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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Archive for the ‘Media criticism’ Category

Algorithm politics & framing

– 7 June 2022

The biggest and most politically influential algorithm-based tech platforms (Facebook, Google, Twitter, Youtube, etc) have implemented measures designed to reduce things such as hate speech, “fake news”, bot-driven influence campaigns, etc – often at the expense of much criticism, since these measures, in many cases, seem heavy-handed and counterproductive. Some prominent critics argue that it amounts to “censorship”, citing, for example, the banning of Donald Trump from Twitter.

The framing of this debate quite often seems conceptually backward to me – with the now-prominent issues of “free speech” and “censorship” framed in ways still suggestive of legacy media gatekeeping “centres” (eg of publishing and broadcasting) – even though the debates concern mostly “decentralised” online media with algorithm gatekeeping – often featuring “censored” celebrities with access to multiple alternative platforms. Perhaps we have less of a “free speech problem”, and more of a “swamped by noise and disinformation problem”?

The viral spread of socially destructive content (the aforementioned hate speech, engineered fakery, botswarming, etc) has been blamed, by some, on the favoured business models of the big platforms. See, for example, my previous post describing Jaron Lanier’s critique of how these business models produce certain directives for the algorithms, which in turn blindly amplify the very worst aspects of humanity. Lanier argues that humanity will not survive the destructive social and political transformations being wrought – making replacement of the now-dominant B.U.M.M.E.R. business model as urgent an issue as climate breakdown).

But the owners of the big platforms love this business model because of its colossal profits – among other things. And so the main problem (according to Lanier and many others – eg see The Social Dilemma), ie the business model itself, isn’t tackled. Instead we get these stop-gap measures – bannings, suspensions, etc – which, to many people, look like clumsy, iron-booted, politically-biased “censorship”. The irony, for me, is that, in most cases, the owners of these platforms seemed motivated by libertarian notions of business. As Lanier wrote, “there was a libertarian wind blowing… We figured it would be wiser to let entrepreneurs fill in the blanks than to leave that task to government”.

‘At YouTube, I was working on YouTube recommendations. It worries me that an algorithm that I worked on is actually increasing polarization in society… The flat-Earth conspiracy theory was recommended hundreds of millions of times by the algorithm. It’s easy to think that it’s just a few stupid people who get convinced, but the algorithm is getting smarter and smarter every day.’

Guillaume Chaslot, The Social Dilemma

A.I. algorithms & McLuhan’s tetrad

Amid the recent noise about Elon Musk was his announced intention to make Twitter algorithms “open source” (ie available to public scrutiny, critique and improvement). If true, that seems pretty “huge” (the big media companies’ algorithms are apparently among the most tightly guarded secrets on the planet).

But Musk’s description of how this algorithm transparency would work sounds very much like the process of editing Wikipedia pages. I hope Elon reads Stephen Wolfram’s testimony to Congress on the subject, as Wolfram explains that what Musk proposes can effectively be considered “impossible”, due to the nature of current machine-learning systems: “For a well-optimized computation, there’s not likely to be a human-understandable narrative about how it works inside”. Wolfram proposes a different kind of solution to problems inherent with “monolithic AI” platforms: “Third Party Ranking Providers” and “Third Party Constraint Providers”.

Amid my own mental noise on the “negative” effects of those A.I. platforms (political chaos, nudged states of mind, etc) appears the notion that I should rethink more “positively” and “globally”. Or at least try to see different aspects of media evolution from various different perspectives – not just the ones which appear to have socially destructive trajectories.

Recall David Lynch’s scathing assessment of the new mobile media: “It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone. Get real”. But also note the simultaneously emerging “New Golden Age of TV” – an aspect of the same media evolution (eg streaming, on-demand, binge-watching). Those “critically acclaimed box-sets” – the quality and the depth of engagement seem off-the-scale.

Lynch’s own co-creation, Twin Peaks, heralded this Golden Age (David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, cited Lynch as major influence/inspiration). I picture – probably inaccurately – reactionary TV execs (circa 1990), when faced with the success of Twin Peaks, thinking, “Do people really go for this ambiguous, depraved weirdo liberal bullshit? I thought they liked sensible stuff like Fox News!”

Meanwhile, what happened to Fox News? As a UK resident, I don’t see it on TV – I just see clips on social media – mostly of folks like Tulsi Gabbard, Glenn Greenwald and Michael Tracey guesting on Tucker Carlson’s show. It looks like the only “mainstream” TV in the western world in which Putin gets consistently better publicity than the US president. The latest clips I saw were of Carlson presenting a Fox show called ‘The End of Men’, in which he discusses “testicle tanning”. It almost makes Twin Peaks look mundane.

Some media mutations appear visible and obvious – eg from radio to television. Others not so much – especially more recent transformations. A.I. algorithm-driven mobile apps, and their dominant business models, can be considered something “other” than “the internet” – in many ways replacing original conceptions of “the web” (ie web pages on browsers running on desktops or laptops). The medium is the message, and if media mutation follows the rate of technological advance, how do we better understand the effects, social, political and otherwise, soon enough?

‘Photoshop didn’t have 1,000 engineers on the other side of the screen, using notifications, using your friends, using AI to predict what’s gonna perfectly addict you, or hook you, or manipulate you, or allow advertisers to test 60,000 variations of text or colors to figure out what’s the perfect manipulation of your mind. This is a totally new species of power and influence.’

Tristan Harris, The Social Dilemma

For one thing, the role of “user”/”audience”, ie YOU, has mutated – no longer the customer, more the raw material forming the product – but that seems one of the more obvious changes. Do we need improved ways of seeing to apprehend the changes in question? The old constructs for apprehending “let us down” – unless we first recognise them as such (Ye Olde Metaphorical Constructions), and then perhaps re-perceive as kitsch or art. (Or, in Steve Bannon’s case, as networked political warfare – see below).

Marshall McLuhan’s tetrad seems a good starting point, as it yields a more “meta-” view of media, among other things. For an insightful guide to the tetrad and the current relevance of McLuhan (which also has a lot of fun, up-to-date examples), I recommend Paul Levinson’s ‘McLuhan in an Age of Social Media’ – a self-contained update to Paul’s ‘Digital McLuhan’.

‘The tetrad, in a nutshell, is a way of mapping the impact and interconnections of technologies across time. It asks four questions of every medium or technology: What does it enhance or amplify? What does it obsolesce or push out of the sunlight and into the shade. What does it retrieve or bring back into central attention and focus – something which itself had previously been obsolesced. And what does the new medium, when pushed to its limits, reverse or flip into?’

Paul Levinson, ‘McLuhan in an Age of Social Media’

Steve Bannon’s project & the tetrad

We perhaps forget that as well as being White House strategist and Trump’s advisor, Bannon helped run Breitbart News and Cambridge Analytica, and has spent his time networking his “far-right” political cause with a wide array of global influencers (eg Nigel Farage and George Galloway, to give two examples in the UK). Bannon made a fortune from investing fairly early in the successful US comedy show, Seinfeld. And as The Guardian put it, “Bannon’s wealth smoothed his path from finance to media and politics”.

