This is the memorable phrase which James Williams uses on pg 114 of Stand Out of Our Light to describe proposals that platforms find technical solutions to the problem of ‘fake news’. It punchily conveys the ironic predicament that treating problems of ‘fakeness’ technically, as engineering challenges to be addressed by better calibrating information flow, kicks the can down the road. The only way to do this is to infer standards of reliability from user behaviour when it is the inability of those users to generate binding standards which generates the problem in the first place. Finding technical solutions to ‘fake news’ inevitably operationalises ‘fakeness’ in precisely the consensual terms that prophets of post-truth fulminate against.
One of many things I liked about Nervous States was how Will Davies recovered representation as a matter of political ontology. There’s something more fundamental here than how specific representatives operate within specific systems. Political representatives act on behalf of others, depending on representations of those others as they do so. What Žižek conceives of as declining symbolic efficiency means those representations lack the force they once had, with their meaning contested and their implications denied. Davies uses a different vocabulary to analyse this and helps make the notion more concrete than it tends to be in post-Lacanian political theory. Factfulness has begun to break down as an institution, with the capacity of facts to adjudicate arguments and establish consensus in a state of continual decline. Davies offers some extremely specific reasons for this, such as the regionalisation of inequality undermining the plausibility of national statistics, a growing cultural pessimism grounded in physical suffering and social media unravelling the depersonalisation upon which factfulness depends. But he manages to retain the broader horizon of the institution itself breaking down through these many vectors. This combination is why it is such an impressive book.
The problem is that the decline of factualness tends to be self-reinforcing because the tendency of experts to ‘hurl more facts at these disturbances’, as Davies memorably puts it, embodies precisely the feeling which factfulness expressly repudiates. Once the social (dis)order gives you reasons to look for post-factualness, evidence of its inexorability can be found everywhere. It begins to seem that behind every lofty pronouncement of a professional or expert is a self-interested and emotional creature, dressing up their concerns in lofty rhetoric which pretends to speak on behalf of everyone. For all leftists like myself (rightly) seeking to resist the institutionalised cynicism of public choice theory, examples of this suspicion being accurate are nonetheless too widespread to make a categorical denial plausible. I’m not sure I agree with Davies in his characterisation of this in terms of the breakdown of the distinctions between mind/body and peace/war. But thinking with these distinctions has certainly helped him put his finger on an unraveling of which we can see traces all around us yet which resists easy articulation. If we have spent recent years in a ‘pre’ we cannot yet name then understanding this unravelling must be a crucial part of accounting for what comes next.
I was thinking of this when watching The Other Side of Everything, a powerful new film by Mila Turajlic which tells the political story of Serbia through the story of her mother Srbijanka Turajlic and the apartment she was born in. The mathematician Srbijanka was a leading figure in the movement which led to the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević in October 2000. The film shows her caution at the fall of the regime and her sense that it was political responsibility rather than more desirable representation which was necessary to ensure that what came next would prove able to live up the hopes invested in it by the movement which had fought so hard and for so long. I found myself preoccupied by this caution about hope expressed by someone who provoked so much hope in others, itself borne out in the political pessimism which the film explores amidst a modern Serbia in which the current president was Milošević’s minister of information.
Throughout this time Srbijanka lived in an apartment arbitrarily divided at the birth of the communist regime in Yugoslavia, split down the middle by security forces redistributing accommodation and divided by a door which went unopened for decades in spite of the constant availability of the key. The lived experience of representation (or its absence) haunts the film and its political ontology animates it, with Turajlic expertly integrating moving domestic footage, the historical archive and remarkable street scenes to produce a nimble film as visually engaging as it is thoughtful. It left me with a sense of hope in representation being its own undoing, as the expectation that things would change undermined the movement which overthrew Milošević as they took practical action to try and bring this change about. I stress this is a sense, as opposed to an analysis of a hugely complex political history which I’m aware I barely grasp. I look forward to reading analyses of this film from people who understand the events depicted in it much better and more directly than I do.
To get to grips with the political ontology of representation is imperative and I suspect it can be done more directly with art than it can with theory. The unravelling of factualness leaves our vocabulary inadequate for making sense of the discursive predicaments we now confront in political life. Take the example of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (slightly irritating radio 4 profile here) whose election has provoked great hope in the American left. It is a monumental achievement as a 29 year woman, the youngest ever elected to Congress, came from nowhere on a radical left platform regarded as absurd by mainstream political commentators.
There are two extreme reactions to this, what Bourdieu called thought stopping clichés, liable to distort debate through the gravitational force of their own conceptual laziness. On the one hand, the election of Ocasio-Cortez can be greeted with enthusiasm as events encourage the belief that by simply electing new people, the right people, we can bring about the change we seek. On the other hand, her election can be greeted with a cynical sneer that points beyond representation to the system in which those representatives work, inevitably reinforcing and reproducing whatever their personal intentions. The former is naive and likely to produce disillusionment, the latter is cynical in the ideological sense of facilitating passivity while congratulating oneself on seeing through the illusions which bind others. It clearly matters who gets elected and what they promise to stand for but the question is how it matters. Once we turn to actually existing politics, it is much harder to recover the political ontology of representation than it is if we are exploring how we live our lives in a way utterly shaped by representation yet continually disappointed by it. It must ultimately be a collective task but the crowd is a fragile thing and we will alway return back to our lives at some point in the gathering.
I spent this afternoon at the Cambridge film festival, watching two films which couldn’t seem more different yet spoke to our current moment in oddly similar ways. All the President’s Men was released in 1976, telling the story of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation of the Watergate scandal. The Waldheim Waltz was released this year yet deals with events from not long after the other film was made, specifically former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim’s run for Austrian President in 1986 and the scandal which erupted when his service as an intelligence officer for the Nazi SA was made public.
