The future of mind control: How social media is supercharging the propaganda system

In their book Manufacturing Consent, the late Ed Herman and professor Noam Chomsky described how a privately owned free press could function as a propaganda system that deceived its readers quite as efficiently as a heavy-handed government censor.

Media corporations have hacked your social brain

In their propaganda model, information about the world had to pass through a series of filters before reaching the media’s audiences. These filters prevented dangerous ideas—like democracy, equality, and peace—from reaching the readers of mass media. They identified five of those filters: Concentrated media ownership helped ensure that media reflected the will of its wealthy, corporate owners; reliance on official sources forced journalists and editors to make compromises with the powerful to ensure continued access; shared ideological premises, including the hatred of official enemies, biased coverage toward the support of war; the advertising business model filtered out information that advertisers didn’t like; and an organized “flak” machine punished journalists who stepped out of line, threatening their careers.

When Herman and Chomsky created the propaganda model in the 1980s, they wrote about newspapers—what we now patronizingly call “legacy media.” The “legacy media” still wield influence, but things have evolved far beyond the five “filters” they identified: ownership, official sources, ideology, advertising revenue, and flak. In our media environment, these five filters have become supercharged. And new filters have refined propaganda into something more like mind control.

The Supercharging of Existing Media Filters

Ownership of media outlets is now supercharged and superconcentrated. It’s not the four or five media companies, but Big Tech that determines what you see. And Big Tech is even more concentrated: it’s Google (which owns YouTube) and Facebook (which owns WhatsApp and Instagram). The generous can give honorable mention to Twitter, with its few hundred million users (which dwarf the reach the “legacy media” had). In recent years tech billionaires have bought media companies too, such as the Washington Post (owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon), the Intercept (Pierre Omidyar of eBay), Time magazine (Marc Benioff of Salesforce), and the Atlantic (Laurene Powell Jobs of Apple).

Official Sources: Relying on official sources and the compromises needed to maintain access to those has long been a force behind media self-censorship. Media companies like Fox News have staked their fortunes on Trump’s ability to draw audiences to their networks. They have made Trump the ultimate official source and the ultimate news story. This has reduced the range of issues down to those that cross Trump’s limited attention span and narrowed the spectrum of debate (for and against Trump’s often absurd positions on the topics of the moment).

Ideology: Herman and Chomsky wrote about Cold War and War on Terror ideologies, but today’s ideological filter is worse than ever. Anticommunism might not have the force it had in the 1980s, but the New Cold War means that associations with Russia can be made to the same political effect as they had then. We also continue to have to hear about the importance of endless war, the endless generosity of police, the undeserving poor, and most of the other key premises that undergirded the media in the 1980s.

Advertising Revenue: The tech giants are advertising companies at their heart, and so all of the problems that came with the legacy media being driven by advertisers remain in the new environment. Two years ago a report out of Columbia University described the new business model of media, “the platform press,” in which technology platforms are the publishers of note, and these platforms “incentivize the spread of low-quality content over high-quality material.”

Beyond the boost to the propaganda system provided by the transition to a “platform press,” the new advertising ecosystem has led to an explosion of what could be called the fake internet: advertising companies can pay other companies for clicks; the production of content can be automated. Much of the internet, as writer Max Read puts it, is now “fake people with fake cookies and fake social-media accounts, fake-moving their fake cursors, fake-clicking on fake websites.” This provides the powerful with two distinct opportunities to mislead audiences: first, they can take advantage of the fake internet directly. Second, by posing as uniquely credible on an internet full of fakery, they can sell more sophisticated or subtle falsehoods.

Flak has become supercharged to the point where organized hate machines can be created and deployed against anyone at the drop of a hat, creating immense psychological pressure to silence independent voices. In November 2018, Indian student activist Shehla Rashid wrote devastatingly about both the organization of hate on Twitter and the effect it has on her:

“The hate that I get from pro-BJP accounts is organised. No sooner have I tweeted than hundreds of abusive, acerbic, mocking replies start appearing beneath—within 12 seconds, 17 seconds. It would be flattering if it weren’t scary. Also, there seems to be no way to avoid this. There is no method to the madness. Regardless of what I tweet, there is ‘instant abuse.’ It is not based on the content of what I write.”

This affects not just Rashid, but her followers on the social media platform: “If you want to genuinely engage with my post, you’ll think twice before replying to me, as it means that your day will be ruined by abusive trolls who will keep tagging you for hours or even days. You will find no support for me in the direct replies (except in the forms of retweets or favourites) and you’ll take whatever I say with a pinch of salt.”