To speculate on Bannon’s activities in terms of McLuhan’s tetrad, I refer to what I’ve previously documented – that Bannon adopted some old “leftwing” tropes, which he sheared of specifics (making them “cooler” in McLuhan’s terms), for appealing to a younger audience. He regarded Fox’s audience at the time as “geriatric”. Bannon had studied the output of people such as Michael Moore to see what “worked”, and he’d recognised the power that could be wielded by the huge online communities of alienated young people (audiences of sites such as Breitbart).

To quote Devil’s Bargain (by Joshua Green), Bannon “envisioned a great fusion between the masses of alienated gamers, so powerful in the online world, and the right-wing outsiders drawn to Breitbart by its radical politics and fuck-you attitude”.

Using McLuhan’s four-part tetrad “probe”, we can consider what Bannon’s project Enhances, Obsolesces, Retrieves and Reverses, in political-media terms. One obvious retrieval is what I describe above – Bannon’s project retrieved old ‘left’ tropes – binary political frames/categories, such as:

  • Anti-establishment vs Establishment
  • Ordinary folk vs Elite
  • Outsiders vs Corporate Media
  • Unjustly maligned “official enemies” vs Malign US Deep State

Tied to their original, left-ideological “hot” specificity, these tropes might seem inadequate for making sense of the fast-moving fractal-like chaos and complexity of 21st century political culture. But Bannon et al, I think, realised their “cool” effectiveness when used in non-specific populist expression – the kind tweeted by Trump, for example. (Prof Levinson writes that this non-specificity in Trump’s tweets – inviting people to interact and “fill in the gaps” – makes Trump’s communication “cool” in McLuhan’s jargon).

In terms of the tetrad, this enhances the revolutionary fervour of, say, anti-establishment protests (or, alternatively, you can see it as enhancing the angry rabble-rousing of demagogues). It obsolesces the “geriatric” aspects of the conservative right that Bannon saw as an impediment. It reverses certain traditional conservative moral associations with conventional “authority”, which perhaps flips into adoration of “strong” “maverick” types. (Frank Luntz has also worked on this reversal – with his advice to conservatives to always blame everything on “Washington” “D.C.” “establishment” authority).

More tetrad speculation: much (but not all) of the above seemed, for Bannon, about getting a younger online demographic into his “alt-right” vision. It also appears to enhance sweeping generalisations and either/or thinking – due to the binary nature of the original tropes, now shorn of specifics, and presented in “cool” (but ironically demagogic) soundbites. Social media algorithms, designed to maximise engagement, appear to promote content with the type of characteristics that happen to be enhanced by Bannon’s media strategy.

Sub-optimal political framing

Old-school (pre-social media) framing of “censorship”, “silencing”, “suppression” (of free speech), etc, seemed prominent in anti-war critiques of media coverage of the 2003 Iraq war – with good reason. But this framing doesn’t work so well when applied to newer “horizontal” networked media structures. War coverage has mutated significantly as a result of social media. In the current conflict in Ukraine, every Russian tank, truck and troop movement gets tracked and added to open source databases, through smartphones, etc – a country of 44 million people recording every move of the invaders, with real-time data (source: Guardian article).

When the framing used in anti-war critiques of earlier (eg 2003) media gets re-applied to the current Ukraine conflict – as if the lessons of earlier media failures can be re-applied without much modification – we end up with strange distortions and misperceptions. For a case in point, take this article by Matt Taibbi. It begins with the intelligent point that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has presented us with a terrible dilemma but then, halfway through, Taibbi performs a curious mis-framing with “war critic”, “anti-war” and “anti-interventionist” labels, regarding media coverage:-

‘Before “de-platforming” was even a term in the American consciousness, our corporate press perfected it with regard to war critics… [Matt then gives detail on exclusion of “Anti-war voices” from 2003 Iraq War coverage]
‘Since then, we’ve only widened the rhetorical no-fly zone. In a development that back then I would have bet my life on never happening, anti-interventionist voices or advocates for such people are increasingly confined to Fox if they appear on major corporate media at all.’Matt Taibbi, America’s Intellectual No-Fly Zone

That seems weird to me, as it implies that corporate media opposition to, and criticism of, the major war under discussion (Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine) exists practically nowhere but on Fox News! Taibbi’s comments make logical sense to me only if I assume at least one of the following:

  1. I’m hallucinating the wall-to-wall media opposition to a major aggressive war currently being waged.
  2. Matt Taibbi doesn’t see Russia invading Ukraine – he sees some other war that isn’t being opposed/criticised in current media coverage.
  3. The terms “war critic”, “anti-interventionist” and “anti-war” have a special, qualified meaning for Taibbi, which he doesn’t specify.

(Actually, I see the “real” problem here as something Nassim Taleb has alluded to – outdated media models tied into a sort of logical fallacy. Incidently, Taleb, not so long ago, supported people like Glenn Greenwald, Tulsi Gabbard, et al, but has recently taken to denouncing them on Twitter – he’s repeatedly called Greenwald and Edward Snowden “frauds”, and his criticism along these lines extends to folks like Caitlin Johnstone and even Elon Musk. “Fraud” seems an over-the-top allegation to me – I prefer to think of these folks as using various outdated top-down constructs for media, “censorship”, “surveillance”, etc, while simultaneously using sometimes-valid notions of political corruption in “liberal” “establishments” – the latter to populist appeal; the former confusing the media issues. I’m trying to be charitable and diplomatic here!).

Orwell retrieved & obsolesced

Orwell quotes (often in the form of memes) currently seem a popular way to frame 21st century political and media scenarios. The above-mentioned Matt Taibbi piece uses Orwell quotes in this way, and cites Chomsky as “often” using them in a similar way. But the language here seems curiously anachronistic when you consider what Taibbi and Chomsky refer to.

Taibbi asks Chomsky about the negative responses on social media to Chomsky’s recent remarks on Russia/Ukraine. The MIT professor replies that it’s normal for “doctrinal managers” to condemn people who “don’t keep rigidly to the Party Line”. Taibbi cites Orwell’s view that “free societies suppress thought almost as effectively as the totalitarian Soviets”, and quotes Orwell saying certain inconvenient views are not “entitled to a hearing”.

I’ve looked at a lot of the negative responses to Chomsky’s Ukraine remarks – including the ones that Taibbi links to. I don’t see “doctrinal managers” or a “Party Line”. I see a lot of individuals on social media posting various (quite diverse) criticisms of Chomsky’s remarks. I see neither “suppression” of thought, nor any speech denied its “entitlement” to “a hearing”. (A typical example of the recent harsh critiques of Chomsky is this Twitter thread, which was retweeted by the journalist George Monbiot).

Orwell’s Animal Farm was published in 1945. His views on “suppression” of thought and speech reflect the media forms of the time. Similarly, much of the language Chomsky uses on political media dates back to his Manufacturing Consent (1988) – effectively pre-internet.

Nassim Taleb commented recently on the Orwell meme pictured (above right). He wrote: “exactly 100% backwards”, adding:

‘In 1984, there was no web; governments had total control of information. In 2022 things are more transparent, so we see imperfections. THE TRANSPARENCY EFFECT: the more things improve the worse they look.’