Both films featured elements familiar from our current political scene. Accusations of fake news, manufactured scandals and disingenuous accusations figured heavily. Consensual politics had broken down, replaced with claim and counter-claim as previously trusted adjudicators found their motivations questioned. Dark forces bubble to the surface and discursive order is revealed to be a precarious achievement. Seen in this light, both films embody continuities with our present moment and provide an engaging riposte to shrill invocations of the ‘post-truth’ crisis. The weaponisation of epistemology long predates Donald Trump and his ilk.
However there was a difference which I’ve found myself dwelling upon. In both films, the powerful weaponised epistemology in a reactive way. They sought to dig themselves out of holes, shore up their defences and turn the tide of public opinion in their favour. It was all tactics and no strategy. This might be a function of the format, as the strategising I’m talking about would not translate easily into either narrative, even assuming there is a historical record which confirms its existence. It’s nonetheless intriguing to consider the prospect that the strategic weaponisation of epistemology has expanded recently, even if its tactical weaponisation is long standing.
What I found particularly striking was the lack of preparation. Kurt Waldheim had engaged in impression management through his autobiography yet his war record sat in national archives, waiting for someone to bother to look. The Watergate conspirators left a trail which they only began to obfuscate once investigative reporters from a national newspaper were on the case. If this is the whole story, something which I’m not sure is true, it raises the interesting question of when preemptive spin and crisis communications began to transform the political landscape of epistemology. I suspect that once the expectation of weaponisation takes hold, in the sense of it being prudent to assume something will be used against you, it becomes a self-fulling prophecy as strategic thought becomes synonyms with prudent planning.
This expression used by Alain de Botton in his How Proust Can Change Your Life (pg 42) stood out to me. He uses it in relation to the morning news, reflecting on how reporting inevitably strips away from the reality of what is reported on. This is an example of a broader tendency for human experience to “be stripped of the more obvious signposts by which we guide ourselves when ascribing importance”. To use the language of Andrew Sayer, factual reporting strips away what matters to people about what is being reported on. The distillation involved in reporting on the facts of a case unavoidably subtract how those state of affairs move people and motivate them, leaving us with an arid picture susceptible to wide circulation when so many other accounts compete for our attention. The abbreviation of human experience is a practical necessity which detracts from our understanding of others and the world around us, even as it contributes to our knowledge of those conditions.
It might be argued that social media highlights human experience in a new way, though I would suggest it is demotic in the sense of reality television rather than democratic in the sense of participatory. It foregrounds human experience through templates and incentivised interaction, increasing the flow of human experience in public consciousness but at the cost of its integrity. Abbreviation is intensified rather than attenuated, with so many shards of experience flying around that radically truncating our attention is the only way to cope. What gets through is what is spectacular, jarring or enraging. It is not a return to human experience but its last gasp, with meaning and mattering mangled by the machinery of abbreviation. Under these conditions, what de Botton calls the finger placing ability becomes important:
The value of a novel is not limited to its depiction of emotions and people akin to those in our own life, it stretches to an ability to describe these far better than we would have been able, to put a finger on perceptions that we recognise as our own, yet could not have formulated on our own. (pg 28)
I’ve always been fascinated by these depths. The struggle within us to articulate something and the relief that comes when we find a way to say it. Often though we change in the process of saying it, as we suddenly recognise a state of affairs within us by virtue of being able to express it. The opposite of what de Botton calls abbreviation is what Charles Taylor calls articulation. Resources we can draw on in articulation are invaluable in an age of radical abbreviation, helping us become “newly attuned to pick up certain objects floating through consciousness” such that we are “drawn to the shades of the sky, to the changeability of a face, to the hypocrisy of a friend or to a submerged sadness about a situation which we had previously not even known we could feel sad about” (pg 29). Articulacy we develop expands outwards, sensitising us to the abbreviation we encounter around us and leaving us more adept at recovering the reality subsumed by its thin expression. This is not a call for slowness, as much as for elaboration. There’s a value in being long winded, even if it’s unlikely to get you read.
I found this review of Trump and the Media by Nicholas Carr in the LA Review of Books immensely thought-provoking. His focus is on the book’s historical contribution, contextualising the enthusiasm with which social media was greeted in terms of long term concerns about the centralisation of mass media. We can’t understand the ideal of a radically decentralised media without understanding the anxieties provoked by its initial centralisation:
Trump’s twitter stream may be without precedent, but the controversy surrounding social media’s political impact has a history stretching back nearly a century. During the 1930s, the spread of mass media was accompanied by the rise of fascism. To many observers at the time, the former helped explain the latter. By consolidating control over news and other information, radio networks, movie studios, and publishing houses enabled a single voice to address and even command the multitudes. The very structure of mass media seemed to reflect and reinforce the political structure of the authoritarian state.
It is against this backdrop that social scientists began to “imagine a decentralized, multimedia communication network that would encourage the development of a ‘democratic personality,’ providing a bulwark against fascist movements and their charismatic leaders”. Fred Turner traces these initial speculations from their originators, through the 1960s counterculture and the incipient computer industry, before it became an article of faith within present day Silicon Valley:
In the early years of this century, as the internet subsumed traditional media, the ideal became a pillar of Silicon Valley ideology. The founders of companies like Google and Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, promoted their networks as tools for overthrowing mass-media “gatekeepers” and giving individuals control over the exchange of information. They promised, as Turner writes, that social media would “allow us to present our authentic selves to one another” and connect those diverse selves into a more harmonious, pluralistic, and democratic society.
