The power of doubt

One takes a chance describing anything as novel. It may be a cliché to say that there is nothing new under the sun, but such things get to be clichés for a reason – there is an element of truth or wisdom in them. What we do get are new twists on old phenomena or practices. New ways of doing the same old thing. Or the same old thing adapted to a new purpose. The modern understanding of the term ‘propaganda’ is little more than a century old. Borrowed from the Catholic church, the word acquired its political sense during the First World War. Initially, it was not a pejorative term but simply referred to material or information propagated to advance a cause. We can immediately see the commonalities between the words ‘propagate’ and ‘propaganda’.

The word may be relatively new. But the practice surely isn’t. Propaganda is a modern term for something that is as old as politics. And politics is at least as old as civilisation and probably as old as our species. If there is anything new under the sun, it certainly isn’t propaganda. Such novelty as there may be lies, not in the practice, but in its formalisation.

It was almost certainly wartime propaganda which gave the word its negative connotations. There is, after all, no reason why a cause must be honourable or the material and information used to advance a cause necessarily honest and accurate. And if the cause is survival in an armed conflict it is easy to justify production of dishonest material and dissemination of false information.

We should be wary, however, of unthinkingly dismissing propaganda as malign or rejecting its use as reprehensible on account of these negative connotations. Propaganda needn’t only be used to further bad causes. Joseph Goebbels is recognised as one of history’s great propagandists. The methods he developed and deployed served a truly vile ideology. But those same methods can be adapted to benign purposes. We may not be comfortable with the thought that we are promoting our obviously worthy cause using the same basic tools as were used by the Nazis. But we should bear in mind that those tools have been around for millennia and have served many causes, not all of which were as objectionable as that promoted by Herr Goebbels.

That said, a cause my be considered objectionable without it being remotely comparable with Nazi ideology. Although, because it’s all politics, it is always possible to find similarities if you are sufficiently intent on doing so. And sufficiently imaginative. That goes for the form of British Nationalism now gripping English-as-British politics as much as for any other political ideology. It is not particularly difficult to make comparisons between the words and actions of fervid British Nationalists and the work of Joseph Goebbels. But such comparisons are superficial and trivial. Because they can always be made, they can never tell us anything useful about the cause being advanced.

Any situation in which propaganda is being deployed can be made to look ‘evil’ if that is what suits the propaganda purposes of those describing the situation. But ‘evil’ is an empty term. It does not explain. In fact, it is most commonly heard when explanation is being most energetically avoided.

We need explanations. We need understanding. We cannot manage affairs without properly comprehending them. We can only participate effectively in democratic politics to the extent that we are able to see through the fog of propaganda. We can only hope to avoid being manipulated if we have at least some familiarity with the methods used to manipulate us. There may be an argument for teaching the basics of propaganda in schools. Although it might not be deemed socially acceptable to use ‘Goebbels on the Power of Propaganda’ as the text.

We swim in a sea of mediated messages. It makes evident sense that each of us should know as much as possible about the processes involved in mediating those messages. Feel free to slap anyone who derides media studies. Media are only slightly less consequential to our lives than air, food and water. Snorting derisively at the study of media makes about as much sense as dismissing study of the respiratory system. Or poo-pooing study of the digestive system. (Pun unabashedly intended.)

The understanding we need comes from analysis. Dispassionate, objective analysis – if at all possible. It comes from asking the pertinent questions. When politicians speak, we should do more than just listen to the words. We should ask probing questions about what is being said. Why is it being said? Why is it being said at this time and in this manner? Why those words? Why this message? Why this messenger?

How am I supposed to understand the message? How am I supposed to react to it? How am I reacting to it? Why am I reacting to it in this way?

What is the immediate context? What is the wider context? What is the obvious purpose of the message? What is the less obvious purpose?

What is the content of the message? How does that content relate to established facts and reasonable assumptions?

It sounds like a laborious process. But, with some practice, it becomes automatic. It is possible to develop the ability to filter politicians’ words through an analytical mesh almost in real time. At the very least, there is an awareness that the message will have to be filtered through that mesh at some point if it is to be properly understood. That awareness alone is a shield against manipulation.