– Nassim Taleb, on Twitter

“Surveillance” frame & the new hypocognition

“Surveillance”, like “censorship”, tends to get framed in a way that implies vertical power hierarchies. And while still obviously valid for human political institutions, this framing seems inadequate for the new and increasingly dominant algorithmic, machine-learning, “decentralised” media technology. To the extent we continue to use established (and thus comfortable) but anachronistic (for media) frames, we miss the significance of newer, mutated “interventions” that operate on more “horizontally” structured media – continuous, dynamic (minimum 2-way) demographically-optimised micro-interaction data-mining/profiling and algorithmic behavioural nudging, using sophisticated machine-learning systems on mobile biometric supercomputers (aka smartphones).

I’m pretending to understand it by lining up a lot of words. The point for me is that hardly anyone seems to understand the new algorithm-media interventions and their social/political effects. It seems to be a problem of what the cognitive linguists call “hypocognition” – we just don’t have adequate semantic frames, or visual imagery, to comprehend and discuss it properly, “as a society”, yet.

To illustrate this point using the frame of “surveillance”, recall what happened when Edward Snowden’s NSA surveillance leaks hit the press in 2014. It made huge news and was widely discussed. Most people already had the cognitive frames available to understand that kind of surveillance – top-down government surveillance. Those frames have been around a long time and already seemed an established part of popular culture – Orwell’s Big Brother, brought up to date by TV shows such as ’24’, which showed government spying on their own citizens in “real time” using incredible technology.

That much we understand. Now try to picture what Cambridge Analytica did. Try to describe it in a way you might discuss with your friends or family. A kind of surveillance, a kind of political/social “influence”, using social media – but not in the easily comprehended way of what Snowden revealed (which most us probably already suspected and had mental imagery and verbal frames for).

Of course, the fact that we have difficulty understanding and discussing it doesn’t mean it’s going away. And I imagine its funders (and various influential others) have noted some of its “successes” in nudging politics, and various social phenomena statistically.

‘It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product… That’s the only thing there is for them to make money from. Changing what you do, how you think, who you are. It’s a gradual change. It’s slight. If you can go to somebody and you say, “Give me $10 million, and I will change the world one percent in the direction you want it to change…” It’s the world! That can be incredible, and that’s worth a lot of money.’

Jaron Lanier, The Social Dilemma

(Incidentally, my bank recently notified me that they’re “improving security” by introducing “behavioural biometric” checks for online payments: “We’re not actually checking your email address; it’s how you enter it that matters, including your keystrokes. It’s known as ‘behavioural biometric’ data and it should be unique to you.”).

Written by NewsFrames

June 7, 2022 at 4:09 pm

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

Deeper into framing

excerpts-frame1-comp24 June 2016 – I have a lot more to say about media framing, but I’m taking an extended break from posting. For now, I leave you with some excerpts from my modest little book, Lazy Person’s Guide to Framing (the Kindle version of which is now available at an extremely reasonable price on Amazon).

I still see a common misunderstanding of framing – that it’s “just” a kind of respectable spin, all about language, slogans and persuasion. But it’s more about how we think and conceptualise. Metaphoric frames structure our ideas and concepts, yet our use of frames is mostly unconscious and automatic – which is why it seems crucial to get a better understanding of how they influence “public” thought and debate via the mass media.

I’ve chosen some excerpts from my book which point towards this “deeper” aspect of cognitive frames. (Actually, they’re excerpts from an earlier draft of the book – the final published version was edited and polished up) …


Frames are mental structures which shape our worldviews. They’re largely unconscious, but are revealed by the language we use. For example: “time is money”. This isn’t just a figure of speech – we conceive of time as a commodity, and the frame is activated by common phrases: “don’t waste my time”, “spending time”, “borrowed time”, “running out of time”, “I’ve invested a lot of time in it”, etc.

This metaphorical conception of time isn’t universal – it doesn’t exist in all societies. Some cultures have no conception of “efficient use of time”. The “time is money” frame has certain negative consequences (stress, insecurity, short-termism, etc) – in addition to the positive things claimed for it by business managers and orthodox economists.

Repetition can embed frames in the brain, and frames define our “common sense”. Existing frames don’t change overnight. One thing you’ve probably already noticed in the mass media is repetition – the same phrases and notions are repeated over and over. It hardly matters whether you’re agreeing or disagreeing – what matters is that certain frames are used, while others are excluded. This reinforces certain worldviews – physically, in the brain – by strengthening neural connections in readers/listeners.

Frames vs “facts”

Cognitive science tells us that when facts contradict a person’s worldview (their conceptual “framing” of various issues), the facts will probably be ignored and the frames/worldview kept.

When a person’s conceptual frames don’t mesh well with evidential “reality”, the evidence that doesn’t fit the frame will likely be ignored, overlooked or dismissed. This leaves a partial, blinkered view of the “facts” – which reinforces the existing worldview. In extreme cases (eg the ideological belief that “market forces” always produce the optimum outcome for humanity) the high-level beliefs are sustained by ignoring or denying a large portion of the available low-level facts.

This way of “thinking” differs fundamentally from the classical view of “reason” as applied empirically (eg in scientific method) – in which factual evidence is allowed to challenge, refute and ultimately transform our beliefs about the world.

The lesson from this is that publicising the facts about any issue may not be sufficient to change people’s minds. And no political viewpoint has a monopoly on “objectivity”. Everyone tends to ignore or dismiss the facts which are inconvenient to their worldviews. And everyone tends to find an abundance of “evidence” or “proof” which supports their worldviews. These processes occur because of the way our brains conceptualise with metaphors and frames – resulting in the creation of our personal reality-tunnels, to which we become “attached” (in a physical sense, neurologically).

What can we do about this? We can attempt to become more aware of the process, and thereby make allowances for it – both in our own thinking, and in “reading” the messages we’re subjected to on a daily basis from the mass media.

What is conceptual metaphor?

A large part of our thinking is metaphorical, even at a basic level. For example, we generally think of “more” as “up”. We say, “the price has gone up”. This is a simple orientational metaphor, which is grounded in our experience of observing things rise as they increase (eg water in a container). But we also think of happiness as up, and sadness as down. Undecided is “up in the air”; decided is down, “settled”. We think of importance as up, eg “higher up in the firm”, and we “look down” on those we disapprove of. But there’s no necessary real-world connection between an upwards orientation and “happiness”, “undecided”, “important”, etc. The connection is metaphoric, but also synaptic – and mostly unconscious.

The cognitive scientist, George Lakoff, has catalogued in detail how certain metaphorical frames are repeated in politics to influence our opinions. His most commonly cited example is the phrase “tax relief” (which was repeated over and over by the George W Bush administration):

“When the word tax is added to relief, the result is a metaphor: Taxation is an affliction. And the person who takes it away is a hero, and anyone who tries to stop him is a bad guy. This is a frame. It is made up of ideas, like affliction and hero.” [Lakoff, Don’t think of an elephant, p4]

Political frames (including corporate propaganda) are communicated by the seemingly everyday language of newspaper headlines and editorial copy. Metaphors activate (in our brains) the frames to which they belong, and this mostly occurs without us noticing.

Media metaphors

Media metaphor & "public mood" Media metaphors structure our experience of “the news” and “public mood”, etc – but not just in the sense of “spin” or “propaganda”. Take the Times headline (see image) as an example: “Women desert Tories as economic pain hits home”. Regardless of whether its claims are factually accurate, we’re given a series of metaphors shaping our thoughts in non-trivial ways  (the most basic of these, “hits”, is a primary metaphor for direct causation, which I look at in more detail later on). Without such metaphors, we couldn’t reason about complex social issues.