Carr frames Trump and the Media as “orbiting” around “the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy”. These are the terms in which I’ve recently tried to analyse ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’, as solutionist framings by technological, media and political elites which circumscribe a much broader set of transformations and shape likely responses to them. It’s often struck me that these represent a peculiarly populist form of reasoning in their own right: isolating an incoming element which is seen to undermine a previously stable system, whether this is ‘populism’ or ‘social media’ itself. In the process, the claims of populists and social media firms are taken at face value, vastly inflating the power they have:
One contentious question is whether social media in general and Twitter in particular actually changed the outcome of the vote. Keith N. Hampton, of Michigan State University, finds “no evidence” that any of the widely acknowledged malignancies of social media, from fake news to filter bubbles, “worked in favor of a particular presidential candidate.” Drawing on exit polls, he shows that most demographic groups voted pretty much the same in 2016 as they had in the Obama-Romney race of 2012. The one group that exhibited a large and possibly decisive shift from the Democratic to the Republican candidate were white voters without college degrees. Yet these voters, surveys reveal, are also the least likely to spend a lot of time online or to be active on social media. It’s unfair to blame Twitter or Facebook for Trump’s victory, Hampton suggests, if the swing voters weren’t on Twitter or Facebook.
This is not to say that social media doesn’t exercise influence, only to dispute the assumption that it works through one-to-many communication. The media elites bemoaning the rise of fake news and filter bubbles in the dawning post-truth age are themselves complicit in the dynamic they see as being ‘out there’:
What Hampton overlooks are the indirect effects of social media, particularly its influence on press coverage and public attention. As the University of Oxford’s Josh Cowls and Ralph Schroeder write, Trump’s Twitter account may have been monitored by only a small portion of the public, but it was followed, religiously, by journalists, pundits, and policymakers. The novelty and frequent abrasiveness of the tweets — they broke all the rules of decorum for presidential campaigns — mesmerized the chattering class throughout the primaries and the general election campaign, fueling a frenzy of retweets, replies, and hashtags. Social media’s biggest echo chamber turned out to be the traditional media elite.
What this short review suggested to me is the necessity of revisiting basic concepts (such as centralisation, gatekeepers, publics and influence) in response to the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy. We need a bleak social theory for bleak times and if it doesn’t begin by examining the assumptions inherited in core concepts, as well as their implications for making sense of the present conjuncture, it is unlikely to get very far.
This is Jaron Lanier’s memorable description of social media in his new book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Social media is a technology for asshole amplification. To be clearly seen in the fact that “since social media took off, assholes are having more of a say in the world” (pg 43). His point is not that social media is a haven for trolls because it’s “not helpful to think of the world as being divided into assholes and non-assholes or if you prefer trolls and victims”. On pg 44 he cautions that each of us has our own inner troll:
It’s like an ugly alien living inside you that you long ago forgot about. Don’t let your inner troll take control! If it happens when you’re in a particular situation, avoid that situation! It doesn’t matter if it’s an online platform, a relationship, or a job. Your character is like your health, more valuable than anything you can buy. Don’t throw it away. But why, why is the inner troll there at all? It’s such a common problem that it must be a deep, primal business, a tragedy of our inheritance, a stupid flaw at the heart of the human condition. But saying that doesn’t get us anywhere. What exactly is the inner troll? Sometimes the inner troll takes charge, sometimes it doesn’t. My working hypothesis has long been that there’s a switch deep in every human personality that can be set in one of two modes. We’re like wolves. We can either be solitary or members of a pack of wolves. I call this switch the Solitary/ Pack switch. When we’re solitary wolves, we’re more free. We’re cautious, but also capable of more joy. We think for ourselves, improvise, create. We scavenge, hunt, hide. We howl once in a while out of pure exuberance. When we’re in a pack, interactions with others become the most important thing in the world. I don’t know how far that goes with wolves, but it’s dramatic in people. When people are locked in a competitive, hierarchical power structure, as in a corporation, they can lose sight of the reality of what they’re doing because the immediate power struggle looms larger than reality itself.
The evolutionary language here can seem off-putting to a sociologist. But it can be recast in terms of internal and external goods. Sometimes we are driven by the rewards internal to what we are doing while at other times we are driven by rewards external to what we are doing. What makes social media platforms so insidious is their tendency to, as Lanier puts it, make “social status and intrigues become more than immediate than the larger reality” (pg 49). I don’t agree with his account of why this is so but I think the underlying direction of his argument is correct. Social media is asshole amplification technology because it lends such force and vivacity to external goods, particularly recognition and reputation, leaving internal goods hard to sustain.
We often do sustain our relationship with these goods, as can be seen in the continued existence of thoughtful and intelligent exchange online. But we do so in spite of rather than because of the asshole amplification architecture of social media. It’s grasping the bivalent nature of this relationship, as internal and external goods co-mingle within platform architectures which are continually modulating in response to our (ambivalent) actions, which is crucial if we want to understand and perhaps even overcome the asshole amplification propensities of social media.
#DQComm2018 The Deliberative Quality of Communication Conference 2018
Citizens, Media and Politics in Challenging Times: Perspectives on the
Deliberative Quality of Communication
November 8 – 9, 2018
Mannheim Centre for European Social Research (MZES), Mannheim, Germany
Keynote Speaker: Kaisa Herne (University of Tampere)
Roundtable on the Future of Deliberation Research with:
André Bächtiger (University of Stuttgart)
Céline Colombo (University of Zürich)
Christiane Eilders (University of Düsseldorf)
Hartmut Wessler (University of Mannheim)
Call for abstracts
Western democracies nowadays face a number of challenges induced by
political developments. These challenges have been affecting the way in
which citizens, the media and political elites communicate about politics.
Critical observers witness a deteriorating quality of political
conversations between ordinary citizens. It appears no longer possible to
discuss politics normally. A high-choice media environment facilitated by
online and in particular social media enables citizens to refrain from
exposing themselves to counter-attitudinal information and engaging in
cross-cutting political talk. The polarization of opinions within society
is promoted by increasingly fragmented media systems and a reporting style
that favors sensational and scandalous over a balanced and multifaceted
reporting. Rapid media cycles shorten time for balanced and thorough
argumentation and media outlets are steadily confronted with the accusation
of producing fake news. Political actors adapt to the media logic by
employing ever more simplified and emotionally arousing communication.