As I write this, the media sea is thick with the bombastic, bilious utterances of British Nationalist politicians. The contenders for the role of leader of the British Conservative & Unionist Party have been launching their campaigns at the same time as the ‘Queen of the BritNats’, Ruth Davidson’ is desperately trying to keep the crown on her head. Or is it the media desperately trying to keep her in the role to which they appointed her? It’s the kind of parasitical symbiotic relationship where it’s difficult to know who is using who.

My sense of it is that Davidson is regarded by the British establishment as no more than a convenient tool; made all the more convenient by the fact that there really isn’t anybody else available. So, just when it looked like Ruth was about to lose her lustre, another dollop of turd polish was applied and she is back to enjoying a prominence she is no doubt foolish enough to suppose she has earned by her talent and ability rather than her willingness to be exploited.

But what about those utterances? What is that all about? What do we find if we ask the kind of questions referred to earlier? Afforded a platform by the BBC, Davidson said,

If she [Nicola Sturgeon] puts it in a manifesto that she’s going to hold another referendum and she wins a majority outright, then she can negotiate with the UK Government in the same way as happened last time.

But she doesn’t get to just, in the middle of a parliament where she’s lost her majority, get to stick her hand up and say I’m going to re-run this referendum again and again until I get the result I want.

The National

I don’t intend to essay a detailed analysis here. I just want to point out that, whatever the words say, this is propaganda. It is a message crafted for a manipulative purpose. And, like much propaganda, it works on a number of levels.

It is a rallying cry for hard-line Unionists in Scotland. The British parties in Scotland long since abandoned any hope of taking votes from the SNP. They are all now squabbling over that Unionist vote. Increasingly, they are also trying to keep people within the Unionist fold. They recognise that many have started to question the Union, having been given ample cause to do so by Brexit and the general ugliness of British politics. Even formerly committed Unionists are now less convinced of its efficacy. Questions are being asked about how the Union serves Scotland. Questions are being asked about whether the Union serves Scotland at all.

But there is a deeper purpose to this propaganda. And it has to do with doubt. And this is where we find something that at least looks novel.

Old-style tyrants ruled by terrorising those who might might be a threat to their power and status. But terror is both debilitating to a population and expansive to maintain. So, established power now relies on a lower level of fear that keeps the population functioning and which can be maintained at virtually no cost using mass media. Doubt!

People react, often in unpredictable ways, against being made to feel afraid. Especially if it is constant. But they can readily be persuaded to regard doubt as no more than sensible caution. The most effective propaganda is that which gets people to, not only succumb to being manipulated, but actually participate in the manipulation. If the propaganda can work on existing risk aversion to create or amplify doubt, then people can be discouraged from acting in particular ways. At population level, this discouragement is effective power.

Arguably the greatest advance in social engineering came with the realisation that there is no need to make people afraid in order to manage them. You only have to make them uncertain. Stalin would be feeling really stupid right now. But he could take some comfort from the fact that he lacked the essential tool for generating an atmosphere of doubt – the mass media.

(incidentally, but importantly, this atmosphere of doubt fits very nicely with an economic system which derives its energy from insecurity, inequality and imbalance. An economic system powered by precariousness can always use doubt as fuel.)

If we want to see an example of doubt being used to manipulate people we need look no further than ‘Project Fear’. Or ‘Project Doubt’ as it would have been more appropriately dubbed by those engaged in the anti-independence propaganda effort if they had been a bit more thoughtful. The entire exercise was aimed at weaving a suffocating web of exaggerated and irrational doubt using threads spun from reasonable concerns and normal resistance to change. With the willing cooperation and active participation of the mainstream British media, the exercise was successful.

Whereas coercion is defined by the removal of choice, doubt absolutely requires it. There must be two narratives in order that people can be made uncertain about which they can rely on. Counter-intuitively, these narratives don’t have to be particularly distinctive. Look at how difficult it so often is to distinguish between the narratives of the two main British political parties. Look at the confusion this causes. Confusion is the close cousin of doubt.