Newspaper headlines often use direct causation metaphors to frame complex social issues. All such metaphors have their own logic, which is transferred from the physical realm of force to the more abstract social realms of institutions, politics, beliefs, etc. The effect is inescapably “reductive”, but not necessarily illegitimate (some metaphors – and their imported logics – are more appropriate than others). Here are some examples of such metaphorical causal expressions:

  • Public generosity hit by immigrant wave
  • 72% believe Iraq on path to democracy
  • Obama’s leadership brought the country out of despair
  • Majority fear Vietnam will fall to communism

Each of the causal logics here is different – for example, the notion that one country “falls” to communism, while another takes the right “path” (to democracy). Of “falling to communism”, Lakoff & Johnson remark (Philosophy in the Flesh, p172) that the ‘domino effect’ theory was used to justify going to war with Vietnam: when one country “falls”, the next will, and the next – unless force (military might) is applied to stop the “falling”. The metaphor of taking a “path” has very different political entailments. A nation might not even resemble a democracy, but if it chooses the “right path”, it “deserves” US military and economic “aid”, to help overcome any obstacles put in its “way”. (Incidentally, rightwing ideologues regard any “move” towards “free market” economics as taking the “path” to democracy).

The different types of causal logic resulting from each metaphor may seem obvious when spelt out like this. But the point is that the reasoning in each case is evoked automatically by the metaphorical frame; it takes effect without being spelt out, without being “made conscious”. Rather, the logic – including political inferences – is an entailment of a frame that’s simply activated by the language used.

Conventional media criticism highlights the dangers of factual inaccuracy, distortion, misrepresentation, “spin”, “propaganda”, “bias”, etc. One might remove all these dangers, but still have a media which shapes thinking in a certain way. In fact, “balance” (or elimination of “bias”) often describes a single metaphorical frame – with “balanced” coverage between one side asserting the frame, and another negating it, or simply inverting it. (Negating a frame reinforces it, of course, as when Richard Nixon announced to the American people, “I’m not a crook,” prompting everyone to think of him in terms of a criminal frame).

More crucial than the “bias”/”balance” dichotomy (in framing terms, at least) is metaphorical pluralism – applying multiple metaphors/frames (ie diverse inferential structures) to a given issue. As individuals, most of us would probably recognise this as the “healthy norm” – it gives our thinking richness, and helps to prevent dogmatism, intolerance, etc. Mass media (and also, it should be said, some “alternative” media) tend to work against this pluralism – through metaphorical narrowing and repetition (a good example is media framing of the “unemployed” – on both right and left).

The cognitive unconscious

The new "unconscious"The term “cognitive” has two different meanings. In traditional philosophy, it refers only to conceptual or propositional thought. But in cognitive science, “cognitive” also includes physical, bodily processes which underlie our conscious experience, and all the mental operations involved in making sense of it. The vast majority of these processes and operations are “unconscious”.

This isn’t the Freudian or Jungian “unconscious” – it’s something new in scientific terms (research-wise, starting around the 1970s). It owes more to empirical research than to sexual/poetic insights (of Freud, Jung etc).

The “cognitive unconscious” has huge implications for philosophy and psychology. And also for “media studies”. Take, for example, newspaper headlines. More often than not, they consist of a mixture of metaphor and abstraction (as in the example, above left – an “establishment” [abstraction] “on the rack” [metaphor]. From these we construct a representational “reality” of sorts – courtesy of frames in our brains. But we’re generally not aware of our own creative role in this.

From the Western philosophical tradition, we’ve inherited a “faculty” theory of reason, which holds that reason is a separate faculty in its own right – separate from sense-perception, etc. This is supposedly what makes us “human”. Cognitive science has shown this to be false. To give one example, our fundamental concept of causality is shaped – shaped – by the fact we have muscles which we use to exert force.

We don’t, and can’t, have full control of the categories we use in our reasoning. Although we learn new categories, we can’t consciously make major changes to the main category systems forming our “cognitive unconscious”. Much of what we regard as conceptual inference is built from basic metaphors arising from sensorimotor inference (eg the stuff that goes on in our nervous systems as we swing through the trees looking for bananas).

The extent to which metaphor structures our experience is one of the more staggering findings in cognitive science. Metaphor isn’t just about language; it’s how we think. We constantly import inferential structure from one conceptual “domain” to another – without being aware of the process. Without this metaphorical mapping, our thinking on any given topic would be practically non-existent.

Moral framing

“Time is money”, as described above, is a fairly obvious metaphorical frame. Less obvious is that morality is also routinely framed in terms of money transactions. We say that a person is “discredited” (their moral “credit” is withdrawn) when shown to be untrustworthy. We speak of “profiting” from good (ie moral) experience; we ask if a given course of action is “worth it”. The qualitative realm of morality is transformed into a quantitative one by conceptualising it in terms of accounting. If someone does you harm, you “pay them back”; if you treat me well, I am “in your debt”, etc.

This type of framing has everyday implications. Suppose you are harmed or disadvantaged by someone’s “immoral” (or inconsiderate) actions. We may not see ourselves as the type of people who seek revenge, but it’s likely we think in terms of “paying someone back”. As a “balancing of the books” this can be seen as a moral good – a legitimate punishment. The morality of retribution is usually associated with conservatism, but it’s generally understood (ie accepted) because of the accounting framing. The fact that you “automatically” think along these lines may cause anxiety and cognitive dissonance if you don’t regard yourself as “that kind of person”.

With his book, Moral Politics,  George Lakoff popularised the idea that conservative and progressive politics use different moral framing systems, both based on family metaphors. Some people find this “family” notion trite or reductive, but a deeper exploration of Lakoff’s thesis reveals it to be incredibly rich and successful at explaining and predicting the ways in which conservative and progressive views form – on all kinds of unrelated moral issues. For example, to take a USA case, what is the cognitive link between stereotypical conservative positions on abortion and, say, gun control? Lakoff’s thesis enables us to answer such questions.

“Family” frames

Lakoff makes the case that conservative moral values are based on a “strict father” upbringing model, and liberal (or “progressive”) values on a “nurturant parent” model. We all seem to have both models in our brains – even the most “liberal” person can understand a John Wayne film (Lakoff uses Arnold Schwarzenegger movies as examples of the ‘strictness’ moral system).

An adult might lean towards strictness in raising her own children, while demonstrating nurturant values in her professional life, or vice versa. Conservative politicians talk about “family values” all the time – even when there are more important issues (eg war, economy) to be addressed. What do family values have to do with these bigger issues? One suggestion is that by repeatedly talking about family values (to certain audiences – eg working-class Christians, in the US), the radical-right manages to activate the strictness frame for other domains (eg economy, welfare, crime, foreign policy, etc) – where it might not “naturally” (or traditionally) apply.

