Is this the Matrix?: Reality in the era of bots

/////////////////////NPR’s Tom Ashbrook hosts a show called On Point, which covers a multitude of topics ranging from schooling to online dating to genetics to The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Available as a podcast, On Point featured a story on August 9th about bots, which I listened to in curiosity and dismay, and not as much surprise as I wish I’d had. Bots are essentially automated software programs that run tasks on the Internet, and according to one of the experts on the show, they’ve been around as long as the World Wide Web has been. The show’s focus, however, was much more specific, targeting the use of bots by certain individuals, organizations, and political entities to disseminate propaganda and fake news, or “disinformation,” in order to meddle in electoral politics. The show’s guests discussed the ways in which bots originating in Russia were used during the 2016 election to influence the U.S. population’s view of the candidates, the issues being discussed, and the general political state of affairs of our country, to which an elected president theoretically would provide a resonating response. Apparently, these bots can generate commentary and content which is, at best, biased, and at worst, patently false.


By Ian McKellar from San Francisco, CA, USA – Elektro and Sparkotaken from: http://www.maser.org/k8rt/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18986910

This is clearly a new era we’re in, because though the use of propaganda is as old as human society itself – incidentally, propaganda means simply a form of communication intended to sway or persuade its audience in favor of or against a given individual or group – the bots are used in a curious way. Employed on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, bots create “news” content whose volume and relevance to one’s own opinions can persuade a reader to follow that opinion. They function cleverly, or rather are designed in a clever way, in that they are meant to emulate a real person by patterning off of language used by current participants, and further appear to confirm the views of the reader through the temptation of accepting information that appeals to our established beliefs, thus persuading us via confirmation bias. Given the magnitude of influence of these bots, whose presence appears to range in the thousands across popular social media sites, it may not be too much to suggest that our view of the world, at least the view which we draw from our screens and hear echoed in the mouths of our colleagues and loved ones, is not simply a wake-up-and-see-what’s-true-today process.

Or is it? I’m no technophobe, but I do come from a generation that was raised without the Internet, without screens (excepting only 1/2 hour of TV a day, for which I’m still grateful), and without that addition to my consciousness that I might at any time be missing out on something on a screen awaiting my attention. I remember rotary phones and the use of folded-up maps stuffed in the glove box. This is not intended to be simple nostalgia, however. I’m actually asking what we might do about something all of us as deeply smitten phone lovers are well aware of.


By Aditya19472001 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I suppose what I’m asking is, how did we develop critical literacy and media literacy in the past? How did we think about the information presented to us, sort through it, and determine what was of value not because it made us feel warm and safe but in fact because it presented us with what was happening in the world? The American poet T.S. Eliot apparently even distrusted newspapers, believing that those who read them were easily manipulated away from a true engagement with the world. I’m not suggesting not taking in any information from news sources, which we tend to read now online, but a return to the issue will ask where we get our “news” from. And this is really the key when we think about social media. Baudrillard’s hyperreality was one in which, as in The Matrix, individuals are completely enveloped by the worldview they consume as true (that is, my belief about my reality, is what is created and given to me outside of my own influence). Under this social logic, we are simple consumers of our reality, not participants. This is not unlike the consumer posture we are encouraged to/ take as we experience the ads and clickbait that accompany us as we look at photos of our cousin’s new baby. We may not realize that our reality, our political agency, is being slowly pushed back behind a curtain, and is being replaced by blurps and blips that confirm our perspectives and comfort us that we are right, that we are looking at what’s “real.” The battle, it seems, is a philosophical and a psychological one as well as a political and technological one.

To close with the questions Eliot asks in his famous modernist masterpiece, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock:

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”…
Do I dare…Disturb the universe?

Do we dare to do this? Do we dare to put the phone away, close the Twitter feed, log off of Facebook, even for a moment, a moment when we might miss something…a something which might be worse than taking in nothing at all?

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Speech, whistleblowing/leaking, and silence: languaging as a political force

Today’s news in many ways is not remarkable, in the sense that we’ve been submerged in a swampy mess of falsehoods and fictions that choke off our view of the world around us (see my recent post about Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, which asserts that our definition of reality is served up to us, hot and processed, by social media in a steady stream that replaces our awareness of our agentive participation in this reality). I’m considering discussions of climate change – rather, the use of the term “climate change” – and an attack on a mosque in Bloomington, MN, as well as  the crackdown on leaks/whistleblowing by the Department of Justice under the Trump administration.

