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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Archive for the ‘Voting’ Category

Behaviour modification empires for rent

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Of all the “what the hell is going on?” type books that I’ve read in the last few years, the one I rate highest is Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts.

The title undersells this book’s importance, to my mind. After all, it’s neither self-help nor “clickbait” – it’s not like “10 arguments for quitting sugar”. I regard it more as an absolutely essential collection of insights (from a Silicon Valley insider) about why basic democratic and progressive norms seem to be undermined as a consequence of how social media works.

“But for the moment we face a terrifying, sudden crisis…
Something is drawing young people away from democracy.”
(Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments…)

Algorithm Politics & mass manipulation of humans

“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works.”
Former Facebook vice president of user growth (quoted by Lanier)

Jaron’s book argues that while we should generally embrace the internet, we need to urgently reject what he calls “BUMMER” (his acronym for the destructive core of social media, short for “Behaviors of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent”).

BUMMER is a sort of high-level business plan in which the end-users of social media are the product, not the customer (that’s why social media is free to use). The real customers are those who want to modify your behaviour in some way. The basic argument is that, statistically, social media algorithms boost certain negative aspects of human communication, since that’s what maximises engagement with the platform (thus maximising profit for the social media companies).

The algorithms don’t care how they maximise user engagement – it happens automatically (continually “optimised”), and it just so happens that tribalism and nasty adversarial conflicts tend to engage people more efficiently than, say, pleasantly reasonable discourse does. Nor do the algorithms care if the result is user addiction (with its related mental health problems).

“Social media is biased, not to the Left or the Right, but downward. The relative ease of using negative emotions for the purposes of addiction and manipulation makes it relatively easier to achieve undignified results. An unfortunate combination of biology and math favors degradation of the human world. Information warfare units sway elections, hate groups recruit, and nihilists get amazing bang for the buck when they try to bring society down.

“The unplanned nature of the transformation from advertising to direct behavior modification caused an explosive amplification of negativity in human affairs.” (Lanier, Ten Arguments…)

As the book frames it: “Social media is turning you into an asshole”. I’m reminded of the quote provided by Robert Anton Wilson at the beginning of his chapter on “The SNAFU principle” in Prometheus Rising:

“…the peculiar nature of the game…makes it impossible for [participants] to stop the game once it is under way. Such situations we label games without end.” (Watzlawick, Beavin, Jackson, Pragmatics of Human Communication – full quote here)

As for those who want to modify your behaviour, they range from advertisers to malign (and often secretive) parties seeking to amplify hatreds or swing elections. (Lanier doesn’t shy away from tackling emotive/controversial topics, such as Russian state exploitation of social media for disruptive purposes).

“Remember how it became cool in some liberal circles to cruelly ridicule Hillary, as if doing so were a religion? In the age of BUMMER you can’t tell what was organic and what was engineered.

“It’s random that BUMMER favored the Republicans over the Democrats in U.S. politics, but it isn’t random that BUMMER favored the most irritable, authoritarian, paranoid, and tribal Republicans. All those qualities are equally available on the left.” (Lanier, Ten Arguments…)

(Remember when Facebook promoted the “trending news” that “most doctors polled” had “serious concerns” about Hillary Clinton’s health, including the suggestion, in a poll question, that Hillary was a “flaming psychopath”? This “news” originally came from a rightwing group, AAPS, that promoted conspiracy theories, including that “vaccines cause autism“. It was also promoted by Trump and Wikileaks).

Lanier’s book is so entertainingly readable, and so rich in insights (and in things you really need to know about), that there’s probably not much point in my writing about it further, other than to say read the whole thing for yourself. The bottom line is that the algorithms are constantly operating to monitor, via our online responses, preferences, framing, etc, the adaptive unconsciouses of hundreds of millions of people on an individual, targeted level, instantaneously in real time – modifying behaviour and thus changing brains physically, at the neural level, in ways we’re not conscious of, and at the whim of parties who don’t have our best interests in mind.

As for those algorithms, Lanier remarks that they’re among the best kept secrets on the planet – more carefully guarded than NSA or CIA state secrets. But it’s worth quoting at length one example of how the book describes them as working:

“Black activists and sympathizers were carefully cataloged and studied. What wording got them excited? What annoyed them? What little things, stories, videos, anything, kept them glued to BUMMER? What would snowflake-ify them enough to isolate them, bit by bit, from the rest of society? What made them shift to be more targetable by behavior modification messages over time? The purpose was not to repress the movement but to earn money. The process was automatic, routine, sterile, and ruthless.