Rashid feels stuck, as in an abusive relationship: “In times when electronic media has turned into a show of competitive bigotry, Twitter does provide activists like me with a platform to air our views. I have 427,400 followers on Twitter. This means that the trade-off between leaving Twitter and having a voice is too high. This points to a deeply abusive relationship that we have with Twitter. We have virtually been held hostage to its benefits.”

The New Media Filters

But the new environment has some powerful filters the old one didn’t. Here are three:

It’s Brought to You by a Cult: Earlier this year employees at Facebook described the ways in which the company’s performance review system, in which numerical ratings from colleagues are gathered by managers, leads to “cult-like” practices within the company. To get ahead in the company, employees must “act as though everything is fine and that we love working here,” even when they don’t. In authoritarian political systems, people must do what they’re told; in totalitarian systems, people must pretend to love the authority. Most corporations could be described as internally totalitarian, and so this may not be a “new” filter. But by recent reports, the most powerful social media corporation in the world is, internally, more totalitarian than most.

An Opaque Algorithm Controls What You See: Many researchers have pointed out how social media algorithms work to boost conspiracy theories, move users to more extreme content and positions, confirm the biases of the searcher, and incentivize the outrageous and offensive. These proprietary algorithms, which determine what you see, cannot be viewed, reverse-engineered, or understood. The media platforms that use them do so without any accountability. On the other hand, savvy political operators with resources can game the algorithm by creating ecosystems of links and platforming one another. This has been done so effectively on YouTube that, as the report Alternative Influence notes, the top 10 results for the phrase “social justice” are “criticisms of social justice from reactionary channels.”

They Have Hacked Your Social Brain: When you receive news on Facebook, even though it comes from a small number of corporate sources or advertisers, you are receiving it from your friends, and so it comes with additional trust that you never had in “legacy media.”

One of Facebook’s founders, Sean Parker, said that Facebook’s goal was to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible,” and that it did so by giving users “a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments.” The point was to create “a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

If that were not enough, social media platforms can hack your mood directly. In 2014, it was revealed that Facebook researchers had done a study on users, manipulating their moods, to see if they could. That case was terrifying, and has long been forgotten. Repeated academic studies show that social media use is harmful to mood and body image. Reducing its use can help with mental health. That is why upper-level social media executives neither use, nor allow their children to use their own platforms.

In the face of the propaganda system, Chomsky once famously advocated for a course of “intellectual self-defense,” which of necessity would involve working with others to develop an independent mind. Because the new propaganda system uses your social instincts and your social ties against you, “intellectual self-defense” today will require some measures of “social self-defense” as well. If Big Tech executives can unplug themselves and develop their “real-world” selves, those of us who hope to resist should probably do the same.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. You can find him on his website at podur.org and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental Studies.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Why it’s so hard for most countries to be economically independent from the West

Bolsonaro salutes the US flag

Brazil’s president Bolsonaro salutes the American flag

Why is it so difficult even for huge countries with large, diversified economies to maintain independence from the West?

If anyone could have done it, it was Brazil. In the 19th century it was imagined that Brazil could be a Colossus of the South to match the U.S., the Colossus of the North. It never panned out that way.

And 100 years later, it still hasn’t happened. With a $2 trillion GDP (a respectable $9,800 per capita), nearly 200 million people, and a strong manufacturing base (the second largest in the Americas and 28.5 percent of its GDP), Brazil is far from a tiny, weak island or peninsula dependent on a patron state to keep it afloat.

When Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva won a historic election to become president of Brazil in 2003, it seemed like an irreversible change in the country’s politics. Even though Lula’s Workers’ Party was accused of being communists who wanted to redistribute all of the country’s concentrated wealth, the party’s redistributive politics were in fact modest—a program to eradicate hunger in Brazil called Zero Hunger, a family-based welfare program called the Family Allowance, and an infrastructure spending program to try to create jobs. But its politics of national sovereignty were ambitious.

It was under Workers’ Party rule (under Lula and his successor, president Dilma Rousseff, who won the 2010 election to become president at the beginning of 2011) that the idea surged of a powerful BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) alliance that could challenge the ambitions of the U.S.-led West. Brazil took steps to strengthen its manufacturing, and held its ground on preventing pharmaceutical patent monopolies. Lula’s Brazil accused Western countries of hypocrisy for insisting both on “free trade” with poor countries and farm subsidies for themselves. Brazil even moved in the direction of building an independent arms industry.