Frames & fear

“Fear triggers the strict father model; it tends to make the model active in one’s brain.”
– George Lakoff, ‘Don’t think of an elephant’, p42

In the ‘strict’ frame, the world is regarded as fundamentally dangerous and competitive. Good and bad are seen as absolutes, but children aren’t born good in this worldview – they have to be made good. This requires that they are obedient to a moral authority. Obedience is taught through punishment, which, according to this belief-system, helps children develop the self-discipline necessary to avoid doing wrong. Self-discipline is also needed for prosperity in a dangerous, competitive world. It follows, in this worldview, that people who prosper financially are self-disciplined and therefore morally good.

This framing complements, in obvious ways, the ideology of “free market” capitalism. For example, in the latter, the successful pursuit of self-interest in a competitive world is seen as a moral good since it benefits all via the “invisible hand” of the market. In both cases do-gooders are viewed as interfering with what is right – their “helpfulness” is seen as something which makes people dependent rather than self-disciplined. It’s also seen as an interference in the market optimisation of the benefits of self-interest.

Strictness Morality & competition

A ‘reward & punishment’ type morality follows from strictness framing. Punishment of disobedience is seen as a moral good – how else will people develop the self-discipline necessary to prosper in a dangerous, competitive environment? Becoming an adult, in this belief-system’s logic, means achieving sufficient self-discipline to free oneself from “dependence” on others (no easy task in a “tough world”). Success is seen as a just reward for the obedience which leads ultimately to self-discipline. Remaining “dependent” is seen as failure.

Competition is an important premise of Strictness Morality. By competing in a tough world, people demonstrate a self-discipline deserving of reward, ie success. Conversely, it’s seen as immoral to reward those who haven’t earned it through competition. By this logic, competition is seen as morally necessary: without it there’s no motivation to become the right kind of person – ie self-disciplined and obedient to authority. Constraints on competition (eg social “hand-outs”) are therefore seen as immoral.

‘Nurturant’ framing doesn’t give competition the same moral priority. ‘Progressive’ morality tends to view economic competition as creating more losers than winners, with the resulting inequality correlating with social ills such as crime, deprivation and all the things you hope won’t happen to you. The nurturant ideal of abundance for all (eg achieved through technological advance) works against the primacy of competition. Economic competition still has an important place, but as a limited (and fallible) means to achieving abundance, rather than as a moral imperative.

While nurturant morality is troubled by the fear of “not enough to go around for all”, strictness morality is haunted by the fear of personal failure, individual weakness. Even the “successful” seem haunted by this fear.

‘Moral strength’

Central to Strictness Morality is the metaphor of moral strength. “Evil” is framed as a force which must be fought. Weakness implies evil in this worldview, since weakness is unable to resist the force of evil.

People are not born strong, the logic goes; strength is built through learning self-discipline and self-denial – these are primary values in the strictness system, so any sign of weakness is a source of anxiety, and fear itself is perceived as a further weakness (one to be denied at all costs). Note that these views are all metaphorically conceived – instead of a force, evil could (outside the strictness frame) be viewed as an effect, eg of ignorance or greed – in which case strength wouldn’t make quite as much sense as a primary moral value.

It’s usually taken for granted that strength is “good” in concrete, physical ways, but we’re talking about metaphor here. Or, rather, we’re thinking metaphorically (mostly without being aware of the fact) – in a way which affects our hierarchy of values. With “strictness” framing, we’ll give higher priority to strength (discipline, control) than to tolerance (fairness, compassion, etc). This may influence everything from our relationships to our politics and how we evaluate our own mental-emotional states.

‘Authoritarian’ moral framing

We’re constrained by ‘social attitudes’ which put moral values in a different order than our own. Moral conflicts aren’t just about “good” vs “bad” – they’re about conflicting hierarchies of values.

For example, you mightn’t regard hard work or self-discipline as the main indicators of a person’s worth – but someone with economic power over you (eg your employer) might…….

“Laziness is bad”
Under ‘strictness’ morality, self-indulgence (eg idleness) is seen as moral weakness, ie emergent evil. It represents a failure to develop the ‘moral strengths’ of self-control and self-discipline (which are primary values in this worldview). At this point you might want to reflect on how much the Puritan work ethic has affected your life in terms of hours spent in “productive employment” (or “pointless drudgery”).

“Time-wasting is very bad”
Laziness also implies wasted time according to this viewpoint. So it’s ‘bad’ in the further sense that “time is money” (see above). Inactivity and idleness are seen as inherently costly, a financial loss. People tend to forget that this is metaphorical – there is no literal “loss” – and the frame excludes notions of benefits (or “gains”) resulting from inaction/indolence.

“Welfare is very, very bad”
Regarded (by some) as removing the “incentive” to work, welfare is thus seen as promoting moral weakness (ie laziness, time-wasting, “dependency”, etc). That’s bad enough in itself (from the perspective of Strictness Morality) – but, in addition, welfare is usually funded by taxing those who work. In other words, the “moral strength” of holding a job isn’t being rewarded in full – it’s being taxed to reward the “undeserving weak”.

Thus welfare is seen as doubly immoral in this system of moral metaphors. Of course, others would argue that the “disincentive” to work is provided not by welfare but by work itself – or rather by its long hours, soul-crippling tedium and low pay. But that’s a different kind of framing.

Enemies everywhere, everything a threat

There’s a lot to fear from the perspective of ‘Strictness Morality’: the world’s a dangerous place, there’s immorality (and indeed “evil”) all over the place, lurking everywhere, ready to jump out at you. And any weakness that you manifest will be punished. Even the good, decent people are competing ruthlessly with you, judging you for any failure.

In a way, this moral framing logically requires that the world is seen as essentially dangerous. Remove this premise and Strictness Morality ‘collapses’, since the precedence given (in this scheme) to moral strength, self-discipline and authority (over compassion, fairness, happiness, etc) would no longer make sense.

Tabloid newspapers appear to have the function of reinforcing the fearful premise with daily scaremongering – presumably because it’s more profitable than less dramatic “news”. But this repeated stimulation of our fears affects our brains at a synaptic level. The fear/alarm framing receives continual reinforcement.

And pretty soon that’s how we start to think…

“News” & political frames

Any “newsworthy” event requires a conceptual frame in order for us to make sense of it. As some cognitive scientists point out, we don’t think in terms of neutral “facts” – our thoughts aren’t strung-together facts. We require frames to provide a “meaning” to facts (or, as Lakoff puts it, “we think and reason using frames and metaphors”). Journalists instinctively know this, which is why much of the “news” is presented as narrative frames – taking the form of a story (often with heroes and villains, crisis, drama, tragedy, etc).

How we tend to frame events will depend on our worldviews, our hierarchies of values, etc. Inevitably this will bring into play the “deep” moral frame structures in our psyches. When we read a newspaper story, however, a frame has already been selected for us in advance. If it’s a common news frame (ie one reinforced through repetition over many years), it may seem entirely normal, appropriate and “true” with respect to the “hard facts” (if any) reported. But at the same time it may induce a “tunneling” – or cognitive blinkering – effect, in which crucial aspects of the newsworthy event are excluded from our consciousness.

This occurs not just with news “events”, but with political and social institutions and abstractions – and indeed any players, roles, entities, etc, involved in the news story. Consider, for example, the notion of a corporation or big firm. It’s an entity that features often in stories on jobs, in which the frame is perhaps “job creation” or “job loss”, etc. The corporation is the creator of jobs, the “engine of productivity”, etc, within that frame. Now consider the frame favoured by, say, Noam Chomsky: corporations as unaccountable private tyrannies. Both of these frames (corporations as job creators and corporations as private tyrannies) might be more or less “supported by the facts” – they’re both “true” in that sense. But, of course, they invoke two very different sets of ideas in our minds regarding the reality or “meaning” of corporations.