“Meanwhile, automatically, black activism was tested for its ability to preoccupy, annoy, even transfix other populations, who themselves were then automatically cataloged, prodded, and studied. A slice of latent white supremacists and racists who had previously not been well identified, connected, or empowered was blindly, mechanically discovered and cultivated, initially only for automatic, unknowing commercial gain – but that would have been impossible without first cultivating a slice of BUMMER black activism and algorithmically figuring out how to frame it as a provocation.

“BUMMER was gradually separating people into bins and promoting assholes by its nature, before Russians or any other client showed up to take advantage. When the Russians did show up, they benefited from a user interface designed to help ‘advertisers’ target populations with tested messages to gain attention. All the Russian agents had to do was pay BUMMER for what came to BUMMER naturally.” (Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments…)

Written by NewsFrames

November 15, 2019 at 2:05 pm

Interview with Wereldwijd 297 magazine

Wereldwijd 297 magazine

(May 2019 interview, covering Anxiety Culture, New Age, bullshit jobs, Brexit, alt-political categories, right-left anti-establishment convergence, Lakoff’s semantic framing, Mueller report & Russian interference.) 

Elif: I first spoke to you in the early noughties, after Channel 4 (UK national TV broadcaster) had a show which featured your zine, Anxiety Culture. One of the things I remember is the “Messages from the adverts”, where you said the two underlying messages were “You are not good enough” and “There is something wrong with you”. Do you think that’s even more the case with social media now? It seems to be creating anxiety and mental health problems for young people.

Brian: Yeah, you’re not interesting or clever or experienced enough. And even if you think you are, you’re not getting enough recognition and appreciation. So you’re constantly trying to fix a perceived lack. It’s endless, and designed to be addictive by social media platforms, with their dopamine hits. I’m assuming young people aren’t taught intellectual or emotional self-defences against it in school.

Elif: Not as far as I’m aware. The usual academic studies still take priority.

Brian: Ironically, I think some of the New Agey type of self-help books contain the best solutions, from a behavioural perspective. The kind of books that most people I know sneer at, mostly with good reason. You just have to suspend disbelief when reading them, not take them too literally and ignore the obvious crud. Then pick out the good ideas. For example, the artificial (at first) practice of feeling grateful regardless. So you become the source of recognition and appreciation for others, regardless – instead of trying to grasp those things from others. Obviously if you’re the source, for others, of what you thought you lacked from others, the sense of lack is sweetly nullified. The problem is that the New Agey books might frame the basic idea with the kind of sappy language that most people probably reject (“all the love you need is already within you”, etc).

Elif: What I also liked about Anxiety Culture was the undermining of the Puritan work ethic, particularly the simple graphic détournement of business clipart, for example the ‘Crap Job Watch UK’ stickers. Have you by any chance read David Graeber’s new book, Bullshit Jobs? It’s based on some of the same ideas you were writing about back then.

Brian: No, but I read his earlier essay about bullshit jobs [Strike magazine, 2013], which expanded on the notion of pointless jobs to great effect. I think he was one of the people behind Occupy Wall Street? Ironically, I remember the guy who ran the biggest radical left website, ZNet, writing an article for the Guardian in which he says the main focus of the Occupy movement should be “full employment”!

Elif: What do you think of Occupy’s slogan, “We are the 99 percent”?

Brian: Well, it refers to wealth concentration, but it makes no sense if you’re talking about the distribution of political opinion. There’s no uniformity of political view uniting the 99%. It was more like 50/50 on the support of Trump, Brexit, etc. Those fine margins behind victory are important – easily exploited. I think this is where pundits like Glenn Greenwald get it so wrong. Greenwald’s view is that Trump/MAGA, Brexit, “yellow vests” movements, etc, are popular expressions of the economically hurting masses against establishment elites. It’s a nice, simple frame, like the 99% vs the 1%. But reality makes a mockery of it.

Elif: What do you mean?

Brian: Take the idea that Brexit was a popular mass revolt against elites. In fact, the Brexit campaign was funded by elites and planned by elites. It was promoted by rightwing media with billionaire proprietors. The promoters of Brexit didn’t see it as a 99% vs 1% issue. Through their voter research they realised it’s 51%/49% against what they want. So they find ways to swing things in their favour at those fine margins. The voter support for Brexit wasn’t primarily – or even disproportionately – from the economically struggling, the “left behind”. According to the detailed voter survey statistics I looked at, there’s more of a basis to think that support for Brexit was primarily – or at least disproportionately – from people who already held “conservative” viewpoints on trigger issues such as immigration.

