Propaganda


So, I was a train station the other day (among my favourite in-between-places places) and saw an advert for a granola bar that claimed its makers wanted “to increase deliciousness by 200%” and, thus, “put two bars in each pack”. “Shouldn’t that be 100%?” I thought, before informing several friends of the amusing idiocy of the ad. Then it struck me. Up and down the land this conversation was liable to be taking place…

“So, they thought doubling the product made it 200% more delicious?”

“Yes! The fools!”

“Indeed. And what was the product?”

“It’s a kind of granola bar…”

“What’s that? A sort of sweet, chewy mix of baked oats and honey?”

“Yeah, something like that…”

“Mmm…”

They had, in other words, created a rubbish advert that – thanks to naive souls like me – was a damned effective one. Is there no limit to these peoples’ villainy? They leave me with no choice but to discredit their product with the only tool I have available…

Well, if I’m going to cash in on Noam Chomsky’s market it’s about time I produced some media criticism. Have you ever curled up with your loved ones, before the tele, and realised that every other advert is devoted to assaulting you with the overt message that family life is a tiresome and joyless experience, only rendered bearable by the consumption of goods? Here, for example, we learn that your relatives are a tiresome load of a miscreants – a source of frustration and shame, whose grim reality must be obscured with nifty software…

In fact, they’re such a chore that you might as well remain in your separate rooms – disassociated from eachother – with, of course, nifty gadgets…

And the least said about this glimpse into Hell the better…

But, oddly enough, it’s when they try and be heartwarming that they’re most hideous. Because, after all, you can’t have a happy situation that’s inspired by affection for one another – it has to have been provoked by some kind of product. So, this dear old Mother thinks her sons are coming to home see her. In reality she’s being used for her sausages…

The core theme of 99% of adverts is that one can’t be secure or fulfilled without the thing it’s offering. In that sense, each one is a calculated insult to humanity.

This is the Sun’s front-page reaction to the terrorist atrocities in Norway…

Now, the murderer is said to have been blonde and Nordic. He could (read, could) have been a convert to Islam. (Indeed, it’s somewhat ironic that people used these features as a stick with which to beat the people who’d assumed it was a Muslim. Blonde, Nordic people can embrace Islam too, y’know!) Still, there’s no evidence of this. None at all. And, while absence of evidence ain’t evidence of absence, there’s nothing to suggest it was Al Qaeda. Not an informational sausage. The idea – though not impossible – doesn’t come close to meriting a great big, scary headline.

It’s funny, really, after such controversy over their methods of obtaining information, to see papers merrily indulging in their favoured pastime of making it up. Doubtless, they’ll issue an apology if it turns out it wasn’t Al Qaeda but a lone villain or a member of a different group. (On page 61, below a story on Katie Price’s nose job or tax rates in Uzbekistan.) By then, however, as we saw yesterday, the damage will be done

The effect of misinformation on memory and reasoning cannot be completely eliminated, even after it has been corrected numerous times, say Australian psychologists.

Assistant Professor Ullrich Ecker and colleagues from The University of Western Australia outline their findings in a recent article published in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review .

Ecker says this effect, known as ‘continued influence effect of misinformation’, occurs even if the retraction itself is understood, believed, and remembered.

Update: According to the Norwegian police it was a neo-Nazi, not an Islamist. Shameful.

When the U.S. announced that they had killed bin Laden, he was claimed to have been firing at the troops from behind his wife. To the disappointment of filmmakers everywhere, however, they retracted these decorative claims later in the week. I’d assumed it was misinformation and, frankly, was more surprised by the retraction than the claim. New research by Australian psychologists, however, has concluded that propaganda remains effective if it’s been debunked. The original idea is lodged inside one’s consciousness, and bloody hard to shift…

The effect of misinformation on memory and reasoning cannot be completely eliminated, even after it has been corrected numerous times, say Australian psychologists.

Assistant Professor Ullrich Ecker and colleagues from The University of Western Australia outline their findings in a recent article published in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review .

Ecker says this effect, known as ‘continued influence effect of misinformation’, occurs even if the retraction itself is understood, believed, and remembered.

Here’s another nice example. (Well, convenient example – it’s also nauseating.) In 2001, after the anthrax letters had been mailed across the States, U.S. officials and journalists planted the idea that Iraq presented likely suspects. By 2003 poor Steven Hatfill was being stitched up for the crime but the notion of Iraqi guilt was still clunking around people’s craniums. For some, it was the inspiration behind their support for war.