Instead of deliberating publicly on complex problems and finding
compromises or solutions, political elites rather prefer to communicate
through short soundbites and populist messages to promote their positions
and eventually attract voters at election time. Overall, these dynamics
indicate a deteriorating deliberative quality of political communication
among and between citizens, the media and political elites. While this
phenomenon has caused concern among scholars from both political and
communication science, it still needs further empirical substantiation and
demand a reflection on extant theories.
This conference aims at addressing the deliberative quality of
communication among and between citizens, media and political elites.
Within this research context, we welcome both theoretical, empirical and
methodological contributions focusing on the deliberative quality of
communication. The proposals can address – but are not limited – to the
* To which extent does ordinary citizens’ talk about politics come close to
the genuine type of deliberation? Who participates in political talk, who
does not and why? Do citizens talk to those with viewpoints that conflict
with their own? What are the underlying motives and condition that give
rise to homogenous or heterogeneous talk about politics? Which variables
affect the quality of informal civic discussions? Do citizens’ daily
exchanges resemble reasoned and well-argued debates or harsh fights at the
expense of proper justification?
* To which extent does the online sphere of political communication promote
respectively impede deliberation? Are platform interventions (e.g.,
Facebook’s proposed policy of removing hate speech and fake news) a panacea
to improve the quality of online deliberation and to save deliberative
* To which extent do different features of the media systems influence
mediated deliberation? How does the increased polarization and
fragmentation of media environments translate into the deliberative quality
of the media? How deliberative is the media system as a whole? How
deliberative are individual media types, formats, or programs?
* How do political, national and cultural climates shape deliberation? To
which extent do different types of the political system affect the
deliberative quality within the public sphere? How does the increased
polarization of the political environments affect formal deliberation? How
do political elites engage with populist actors who decline to engage in
reasoned and constructive dialogue?
* Which opportunities and challenges do big data offer for the analysis of
deliberation? What are the methodological challenges and pitfalls when
measuring deliberation? To which extent, and if so how, may computational
methods help in identifying the criteria for deliberation?
Submissions are due by June 15, 2018 (23:59 CET) and must be submitted via
this Google Form.
Abstracts must not be longer than 500 words (excluding title and
references). A committee composed of communication and political science
experts in deliberation will review each abstract. Only one proposal per
first author can be accepted. Notifications of acceptance will be issued in
July 2018. Limited funds are available to cover accommodation and travel
expenses of conference presenters. In order to host a family-friendly
conference, the parent and child room of the University of Mannheim can be
used for self-provided childcare.
Further questions, please visit the website
or contact the organizers directly: firstname.lastname@example.org
Christiane Grill, Anne Schäfer, Charlotte Löb and Chung-hong Chan
Organizing Committee of The Deliberative Quality of Communication
The evidence would suggest I’m not alone in being somewhat gripped by Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury. One of the central themes of the book is how no one, including the candidate himself, expected Trump would win and what we have seen since then has been a rapid adaptation, self-serving and bewildered in equal measured, as the apparatus around him tried to make sense of a situation in which they never expected to find themselves. From this standpoint, the ‘post-truth’ character of Trump’s administration with their ‘alternative facts’, comes to look like a pragmatic adaption to a chronically incapable candidate rather than anything more sinister. From loc 873:
The media, adopting a “shocked, shocked” morality, could not fathom how being factually wrong was not an absolute ending in itself. How could this not utterly shame him? How could his staff defend him? The facts were the facts! Defying them, or ignoring them, or subverting them, made you a liar—intending to deceive, bearing false witness. (A minor journalism controversy broke out about whether these untruths should be called inaccuracies or lies.) In Bannon’s view: (1) Trump was never going to change; (2) trying to get him to change would surely cramp his style; (3) it didn’t matter to Trump supporters; (4) the media wasn’t going to like him anyway; (5) it was better to play against the media than to the media; (6) the media’s claim to be the protector of factual probity and accuracy was itself a sham; (7) the Trump revolution was an attack on conventional assumptions and expertise, so better to embrace Trump’s behavior than try to curb it or cure it. The problem was that, for all he was never going to stick to a script (“ his mind just doesn’t work that way” was one of the internal rationalizations), Trump craved media approval. But, as Bannon emphasized, he was never going to get the facts right, nor was he ever going to acknowledge that he got them wrong, so therefore he was not going to get that approval. This meant, next best thing, that he had to be aggressively defended against the media’s disapproval.
This isn’t just a matter of gossip about political leaders or a corrective to the excessive abstraction pouring forth from an intellectual class on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It allows us to recast politics in micro-social terms involving absence, failure and incapacity rather than simply telling stories of the powerful exercising that power in pursuit of their established projects. Fire and Fury tells a vivid story of how the Whitehouse revolves around managing the incapacities of Trump, as the staff struggle to come to terms with their willingness to play this role (in a manner which can just as readily be cast in terms of incapacity). From loc 1989:
Here was, arguably, the central issue of the Trump presidency, informing every aspect of Trumpian policy and leadership: he didn’t process information in any conventional sense—or, in a way, he didn’t process it at all. Trump didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. If it was print, it might as well not exist. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate. (There was some argument about this, because he could read headlines and articles about himself, or at least headlines on articles about himself, and the gossip squibs on the New York Post’s Page Six.) Some thought him dyslexic; certainly his comprehension was limited. Others concluded that he didn’t read because he just didn’t have to, and that in fact this was one of his key attributes as a populist. He was postliterate—total television. But not only didn’t he read, he didn’t listen. He preferred to be the person talking. And he trusted his own expertise—no matter how paltry or irrelevant—more than anyone else’s. What’s more, he had an extremely short attention span, even when he thought you were worthy of attention. The organization therefore needed a set of internal rationalizations that would allow it to trust a man who, while he knew little, was entirely confident of his own gut instincts and reflexive opinions, however frequently they might change.