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To support the notion that Brexit was essentially an anti-elite movement, Greenwald wrote that “media elites in the U.K. were vehemently united against Brexit”. But that’s completely wrong. In fact, over 65% of UK national newspapers (by circulation) campaigned in favour of Brexit. The Daily Mail, Sun, Express, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph were all for Brexit. The BBC is supposed to be neutral but gave endless airtime to Nigel Farage and UKIP. Not to mention that UK tabloids have been pumping out scaremongering anti-immigrant and anti-EU headlines on an almost daily basis for decades.

Glenn also recently wrote that “rightwing nationalism is on the rise all over the democratic world because impoverished masses see no viable alternative”. That seems a strange notion to me. Logically, it’s like saying the poor see Fascism as more viable than NO Fascism. Not just in isolated cases, but as a sweeping generalisation. [Note: I explain this point in the comments section below – B.]

Elif: What does Noam Chomsky say?

Brian: Chomsky says “if you have any moral understanding, you want to keep the greater evil out”. That was in a recent interview. He immediately added that he “didn’t like Clinton at all, but her positions are much better than Trump’s on every issue I can think of”.

E: You moved on from the subject matter of Anxiety Culture to focus on semantic framing with your News Frames blog and Kindle book, but your output seems to have slowed, with only one new post last year, and none since. Have you changed direction again? What have you been up to?

B: I’ve been sidetracked by mundane issues, the most notable being that I collapsed with a cardiac arrest while out walking. I was then confined to hospital for a month waiting for open heart surgery. I’ve fully recovered now, though.

E: My god! Were you aware of a problem beforehand?

B: No, it was totally unexpected. No warnings, no symptoms. I’m basically slim, fit and healthy. It wasn’t a heart attack – my heart just stopped because of a problem with the aortic valve. It needed four shocks to bring me back, apparently.

E: Were you with someone at the time who could get help?

B: No, I was on my own, walking along the north Wales coast. Luckily, one of the first people to pass by was an off-duty policewoman who knew exactly what to do. I was quickly airlifted to hospital. But it was a close thing.

E: Did you have any “light at the end of the tunnel” experiences?

B: Ha! Not that I remember. Although when I finally came around in hospital after the cardiac arrest, it was a strange state of mind – alert and present, but non-personal and completely unconcerned. After the later heart surgery it was more like I would have expected coming out of anaesthesia. By the way, Britain’s National Health Service – the NHS – seems world-class to me. It’s one state institution that should never be taken for granted by anti-establishment types, left or right. Fuck Nigel Farage. Anyway, shall we continue to the next topic…

E: Ok. A few years ago, the Independent newspaper published your article about political categories such as “alt-left”. What’s striking from this is how these categories – mere labels – cause such confusion in the first place, before one even gets started on the debate. How do you see the framing of political categories – left, right, centrist, liberal?

B: “Right” and “left” apparently originated as references to political groups on different sides of a room – eg aristocrats seated on the right, commoners on the left. The problem arises when you imagine that this right-left convention implies a linear scale with two ends, a centre, and degrees of distance from the centre. This linear metaphor doesn’t work for political views, because, as Lakoff says, “there’s no ideology of the center”. A so-called “centrist” is just someone who has “leftwing” views on some issues and “rightwing” views on others.

E: What about liberals?

B: I remember, in the 1990s, rightwing US radio talk-show hosts whipping up hatred of “liberals”, generally, and of the Clintons, specifically. Now you see the same hatred of “liberals”, and of Hillary Clinton, from some influential sections of the “left”. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say “hatred”.

This apparent anti-liberal convergence of “hard right” and “radical left” on some issues has led to the notion of a “horseshoe” effect, in which the right-left linear scale bends in the shape of a horseshoe, bringing the extreme ends close together. But I think that’s a rubbish metaphor, like “centrist”.

E: How would you explain the convergence using Lakoff’s political framing theory?

B: The anti-liberal framing comes from a “conservative” moral stance. The clue’s in the “tough” language of disgust with “soft” “weak” “compromised” liberals. Even when this comes from “radical leftists”, it sounds like tough “strict father” framing. The anti-liberal “convergence” looks as if it stems from this moral revulsion against what’s seen as morally weak – fence-sitting or corrupted, compromised “liberals”, middle-of-the-road “spineless” equivocating “centrists”.

This moral revulsion against liberals tends to arise on different issues for “left” and “right”. So, in that sense, it’s not really shared – it’s not a real convergence. The “left” might see liberals as morally weak and compromised for succumbing to corporate, pro-war interests, etc. The “right” might see them as weak for phony political correctness or “not standing up for America’s interests”, or whatever.