This quirk of the human mind seems to ensure that – in some cases, anyway – propagandists needn’t build substantial cases. They can just throw out a claim and see it latch onto perceptions like burdock in dog hair.

Well, as long as this research is accurate, anyway. (If it’s not we may go on believing it regardless.)

Something that always fascinates me about media reports are the promiscuous references to insiders: “police sources”; “governmental sources”; “friends” et cetera. Sometimes these insiders have been hunted down like rats; on other occasions, though, they’re free to spread lurid allegations without fear of reprisals. So, in the case of Gareth Williams, “police” and “security” “sources” have propounded all sorts of wacky claims about the man: from his private life to supposed suspects for his murder. Ironically, yet another anonymous source was quoted as saying that “someone, somewhere, who has access to case materials” was trying to obfuscate the investigation. Yes, it sounds like it: these anonymous sources. But – unlike, say, when a “source” is handing uncomfortable secrets to Wikileaks – no one in power has shown interest.

The guys and gals at J7 have unearthed a cracker here. In August 2005, the Times reported…

[Hasib Hussain], youngest of the July 7 bombers, made three desperate telephone calls begging for help from the other members of the terror cell minutes before he blew himself up on a London bus.

The frantic last messages are seen by Scotland Yard as vivid proof that the British-born Muslim extremists intended to die in the attacks.

A police source who has heard the telephone calls said: “His voice was getting more and more frantic with each call.”

J7 ask…

These messages were not played nor even were they claimed to exist during the recent 7/7 Inquests.

We need to know:

Did the Times hack the phone messages of the 4 accused of 7/7?

Who was the ‘police source’ who gave this information to the Times?

Why did the 7/7 Inquests not have an opportunity to hear these messages?

Why did the 7/7 Inquests not refer to these messages?

The story is interesting enough in itself. The Times implied that the police were holding substantial and fascinating evidence of Hussain’s actions. Yet, assuming that J7 are correct in their account, it hasn’t been heard of again. What’s up wi’ that?

Yet it also illustrates the point that phone hacking is one of the rotten apples in the rotten fruit salad of our journalism. The indifference to the relevance, validity and ethics of its sourcing – among other things – is also illustrated here; in far more “respectable” publications and, sometimes, as part of far more consequential episodes. (The Telegraph, for example, has been caught time and again regurgitating MI6 and CIA propaganda.)

We (by which I mean “general people”, not the brave few readers of Back Towards The Locus) should grasp this opportunity to promote the scepticism mainstream reportage has long deserved. It’s not going to be cured. We should do our best to make accurate diagnoses so we can at least recognise its symptoms and try not to be infected.

That, at least, is what a little bird has told me.

There will be films about Julian Assange. And, yes, there will be books about him. There will a play about Assange. Paintings of him. There may be a finger puppet-pantomime with Assange as its hero or, hey, villain. And there will be many, many essays, articles and opinion pieces. All about Assange.

But, if I’m honest, I don’t care about Assange. At the risk of sounding like a tut-tutty, finger-waggy, “Oh, you’re so all naive” pseudo-serious person, I look at a case that involves the exposure of widespread killing and corruption, and a diminutive Aussie bloke, and don’t find my attention drawn to the latter.

Many commentators have suggested that the charges directed against Assange are part of an attempt to smear him and Wikileaks by proxy. There might be an element of truth to that – though his own defence suggests he has a serious case to answer – but it’s worth reflecting on the fact that by shifting the story from the information Wikileaks have been disseminating to one of the guys who contributed to that dissemination the media have already diminished its positive influence – not by discreding the organisation’s work but by distracting people from it. “Wikileaks” is almost as synonymous with one man and his alleged crime as it is with all the states and corporations whose crimes it has exposed.

It’s too obvious to say that groups and movements shouldn’t form behind an individual. The cult of personality that’s built around prominent dissidents is typically a response to the media’s isolation of them rather than a natural process. But they shouldn’t play the game. Because, win or lose, they’re likely to emerge worse off from it.

Professor Jason Stanley makes the valuable point here that calumnies are as able to dismiss opinions as their censorship. “Free speech” – ie. the freedom to speak unhindered – is nigh-on irrelevant if no one listens to you. Obvious, perhaps, except that if the people who dislike your insights can persuade your would-be listeners that you’re not worth their attention there’ll be no need to stop you speaking. It strikes me, then, that if we uphold the right – legal right – to free speech we should place as much value in fair speech – an informal right to be presented accurately. To cite a predictable example, no one had to keep Emmanuel Goldstein a secret. They just had to hate the guy so much that his words would never get through to them.

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