In the long-term, of course, this doubt and confusion is highly corrosive. It eats away at trust in democratic institutions and processes. We can see this in its current effect on English-as-British politics. But the British political elites are not given to thinking in the long term. As we watch the best and brightest that the British political system has to offer stumbling between soundbites we may feel nostalgic for the days when they used to stagger from crisis to catastrophe. If we are old enough, we even may look back longingly on the dimly remembered time when British politicians’ vision extended as far as the next election.

Ruth Davidson’s job is to provide the framework for an alternative narrative. Up to a pint, it doesn’t really matter what she says. It only matters that the media are able to report it as a competing narrative to be set against whatever the Scottish Government says. Davidson has been imbued by the media with a faux authority precisely so that she can be set against Nicola Sturgeon. Two narratives. Two ‘leaders’. Plenty of scope for the media to manufacture doubt as to which is true or real.

Of course, one of those narratives is almost entirely false. (There has to be a kernel of truth in any well constructed lie.) And one of the leaders is actually a fraud. A fake. A creature built entirely of media hype and a cog in the British state’s propaganda machine. The dishonesty of the narrative and the falsity of the figurehead are things glaringly obvious to most people in Scotland. But that doesn’t matter. The propaganda doesn’t work on the basis of a distinction between true and false, but on the basis of their being a distinction – regardless of what the distinction is or the nature of what lies either side of that distinction. The alternative narrative exists only so that the propagandists, and those who take their cue from them, can say, “But what about this?”.

Cast your mind back again to the 2014 referendum campaign and Better Together. Recall how their narrative involved a series of questions that were cycles through endlessly while responses were ignored by the media and British Nationalist kept repeating that there were no answers. The questions didn’t have to be sensible. All that mattered was that there be questions. Because questions imply doubt. The more so if the response to those questions was an attempt to find an answer that would be deemed acceptable. The diverse and long-winded answered only served to amplify the doubt.

None of this may be new. It almost certainly has parallels in past campaigns. What does seem novel, however, is the intensity of the effort to generate doubt, and the degree to which this effort seems coordinated. But there is one facet of this ‘culture of doubt’ which strikes me as being a recent development. And Ruth Davidson is to be found in this strand of British propaganda as well. I refer to the blurring of the distinction between winners and losers in elections and referendums.

We are all familiar with the massive media effort to portray Davidson as the winner of the 2017 UK general election. If you only read British newspapers or watched the BBC in the days and weeks following the vote, you could be forgiven for thinking the Tories had won the vote in Scotland and that Ruth Davidson was the new First Minister. That is how brazen was the lie and how intense was the effort to sell that lie to the public.

But this has now become a commonplace of what passes for political journalism in the British media. After any poll, their is a narrative which seeks to afford the losers a status equivalent – at least – with that of the winners. At its most effective, this propaganda line can have people actually believing that the losers are the winners and vice versa. Look around social media and you’ll find no shortage of people prepared to insist that the SNP lost that 2017 election, despite the fact that, by every meaningful measure, the SNP came out of the election in exactly the same position as it went in.

But the point here is that this kind of total deception is not necessary. The propaganda is effective even if all it does is produce a small doubt. Because, using mass media, that doubt can translate into the manipulative power by which people are managed.

This form of social management may not be new. But it is kinda scary.

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The British media are lying to you!

Question Time does not bar people from its audience because they have held elected office or are political activists.

There is a selection process to ensure a range of views are heard and last night’s QT audience included supporters of different political parties, including the SNP.

BBC spokesperson

The truth. The partial truth. And anything but the truth.

The British establishment long since mastered the art of prevarication, obfuscation, equivocation and falsification. Its broadcasting arm deploys these as casually as you and I blink. and almost as frequently. The BBC’s response to those protesting the blatant padding of the Question Time audience stands as an object lesson in how to tell a lie without actually saying anything that is untrue.