However the incapacities of others provide a valuable object for one’s own strategic capacities. The point is not to counterpoise a strategic and agentive analysis to a non-strategic and non-agentive one. This misses the obvious ways in which absence, failure and incapacity structure the field of opportunities to which agents strategically respond. As Wolff recounts on loc 2009:
It was during Trump’s early intelligence briefings, held soon after he captured the nomination, that alarm signals first went off among his new campaign staff: he seemed to lack the ability to take in third-party information. Or maybe he lacked the interest; whichever, he seemed almost phobic about having formal demands on his attention. He stonewalled every written page and balked at every explanation. “He’s a guy who really hated school,” said Bannon. “And he’s not going to start liking it now.” However alarming, Trump’s way of operating also presented an opportunity to the people in closest proximity to him: by understanding him, by observing the kind of habits and reflexive responses that his business opponents had long learned to use to their advantage, they might be able to game him, to move him. Still, while he might be moved today, nobody underestimated the complexities of continuing to move him in the same direction tomorrow.
As he writes on loc 2046, “If Trump cared about something, he usually already had a fixed view based on limited information. If he didn’t care, he had no view and no information”. This created openings for all the senior figures in their pursuit of power and influence. Bannon styled himself as the high priest of Trumpism, exercising power over the President and others through becoming deeply conversant with his writing and speeches, able to quote back Trump’s intentions in a way which cast him in the role of a consistent and strategic actor. Wolff’s description of this is particularly resonant:
Bannon’s unique ability—partly through becoming more familiar with the president’s own words than the president was himself, and partly through a cunning self-effacement (upended by his bursts of self-promotion)—was to egg the president on by convincing him that Bannon’s own views were entirely derived from the president’s views. Bannon didn’t promote internal debate, provide policy rationale, or deliver Power-Point presentations; instead, he was the equivalent of Trump’s personal talk radio. Trump could turn him on at any moment, and it pleased him that Bannon’s pronouncements and views would consistently be fully formed and ever available, a bracing, unified-field narrative. As well, he could turn him off, and Bannon would be tactically quiet until turned on again.
Meanwhile Priebus was able to offer endorsement from the political establishment which has previously loathed him, while Kushner brought the prestige of the business elite who had never taken Trump seriously. The president seemingly wanted all of these, representing an important vector through which chaos ensued within the Whitehouse, alongside many others at all levels of the organisation. Reading these accounts, it’s hard not to be sceptical of accounts of ‘post-truth’ et al as overly abstract and epochal accounts which obscure a messy all-too-human reality, albeit one that could ultimately produce outcomes of epochal significance.
This observation by the journalist David Cay Johnston in the recent channel 4 documentary Trump: An American Dream stood out to me:
Donald understands that most reporters accurately quote what they’re told but they really don’t know what they’re writing about. Once his story is out there then anything else is just a counter story.
It’s far from a new analysis but I’ve rarely heard this stated so succinctly. This is a tactic Trump has been using for decades, though it’s been super-charged in recent years by the multiplication of communication channels creating more possibilities for the original claim to spread and fewer possibilities for counter stories to authoritatively take hold.
Special Issue: Electronic Journal of Communication
Journalism in The Age of Partisan Politics, Political Protests, and President Trump
The current news environment is saturated with political tension and divisive issues. Legacy news media and contemporary news outlets race to publish compelling content as they struggle to maintain their audiences. Political leaks have become a staple of modern news. Journalists have found themselves covering ideologically charged protests involving immigration reform, Black Lives Matter, the KKK, environmental issues, and Civil War statues, while at the same time finding their authority and credibility challenged by persistent accusations of ethical violations, bias, and corruption.
Meanwhile, social media sites provide an avenue for the public to present their own coverage and commentary related to all of these issues. Indeed, President Trump has turned toward social media as a way of presenting his own perspective on daily events. Further, online media and traditional news providers compete with the rumors, conspiracies, and “fake” news that permeates information space. Increasingly, social media readers fail to distinguish fabricated news from authentic news.
This special issue will focus on journalism during this time of social upheaval and political partisanship. All theoretical and methodological perspectives are welcome.
Possible topics for papers might include, but are not limited to:
* ethical coverage of politics
* journalistic credibility/ audience trust in the current political climate
* political cartoonists’ response to political protests
* The challenges of “fake news” to legacy and online news sources
* The relationship between journalists and politicians
* The role of political leaks in news coverage
* Journalistic safety while covering political protests
* Citizen journalists’ use of social media to share political content
* The use of social media as a newsgathering tool
* Audience perception of news coverage
* The role of objectivity/fairness in political coverage
* The significance of political experts as news sources
* The role of the news pundit in political coverage
* The value of political news and information
Deadline: Submit manuscripts through EJC’s online submission system at http://ejcojs.cios.org<http://ejcojs.cios.org/> by January 15, 2018 for consideration. Please be sure to submit to the journal section entitled: Special Issue: Journalism in The Age of Partisan Politics, Political Protests, and President Trump.
Format: Papers should be prepared in APA 6th Ed. Style. Remove all author-identifying information from the main manuscript for blind review. Manuscripts should be single spaced with tables/figures inserted where they belong; double-space between headings, subheadings, and adjacent sections; avoid breaking tables across pages. Please send manuscripts in .doc, .docx, or .rtf formats (not html).
The current climate of scepticism towards ‘experts’ has put many research practitioners and users on the defensive. Is it enough simply to assert the value of rigorous methods, or should we be checking, sharpening and improving our tools? If ‘post-truth’ carries real meaning then the pressure is on researchers to find a positive response – such as clearly communicating our findings and why they matter; and demonstrating how high standards in design, conduct and analysis are built in to our research.