News frames ensure, through repetition, that one set of “meanings” takes prominence over others. This isn’t “bias” in the usual, narrow sense in which media critics use that term. Neither is it primarily about battles between different sets of opposing “facts”. It’s more fundamental than that, and requires that we understand the new cognitive fields of frame semantics, conceptual metaphor and moral-values systems. I’ll now attempt to shed some light on this process by looking at some examples of UK media stories from the perspective of framing.

“Lazy consumers” & “benefit tourists”

I’ll start with a couple of new phrases – as the problem with old, well-established expressions of frame structures is that they tend to become invisible “common sense”, and thus more difficult to see as frames. The processes involved should be easier to see with new expressions.

Consumers too lazyOn the important topic of people not being able to afford their energy bills, the Times (17/9/2011) led with the “news” that a minister had an opinion about consumers. Specifically, Chris Huhne, then Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary, said that, “Consumers must take some of the blame for high energy bills because they cannot be bothered to shop around for the best deals”.

Everyone who glanced at the Times headline (eg at the supermarket or newsagent) will have seen a message about “lazy consumers” which is not the result of a poll or a scientific study. It’s someone’s opinion, and it’s a frame. Alternative frames that weren’t used include: lack of transparency in fuel costs and overcharged consumers (which convey something about market failures). Ofgem (the regulator) talked of “consumers bamboozled by complex and unfair pricing”.

But the Times gives us “lazy consumers”. So, the implication is that the competitive market works just fine – it’s customer idleness that’s to blame. A standard “left” response to this might be that it’s biased corporate “propaganda” – indeed the Labour party focused on “profiteering energy companies”. The old (non-frames) style of media criticism would perhaps use facts and figures in an attempt to show that the Times piece was misleading or fallacious. But, suppose the facts and figures do demonstrate that there’s a sizeable reduction in fuel bills to be achieved by “shopping around”, and that only a small percentage of people use the cheapest suppliers at any given time?

Looking at it from a framing perspective, we can immediately see that the “laziness” moral frame is perhaps the key aspect. This taps into (and reinforces) existing political narratives which equate financial difficulty with laziness or “lack of enterprise”. Less obviously, it also invokes the authoritarian or “strict father” moral system in our brains – on a subject which otherwise might more “naturally” elicit sympathy and concern.

The “lazy consumers” framing completely excludes one possibility – which is that many people are too busy, too overworked, too burdened with more pressing problems, to sit down and change their energy suppliers on a regular basis (regular enough to keep up with the fast-changing market). Note that if you substitute the word “lazy” with “overworked”, you get “overworked consumers”, which makes no sense, as it doesn’t fit any existing frame (people are overworked, consumers simply shop). One could write a book about the “consumer” frame in its own right, but it’s sufficient to note here that combined with “laziness” it triggers the strict-judgmental moral system.

"Benefits tourists"

A different expression, but one which activates the same high-level moral system in our brains, is “benefit tourists”. This is a relatively new formulation, which I first noticed in the headlines in 2010. The fact that it has become a well-established political and media phrase over the course of just a few years indicates that it’s easily comprehended in terms of existing frame structure (eg the combination of the “welfare” and “cheating” frames).

“Brussels sues UK to let in ‘benefit tourists’” — Daily Telegraph, 30 September 2011

“An open door to benefit tourists: EU warns Britain it can’t stop thousands more migrants claiming welfare handouts” — Daily Mail, 28 September 2010

“Plan to curb ‘benefit tourism’ … David Cameron announces a crackdown” — BBC News, 27 November 2013

“Tourist” is, of course, a frame in its own right. There are clearly defined roles and scenarios in the tourist frame: A tourist isn’t looking for work; a tourist is not from around here; a tourist seeks pleasure, a tourist is travelling, a tourist is not escaping from hardship or persecution, or building a new life; a tourist is exploring, sight-seeing or relaxing (ie not looking for work), and perhaps she/he wears sunglasses and a stupid grin.

On the level of facts, some studies have found “benefit tourism” to be largely a myth. Dominic Casciani, a BBC Home Affairs correspondent, cites some of this research (BBC News, 27 November 2013). He asked what the evidence was for widespread benefit tourism, and concluded:

“The answer is that there is very little – and it is an extremely complex picture. That does not mean that benefit tourism doesn’t exist – but what’s clear is that the evidence points strongly in the direction that people migrate to find work or for family reasons. They are less likely to up sticks to cross borders – or even continents – just for a weekly giro.” Dominic Casciani, BBC News, 27 November 2013

Of course, this won’t stop newspapers headlining with the phrase. Every time they use the word, “tourist”, they activate a frame whose unstated inferences (about the motives and behaviours of migrants who receive benefits) reinforce the ‘strict’ conservative moral worldview.

“Flatlined” economy

"Flatlined" economyAnother expression that’s become widespread in recent years is economic “flatlining”.  The Guardian, for example, used the headline (6/10/2011): “PM tells Britain ‘to show some fight’ as economy flatlines”.

“Flatlined” is a medical metaphor for clinical death. When mapped onto economic metaphors of “flatness” (“flat” growth, “flat” demand, etc) we have a frame. The frame affects how we think about “the economy”. Labour minister, Harriet Harman, used the “flatlining” metaphor in BBC’s Question Time (22/9/2011) in a revealing context. An audience member had queried the premise that economic “growth” was necessary. Harman replied by saying the deficit can’t be cut “if the economy is flatlining”. She didn’t expand on this.

In a way, Harriet Harman didn’t need to expand, because the frame provided its own set of inferences: lack of growth is “flatness”, and “flatness” is death, and death is to be avoided. The inferences here are metaphorical, unstated and unconscious. Excluded (by metaphor, not by conscious thought) is consideration of the ways in which a lack of economic “growth” might be beneficial.

Note that “flatness” is not literal in any economic sense. It’s a metaphor enabling us to think about statistical abstractions – it appears only on graphical representations of accumulations of data. We need such metaphors in order to be able to think at all about complex or abstract issues – but we also need to be aware of the consequences of using a particular metaphorical frame. What does it focus our attention on? What does it hide? What inferences does the metaphor smuggle in under our noses?

Worldviews & “deep” frames

In previous chapters, I’ve provided an overview of moral frame structures, and given some examples of common headline frames. I’m now going to explore two of the biggest “stories” of the 21st century, to date, from the perspective of “deep” frames-based worldviews.

The Iraq war, which began in 2003, and the 2008 global financial collapse were so momentous and calamitous that it seems absurd to think of them as mere “stories” – as if narrative structure can be imposed on all the complex ways in which countless millions of lives have been affected. And, yet, such frames (eg simple moral narratives) were – and still are – used to “explain” and “report” the causes, effects and resulting aftermaths.