It is almost certainly true that the makers of the programme do not deliberately exclude from the audience people who have “held elected office or are political activists”. But this is not the substance of the complaint. The purpose of the denial is to create the impression of wild allegations having been made.

Nobody, to the best of my knowledge, has accused the BBC or its agents of barring people on the grounds of their political activism or past political office. The charge is, rather that people seem to have been selected on the basis of their known British Nationalist affiliation. How else to explain the extraordinary number of prominent hard-line Unionists who find their way into the studio?

While the claim that there is no process actively barring people of a certain political persuasion, it is rather noticeable that precious few former or serving SNP politicians are selected.

It is undoubtedly true that there is a “selection process”. And that this process serves to “ensure a range of views are heard”. Again, the denials and assurances divert from the complaint. Yes, it is possible for pro-Independence views to be heard. But they rarely are. Just as it possible for pro-independence politicians and activists to be selected. But they rarely are.

It is not a matter of absolutes, but of balance. The BBC (or its agents) can disprove accusations of exclusion simply by pointing to a lone SNP Councillor in the audience – regardless of whether that individual has been allowed to speak. They can refute allegations that a range of views are not being aired by referring to a solitary pro-independence comment. The question is, how accurately does the programme as a whole reflect the political reality? And the answer has to be, not well. In fact, not at all.

BBC Question Time is propaganda. What it presents to the viewing audience is, not a reflection of the way things actually are, but a contrived impression of the way the British establishment thinks things should be. The way British Nationalists desperately want things to be. And the way an uber-parochial, curiosity deficient, intellectually indolent London-centric media elite suppose things to be.

This grotesque fairground-mirror portrayal of politics is particularly, painfully evident when Question Time ventures into Scotland precisely because the political reality here departs so markedly from the British standard. A contrast that the people of Scotland have much cause to celebrate, even as they deplore the BBC’s evident inability to be honest with them.

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The cornered beast

back_in_boxAbout a month ago I warned that the British political establishment was in the process of ramping up its propaganda campaign against the SNP administration (see below). This wasn’t exactly a bold prediction. As all but the most passive consumers of British media output in Scotland will be aware, Project Fear did not stop after the 2014 referendum. The British state’s campaign of lies, distortion, smears and denigration has become an incessant, ubiquitous background hum to Scottish politics. But it became apparent some weeks ago that the effort to weaken the Scottish Government, delegitimise the Scottish Parliament and undermine confidence in Scotland’s public services was being intensified.

I do not intend to discuss what many will regard as the most obvious evidence of the renewed vigour with which the British political elite is now pursuing those regarded as a threat to the integrity of the British state. The allegations against Alex Salmond are extremely serious, suspiciously timely and dubious for a number of reasons. Suffice it to say that this may be one occasion when the supposed offences turn out to be the least of the story once the whole of that story is told. I would add only that the gluttonous glee with which British politicians and commentators have descended on the affair (see Alex Massie* for a sickening example) betokens their frenzied eagerness to find – or fashion – any stick with which to beat the hated SNP.

Signs of this frenzy are all around us. Just the other day, once respected newspaper The Scotsman carried a story under the headline Call for SNP to investigate Yes groups on Facebook. The piece was a transparently obvious attempt to exploit the ongoing controversy over social media content and to contrive a link between the SNP and current candidate for demonisation, Iran, by way of some questionable Facebook page purporting to support the Yes campaign.

The article is instantly recognisable as a rather clumsy bit of propaganda. Although the fact that the ‘source’ is Murdo Fraser suggests that the failure to distinguish between the SNP and the Yes movement may be a matter of genuine ignorance. It is surpassing easy to believe that Mr Fraser might be dumbly unaware that the SNP has absolutely no authority to “investigate” the Yes movement.

Whether born of knowing malice or just plain stupidity, this is a smear story. It should be treated with appropriate contempt.

As should the latest bit of madness from The Herald‘s David Leask. The gloriously demented headline invites us to Meet the McBots: how Scottish cyber activists try to game Twitter. We are then taken on a mercifully short meander through the garishly surreal fun-house of David Leask’s imagination.