At this stage we are looking for up to 500 words to describe and explain what you’d like to present – with a focus on one or more of these topic areas:
- Getting the message across
- The value of narratives
- Policy evaluation
- Embedding quality assurance
- The value of quality in evidence
- Qualitative innovation
- Quantitative innovation
- Involving research participants
- Dealing with the unexpected
The deadline for submissions is Monday 7 August. The SRA Events Group will assess all entries and aim to let you know the outcome in September/October.
Presentations will be in parallel workshop sessions of 20 minutes (followed by a 10 minute Q&A). One presenter per submission will pay a reduced delegate rate of £55.
Abstracts and other details must be submitted using the template Word doc that can be downloaded on our website here: www.the-sra.org.uk/events
We hope you will consider making a submission for the conference. And of course please feel free to share this call with colleagues and networks.
Call for Proposals
BAAL Language and New Media Sig Annual Meeting
Language, New Media and Alt.Realities
April 21, 2017
University of Reading
Proposals are invited for 20 minute paper presentations as well as posters/web-based presentations addressing the theme of ‘language, new media and alt.realties’.
Possible areas of interest include:
· New media epistemologies and ontologies
· New media discourse and political polarisation
· Algorithmic pragmatics and political debate
· Authoritarian and populist discourses online
· ‘Trolling’ as a form of political discourse
· Agnotology (the cultural construction of ignorance)
· The crisis of ‘expertise’
· ‘Fake news’ and ‘clickbait’
· Hacking and disinformation
· Infotainment and spectacle
· Conspiracy theories and memes
· Journalism in the age of social media
Deadline for Submitting Proposals: April 5, 2017
What we are seeing with the growth of ‘fake news’ is perhaps the weaponisation of epistemology. In other words, ‘fake news’ as a construct is becoming a discursive component of our repertoire of contention. Far from entering a post-truth era, we are seeing truth becoming a mobilising device in a new way, encouraging ‘us’ to defend ourselves from ‘them’ predicated on the absolute falsity of their worldview. It’s the playing out in an epistemic register of what Chantal Mouffe, drawing on Carl Schmitt, describes as a friend/enemy distinction. Rather than the political other being an adversary to be struggled against, nonetheless regarded as legitimate, they are cast as an enemy to be destroyed. Rush Limbaugh offered a pure expression of the epistemological logic of the friend/enemy distinction in this 2009 rant:
What this fraud, what the uncovering of this hoax, exposes,” he said, “is the corruption that exists between government and academia and science and the media. Science has been corrupted. We know the media has been corrupted for a long time. Academia has been corrupted. None of what they do is real. It’s all lies!
We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap.
The origins of this can be understood agnotologically: neo-sophists, with corporate funding, seeking to manufacture doubt where none previously existed. What’s being described as post-truth emerges at the intersection between corporate agnotology, political polarisation and post-democracy. The possibility to weaponise epistemology emerges coterminously with the breakdown of social solidarity. Agnotology contributes to the erosion of shared certainties in cumulative ways. It creates the conditions for what David Roberts calls tribal epistemology:
Over time, this leads to what you might call tribal epistemology: Information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. “Good for our side” and “true” begin to blur into one.
Now tribal epistemology has found its way to the White House.
What I’m suggesting is that at this point we see epistemology move from being an elite weapon of war to part of the repertoire of contention. Once Trump begins to seriously struggle, how easy is it to imagine Whitehouse statements being dismissed as ‘fake news’ by the grassroots they used this notion to mobilise? How effectively could a nascent leader use this epistemic playbook against those who have brought it into the mainstream? As Roberts points out, this is a cultural tendency which has been present in American politics for quite some time:
That is the classic, some might say naive, view. But there has always been a powerful strain in conservatism (think the John Birch Society) that resists seeing itself as a participant in the game at all. It sees the game itself, its rules and referees, as captured by the other side, operating for the other side’s benefit. Any claim of transpartisan authority is viewed with skepticism, as a kind of ruse or tool through which one tribe seeks to dominate another.
That’s the view Limbaugh and others in right-wing media have consistently articulated. And it has found an increasingly receptive audience. Over time, the right’s base — unlike the left’s fractious and heterogeneous coalition of interest groups — has become increasingly homogeneous (mostly white, non-urban, and Christian) and like-minded (traditionalist, zero-sum values).
The friend/enemy distinction is, for lack of a better term, viral. At least under current conditions. Once people begin to think in these terms, it’s hard to counter it. Not least of all because reluctantly accepting the ‘rules of the game’ inevitably comes to be coded as either giving up or buying in. The reason for this is in part epistemological because tribal epistemology destroys the possibility for syncretism: people can no longer see A and B as elements that can be combined, even if unstable and contested ways. Instead A and B become an absolute disjunction. One sees the social world in terms that allow for no choice other than to choose between positions. The playing out of this, in the digital capitalism of 2017, rather terrifies me.
As the workings of civil society are being disrupted by the challenges of ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’ and notions of post-truth, Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Journal has decided to devote a special issue to this topic. Our approach is broad; the flow of information is fundamental to civil society and that flow and its interactions with the structures of society and the individuals in society takes many forms. The following list is by no means exhaustive: Journalism (and fact checking); Cultural Studies and the World of Make-Believe; the scientific record and predatory publishing; climate change and climate deniers; Civic literacy and democracy; Public Relations and Spin; social media, experience and opinion; state strategy and astro-turfing; the new right and post-facts; dramaturgy of post-factoids …
We are calling for papers between 4,000 and 8,000 words which reflect in some way on the concepts of alternative facts/fake news/post truth either on our understandings of civil society or on professional practices within civil society.
Our deadline for submission is Friday 31 March. Decisions on acceptance will be communicated by 28 April. The issue will be published in July 2017.
