Forget for the moment Assange, Snowden and Manning, important as they are, and worth defending at almost any cost. Their revelations have been priceless, in revealing dirty deeds done by governments and other agencies all over the world, but hitherto kept secret in order to prevent public criticism. The hope is that these revelations will enable publics to come to more critical political decisions in the future. That’s all to the good.
The more conventional journalist Carole Cadwalladr, however, has gone a step further. What her painstaking investigations into the world of the internet – too complicated for most of us to understand, especially us oldies – have done is to reveal one important brand-new means by which opinion is being manipulated, usually by the Right, in what purport to be ‘democracies’. It started, so far as the broadsheet-reading public is concerned, with her sensational revelations about ‘Cambridge Analytica’ and its relations with social media engines like Facebook and Google, in connexion with the Brexit referendum of 2016. That has now broadened into an in-depth inquiry into the way democracy itself is being ‘subverted’ by these new magicians of the web. Here’s a good account of this by Cadwalladr herself in today’s Observer: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/apr/21/carole-cadwalladr-ted-tech-google-facebook-zuckerberg-silicon-valley.
In one way this is nothing new. We’ve long known how public opinion can be misled and distorted by ‘propaganda’. ‘Cambridge Analytica’ is just the most recent example. There’s a whole global industry – called ‘advertising’ – that has been founded on this assumption for over a century. (Read Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, 1957; and even before that, HG Wells’s 1909 novel Tono-Bungay.) People are easily fooled, and they don’t need to be stupid to be vulnerable; especially when their manipulators alight on new methods of fooling them as clever and hidden as Cadwalladr has revealed.
Clearly we need to find means of countering this, which may be difficult without encroaching on ‘freedom of opinion’. (That’s what stands in the way of ‘policing’ far Right ‘lies’ on Facebook.) Efforts such as Cadwalladr’s are a beginning, pre-warning us about how modern technological propaganda works. Beyond that, I still think that education could help, if school kids were given lessons or even courses on rational thinking, logic, criticism, the importance of checking sources and so on. Ultimately this will be the only way of keeping the wilful liars and misleaders – Boris is the obvious example – in check.
One hopeful sign: an approach to Prevent (‘counter-extremist’) training in schools I’ve heard of consists of showing kids how to distinguish between news and propaganda, specifically including advertising; the idea is that the genuinely dangerous forms of extremism rely on the same kind of simplifications, distortions, emotive appeals etc.
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“Beyond that, I still think that education could help, if school kids were given lessons or even courses on rational thinking, logic, criticism, the importance of checking sources and so on. Ultimately this will be the only way of keeping the wilful liars and misleaders – Boris is the obvious example – in check.”
I think you would find that many countries – like Australia – have been teaching these kinds of skills and the principles which underpin them for more than 50 years. However, it seems that voters do not seem to mind that their (right) side of politics uses language strategically rather than truthfully. Most Trump supporters, for example, know he tells lies, know that he is illogical, know that he generates fake news; however, because he supports their ‘team’, their prejudices and interests they continue to support him. They do not even care that he is an ego-maniac; au contraire, it amuses them, and is part of the show he performs to entertain his audience.
Similarly, outside the US, many highly educated members of the political elite and their supporters, such as Tories and Liberals (in Australia), are easily able to rationalise – using the rhetorical techniques they learned about at school perhaps – doing less than nothing about climate change, even when they might grudgingly accept the conclusions of climate science.
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I’m sure you’re right on both counts, Philip. Swedish schools also teach courses in rational thought, checking sources and so on. The UK and US may be exceptionally deficient in this respect. Sadly, I also agree that this isn’t an entirely reliable defence against the Donalds and Borises of this world. It needs to be combined with free-er presses than Britain has at this moment. (But which Sweden has.)
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