everyone else.

By “ressentiment”, Nietzsche meant the hidden revenge motive within the “altruism” of the powerless – he had in mind the Christian slaves of the Roman Empire who “turned the other cheek”, but with the satisfaction of believing their oppressors would eventually burn in hell. Clinical psychologists might label this tendency as “passive-aggressive”. Many idealistic Marxists similarly harboured the comforting thought that the bourgeoisie would also burn, but here on earth (ie come the revolution), not in hell.

(In Prometheus Rising, Robert Anton Wilson makes the interesting observation that occult jargon classes this passive-aggressive psychological tendency as “psychic vampirism”. Perhaps this explains the energy-draining effect of getting into an argument with – or worse, becoming a target of – someone in “altruistic” ressentiment mode.)

Written by NewsFrames

June 21, 2018 at 8:04 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Excellent, thanks! I’ve read Ronson’s book, which I found fascinating and quite worrying, but I’ve never thought of this issue from the Nietzschean perspective that you describe. I’m not sure why, because thinking about it, it makes sense, as it’s about moral shaming. Interesting digression on the McLuhan material also!

  2. My Twitter timeline is full of this mass shaming and conpiracy nonsense. It’s getting out of control but I don’t think tightening up formal rules or laws is the answer,, this would just add to the paranoia. To the armchair warriors retweeting the lastest far-fetched accusations to shamet people they disagree with politically – remember that this affects real human beings.


    June 22, 2018 at 8:44 am

  3. Is that an iPad that the old lady in the picture is holding? She’s probably retweeting something about Guardian journalists being a front for a Neocon Bilderbergers operation.

    Lisa Connolly

    June 22, 2018 at 11:44 am

  4. I got a nice surprise on Twitter this morning. Paul Levinson, author of Digital McLuhan (which I cite in my post) had retweeted my link to this piece, and comments: https://twitter.com/PaulLev/status/1010245312919764992

    Prof Levinson has some new books out which look very interesting: Fake News in Real Context and McLuhan in an Age of Social Media – which I will certainly be checking out.

    If you haven’t read his Digital McLuhan, I highly recommend it (I think I first heard about it when Robert Anton Wilson included it in a shortlist of ‘must read’ books).


    June 23, 2018 at 9:16 am

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