See the journal at:
For more information please contact Hilary Yerby at: Hilary.email@example.com
In The Making of Donald Trump, David Johnston identifies the tactics used by Trump to deflect inquiries into his many shady dealings and questionable decisions. Sometimes this is a matter of outright threats, with an enthusiasm for litigation (1,900 suits as plaintiffs) coupled with an explicitly articulated philosophy of vengeance proving a dangerous combination for any who dare to cross him. But somewhat contrary to his public image as a blundering fool, he is often much more subtle than this, engaging in strategies of deflection and misdirection with all the deftness of the most accomplished public relations manager. In other cases, it just becomes weird, with Trump willing to publicly deny that a recording he had previously admitted to be of his own voice was anything other than a hoax:
This combination of viciousness, skilfulness and brazenness has left him insulated from meaningful scrutiny. But what has he averted in this way? What might have happened but hasn’t? On page 154 Johnston offers a description which has caught my imagination:
Together, these strategies – muddying the facts and deflecting inquiries into past conduct – help ensure that Trump’s carefully crafted public persona will not be unmade. He will not suffer the curtain to be pulled back to reveal a man who tricked society into thinking he was all wise and all powerful.
This public persona which has been crafted, sometimes deliberately while at other times impulsively, remains intact. I’m interested in what such a ‘pulling back of the curtain’ requires to be effective: the sustained attention of an audience, a sufficient familiarity with the person(a) in question, a prolonged campaign to sort fact from fiction and a lack of contestation concerning this process of sorting.
What is being framed somewhat unhelpfully as a ‘post-truth era’ are the conditions under which this ceases to be possible. There’s lots of ways in which we could try and explain them, not all of which are necessarily mutually exclusive. The collapse of authority in late modernity. The acceleration of communication. The weakening of journalism and the dominance of public relations. Theories of social change should be able to account for the specifics of such cases, rather than simply allowing them to be rendered thematically.
In his InfoGlut, Mark Andrejevic takes issue with the assumption that fostering ‘disbelief’ or ‘challenge’ is necessarily subversive. As he puts it, “strategies of debunkery and information proliferation can work to reinforce, rather than threaten, relations of power and control” (loc 293). Recognising this in the abstract is important but I intend to read more about the specific cases in which these tactics are used regressively, as I’m increasingly fascinated by the extent to which these tactics are informed (or not) by epistemological and ontological understandings (even if these words are not used).
Under these conditions, what Andrejevic describes as the ‘big data divide’ seems ever more prescient by the day. From loc 464:
The dystopian version of information glut anticipates a world in which control over the tremendous amount of information generated by interactive devices is concentrated in the hands of the few who use it to sort, manage, and manipulate. Those without access to the database are left with the “poor person’s” strategies for cutting through the clutter: gut instinct, affective response, and “thin- slicing” (making a snap decision based on a tiny fraction of the evidence). The asymmetric strategies for using data highlight an all- too- often overlooked truth of the digital era: infrastructure matters. Behind the airy rhetoric of “the cloud,” the factories of the big data era are sprouting up across the landscape: huge server farms that consume as much energy as a small city. Here is where data is put to work – generating correlations and patterns, shaping decisions and sorting people into categories for marketers, employers, intelligence agencies, healthcare providers, financial institutions, the police, and so on. Herein resides an important dimension of the knowledge asymmetry of the big data era – the divide between those who generate the data and those who put it to use by turning it back upon the population. This divide is, at least in part, an infrastructural one shaped by ownership and control of the material resources for data storage and mining. But it is also an epistemological one –a difference in the forms of practical knowledge available to those with access to the database, in the way they think about and use information.
This 4S panel looks fascinating:
I’d like to invite you to consider submitting a paper abstract to the panel
I’m co-convening for 4S in Boston this year.
Abstracts are due March 1.
It would be great to have critical internet/digital media studies folks
working with STS to speak to the themes of this panel. Rich, timely topic!
We need your good work!
Thanks for your consideration ~
Monika Sengul-Jones & Amanda Menking
*89. Feelings and Doubt in Technoscience*
*Organized by:* Monika Sengul-Jones, UC San Diego; Amanda Menking,
University of Washington
“Post-truth” was the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016. This
neologism refers to how appeals to emotion—and even deliberate
deception—influence the ignorance of, or rejection of facts. Feelings, and
subjectivities more generally, have long been a focus of STS work. STS
scholars have sought to mete out the complex relationships between
positionality, affects, and networks that lead to knowledge-making claims
and their role in truth-regimes. This panel seeks to address our
contemporary moment’s crises about “truth” in critical retrospective: to
use the methodological tools of STS to offer a nuanced examination of the
longstanding, complex relationships between feelings and doubts about
technoscience historically and today. This panel invites papers that speak
to a range of topics including: feelings of morality and postcolonialism
(see Schiebinger 2004); the feelings that engender the spread of ignorance
(see Proctor 2016); gender, feelings, and science (Harding 1991; Keller
1983); entanglements of affects and biology (Wilson, 2015); commercial
industries and doubt about scientific consensus (Oreskes and Conway 2011);
and gender and attachments to personal beliefs, such as vaccinations (see
Reich 2014). This panel will facilitate inter-generational conversations
around an important topic harmonized with the theme of 4S in 2017.
“Feelings and Doubt in Technoscience” will interrogate thoughtfully and
reflectively the conference’s call to bring attention to “(in)sensibilities
of contemporary technoscience,” by addressing the technological and
cultural means by which feelings about technoscience lead to it being
ridiculed as nonsense, marshaled to incense, and/or make sense.
Rarely can a film have been as timely as Denial. It tells the story of the libel action the holocaust denying historian David Irving took against Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, alleging that she had damaged his professional reputation as a historian by claiming he had wilfully distorted evidence. The film recounts the events leading up to the trial, before focusing on the trial itself and ending with the judge’s ruling that:
Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist, and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism… therefore the defence of justification succeeds… It follows that there must be judgment for the Defendants.