Contradictions remained: The Workers’ Party government sent Brazilian troops to command the UN force that enacted the U.S.-impelled occupation of Haiti—treating the world to the spectacle of the biggest, wealthiest country in the region helping the U.S. destroy the sovereignty of the poorest as part of its foreign policy. But in those years Brazil refused to renounce its alliance with Venezuela’s even more independent-minded government under Hugo Chavez; it defended ideas of South-South cooperation, especially within Latin America, and it made space for movements like the Landless Peasants’ Movement (MST).

But after more than a decade of Workers’ Party rule, what happened? President Rousseff was overthrown in a coup in 2016. When polls showed that Lula would have won the post-coup election, he was imprisoned to prevent him from running. And so with the Workers’ Party neutralized, Brazil elected Jair Bolsonaro, a man who famously saluted the American flag and chanted “USA” while on campaign (imagine an American leader saluting the Brazilian flag during a presidential campaign). No doubt the coup and the imprisonment of Lula were the key to Bolsonaro’s rise, and failings like supporting the coup in Haiti played a role in weakening the pro-independence coalition.

But what about the economy? Are Brazil’s leaders now dragging the economy into the U.S. fold? Or did the Brazilian economy drag the country back into the fold?

Brazil’s economic history and geography have made independence a challenge. Colonial-era elites were interested in using slave labor to produce sugar and export as much of it as possible: The infrastructure of the country was built for commodity extraction. Internal connections, including roads between Brazil’s major cities, have been built only slowly and recently. The various schemes of the left-wing governments of the last decade for South-South economic integration were attempting to turn this huge ship around (not for the first time—there have been previous attempts and previous U.S.-backed coups in Brazil), and to develop the internal market and nurture domestic industries (and those of Brazil’s Latin neighbors).

Yesterday’s dependent economy was based on sugar export—today’s is based on mining extraction. When Bolsonaro was elected, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation quickly posted a story speculating on how the new government would be good for Canadian mining companies. The new Brazilian president plans to cut down huge swaths of the Amazon rainforest. Brazil is to return to its traditional role of providing natural resources to the U.S. and to the other rich countries.

A smaller country with a stronger pro-independence leadership, Venezuela faced similar structural economic problems that have imperiled and nearly derailed the independent-minded late president Hugo Chavez’s dream that Venezuelans would learn to eat arepas instead of hamburgers and play with Simon Bolivar dolls instead of Superman ones. There, too, the pro-independence project had a long-term goal of overcoming the country’s dependence on a single finite commodity (oil), diversifying its agricultural base and internal markets. And there, too, the challenge of doing so proved too great for the moment, especially in the face of an elite at least as ruthless as Brazil’s and nearly two decades of vindictive, pro regime-change U.S. policy. Today Venezuela’s “Bolivarian project” is in crisis, along with its economy and political system.

There are other sleeping giants that remain asleep, perhaps for economic reasons. In the face of relentless insults by Trump, the Mexican electorate chose a left-wing government (Mexicans have elected left-wing governments many times in the past few decades, but elections have been stolen). But locked into NAFTA, dependent on the U.S. market, Mexico also would seem to have little option but to swallow Trump’s malevolence.

Egypt is the Brazil of the Middle East. With 100 million people and a GDP of $1.4 trillion, the country that was for a few thousand years the center of civilization attempted in the 20th century to claim what is arguably its rightful place at the center of the Arab world. But today, this giant and former leader of the nonaligned movement is helping Israel and the U.S. starve and besiege the Palestinians in Gaza and helping Saudi Arabia and the U.S. starve and blockade the people of Yemen.

Egypt stopped challenging the U.S. in the 1970s after a peace deal brought it into the fold for good. Exhaustion from two wars with Israel were cited as the main cause—though a proxy war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen and several domestic factors also played a role. But here, too, is there a hidden economic story?

Egypt has oil, but its production is small—on the order of 650,000 barrels a day compared to Saudi Arabia’s 10 million barrels, or the UAE’s 2.9 million. It has a big tourist industry that brings in important foreign exchange. But for those who might dream of an independent Egypt, the country’s biggest problem is its agricultural sector: It produces millions of tons of wheat and corn, but less than half of what it needs. As told in the classic book Merchants of Grain, the politics of U.S. grain companies have quietly helped feed its power politics all over the world. Most of Egypt’s imported grain comes from the U.S. As climate change and desertification wreak havoc on the dry agricultural ecosystems of the planet, Egypt’s grain dependence is likely to get worse.

The structures of the global economy present challenges to any country or political party that wants to try to break out of U.S. hegemony. Even for countries as big and with as much potential as Brazil or Egypt, countries that have experienced waves of relative independence, the inertia of these economic structures helps send them back into old patterns of extraction and debt. In this moment of right-wing resurgence it is hard to imagine political movements arising with plans to push off the weight of the economic past. But that weight cannot be ignored.

