Information Wars

My recent criticism focused on how big political interest groups and influential media outlets often distort narratives in an oversimplified and misleading way. This, I posit, often results in big, sell-able ideas with dire outcomes. For instance, the pledge to never raise tax revenue under any circumstance, and the ideological push to circumvent Government intervention and waste whenever possible, are both - arguably - potentially destructive ideas if not tempered by other points of view. These destructive ideas get more press coverage, not because there is a conspiracy to undermine liberal values, but because it's a sell-able idea, one that a story can be framed upon, and that's really what the business of news is all about.

Based on some of my earlier subjects, we should have a basic understand how the the big National narrative is shaped, constructed and disseminated.

However, there is another, equally destructive force at work, not in the echelons of power but in the ground war of ideas being waged by bloggers and concerned citizen activists. I listen to a lot of call in radio - on multiple corners of the ideological spectrum - and am frustrated by how concerned activists feel they need to conduct themselves in order to be heard. In short, they must subjugate their own capacity for critical thinking in service of a desire to 'bring down the other side.'

Here's a case in point: a frustrated citizen without any major political influence comes up with a theory, based mostly on a simplified media narrative. The solution usually starts with 'Group X is at fault and must be exposed.' The frustrated citizen then spends much of his/her time employing relentless ad hominem attacks against Group X and anyone associated with it. The citizen hopes that with enough 'dirt' dug up on said representative(s) of Group X, the public will suddenly discover the truth and the Group's influence will wan, and the problem they allegedly cause will go away.

Just last night, a caller on a liberal talk radio program - an otherwise rational, educated person who, it was obvious, was trying really hard to seem above her subterfuge - was skulking around a parking lot outside a conservative rally in an effort to photograph bumper stickers in an attempt to smear the cars' owners in some way. All I could think to myself is, what is this ultimately going to accomplish? What's the long view here? Is she hoping for a story that will cascade into the scandal of the decade?

Such activities - doing 'research' in an attempt to connect an individual with some failed policy or controversial organization - are simply not the way to make your case or really educate people on your point of view, if that is your aim. This is a largely fruitless effort which doesn't result resolving ideological differences. It's the informational equivalent of starting a war by firing the first shot, but it does little else.

There is evidence that a certain methodology achieves the short term aims of bringing down figureheads from 'the other side.' It's dodgy, gets press, shifts narratives overnight, and employs illegal activity and lying, but it's hugely effective.

One of the most successful citizen activists in recent history is the vastly underestimated James O'Keefe, an activist/filmmaker who brought down ACORN, an imperfect but hugely important group that provided voting access and education to lower income and minority neighborhoods. O'Keefe also precipitated a scandal at NPR after baiting one of its fundraisers into saying some supremely stupid things. O'Keefe's self professed 'guerrilla theater,' comprised of heavily edited footage from 'sting operations' conducted to trap prominent individuals in embarrassing situations, has been hugely successful at creating media-friendly 'gotcha' moments that usually result in someone being fired, or at very least, resigning. What this actually achieves is debatable, but at best, guerrilla activists aim to bring down politically influential organizations by lessening their credibility and numbers.

The success of people like O'Keefe is not surprising, considering the disintegration of old school journalism over the last twenty years or so. I still remember a time when the most trusted faces in news were anchors like Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings. I remember watching them on the nightly news and feeling an incredible sense of security. Not that newsrooms were perfect - watch the potent, prophetic film 'Network' for an idea of how cynical we'd gotten about our news anchors and personalities even back in 1976 - but I can't shake the feeling that there is less integrity now, that the walls between journalism and sensationalism are more porous than ever.

This desire to 'bring down the other side' is a consequence of warfare - ideological warfare, class warfare, race warfare - and we are, despite what many might tell you, all actively enmeshed in this war of ideas. Witness the success of news blogs, citizen journalists, and the way the opinion section has become the most popular and frequented area of news today. The overused term 'information marketplace' is still apt, but at this point it's devolved into an 'informational Craigslist.' Sources are nebulous, sellers are anonymous, items themselves are of questionable quality, but it's the best, most convenient way to get access.

So, what of the citizen caller creeping around parking lots with a digital camera? What of the limited Government ideologue staging sting operations on prominent figures? What of the blogger, hell-bent on exposing local fallacies in others' arguments, while unintentionally employing a few of her/his own? Fallacies abound in all of these places: they are numerous, they are enmeshed in the daily word wars we are swept up in every day, on Comedy Central, in the opinion section, on Fox News.

The parking lot skulker hopes to associate someone with something nefarious and in turn bring down an empire. The black widow spider with the news reporter's cap lies in wait, hoping a single bad turn of phrase will associate one person's carelessness with the carelessness of the company they're employed by. The Libertarian blogger hopes that by telling you X = Y, since Y = a sometimes, there must be an X = a, and isn't that clever, isn't that a bit funny, because in the war of words it wins a battle, and a semantic battle at that. What does it actually accomplish, other than to humiliate, to show the other side, 'look, I did my research, I'm smarter than you, I'm right, and you should believe me instead.'

In how many scenarios does a logically fallacious case for one point of view result in changing hearts and minds? In my experience, people like this - those who condemn by associating 'X' with 'a,' those who postulate with carefully timed anecdotes as ammunition - are flack in the Information Wars. I have contributed to this flack mightily in the last ten years. I have thrown my hat into the ring on numerous occasions against one cause or the other on spurious evidence. I have been called out on it by people equally guilty as I at doing the same.

At the end of it all, continuous bickering over minutiae and semantics in service of larger ideological issues (like the role of Government, the fight over taxes, and other important issues) can be a huge waste of time. I cannot justify the existence of a discussion that hasn't begun first with the largest, most salient issues and worked its way down to the details.

Citizen activists, bloggers, radio and television personalities, in the echo chamber they live, often start with a broad ideological premise, which they accept without question, to the point where convincing others of its validity is a non-issue. From there, the system of volleying various morsels of logical fallacy, becomes a kind of game, not in service of a broader issue but in service of the reputation of the person disseminating the issue. So, the very system itself is fallacious, and even worse, the whole game is an attempt on behalf of the host, or activist, or columnist, to win credibility.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not preaching this from on high. I am part of the problem. I am not proud of it but I am aware of it, and I am not always sure about how to solve it. I just think that a bit more mindfulness when championing a controversial social or economic issue can lessen the flack. Lessening the flack results in a viewership that is less frustrated and less confused about what's at stake. This is, at least, the intended effect.


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