E: Why is disgust at weakness specifically a conservative frame?

B: Strength is a primary value in the conservative moral hierarchy. It’s more important than, say, empathy or tolerance. The reverse is the case with progressive liberal morality. You could never pass yourself off as progressive with slogans like “might is right” or “full-spectrum dominance”! In the UK, the Conservatives constantly repeated the phrase “tough on crime” and always accused the left of being “soft” on crime. And it worked, because people would then see the issue in terms of strength versus weakness, which favoured the conservative positions of tougher prison sentences, “zero tolerance”, etc. John Major, the former Conservative Prime Minister, advocated “more condemnation, less understanding” – with “understanding” framed as weakness in the context of crime prevention.

“We don’t negotiate with terrorists”. Why not? “Because compromising with evil is a position of weakness”. But it worked in Northern Ireland and South Africa. Any stance perceived as morally weak and compromised goes against the conservative moral hierarchy in which moral strength and moral purity are primary. The progressive liberal morality has an entirely different emphasis, in which negotiation and compromise can be framed in terms of positive moral qualities, social responsibility and empathy – it’s less about strength and weakness, per se.

[Note: Re-reading this, it occurs to me that readers will think, “If conservatives are so big on moral strength and purity, why do they put up with Trump, who is the embodiment of corruption and moral turpitude?”. I think the answer is probably that Trump frames everything he does in terms of winning and strength, and without shame. And this sort of overrides the perception of corruption for many – but not all – conservatives. It’s for a similar reason that many conservatives tolerate ruthless big business. I’ve written about this elsewhere – eg here and here. – B]

E: Where does the framing of “the establishment” fit into this?

B: Frank Luntz, the US rightwing’s language guru, used to advise Republicans to “always blame Washington”. Whatever the issue, whatever the complaint, always blame the complacent, compromised DC establishment. This framing was repeated constantly for decades by the right, by Fox News, etc. I think people have heard it so much, without challenge, that it’s become sort of taken-for-granted. It now comes also from commentators on the left. The Twitter accounts of Wikileaks and Glenn Greenwald are good examples – it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that most of their tweets tend to put the blame, regardless of the issue, on establishment DC “libs” and “Dems”.

I think it’s a huge boost for Trump & co to have their anti-liberal messaging reinforced by influential figures of the “left”. It’s fairly well-known that Trump publicly praised Wikileaks over a hundred times in the run-up to the election – far more than he praised anyone else. Trump Junior has now taken to “liking” and sharing Glenn Greenwald’s tweets.

E: So the convergence between Trump’s MAGA “right” and “radical left” manifests as anti-liberal, anti-establishment framing. That also sounds like a libertarian position. How do libertarians fit into Lakoff’s scheme of things?

B: Lakoff says that, allowing for variations, a libertarian by most “standard” definitions is a few steps removed from mainline conservatism. The main difference is that the libertarian’s focus on non-interference by government leads to a strong advocacy of civil liberties. So, a libertarian might oppose government restrictions on pornography, drugs, etc – contrary to conservative morality. Otherwise, libertarian positions tend to reflect what Lakoff calls the “strict father” morality of conservatives – ie self-reliance, self-discipline and individualism valued above the “liberal” morality of nurturance, empathy and interdependence. That’s why libertarians seem to hold conservative views on welfare, gun control, taxation, social programs, etc.

E: But the civil liberties advocacy looks more like liberalism.

B: Lakoff argues that it’s a superficial similarity – that libertarians encourage civil liberties advocacy for very different reasons than liberals. It seems more of a mind-your-own-business individualism – which springs from strictness morality according to Lakoff’s thesis. Ask a libertarian and a liberal whether civil liberties should routinely include the right to own and use a gun. You will likely get two different answers reflecting very different moral focuses.

E: And what about non-interventionism in foreign conflicts? That looks like another convergence between libertarians, the alt-right and anti-war leftists.

B: There’s a big difference between anti-war views based on progressive morality (universal empathy, humanitarianism) and so-called “non-interventionist” views based on fairly narrow nationalist cost-benefit considerations. Whenever you see people lauding, say, Tucker Carlson, for his “non-interventionism”, remember that he described Iraqis as “semi-literate primitive monkeys” and said they should “just shut the fuck up and obey” the USA.

E: What do you make of reactions to Mueller’s report, from the perspective of framing?