The unreleased report about climate change – which incidentally used to be called “global warming” before Franz Luntz, spin doctor extraordinaire and well-funded consultant to conservative politicians who seek to change public discourse through “winning messaging,” successfully assisted the George W. Bush administration in creating the less-alarming term – shared with the New York Times can be summarized below (though I recommend reviewing the executive summary and the first few pages of the report):

The average temperature in the United States has risen rapidly and drastically since 1980, and recent decades have been the warmest of the past 1,500 years, according to a sweeping federal climate change report awaiting approval by the Trump administration.

The draft report by scientists from 13 federal agencies, which has not yet been made public, concludes that Americans are feeling the effects of climate change right now. It directly contradicts claims by President Trump and members of his cabinet who say that the human contribution to climate change is uncertain, and that the ability to predict the effects is limited.

“Evidence for a changing climate abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans,” a draft of the report states.

This report evidently includes thousands of studies by eminent scientists and scholarly institutions which indicate that we are headed for a disaster at a world level that most rational people agree upon. Europe, for example, is struggling with a record-breaking heat wave ominously termed “Lucifer,” and in the U.S. folks in the West and Southwest have seen deaths due to daily highs unseen in our nation’s history.

Yet what’s important is the fact that the report was leaked to the Times due to concerns that it would be modified or censored by the current administration. This concern accords with Trump’s priorities regarding the question of economics vs. environment, as he has selected former ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and big oil-backed Scott Pruitt into the lead administrative role of the EPA. Further exemplifying Trump’s obvious commitment to U.S. economic status quo is his statement that the U.S. should withdraw from the Paris Agreement enacted in 2016 because it was a raw deal for America. In light of Trump’s apparent desire to silence various voices from all quarters against him and his narcissistic agenda to be the top dog business leader in the country (note that I said “business leader” and not “political leader”), this is a justifiable fear. We can’t forget the firing of James Comey or the fact that during his campaign, Trump leveraged calculated yet ardent attacks against the media in what the U.S. News and World Report called a “politics of intimidation” in his incessant tweeting.

This use of language as a political tool – the creation of variant forms of information which promote the occlusion of scientific research, the exclusion of reporters from White House briefings (and the eventual shift over to off-camera briefings to replace publicly broadcast events with the press), and many other changes which signal a consolidation of power by the White House as an attempt to control public discourse – is not a new phenomenon. Propaganda has been used over the course of U.S. history (and the history of all other countries) to persuade constituents that certain actions by politicians deserve their support, or else didn’t happen in the way that they appeared to happen. What’s terrifying about Trump is that he is exploiting the power of the White House to bully and silence journalists and to rewrite our history and current state of affairs to serve his own solipsism. It is through the use of language as a performative, highly contingent social tool that he is doing this, a means of manipulating our country’s anxious, angry social climate in acts of languaging that instantiate real-life results.

Silence, too, has the potential to operate as a performative, a process of political languaging. For example, the Washington Post recently reported that Trump has advocated violence against journalists in a tweet, a point on which GOP lawmakers have apparently remained silent. This silence enacts what might be considered tacit agreement with Trump’s comments. I suggest that we don’t read this silence as a lack of speech, but rather a very strong example of silence AS speech. It has great political force not to comment on threats, on violent speech and deeds, especially when one is in a position of power. It seems that we lack a better conceptualization of what silence can do in such circumstances (a point which my own research hopefully will attend to in the future).

To bring in a third dimension of languaging as political force, we can further consider the concepts of leaking and whistleblowing. John Kiriakou, a whistleblower who was incarcerated for almost two years for exposing the torture program of the CIA under George W. Bush, spoke on Democracy Now! about the role of whistleblowers in “bringing to light any evidence of waste, fraud, abuse, illegality, or threats to the public health or public safety.” Kiriakou explains overclassification and discusses the illegality of classifying a crime like torture (which is illegal under U.S. legal code and international mandate), which he exposed and for which he was prosecuted. Leaking, in contrast, is, according to Kiriakou, is sharing with journalists information which is sensitive or private but not classified. The blurring of the definition of these two terms is taking place under the anti-media campaign being waged by the Trump administration, under the argument that public safety and national security may be compromised if certain information is exposed. Making these vague statements justifies the punishment of reporters and journalistic sources for publishing leaked information, a form of silencing employed as a performative languaging move by Attorney General Jess Sessions in a recent press conference intended, no doubt, to intimidate journalists and win more leverage over the public record by calling it a “culture of leaking” that must be stopped. (Of course we could assume that Sessions’ actions are a stab at self-preservation, but this does next to nothing to defend his actions here or elsewhere.)