We weren’t brought up to think in terms of frames, metaphors and different moral worldviews. We tend to acquire, instead, the idea that there is only one “common sense”, and that it is (or should be) more or less the same for every sane, rational person. Of course, this is a false notion. Common sense is determined by the “deep” cognitive frames that we acquire, and what one person regards as “common sense”, another may regard as ideology or immorality. With issues such as the financial crisis and the Iraq war, views are often polarised, with each side talking past each other, not understanding each other, and ultimately regarding each other as either deluded, dishonest or just fundamentally evil. And yet the people on different sides do have one important thing in common: they see their own positions as essentially rational and morally right.

So, a progressive-leaning person may wonder: How can those on the right see themselves as having a rational, moral position on the economy, austerity, Iraq, etc? That’s a question I’ll attempt to answer in the next two chapters. [Those chapters aren’t included in these excerpts].

Framing vs “Orwellian language”
– the fallacy of Enlightenment reason

“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable”
– George Orwell

Orwell’s famous essay, Politics and the English Language, is premised on a view of reason that comes from the Enlightenment. It’s a widespread view that’s “reflexively” still promoted not just by the “liberal-left” media and commentariat, but also by the Chomskyan “radical left”. And, as George Lakoff and others have been at pains to point out, it’s a view of reason which now seems totally wrong.

Why does the Enlightenment view of reason seem wrong? Well, it’s an 18th-Century outlook which takes reason to be conscious, universal, logical, literal (ie fits the world directly), unemotional, disembodied and interest-based (Enlightenment rationalism assumes that everyone is rational and that rationality serves self-interest). It follows from this viewpoint that you only need to tell people the facts in clear language, and they’ll reason to the right, true conclusions. As Lakoff puts it, “The cognitive and brain sciences have shown this is false… it’s false in every single detail.”

From the discoveries promoted by the cog/neuro-scientists, we find that reason is mostly unconscious. We don’t know our own system of concepts. Much of what we regard as conceptual inference (or “logic”) arises, unconsciously, from basic metaphors whose source is the sensory and motor activities of our nervous systems. Also, rationality requires emotion, which itself can be unconscious. We always think using frames, and every word is understood in relation to a cognitive frame. The neural basis of reasoning is not literal or logical computation; it entails frames, metaphors, narratives and images.

So, of course: we have different worldviews – not universal reason. It seems obvious, but needs repeating: We don’t all think the same – only a part of our conceptual systems can be considered universal. So-called “conservatives” and “progressives” don’t see the world in the same way; they have different forms of reason on moral issues. But they both see themselves as right, in a moral sense (with perhaps a few “amoral” exceptions).

Many on the left apparently find this difficult to comprehend. Given the Enlightenment premise of universal reason, they think everyone should be able to reason to the conclusion that conservative (or “Capitalist”) positions are immoral. All that’s needed, they believe, is to tell people the unadorned facts, the “truth”. And if people won’t reason to the correct moral conclusions after being presented with the facts, that must imply they are either immoral or “brainwashed”, hopelessly confused or “pathological”.

Few people have exclusively “conservative” or exclusively “progressive” views on everything. We all seem to have both modes of moral reasoning in our brains. (The words “conservative” and “progressive” may seem somewhat arbitrary, inadequate categories, but the distinct “moral” cognitive systems which they point to seem far from arbitrary – see Lakoff’s Moral Politics). You can think “progressively” in one subject area and “conservatively” in others, and vice-versa. And you might not be aware that you’re switching back and forth. It’s called “mutual inhibition” – where two structures in the brain neurally inhibit each other. If one is active, it will deactivate the other, and vice-versa. To give a crude example, constant activation of “conservative” framing on, say, the issue of welfare (eg the “benefit cheats” frame) will tend to inhibit the more “progressive” mode of thought in that whole subject area.

To return to Orwell’s essay – he writes that certain misuses of language promote a nefarious status quo in politics. For example, he argues that “pretentious diction” is used to “dignify the sordid process of international politics”. He says that “meaningless words” such as “democracy” and “patriotic” are often used in a consciously dishonest way with “intent to deceive”. The business of political writing is one of “swindles and perversions”; it is the “debasement of language”. For Orwell, it is “broadly true that political writing is bad writing”, and political language “has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness”.

Much of this still seems valid (nearly 70 years after Orwell wrote it) – and some of the examples of official gibberish that Orwell cites are as amusing as what you might see in today’s political/bureaucratic gobbledygook. But it’s the cure that Orwell proposes which embodies the Enlightenment fallacy (and which Lakoff, for example, has described as “naive and dangerous”):

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them… Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning… (George Orwell, Politics and the English Language)

Orwell then provides a list of simple rules to help in removing the “humbug and vagueness” from political language (such as: “Never use a long word where a short one will do”). He states that “one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language”, and that, “If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of [political] orthodoxy”.

What are the fallacies here? Well, most obvious is the notion that political propaganda can be resisted with language which simply fits the right words to true meanings, without concealing or dressing anything up. Anyone who has studied effective political propaganda will tell you that it already does precisely that. The most convincing, persuasive propaganda, rhetoric or political speech seems to be that which strikes the reader or listener as plain-speaking “truth”. In many ways, the right seems to have mastered this art.

The fallacy comes from the Enlightenment notion that because people are rational, you only need to tell them the “plain facts” for them to reason to the truth. We know, however, that facts are interpreted according to frames. Every fact, and every word, is understood in relation to a frame. To borrow an example from above, you can state that “corporations are job creators”, and you can state that “corporations are unaccountable private tyrannies”. Two different frames, neither of which consists of “debasement” of language or factual deception. Rather, it’s a question of activating different worldviews.

Orwell’s notion of letting “the meaning choose the word” seems to imply that our “meanings” exist independently of the semantic grids and cognitive-conceptual systems in our brains. Again, this comes from the Enlightenment fallacy – that there’s a disembodied reason or “meaning” which is literal (or “truth”), and which we can fit the right words to, in order to convey literal truth. It seems more accurate to say that we need conceptual frames to make sense of anything – or, as the cognitive scientists tell us, we require frames, prototypes, metaphors, narratives and emotions to provide “meaning”.

A lot of political/media rhetoric does seem to conform to Orwell’s diagnosis, and its language can probably be clarified by his rules and recommendations. But it’s not this “vague”, “pretentious”, “deceptive” type of rhetoric or propaganda that worries me most. What worries me is the rightwing message-machine’s success (if we believe the polls/surveys) in communicating “plain truths” to millions by framing issues in ways which resonate with people’s fears and insecurities – and which tend to activate the more “intolerant”, or “strict-authoritarian” aspects of cognition, en masse.

One of the main ideas I want this book to get across is the link between fear-inducing framing and “authoritarian” moral systems. I’ve already described how the “strict father” morality depends on – and promotes – a view of the world as essentially dangerous and threatening. Of course, there are genuine large-scale threats (international conflicts, natural and man-made disasters, etc) to be faced, but the fearmongering frames one sees most often in the media – especially in the rightwing tabloid press – typically concern things which many people consider to be “closer to home”. It’s these frames – and their effects – that I’ll explore in the concluding chapter.

