Don’t Believe Your Eyes — Part I
The article posted on this site a few months back, ‘Can’t You See How They See?’ is all about interpreting the complexity of the world, how one can understand people in their environment, and what inference or meaning can be made from a given glance. Contrarily, this series of articles is going to explore why, in this day and age, it might not be such a good idea to believe your own eyes — or, at least: your immediate appraisal. Careful consideration is now more and more necessary.
What can we know? Seventeenth Century philosopher, Rene Descartes, came up with a neat little quip in attempts to answer this very question. ‘Cogito ergo sum’: I think. Therefore, I am. Cute. But, does simply thinking really cut it in the mass media paradigm we find ourselves lost in four centuries later? With the infinitely dense webs of data we are entrenched within, which are accessible to billions, essentially instantaneously.
How do you think? About what? Who’s your source? What’s your political leaning? Your cultural background? Your sexual orientation? Do you have a vested interest?
We are no longer defined simply by how we think, but by the endless influences we are subjected to from countless sources outside of ourselves. I think. Therefore I am. More like: I think. Therefore I am… capable of being coerced into thinking what others want me to.
In the above-board, traditional business arena, there is currently somewhere in the region of 15 billion US dollars spent on Public Relations every year globally(1). The money state agencies invest in PR is unknown, but certainly far exceeds 15 billion.
‘What is Public Relations?’ some might ask. How I understand it is: as a means of managing the perception of sections of the public in order to present or alter certain impressions of an individual, group, company, product, or whatever else one is trying to sell, promote, popularise, defame, or slander. It is all about manipulating public opinion.
This text is the first part of a set which will highlight some of the strategies used by private and state interests to further their aims in ways that are not well-known to the general public, which I feel are vital for the average person to be aware of in order to be capable of better understanding how the world is currently run.
Literal astroturf is fake, synthetic grass. Real, living grass is rhizomic in nature, which means it exists in a network which is decentred, as each piece of grass has its own root- system. The individual – for want of a better word – leaves of grass are part of a greater whole, but can be separated from the other nodes in the network and still live, grow, and flourish independent from that network; kind of like human beings. Astroturf is made to look like real grass, but is essentially just a carpet of strands of plastic which are all interconnected as a part of the same lump of synthetic material; like actors which exist only as part of an inorganic campaign.
In PR terms, ‘astroturfing’ is when inorganic support for an issue, cause, product, whatever is created in such a way if to appear as though it is organic grassroots support. So, for example: a PR firm who worked with tobacco company Philip Morris, Burson-Marstellar, once created a group called The National Smokers Alliance (NSA) with the express purpose of influencing public opinion in attempts to counter developing legislation.
This legislation was being pieced-together by the US Federal government, and would ban smoking in certain public places, negatively affecting Philip Morris’ bottom-line. The NSA fought tooth-and-nail against the proposed legislation. Spreading a pro-smoking message throughout the US, and seeming to have members in the millions, this group had measurable success — until it was eventually revealed as a sham-organisation, created by Burson- Marstellar, and paid for by Philip Morris(2).
Other notable examples can be seen with GMO-pushing ag. tech giant Monsanto(3)(4), &Walmart(5). Astroturf campaigns are being carried-out by means of dozens/hundreds/ thousands of agents of an agenda writing letters, operating multiple social media accounts (each), telephone banks. These operations include specialised field officers and ‘expert’ representatives. Firms are capable of generating thousands of pieces of mail and/or telephone calls directed toward the offices of key politicians, as well as forum/social media posts added to the conversation online, which creates the impression that there is widespread public support for their client’s position.
State bodies and intelligence agencies, too, utilise astroturfing for the sake of manipulating public discourse, and are at least as complicit in the growing use, spread, and popularity of these insidious tactics. Nowhere is this more prevalent than on the internet(6). This is not an unhealthy strategy only due to its end: to deceive people — which is inherently problematic. The internet has, as a result, become much less a place to learn without interference, and is instead developing into a highly controlled medium used, by those with the resources, for information dissemination campaigns. The internet is no longer the bastion of freely- flowing unbiased information that it once was.