The film seems remarkably salient at a time when the liberal punditry seems to have uniformly endorsed the notion that we have entered a post-truth era, concisely defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief“. The importance of truth, the urgency of fighting for it, runs through the film and is explicitly invoked in the framing of it as a cultural product, as Rachel Weisz makes clear here: “It’s a true story, it’s a fight for truth and justice“.
The writer David Hare expands on this point in the same clip, explaining how “it’s not based on a true story, it is a true story … the words from the trial are the exact words. I don’t attribute to David Irving any line that he is not on record as having said, everything he says, we know he said“. It was great to discover this because I found the trial scenes riveting, though found it hard to wonder if the whole thing would have worked better on stage. The film seems to have underwhelmed critics, rather unfairly from my point of view, perhaps suggesting it was motivated by a commitment to realism of a sort liable to prove underwhelming on the big screen. However what struck me most about the film was the epistemological confusion underlying it, something which I think reflects a lot about the contemporary discourse of ‘post-truth’ and its limitations.
The avowed realism of the film obscures the inevitable cuts that the constraints of story telling necessitate. Irving had sued another historian at the same time, though the case did not go to court. He threatened a further historian with libel if passages concerning him weren’t removed from an upcoming book, prompting an American edition to be published with them but their erasure from the British edition. My point is not to criticise the film for excluding these details, despite their obvious relevance to the story, as much as to highlight the exclusions inherent in narrative. Likewise, with the court case itself, where the selection of a few incidents from a long trial were expertly used to dramatic effect. Again, these aren’t criticisms, just a reminder that even factual narratives (a term I prefer to ‘true story’) inevitably entail selecting from the pool of available facts, within the (media and genre specific) constraints of effective story-telling.
Much of the film can be read in terms of rallying forces for a defence of truth. The drama of the film rests on success in this endeavour, after overcoming much initial adversity. But framing the hard-drinking, hard-thinking Scottish barrister as a hero sits oddly with the commitment to truth in the film. After all, he’s lionised for his rhetorical skills, his capacity to pick apart the authority of Irving in a performatively compelling way. His most succesful tactics have nothing to do with the presentation of evidence, but rather involve getting under Irving’s skin in order to unsettle and undermine him. The concern here is not truth but persuasion. Specifically, the persuasion of a solitary judge, after Irving the litigant was persuaded to dispense with the jury because both sides agreed that the common folk could not be trusted to adjudicate on the truth when the relevant facts were as complex as they were in this case. Furthermore, the only thing that ensures the barrister is not cast as a mercenary is his deep commitment to this truth. This is slowly established over the course of the film, with Lipstadt eventually discovering that this is not just ‘another brief’ for him after all.
What made this film impressive to me was the way in which it explored the mechanics of persuasion in court, specifically how it was established convincingly that Irving had wilfully misrepresented evidence in order to establish the case for holocaust denial. In other words, it concerned the discursive machinery through which facts are consecrated and rendered socially efficacious. The apparent narratological inevitably of this being accompanied by a paean to truth speaks volumes about what has come to be accepted as ‘post-truth’. We might speak more accurately of post-fact. This is how Will Davies framed it in a New York times essay:
Facts hold a sacred place in Western liberal democracies. Whenever democracy seems to be going awry, when voters are manipulated or politicians are ducking questions, we turn to facts for salvation.
But they seem to be losing their ability to support consensus. PolitiFact has found that about 70 percent of Donald Trump’s “factual” statements actually fall into the categories of “mostly false,” “false” and “pants on fire” untruth.
For the Brexit referendum, Leave argued that European Union membership costs Britain 350 million pounds a week, but failed to account for the money received in return.
The sense is widespread: We have entered an age of post-truth politics.
As politics becomes more adversarial and dominated by television performances, the status of facts in public debate rises too high. We place expectations on statistics and expert testimony that strains them to breaking point. Rather than sit coolly outside the fray of political argument, facts are now one of the main rhetorical weapons within it.
The declining efficacy of facts is understood to be problematic because it undermines appreciation of truth. But reality always permits of multiple characterisations. As Roy Bhaskar put it on pg 55 of Reclaming Reality, “facts are things, but they are social not natural things, belonging to the transitive world of science, not the intransitive world of nature”. Facts are produced through interventions in the world, drawing on the labour of others and applying conceptual tools we rarely built ourselves. This is why a serious discussion of someone like Irving cannot avoid interrogating his proclaimed status as a professional historian, what this means and how it should shape our assessment of his capacity to marshal facts in authoritative ways. Indeed, this was crucial to making the case against him.
But if we see facts as self-grounded things, already made and waiting in the world to be discovered, it becomes difficult to acknowledge this. This might not matter when ‘our’ facts are socially efficacious, happily endorsed by all those we encounter and reflected back to us as common sense in the culture we engage with. But when these start to break down, the construction of ‘truth’ faces a fundamental tension: if facts are given then conflict over them must in some way reflect non-factual considerations, but if non-factual considerations consistently influence ‘matters of fact’ then facts cannot be given. This creates a crisis when we reach a situation in which facts have been ubiquitously weaponised. As Davies put it, “If you really want to find an expert willing to endorse a fact, and have sufficient money or political clout behind you, you probably can”.
This inconvenient truth could be ignored as long as there was a consensus in place. One which has now broken down, with the apparent mystery of our ‘post-truth’ era going hand-in-hand with a profound mystification of the political dimensions to how the consensual era of ‘truth’ preceding it was established. My point in writing this isn’t to preach constructionism. I share the ethos of Bhaskar’s book, one of the most powerful works of philosophy I’ve read: reclaim reality. Reclaiming reality involves recognising the reality of social construction, but resisting the dissolution of ‘truth’ into this. Figures like Irving thrive in the space opened up by the antinomies of (post)truth. If we reclaim reality, we can starve them at an epistemological level, before defeating them at a political level.