Monday, October 2, 2023

Extremely Dangerous to Our Democracy

These videos aptly illustrate the homogenization of legacy news media. 

I'd like to embed them, but am not able to so you will have to click on the links

Both videos demonstrate the homogenization of messages designed to produce fear and compliance.

The techniques of propaganda were refined over the twentieth century in the fields of industrial psychology (e.g., Human Relations), marketing and public relations (see Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays), and political-military operations aimed at engineering and/or deconstructing political legitimacy. 

The articulation and promotion of organic intellectuals and the deliberate promotion of known untruths, including "noble lies," are tactics deployed by a wide array of forces aimed at engineering consent.

Barriers to overt propagandizing by US government to US audiences were lifted substantially in 2013:

But the process of "engineering consent" was well established online prior to legal changes that unleashed the flood gates for propagandizing US audiences, as illustrated by these blasts from the past:

Olson, Parmy (2011, March 17). Anonymous, The Military And Fake Virtual Armies.

Think back to the last time you read a blog post, then posted a comment at the bottom. You might have ended up participating in a discussion with another reader, who’d also left a comment. Could you be 100% certain that other commenter was a real person? Chances are they were, but in some parts of the world, particularly where the U.S. military has a presence, they sometimes are not.

In Iraq and Afghanistan the military has started using software that allows it to create fake online identities to counter enemy efforts to recruit new members, using tactics like posting fake comments on blogs.

The practice was highlighted last night when the online hacking collective Anonymous released documents and e-mails highlighting the use of software to create multiple, fake online profiles, also known as “sock puppets” or “virtual armies” to sway public opinion. Anonymous, which has a small team of half a dozen supporters conducting their own investigation into the documents, claims the software has been used to track users on social networks like Facebook in foreign countries.

U.S. Military Launches Spy Operation Using Fake Online Identities. (2011, March 17).

The U.S. Military has purchased software designed to create and control false online personas in an attempt to use social media and other websites to counter anti-U.S. messaging.

According to the contract between US Central Command (Centcom) and California company Ntrepid, the software would let each user control 10 personas, each "replete with background, history, supporting details, and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographically consistent." The software would also be able to let personas "appear to originate in nearly any part of the world" and interact through "conventional online services and social media platforms," while using a static IP address for each persona to maintain a consistent online identity.

These false online personas, also known as "sock puppets," would be equipped to seem like real people while entering online discussion through blogs, message boards, chats, and more. With a false persona, a user could discredit opponents, or create the semblance of consensus.

I described the growing individualization of pervasive propaganda in this post:

Jacques Ellul’s now-classic (1965) Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes articulated the necessary "subjective" characteristics of effective propaganda, detailing how each individual must be targeted and cultivated in their individuality in order to produce changes in crowd activity.

The capacity to cultivate each individual in their individuality in order to control the crowd has never been greater.

Facebook allowed information of up to 50 million users to be handed over to Cambridge Analytica, a "political data firm" and Google acknowledged it had exposed private data of hundreds of thousands of users of its Google+ social network (here).

Apple's CEO Tim Cook remarked to The Wall Street Journal that the "scraps of information" acquired through social media are assembled meaningfully by a surveillance-industrial complex that threatens privacy while enabling unprecedented tailoring of persuasive messages:

Sam Schechner and Emre Peker (Oct. 24, 2018). Apple CEO Condemns ‘Data-Industrial Complex.’ The Wall Street Journal,
Mr. Cook went further on Wednesday, likening the underlying data-collection practices of the targeted online-advertising world—a business worth tens of billions of dollars a year—to surveillance. It is language more common from privacy activists than tech CEOs.

“These scraps of data, each one harmless enough on its own, are carefully assembled, synthesized, traded, and sold,” Mr. Cook said. “This is surveillance. And these stockpiles of personal data serve only to enrich the companies that collect them. This should make us very uncomfortable.”

Efforts to reduce the Internet to a tightly controlled "cognisphere" controlled by corporations and governments were decried by Julian Assange in 2018:

Julian Assange calls effort of corporations to control Internet discourse “an existential threat to humanity” (18 January) 2018
The following statement was sent by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the January 16 webinar Organizing Resistance to Internet Censorship, featuring journalist Chris Hedges and WSWS Chairperson David North. Assange sent the statement from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has been trapped for five and a half years. (See today's report on the webinar here)

The future of humanity is the struggle between humans that control machines and machines that control humans. Between the democratization of communication and usurpation of communication by artificial intelligence.


The first question asked when interrogating communication ethics addresses who communicates to who and by what means (this requires identifying the message source, the audience, and any intended persuasive effects).

How open are the channels of communication? Do particular well-positioned sources monopolize the production and dissemination of mass communication? Are dissidents censored? Is the array of opinions expressed fully?

What are the regularities in the patterns of access to the means of disseminating communication? Put otherwise, which individuals and groups are best positioned to advance their communications, framing events and elevating values with what aims? How are disagreements and uncertainties treated?

I believe that PLURALISM and TRANSPARENCY of message sourcing are critical for addressing these vital questions and I applaud social media’s stated commitment to increasing transparency of messaging. Indeed, the entire political process needs more transparency.

An important way to combat the worst forms of sophistry is transparency of sourcing because it allows audiences to evaluate source ethics, especially with respect to conflicting interests.

The next step in evaluating communication concerns semantics and pragmatics. How does a particular communication construct meaning? What problems does it identify or presuppose? What assumptions about the nature of reality and the distribution of power in society are built into the communications?  What values are structured into these assumptions and flow from from its solution-frames?

By addressing how truth is produced and governed in communication, analysts can disclose relations of power encoded into the “ensemble of rules according to which the true and the false are separated and specific effects of power attached to the true,” as articulated by Michel Foucault (1979 Power/Knowledge, p. 132).

Efforts to historicize truth need not lapse into cultural relativism whereupon all forms of rhetoric are evaluated as equal in their virtues when the production and governance of truth are interrogated in relation to power effects. As Foucault observed, “its not a matter of a battle ‘on behalf’ of the truth, but of a battle about the status of truth and the economic and political role that it plays” (p. 132).

How does the communication operate? What value and/or policy implications follow from its semantics? What are audiences called upon to do in response to the communication?

How do the fundamental semantic and pragmatic properties of a particular communication link up to others communications produced both by nodes in networked systems?
PLURALISM: Is dissent allowed? How are dissenting viewpoints treated? Are they marginalized or trivialized? Are uncertainties and disagreements in viewpoints (among experts and laypeople) acknowledged, or are they ignored or denied?

Pluralism, transparency and critical interrogation of the (historicized) truth value and ethics of communication are the solution, rather than censorship, to the crisis of communication in democracy.