A final thought about silence/silencing is a connection I’m making with all of this and Trump’s vociferous lack of tweets about a bombing attack on a Bloomington, MN mosque in the heart of a Somali community in that city on August 5th. Trump is on vacation, but apparently he’s been tweeting regularly as always. This has not escaped the notice of many media outlets and political leaders, including the mayor of Bloomington himself, providing yet another example of the power of silence as a form of political languaging. What does Trump’s silence say? It is a clear example of tacit support of conservative groups in this country that suspect immigrants of terrorism, see Muslims as invaders and sources of instability in their communities, and feel reassured by earlier strains of U.S. nativism that portrays non-White Anglo-Saxon Protestants as a threat to the American Dream.

Silence, all of this is to say, is approval for these actions. Silence, in fact, commends and recommends actions like this. Let’s hope the symbolic violence of this political speech, enacted in the seemingly neutral contribution of silence to the public discourse, can become a viable part of how we see languaging and politics in this country. We don’t have any time to lose.

“GOP Gov. Snyder’s office says Detroit school kids have no right to literacy”: an opportunity to develop media literacy

The post title comes from an article a friend of mine posted on my Facebook feed, alarmed and asking what I thought of this situation.
herbert-randall
Photograph by Herbert Russell

Below is my response…

It’s a very interesting proposition. Checked out the story on the CBS website and this is what was included:

“The lawsuit says the schools are in ‘slum-like conditions’ and ‘functionally incapable of delivering access to literacy.’ The case, filed in federal court, directly accuses Gov. Rick Snyder, the state school board and others of violating the civil rights of low-income students.”

A couple of missing connections:

1) Schools in Detroit (and Philadelphia and Chicago and other struggling school districts) have suffered from a lack of funding which is connected both to housing issues as well as to the direct connection of federal funding to school performance, which has been in part due to the way that some states have interpreted the Common Core (see http://www.edweek.org/ew/issues/common-core-state-standards/). Obscured with this kind of commentary is the connection between federal funds and testing/school performance, which also drives decision-making on teacher retention, and the fact that schools continue to be financed by property taxes. Those tax revenues in Detroit have fallen significantly over the last decade or more, due in part to the Great Recession as well as other economic issues germane to Detroit, all of which has contributed to the struggles of that school system.

2) The accusation that Governor Snyder — who has indeed been taken to task for mismanagement and shady dealings with the public school system in Michigan — explicitly believes that students should not have a right to literacy is not accurate. Here’s another story whose header reads, “Literacy Not A Right For Detroit School Kids According To State” (http://detroit.cbslocal.com/2016/11/21/literacy-not-a-right-for-detroit-school-kids-says-state/) but which doesn’t include any specific comment that Snyder actually made about this.

I’m concerned that this is sensationalistic reporting rather than a deeper exploration of the complex questions in play. I would say that negligence is definitely a part of this, but saying that Snyder was attacking the civil rights of poor and the illiterate children of Detroit is an exaggeration. This is attack-the-individual thinking which has characterized “reporting” of late and keeps us from working on bigger and more complicated problems.

A final point: We as Americans are stuck in the democratic paradox (see my discussion of this in a previous post), which allows liberalism — freedom to pursue your own way of doing things, freedom not to be responsible for other people, etc. — to coexist with democracy. How can we support the participation of all Americans in our civic spaces when we prioritize the education of some over others through inequitable economic policies and “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” thinking?

I don’t think my friend liked my response. It’s been three hours, which is like an eternity in FB world.

Sign of the times?  