This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Lessons from Ed Herman’s Lifelong War against Lies

The story goes that Einstein’s theory of relativity began with a simple question: What if a person could sit on a beam of light? A single inquiry led to an entire field of study, and perhaps the world’s most famous scientific breakthrough.

The late Ed Herman’s questions were less playful. They were about war and death, lies and power politics, but they too created entire areas of study. If properly considered, they can even guide us through the perilous age in which we’re living.

Herman is best known for co-authoring Noam Chomsky’s iconic Manufacturing Consent, which explores how U.S. corporate media operates as a system of disinformation. Written during the Cold War, the book challenged readers who understood propaganda to be a tool of the Soviet Union. How could a diverse industry without official censors to monitor what it published or aired, that was neither owned nor controlled by the state, be used for social control? Quite easily, as it turns out.

The world offers an almost infinite array of events that can be covered, and media insitutions must decide what’s most relevant to their audiences. In other words, they operate as an information filter. But how do they provide their viewers, listeners and readers with the best possible understanding of the world? Ideally, these institutions produce the kind of coverage necessary to make informed decisions about public policy. In reality, Chomsky and Herman discovered, they serve the interests of the rich and powerful.

In their propaganda model, the pair identified five distinct filters: Media ownership, which is concentrated in the hands of a few spectacularly wealthy corporations; ideology, specifically anti-communism, which “helps mobilize the populace against… anybody advocating policies that threaten property interests or support accommodation with Communist states and radicalism”; advertising, or the selling of audiences to advertisers, which can lead to any number of distortions and misconceptions; official sourcing, which often leads to self-censorship as media outlets become dependent on their access to members of the government; and finally organized flak, which allows lobbies to lean on journalists and outlets who deviate from the status quo.

Manufacturing Consent remains as vital today as it was when it first published in 1988. Anti-communism continues to dominate our discourse, even in the absence of a Soviet Union or communist China, while several prominent media personalities have made their careers decrying “leftist ideologues.” Media ownership has become even more exclusive, and the advertising model has overtaken the whole of society by way of Google and social media. Twitter mobs can be manufactured and mobilized; organized flak is now a matter of life and death.

Not only did Herman ask the kinds of questions that produced one of social science’s most compelling theories, but he served as a model of rigor for media critics across the political spectrum. The 1988 edition of Manufacturing Consent ran 330 pages (including appendices), 63 pages of which were endnotes. Its voluminously documented cases were always supplemented by quantitative analysis: the amount of coverage devoted to so-called enemies of the state was inversely proportional to that of crimes committed by the U.S. and its allies. This method can be applied to virtually any line of journalistic inquiry, be it war, economic crisis or a political dispute on campus.

Herman’s priorities were radical, aimed at stopping or preventing the most heinous forms of violence by exposing the media biases that facilitated them. Herman and Chomsky revealed as much in the preface to Manufacturing Consent: “It would have been very difficult for the Guatemalan government to murder tens of thousands over the past decade if the U.S. press had provided the kind of coverage they gave to the difficulties of Andrei Sakharov or the murder of Jerzy Popieluszko in Poland. It would have been impossible to wage a brutal war against South Vietnam and the rest of indochina… if the media had not rallied to the cause, potraying murderous aggression as a defense of freedom.”

Finally, Herman was relentless in his pursuit of a cause he deemed just. “Trolling” has many definitions, but when it comes to politics, it can most aptly be described as the use of bad-faith tactics to demoralize one’s opponent. Having devoted his life to exposing the consequences of media manipulation, Herman was immune to this mode of communication. He threw himself into intellectual debates with little regard for social taboos, and he gave it as well as he took it. (I learned this firsthand when he published a withering rebuttal to my review of the BBC 2 documentary, “Rwanda’s Untold Story.”)

In The Politics of Genocide, which he co-authored with David Peterson, Herman argued that Western media used the term “genocide” to quash debate about foreign policy, specifically NATO’s efforts to dismantle Yugoslavia, and the joint support of the United States and Britain for Rwandan dictator Paul Kagame. He was immediately labeled a “genocide denier.” More recently, in its obituary for Herman, the New York Times accused Manufacturing Consent of “having soft-pedaled evidence of genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, and, during the Bosnia war, Srebrenica.” FAIR and other outlets were quick to point out that the book was published years before two of the conflicts, and the obit was corrected.