The story revolves around a conspiracy theory conjured by some ‘expert’ with links to some Nato think-tank. According to his ‘research’, the “cyber activists” of the headline – pro-independence Twitter users to the rest of us – have been creating “McBots”, or artificial automated accounts, in order to “game” social media algorithms and get a particular hashtag trending.

attacks_on_snpThe hashtag in question is #DissolveTheUnion. I am familiar with it because, to the best of my knowledge, I am its author. I started using the hashtag some time ago to signify support for the idea of a more assertive approach to the process of restoring Scotland’s independence. Obviously, it has nothing whatever to do with the allegations against Alex Salmond. Although it will be unsurprising to anybody who is even vaguely aware of what is going on in Scottish politics that there is a considerable overlap between the people seeking a sense of urgency in the independence campaign and those commenting on a story involving the man who is regarded as a leading figure in that campaign.

Along come’s Mr Occam with his razor and poor Leasky’s latest bit of daftness is left in shreds on the floor of his comfortably upholstered accommodations. To whatever extent the hashtag #DissolveTheUnion may have trended on Twitter, this can most readily – not to mention rationally – be explained by the sheer number of Yes supporters using it in their perfectly legitimate Twitter accounts.

Expect more such nonsense. And much worse. The British state is a cornered beast. It is very much more dangerous than might be supposed from looking at the puny efforts of David Leask and Murdo Fraser.

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Mind what you read

The first draft of this article was binned because it had turned into a media studies lecture on audience theory and passive versus active consumption of media messages. What I propose instead is to offer a few tips on how to improve your media diet by changing the way you consume the messages that are fed to you.
It seems too obvious to be worth saying that you can improve your media diet by varying it; by seeking out alternative and challenging sources of information. But you can also extract more intellectual nutrition from media messages by consuming them differently.
Always bear in mind that media messages – and here I am principally referring to political material – are presented to you in a particular way for a purpose. That purpose is not necessarily malign or mischievous. But the message is always contrived so as to be understood by the audience in a particular way. The secret to being an active consumer of media messages is to always seek your own understanding. 
There are some very simple tricks which can help. People tend to think of the headline as a means of flagging up what the story is about. It is better to think of it as an insight into the prejudices and intentions of those presenting the message. The headline tells you, not so much what the subject matter is, but how it is intended that you should understand what you are about to read.
The order in which material is presented can also be a powerful way of manipulating the way it is understood by the casual consumer. Those presenting the message know that few people will read beyond the first two or three paragraphs. The stuff they want you to have in your head will always come first. Not least because, even if it isn’t all you read, it will colour your understanding of what comes after.
You can confound any devious intent by the simple expedient of reading the final two or three paragraphs first. In a typical politics article in a unionist newspaper such as The Scotsman, this will usually be the paragraph which begins, “A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said…”. Essentially, it is the bit that the newspaper is obliged to include in order to justify a claim to “balance”.
Another approach is to filter out everything other than the part of the message which can be characterised as  meaningful information. You may be surprised by how little factual content you find, even if you are being generous in your interpretation.
This is part of the process of analytical thinking, which can easily become a habit with a little perseverance. As well as breaking the message down into its component parts and considering how these relate to each other and create meaning, thinking analytically involves questioning everything – including your own assumptions.
Never accept the obvious meaning. But, while seeking your own understanding, beware of creating a meaning which is not justified by the content.
Watch out for weasel words and trigger words. Words and phrases which seek to obfuscate or provoke an emotional reaction. Know them for what they are, and you will be immune to their effects.
Mind the gap! Look for what is missing in the message. What is omitted can be every bit as meaningful as what is included.
Beware the quagmire of statistics! When the message you are presented with is that “nearly half” are against something this is because it is avoiding saying that the majority are in favour.
All of this is intended to provoke thought rather than provide a comprehensive list of rules. The purpose is to encourage a more mindful approach to media messages. To those who would have preferred the media studies lecture I offer both apologies and pity.
This article was originally published in The Grist – #Issue 3.