Another picture from the environs of New York…I took this one on the subway, as you can see from the orange seats and metallic wall and handrails. The New York Post splashed quippy signs like this all over the train I was on, though this one in particular caught my eye:

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Known for telling stories in brute, black-and-white ways (sometimes quite literally, as I wrote about in another post recently) supporting a conservative and often nationalistic viewpoint, the Post barks out its allegiance to the world here: “We make money off of you for not thinking.” It screams “down with background knowledge, down with introspection, down with reflection!” It tells the reader that too much depth is dull, and more than the minimum time spent on learning anything is, well, a waste.

You may be right that the American public is less resistant to lengthy writings about thoughtful things, New York Post, but we’re not dead in the head yet. And your weakness is that you, too, depend on the consumer to sustain yourself. Without us, you are nothing but a rag barking in the wind. We are still readers and thinkers beyond your word count and your belief that you tell us what’s important and what’s dull. And maybe we’ll look back down at our novels and our Kindles and take some more time to define what stories we want to learn about, and how they should be told.

Country of origin, country of destination

I didn’t post yesterday, though I’m not going to count it as a missed day for my writing commitment (365 days starting October 1, 2014); I still wrote for my finals, as I have two papers left to go. Almost there…

Media literacy is an interesting topic that I’ve written about before and would love to study in the future. This week at CUNY I saw a simple, incisive sign that in little space spoke in important ways:

Screen shot 2014-12-11 at 10.25.28 PM

I interpret this to be a commentary on immigration. People who leave their countries do so often times because their lives or those of their loved ones are at risk; in countries like Honduras and Mexico, this is not so much a metaphor as a sad fact. For those who are not living under the shadow of an axe, there are still dark forces like prejudice and economic disadvantage that squeezes out dignity and freedom like a vise; this is true in Palestine and Kurdistan. Hence their problematic relationship with their country of origin.

These newcomers move to a new home – a place like the U.S., for example – in the hope of finding a way to build a better life for their family. Yet they are often stereotyped and demonized for bringing crime to their new communities or stealing jobs from native-born workers (both of which are untrue). Because prejudice is easily spread about strangers from a strange land who speak, look, eat, and think differently, society’s ills are cast onto their shoulders. They are easy targets for conservative officials that need a unified enemy to focus on, especially when homegrown problems trouble the country’s constituents; they are a useful distraction to draw fire away from poor decision-making and corruption at the highest levels of leadership. Thus the complicated and difficult details of their new life in their country of destination.

Simple, beautiful, tragic, effective. All in a little cartoon.

Dehumanization through torture: victim, interrogator, nation…and reader

Dehumanization is a topic on many journalists’, pundits’, academics’, and bloggers’ lips of late. It’s applicable, unfortunately, to a wide variety of current situations – the discussion about the treatment of Black men by police forces across the United States, the swath cut across western Africa by the Ebola epidemic, even the overuse of standardized testing in public schools (of course to a much lesser degree) – and brings the reader face to face not only with the sufferings of his or her fellow human being, but also with our own capacity to feel pain, either as victims or those watching.

We may ask ourselves: how does torture dehumanize the individual? In today’s shocking report about widespread and widely concealed tortures that took place in CIA prisons all over the world, we have learned of new ways to torture a human being into prostration, humiliation, total degradation to the point of becoming animal (some inmates looked “like a dog,” according to witnesses). There is total removal of control of self, including even one’s ability to refuse food in protest (and what the CIA interrogators did as a result is yours to read about), and normal human social, cultural, and physical boundaries are obliterated. Basic rights to food, rest, mental calm, and sense of safety are called into question, constituting the psychological forms of torture concomitant with the physical ones in the case of these awful, undercover prisons.

How do these acts, in turn, dehumanize the torturer? In the case of the places examined in the report, the interrogators had been instructed to get information from suspected terrorists, which provided the no-holds-barred excuse that predominated in the earler stages of the interrogations. But the information obtained, according to the committee which reviewed the reports from the CIA and others investigating these prisons, could have been “obtained through other means.” Which means that the humanity each interrogator ostensibly has within him or her was consulted, and then rejected, in favor of…what? Power games? The opportunity for acting vengefully and with impunity toward suspected terrorists? The freedom to sexually abuse and destroy the health and dignity of over 200 men? I suppose one could plead that they were following orders, or that they had succumbed to groupthink and were not thinking rationally…but this is a tough line to toe.