The zeal with which these outlets tried to smear Herman’s name could have made a case study for Herman himself. Knowing Herman, the study would have been carefully modeled, meticulously conducted, and revealing in its conclusions about the mainstream media. American readers would have gained a fresh understanding of their country’s propaganda system, not only how it works but how they can subvert it.

Published Feb 15/18 on AlterNet as: What Can Noam Chomsky’s Co-Author Teach Us in the Age of Trump?

podur.org in 2013

Since it’s the last day of 2013, I thought I would look over what I did this year. I spent half the year in India, so I have a fair bit of India content here. I also started the Ossington Circle this year, which has been fun. I am not including short blogs in this list, just longer articles and videos.

You’ll see 7 articles, 3 book reviews, 8 interviews (4 of which are video interviews), 2 lecture videos, and 2 mini-documentary videos.

January 17, 2013: A review of Douglas Bland’s 2009 book, Uprising, about a fictional indigenous uprising in Canada – I compared it to the real Idle No More.

January 31, 2013: The Delhi Rape and the Struggle for Space I argue that a big part of misogyny is trying to drive women out of public space.

February 21, 2013: Can 1.7 Billion Dollars Imagine Wrong? I review a book about India’s politics by Nandan Nilekani, one of India’s billionaires.

March 5, 2013: Hugo Chavez, Presente A little lament for Hugo Chavez, who I admired.

March 28, 2013: Why the Taliban is unlikely to win My assessment of Afghanistan’s near future based on a trip I took there from Delhi in March.

April 3, 2013: To Break a Siege A review of Nirmalangshu Mukherji’s book about the war in Chhattisgarh.

April 20, 2013: The Bastar Land Grab An interview with Sudha Bharadwaj, an activist from Chhattisgarh.

May 3, 2013: Evicting the Gandhians An interview with Gandhian activist Himanshu Kumar, who was evicted from his ashram, which was bulldozed by the state, in Chhattisgarh.

May 27, 2013: Eleven things India must change in Kashmir I examine what a rights-based approach, as opposed to a solutions-based approach, would look like in Kashmir, borrowing from the Palestine BDS movement.

June 11, 2013: India: Struggle for Indigenous Autonomy A short documentary about Chhattisgarh’s indigenous struggle

June 24, 2013: Waiting for 2014 in AfghanistanA short documentary about Afghanistan’s travails

July 3, 2013: Austerity and Resistance an interview with OCAP’s John Clarke for the Ossington Circle talk show

July 6, 2013: Kashmir: the fruits of isolation I argue that India’s policy has brought about the opposite of what it says it wants.

July 14, 2013: A generation-long war an interview with Jon Elmer for the Ossington Circle talk show

July 17, 2013: The Zimmerman Verdict and MMA My reaction to the politicized, simplistic, and self-serving martial arts analysis of the so-called ground and pound “technique” used by the defense in the Zimmerman trial.

August 4, 2013: Architecture, Occupation, and Resistance an interview with Suzy Harris-Brandts for the Ossington Circle talk show

October 19, 2013: Free, Tarek and John A summary of the efforts to get Tarek Loubani and John Greyson out of Egyptian jail.

October 28, 2013: The future of India’s conflict zones A lecture on India’s Kashmir and Chhattisgarh conflict zones, both of which I visited in 2013.

November 11, 2013: Public action and a lifeline for rural workers an interview with Jean Dreze.

November 23, 2013: Afghanistan: Perils and Possibilities A lecture on Afghanistan at the Toronto Public Library.

December 29, 2013: The Therapy Industry An interview with author Paul Moloney for the Ossington Circle talk show.

The deities we create

Published by The Hindu, Nov 6 2010.

I recall remarking once to a colleague that if we as citizens were given a choice of belonging only to one or the other theocratic state, my vote would be for a Hindu Rashtra.

And for the simple reason that whereas a Christian or Islamic State would give me no more than a handful of holidays a year, a Hindu Rashtra would give me many more. Indeed, the Hindu archive being chokeful of gods and goddesses, even a full working year may not do justice to them all.

Continue reading “The deities we create”

Badri’s Poems

[Collected here are some of Badri’s poems]

September 30, 2011

Crossing the Line

Sardar Montek Singh Ahluwalia,
He plan my poverty;
Suddenly I am a rich man,
For my income is thirty three.

Having crossed the line by a whole Rupee,
I now have more and more;
I see around my jhuggi things
I never could see before.

That magic buck floats angelic
Beyond my penury;
The thirty two upon the ground
Reach up for the Christmas tree.

The knowledge that this extra buck
Puts me among the haves,
Makes me feel I needed not
The sumptuous fishes and loaves

Continue reading “Badri’s Poems”