B: Trump framed the Mueller investigation as a “hoax”. So did Glenn Greenwald, incidentally. Trump also framed it as a sort of coup against him by the “Deep State”. And so did Greenwald! Exactly the same language. Obviously it wasn’t a hoax. And if it was a “Deep State” coup, then I guess we’re still waiting for it to remove Trump. Mueller concluded that Russia’s interference in the US election was “sweeping and systematic” in ways that violated US criminal law. He concluded it was a sophisticated multi-pronged operation to “amplify political and social discord” and to help Trump.

E: But was it successful? Did it really help Trump win?

B: Well, you can’t measure its “success”, as there’s no way to quantify its effects distinct from all the other factors in voting. Trump turned this to his advantage by saying Russian interference had no effect on voting outcomes. But there’s no evidential basis for that assertion.

E: Just as there’s no evidential basis to assert that it tipped the balance in Trump’s favour. So is it all scaremongering over nothing? You mention Glenn Greenwald – who said the Democrats and the liberal media essentially cooked up the scandal to hide their own failures. And he points out that Russia isn’t alone in trying to influence foreign elections – the US does it all the time.

B: I think we should be concerned about the undermining of democracy, whoever is doing it. I don’t see it as necessarily scaremongering – although I’m old enough to remember when the “reds under the bed” stories about British union leaders did look like media scaremongering.

Voter “influence” technologies are evolving, becoming more sophisticated and effective, using new approaches in psychological profiling, cognitive linguistics, military-developed programs, mining vast databases of personal information on political biases, semantic triggers, etc, with constantly improving targeting on social media. And it’s available to the highest bidders, to unscrupulous parties. Why wouldn’t that raise alarms? I’m glad people such as Carole Cadwalladr are investigating it in the UK and elsewhere.

E: Thanks for your time, Brian!

Written by NewsFrames

May 23, 2019 at 12:32 pm

“Lesser of two evils”

Voting dilemmas & framing

“Choosing the lesser of two evils isn’t a bad thing. The cliché makes it sound bad, but it’s a good thing. You get less evil.”
— Noam Chomsky (attributed)

Every few years, we get a vote. We call it “democracy”, and it’s so important that we’ll even bomb other countries into adopting a pretense of it. So, please indulge me by considering this “framing” dilemma:-

Imagine: For decades, governments (regardless of party) aid the rich, blame the poor, start wars, erode basic freedoms, etc – all the nasty fascistic/unprogressive* stuff. The only real voting “choice” is between different “party presentations”, eg:

• Party 1: “Progressive is good. We’re progressive.” [Second claim is false]
Party 2:Unprogressive is good. We’re unprogressive.” [Second claim is true]

Accepting that this is just a fairy tale from my imagination (and nothing to do with reality), who would you vote for? (Assume you’re forced to vote).

Many would probably vote for Party 2 on the basis that at least it’s not lying about progressive ideals (among other things). I encountered something like this during the Bush/Gore US election – some on the left would say: “Let Bush win! At least his fascist tendencies are out in the open”.

To continue with the malign fairy tale, Party 2 wins and promotes the “unprogressive is good” message relentlessly. Fear, intolerance, competition. Everything is framed in that way for decades, until people lose the cognitive ability to conceptualise in progressive frames. The authoritarian/unprogressive becomes “common sense” and “normal”.

The unprogressive policies were always a given with both parties (for “structural” fairy tale reasons – The Evil Corporation™, etc). But the dominant framing wasn’t a given. Only Party 2′s framing has warped people’s minds to the effect that even “working class” people are starting to think in the frames/metaphors previously used only by the wealthy conservative.

(The heroine/hero of the tale ponders the significance – if any – of this to the “lesser of two evils” voting dilemma…)

Luckily it’s only a nightmarish fantasy. In the real world, minds don’t get warped – people think for themselves, with facts and stuff. Of course. Still, it’s disturbing to see cognitive scientists like George Lakoff having similar fantasies. In his nightmare, conservatives have been…

“…instilling their worldview and their deep framing over thirty-five years – changing a lot of brains, and by repetition, making those changes permanent. […] As a result, progressive messages don’t take root, because the soil was prepared for conservative messages, not progressive ones.”
(Lakoff, The Political Mind, p239)

* I’m not keen on the term “unprogressive”, but I tried using other terms, and they didn’t quite work in this context.

UPDATE (24/10/2016) – Noam Chomsky has now co-written a full rationale for “voting the lesser evil”. It’s available here and also on Chomsky’s official site, here.

Written by NewsFrames

October 24, 2012 at 8:04 pm