Okay, bad men found. Case closed…or is it? I would suggest that we as a nation, also, are becoming increasingly comfortable with the dehumanization of others through such gruesome and sensationalistic media representation. The way I first heard about this report was through the following headline: The Most Gruesome Moments in the CIA ‘Torture Report’. I felt like I was reading about a new TV show, in the vein of The Walking Dead or American Horror Story. The first line of the story, written in The Daily Beast, went like this:

The Senate Intelligence Committee is finally releasing its review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation programs. And it is brutal. Here are some of the most gruesome moments of detainee abuse from a summary of the report, obtained by The Daily Beast…

Great. A well-organized, section-heading-ed story that prioritizes the particularly brutal parts of the torture for me in an easily readable form.

What is the goal of writing like this? Was the story of any of the detainees told, beyond his torture? If we really value human life, freedom, and dignity, shouldn’t we consider that regardless of whether or not these men were involved in terrorism, not a single one deserved to be treated this way? And such treatment shouldn’t be a spectacle for us all to gawk at in obscene, morbid curiosity. Truly seeing these men as human beings, we would act to change it…not see it as another, pornographic form of entertainment. And the media has a role in this, as do we: one feeds another in a frightful ouroboros of supply and demand.

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To drive the point home, consider that this story rests just below another document of human suffering: the story of the kidnapping of Yazidi girls by ISIS in Syria. After the introductory backstory, the following lead-in appears:

Below—courtesy of the Washington, D.C.-based the Middle East Media Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that monitors extremism—are some highlights of the ISIS rules governing the enslavement of women and how slaves should be treated.

Highlights, indeed. I felt less human reading that story, more like a media-consuming beast who could see humans writhing, burning, dying miles away as nothing more than a slight rise in the pulse before sipping my wine. I don’t know what the answer is to finding anew one’s sense of humanity among such profane images of the worst we can do to each other, but it might mean considering that the media’s version of the story can contribute to the very dehumanization process it purports to decry.

Media and versions of stories: “good guy vs. black guy”

Before you read this, ask yourself: What would each of the two people mentioned in the title of this post look like.

It’s meant to be tricky because the second of the two terms, “Asian,” is considered a fairly standard term for a person with lineage from Asia (actually, Asian-American might be a better way to put it), while the first seems by comparison less racialized. Thinking about it, what race could a person described as a “thug” actually be? (For that matter, what gender?) Interesting to think that there are certain terms that carry both race and gender in them. (That, incidentally, could be a homework assignment for anyone reading this; I am not about to make a list).

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I take both terms from a story in the New York Post, the cheapest conservative rag sold in the city that I know of (I think it’s still $1, whereas the fancy, semi-liberal New York Times is over $3). Alongside a page-high photo of a glamorous and scantily-clad blonde I’d never heard of before, the headline “PUSH CAME TO SHOVE” Subway Killer ‘Struck’ Before” caught my eye. The first line read, “The career thug who this week allegedly pushed an Asian dad to his death in front of a Bronx subway train shoved another man – also Asian – to a Village station platform 10 days earlier…”. Malevolent, possibly racist (we guess that the Post is trying to string together a narrative here), hunting for his next victims underground, and certainly Black, the accused man, Kevin Darden was depicted as striking again, almost a force of nature to be feared by subway goers – that is, Asian(-American) subway goers – all over New York.

It’s all about the way you tell the story, or rather, the version – conservative, demonizing of Black people and people with disabilities (see below) – of the story you tell. In the end of the article, the Post describes Darden’s mother’s apparently relieved reaction: “’I’m glad they got him off the streets and I’m glad he’s not dead,’ the mom, Berlin Joyce Jones, told The Post. She claimed he has long had mental illness.” (emphasis added)

Something about that word choice cinched up the story for me; I found myself for a split second doubting whether the killer had ever suffered from any disability, or whether, since we were sure he was a “thug” already from the very beginning of this story (which detailed all the damning evidence against him), his mother was just defending him as mothers are supposed to do. She claimed…yeah, she probably also claimed he would never hurt a fly.

Even the term “mental illness” is problematic and old-fashioned, especially according to the disability community, who might argue that a disability is not a sickness, but rather a different way of being. But in The Post’s broad stroke (sledgehammer?) version of the story, he was a thug, and maybe sick…though his mom was probably making it up anyway. Painting a good-guy-versus-black-guy story probably sells more papers.