Written by NewsFrames

June 19, 2016 at 12:28 am

Media criticism – the state it’s in

bookshelfHaving followed all kinds of critiques of “the media” since the 1980s, I suspect the criticism has evolved less than the media itself – at least in its prevalent forms. Each day, dire press “coverage” (or “propaganda”, “churnalism”, “a clown show” – take your pick) reminds us of the need for media criticism which isn’t as tribal – or stupid – as the media it scrutinises, yet we seem stuck with the simple-minded binary tropes we had 30 years (and more) ago: bias vs balance, public vs elites, corporate vs independent, right vs left, etc.

So, what the hell’s going on?

1. “Sub-Chomskyan”

I see the term “sub-Chomskyan” used sometimes by those on the “right” who dislike the famous MIT professor’s politics, and occasionally by “left”-leaning commentators fed up with a genre of writing which reads like a sort of stark, zombified version of Chomsky.

The latter usage applies particularly to a widespread form of media criticism which makes overarching generalisations about “the corporate media” in a way which “owes something” to Manufacturing Consent (the classic 1988 book co-authored by Chomsky and Edward Herman). Given that the internet is currently the busiest forum for media criticism (in blogs, social media, “below the line” comment sections, etc) you could probably say that the Chomskyan (whether adept or “sub-“) variety is the most frequently voiced one.

But I wouldn’t blame NC for the current state of so-called “media criticism” any more than I’d blame JC for Xtian Evangelism or the Holy Inquisition. I suppose that what starts with a person of merit and originality often ends up with a self-righteous bunch of presumptuous acolytes or unfunny zealots. It’s true that burning people at the stake as “witches” is worse than denouncing journalists on Twitter as “corporate mouthpieces”, but you get the impression that the moral stakes are the same – corporations being up there with Satan.

(A recent tweet I saw responds to the Guardian columnist Marina Hyde by saying, “wake up, Honey”, accompanied by a picture of Manufacturing Consent).

2. Media “watchdogs”

David Foster Wallace said political discourse had become a “formulaic matter of preaching to one’s own choir and demonizing the opposition”, and the same can probably be said for the output of various media “watchdogs” and “monitors” – at least those with political leanings (ie virtually all of them). Most of these groups boast of being “independent”, “non-corporate”, etc – which is good; but unless they have some form of “innocent” funding (or unless the people running them are financially independent – ie well-off), it follows that they’re constrained, albeit less directly, by the same economics as their more “corporate” colleagues. And they are certainly no more “objective” or “impartial” (although their particular “bias” may be seen as more virtuous – assuming you agree with their politics).

Still, they can serve a useful purpose within these limits, highlighting important problems with the so-called “mainstream” media. For several years, starting in the late 1990s, I attempted something modest along these lines myself. I sent 150 fortnightly editions of my “News & Distraction” newsletter to around 5,000 subscribers (it had been advertised in my satirical zine, Anxiety Culture), and had some minor successes – for example, getting the BBC to uphold my complaint that a BBC1 News report had “breached editorial guidelines on truth and accuracy” (not an easy matter), getting coverage on a late-night Channel 4 TV show, even a phone call from a Newsnight editor who wanted me to appear (too short notice, alas – Alice Nutter from Chumbawumba ended up doing it).

When I envisioned something more ambitious – Media Hell, a web community project to record, link and cross-index types of media fallacies using a purpose-built structured database – I quickly ran into the economic constraints that I mention above. Although I had professional experience of database design, I had no funding and (as it turned out) not nearly enough spare time. And since I saw the relational database as essential to the kind of ongoing empirical research I had in mind (I wanted to avoid being just another serial polemic/blog/alert issuer), the project soon ran out of steam.

3. Cherry-picking & lack of empirical studies

Many “independent” media critics don’t see the lack of decent empirical studies as an obstacle to promoting their viewpoints, but I regard the “scientific” approach as essential if you’re making claims about broad media trends or, say, the output of a newspaper as a whole. Much more common, unfortunately, is the Mickey Mouse style of cherry-picking (which often passes for “analysis”) – since it’s relatively easy, convenient and tempting to select precisely those press examples which “prove” one’s existing beliefs about bias and propaganda, etc.

As the volume (and in some cases diversity) of mass-media content increases, this type of cherry-picking becomes easier, while empirical studies become more time-consuming (and relatively rarer). The former becomes a kind of “confirmation bias made easy”, although it may be seen as convincing and “substantive” by those who already believe what it “confirms”.

What begins as informed opinion can rigidify into dogmatic ideology if there’s little motivation to actively seek counterevidence. And not just to seek it and record each instance, but to constantly keep in mind how our tendencies towards confirmation bias skew our evaluations of “evidence”. As Kathryn Schulz points out, in her book, Being Wrong:

“We don’t assess evidence neutrally; we assess it in light of whatever theories we’ve already formed on the basis of whatever other, earlier evidence we have encountered.”

“Sometimes, by contrast, we see the counterevidence just fine – but, thanks to confirmation bias, we decide that it has no bearing on the validity of our beliefs. In logic, this tendency is known, rather charmingly, as the No True Scotsman fallacy.”

4. “No True Scotsman” logic

So, you believe that no Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge. But I present an example of a Scotsman who puts sugar on. You dismiss this by saying, “Yes, but no true Scotsman does that”. My counterevidence makes no dent in your belief.

One sees this a lot in “radical” media criticism – especially where there’s a reliance on blanket generalisations and broad class identifiers (“corporate”, “western”, “liberal”, etc). So, for instance, you believe that no radical content is allowed to appear in the “corporate media”. I list some good examples of radical articles that have appeared in the corporate-owned press, but you dismiss them as not “truly” radical.

If you dismiss counterevidence in that way, there may come a point when the question doesn’t even arise in your mind – your thinking on the issue gets replaced by a “Correct Answer” reflex. That’s how tentative beliefs turn into fixed doctrines – all the inconvenient examples which seem to contradict your belief are automatically brushed off. It’s a completely different mindset than the one you’d ideally want to bring to an empirical study. It’s “anti-scientific” in that evidence isn’t used to determine what is really going on – rather it’s carefully selected as a means to persuade others of a foregone conclusion.

This is how a certain type of media criticism becomes more and more sweeping in its assertions, until the rhetoric departs from messy reality and enters some platonic realm in which abstract generalisations about an abstract noun (the “mainstream media”) count as “hard-hitting” truth. This stuff fills my Twitter timeline every day – it reads like a rightwing caricature of “strident lefties”. It’s simplistic, even simple-minded. We learn nothing new from it; history repeats.

5. Panchrestons, overgeneralisations

“Panchreston” is a word we don’t bump into very often. The thing it refers to, however, seems very common:

Panchreston (noun): A proposed explanation intended to address a complex problem by trying to account for all possible contingencies but typically proving to be too broadly conceived and therefore oversimplified to be of any practical use.

Panchrestons in media criticism include many of those sweeping generalisations that you hear about “Western”/”establishment”/”corporate”/”mainstream” journalists. Of course, there are also high-level generalisations which are valid – but they’re usually either banal statements of the obvious, or valid by definition. It’s not a panchreston to say that the “corporate media” requires commercial revenue to survive, but I would consider it a panchreston to “explain” newspaper content largely in terms of its “corporate” attribute. That’s far too “easy”, reductive, and disconnected from messy reality. (It also seems to be very popular, but then so is “one powerful elite controlling everything” conspiracy-type framing).

(To be continued at some point…)

Written by NewsFrames

February 25, 2016 at 10:26 am