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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Archive for the ‘Witchhunt’ Category

Witch-hunts – the social media trend

salem-comp

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, 2105) 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

Nafeez Ahmed’s smear piece on IBC – part 2

ibc-nafeez-ahmed-part-2-compJuly 23, 2015Earlier this year, Nafeez Ahmed made some absurd conspiracy-flavoured allegations about Iraq Body Count (IBC). I responded in part 1, highlighting his errors and double standards. I’ve waited a while before writing anything more, partly because of responses such as the following (which made me want to shave my head, adopt the upside-down lotus position and chant for Universal Love):-

nafeez-ml-22-4-15

One good thing, however, was that George Monbiot read my article and promoted it on Twitter – it ended up being read by a lot of people. The following is an update, with some additional comments on recurring witchhunts.

The Bourne Ultimatum or the boring facts

A few days after my article got exposure via Twitter, Nafeez Ahmed posted a long response (which Monbiot described as “a frantic attempt to justify unfounded assertions/associations stretched beyond breaking point”), and tweeted this link to it:

ahmed-monbiot-tweet-7-6-2015“Hiding” war casualties? To me this statement seems right up there with “Elvis is living in my neighbour’s fridge”. Perhaps Ahmed could point to data on all the casualties that Monbiot and IBC are “hiding”? Or perhaps not – he appeared to “clarify” his position in yet another, later diatribe:

“While there is no indication that IBC has deliberately undercounted violence in Iraq…”
(Nafeez Ahmed, ‘IBC: undercounting death with pro-war cash’) – My emphasis

So, to summarise Ahmed’s position, there’s “no indication” that IBC has “deliberately undercounted” while “hiding Iraq war casualties” for the purpose of “undercounting death with pro-war cash”!

The comic absurdity of this stuff is exceeded only by Ahmed’s description of an apparently sinister “off-the-record” meeting organised by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP):

“In January 2007, Colin Kahl and John Sloboda were together in Washington DC at an off-the-record USIP panel, where Sloboda delivered a presentation about IBC’s views of the Iraq War death toll at an off-the-record USIP panel.”

secret-meeting6xEverything that Ahmed tells us about the meeting was already on the public record, including IBC co-founder John Sloboda’s presentation (which is on IBC’s website). The USIP web page for this event lists participants, subjects discussed, and helpfully tells us that it was “off-the-record”.

After informing us that IBC’s John Sloboda was “together” with Colin Kahl (a villainous US propagandist in Ahmed’s narrative) at the meeting, Nafeez Ahmed informs us that Les Roberts (co-author of the ‘Lancet’ Iraq studies) was also a participant – and thus, presumably, also “together” with Kahl in the same sense that Sloboda was. But not to worry, because, as Ahmed tells it, Les Roberts was “outnumbered at the USIP meeting three-to-one”. By “outnumbered”, I don’t think Ahmed means Roberts was forced to participate against his own free will. But you never know – perhaps he was bound and gagged by the “US Army counterinsurgency sub-contractor”, Michael Spagat. (Those are the actual words that Ahmed has used to characterise Prof Spagat, in case you were wondering).

Who needs Jason Bourne? Less amusingly, Ahmed tells us that John Sloboda “disavowed his own anti-war credentials” at the off-the-record USIP meeting. In his earlier piece, Ahmed writes that Sloboda did this “sycophantically”, and that his “statement before USIP and its pro-war panel contradicts the IBC’s official rationale”.

I find this kind of thing from Ahmed not only misleading, but gratuitously so. He is referring to a part of Sloboda’s presentation which is published on IBC’s website. I’ve heard Sloboda make a similar argument before, in the early days when IBC was sometimes characterised by pundits as ideologically “antiwar” in a politically “biased” sense (eg: “a hard-left anti-war group with a clear agenda“). Sloboda in fact makes it clear that IBC is “passionately opposed” to the Iraq war, but that he doesn’t impose any kind of ideological conformity on his colleagues (“where individual IBC members stand on other wars is a matter for them and them alone”). I see nothing “sycophantic” about this, and, in any case, it’s not tailored to “USIP and its pro-war panel” as Ahmed seems to insinuate. It also – obviously – doesn’t “contradict” IBC’s rationale (which states that “War’s very existence shames humanity”) as Ahmed obtusely asserts.

So, Ahmed is hopelessly wrong to say that Sloboda “disavowed his own anti-war credentials”. Perhaps Ahmed thinks that one acquires such “credentials” by conducting ideological purges to ensure that one’s colleagues have the “correct” beliefs?

Ahmed’s new falsehoods

Ahmed adds new falsehoods in his two response pieces. He’s also quietly corrected some of his earlier errors (the ones I’d pointed out). For example, he withdrew his claim that “USIP selected IBC for funding” and backed away from what he’d implied about IBC’s own funding (“My story does not claim that the IBC as an institution received funding from US and European governments…”). But then, in his latest piece, he goes back to claiming (falsely) that USIP funded IBC and that, “In total, four pro-war governments are currently involved in funding IBC and IBC personnel since 2009, none of which has been declared in the scientific journal articles related to the Iraq War by IBC authors.”

Related to these new falsehoods, Ahmed also misrepresented what I wrote (he’s now removed this):

In Brian Dean’s defence of IBC, which received a resounding endorsement from Dougherty, Dean claimed repeatedly that the IBC had not received any funding from the governments of the US, Switzerland, Germany or Norway.

He’d asserted this near the start of his piece, setting me up, as it were, for the revelations to follow which would contradict the claim he’d (wrongly) attributed to me. Remarkably, even his supposedly new revelations are false. IBC openly discloses some recent (2015) German government funding on its “About” page, which I’d linked to – but none of the government agency (eg USIP) funding which Ahmed makes claims about went to IBC (it was specifically for work by ORG/Every Casualty, eg research into international law as it applies to casualty recording, globally – not restricted to Iraq).