The web used to be a place where one could seek refuge from corporate-sponsor spin which so limits and defines the ‘dinosaur media’ (television, radio, newspapers and magazines). As someone who left school at 15, and essentially educated myself through reading books and the surfing the web, I perceive a lot to have changed over the past two decades. I see the pouring-in of funding, and attempts to censor and control online discussion as beyond toxic. It is literally retarding the collective psyche of the species.
It is not simply the agenda-pushing that is so abhorrent, but the want to control even how issues are discussed, or the extent to which discussion is allowed. The MO nowadays is not simply to present more, and better, information, to win arguments with reason, logic, and evidence. But, to have legions of trolls at your beck and call to disrupt rational discussion by ‘cheerleading’, engaging in ‘non-argumentative praise or suggestion’, or any number of many other cunning linguistic tricks.
In one study: “Of the posts the researchers analysed, 80 percent were labeled “cheerleading,” and 13 percent “non-argumentative praise or suggestions.””(7)
What we are dealing with is far creepier and more insidious than monied-interests simply seeding ideas to promote or decry a given product, individual, idea, or position. The planned, coordinated, intentional unwillingness of these troll armies to engage in online debate directly interferes with the development of the critical faculty of the species. This directly hampers the potential intellectual development of the internet-using public.
It is not only the ‘non-argumentative praise’, and ‘cheerleading’ that we must be concerned with retarding public discourse, but the well-practiced defamation and personal attack strategies that are now so common.(8) Intelligence agencies, such as British GCHQ, even have special units devoted to this very particular genre of warfare. The GCHQ is referred to as ‘JTRIG’ (The Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group). Such units specialise in the collection data, and use an endless variety of ‘dirty tricks’ to quell online descent and discussion. Their aims are to confuse, to attack, to defame, to damage reputation, even to the extent that lives are ruined — and to analyse and collect data surrounding their efforts. Leaked documents show in detail how this is achieved(9).
The facts of the matter shed an unwelcome light on the heart of darkness at the centre of the internet information control paradigm. I myself learned how to argue and refine arguments largely by engaging in online disagreement with people whose views I opposed. The power genuine, honest argumentation between individuals grants those taking-part, by helping them learn how to refine and develop their own thoughts and beliefs over time, is one of the most meaningful ways a person can develop their critical faculty in the age of the internet.
In the days when YouTube was an open, independent media platform, the internet was a place where people who disagreed would figure-out who had the strongest, most well- reasoned and heavily substantiated points of view by engaging in sporting arguments. Now, ideological cheerleading, as well as ungrounded accusations and personal attacks directed toward anyone who is engaged in wrongthink, define the conversations taking place(10)(11). This is done to stifle productive analysis of the facts of the matter, to confuse readers and participants, and to prevent meaningful conversations from even being able to take place.
It is dizzying to read into all the innumerable ways online discourse can be manipulated. Lesser-known means, which exist as elements of the greater category of astroturfing, are things like: Topic Dilution, which, by implementing continual and non-related postings which distract and disrupt readers, they are more effectively stopped from doing anything which constitutes real productivity(12); or, the ol’ Forum-Slide, where important comments are phased-out of view by a glut of meaningless comments that are posted above one particular problematic comment, post, or thread of comments, in order to push it down the page, and out of view of the cursory glances many will give to discussion sections on sites like Reddit and Voat.
We are in the midst of an information war. There are a countless techniques used specifically to retard online conversation and stifle learning(13). It is tragic that the facts of the matter are not more widely-known. People are oblivious to the reality that they are so subject to all of this trickery. And, I will make the case, it is having a negative impact on the development of the species at large.
The mass disinformation campaigns being conducted are dissimulating this species into a contemptuous stupor where people are less and less capable of engaging in meaningful discussion, are reacting and thinking emotionally, and are willing to attack anyone who disagrees with them on a personal level.
End of Part I.