These supposed revelations, which Ahmed introduces in his latest piece, are based entirely on his reading of (and lack of fact-checking regarding) a “10th Anniversary Impact Report” by The Funding Network (TFN), which has been publicly available since 2012, and which contains a one-page case study titled “Iraq Body Count”. Ahmed seems to get excited about this because of the blurring of distinctions between “IBC” and “ORG” in the case study. He jumps to erroneous conclusions – all of the claims from Ahmed’s piece that I’ve underlined here are false.

Ahmed’s misrepresentations

Ahmed’s long response frequently misrepresents me, and it would take a long time to correct every case. I’ll restrict myself to a few examples – the clearest and (to me) most annoying ones…

At one point, Ahmed declares that, “The problem is that Dean is either lying, or plain dumb. Burnham’s Afghanistan study was not about mortality rates as such in Afghanistan (Ahmed’s bold emphasis). This was in response to a point I’d made about double standards, in which I cited a study of post-invasion Afghanistan, by Gilbert Burnham, which suggested a huge number of lives saved from health improvements. The study contains a whole section on child mortality-rates – indeed the page I linked to, which summarises this section of the study, talks explicitly about the mortality rates that I’m referring to. Ahmed somehow missed this, looked up the wrong study (the page I’d linked to summarises two separate studies) and formed the wrong conclusion – that I was “either lying, or plain dumb”. (On the basis of his mistake, he also referred to my point as “flagrant lies”).

The next example makes me think Nafeez Ahmed has a low estimation of his readers. Here’s a paragraph from his original article which I’d quoted in full. Please read it carefully:

Spagat’s early career connections to IREX and NCEEER, both conduits for US State Department propaganda operations, as well as to Radiance Technology, USAID, and USIP, raise serious ethical questions, as well as questions about the reliability and impartiality of his work, and that of IBC.

I noted that despite the obvious irrelevance to IBC of Spagat’s “early career connections to IREX and NCEEER” (which Ahmed wrote at length about), Ahmed asserted here that it raises “questions about the reliability and impartiality” of IBC’s work. I noted this because it’s precisely what Ahmed asserts in the above paragraph. In response, Ahmed simply denies that he asserts it:

Um, no I don’t, but if you quote repeatedly and entirely out of context, even English language night school won’t help you.

Presumably Nafeez hopes his own readers aren’t paying full attention to what he’s written?

The final example is clearest when shown as a graphic (click to enlarge to readable size). It concerns another point about double standards – this one involving an undisclosed OSI grant for “public education” relating to the 2006 Lancet Iraq study. The example demonstrates that no matter how careful I was to get the detail right, it didn’t matter, because Ahmed simply asserts something that isn’t true:-

nafeez-tirman-misrepresentation-small

Recurring witchhunts

One of the things I’ve found creepy about Nafeez Ahmed’s recent attacks on IBC is that the ludicrous, unsupported, overstretched allegations about Pentagon “propaganda” and “whitewashing war-crimes”, etc, sound similar to the rhetoric from another campaign against IBC – the one started in 2006 by Medialens (which I wrote about here). Medialens claimed that IBC was “providing powerful propaganda for people responsible for horrendous war crimes”, but the supposed basis for this claim was nothing to do with IBC’s funding. Initially, Medialens’s main (and false) premise was that IBC was a “Western Media Body Count” (and thus inherently propagandistic), although Medialens later shifted their focus to other forms of “criticism” (eg deriding IBC as “amateurs” in emails to journalists).

The term, witchhunt, is overused, but I think there can hardly be a clearer case than we have here. George Monbiot was right to characterise it that way:

monbiot-witchhuntNot only is it sustained, recurring, and based on assertion and moral outrage rather than evidence – it also takes the form of morally pre-framed allegations in search of anything that can be used, or spun, as reinforcement. It’s the already-pointing finger looking for an excuse to point. Any excuse. That’s why you have the same allegation of pro-war “propaganda”, but periodically recurring with a different “reason” for that allegation each time. (And it doesn’t even make sense – IBC’s tally of violent deaths approximately matches a violent deaths estimate from the 2013 UCIMS epidemiological study, which was vaunted as an improvement on the 2006 Lancet Iraq study. If you can’t refute the detailed case that IBC makes on this – and nobody has, to my knowledge – then you don’t even have a shaky premise as an excuse for a witchhunt).

You’d think Medialens would have learnt their lesson after all the things they got so badly wrong on IBC previously – but they’ve been the main cheerleaders for Nafeez Ahmed’s wild conspiracy theories and smears. Recall for a moment that Ahmed alleged, with no supporting evidence, that “the IBC’s directors are selling casualty recording as a way to legitimize military operations, and increase the effectiveness of counter-insurgency responses to armed resistance”.

This really is through the looking glass.

Note (2/8/2015): One thing I left out of the above (since I credit my readers with having a decent memory) is the point about USIP funding of Gilbert Burnham (lead author of the 2006 ‘Lancet’ Iraq study), which I brought up in part 1 to illustrate the double standards underlying these attacks on IBC. So, after making extreme, and probably libellous, claims about IBC based on his assertions about USIP funding, etc, Nafeez Ahmed, in his response, dismissed as a “non-issue” the fact that his own sources have been funded by USIP – including Burnham, who has repeatedly collaborated with USIP on conflict research, including on Iraq. Ahmed had to bend over backwards to make this seem a “non-issue” in Burnham’s case, after he made it such a big issue with IBC.

Written by NewsFrames

July 23, 2015 at 7:53 am