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Wednesday 20 October 2021

A Proper Gander...

Alice Walker

What would you say if I told you I could manipulate your decisions with a disposable cup? Would you think I was joking?

In fact, it's a true statement. In the last few decades, research on the way we think in everyday situations has been moving at some pace, led by visionaries such as social psychologist Professor John Bargh and Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman, revealing a vast array of influences on our decision-making,  both subtle and profound, of which we were previously unaware.

Their work has been illuminating and shocking in equal measure, and is opening the door to all sorts of deep questions about cognition and influence; about how we internalise and respond to outside influence; about how our assessments can be manipulated; about the true value of eyewitness testimony (spoiler alert; it has none).

These luminaries are working at the bleeding edge of cognition, but the principles they've exposed have, to a lesser degree, been known for millennia, and have been employed by hucksters and bunco artists to fleece the gullible and to exert social and political control over others. Which brings us to our topic du jour; propaganda.

We might think of propaganda as simply advocating for a position, which is exactly what it is, but there are subtleties to propaganda not always immediately obvious until you see them for what they are. Once you see it, though, you can't unsee it.

What motivated this outing is a range of events in recent months on mainstream media, subtle manipulations designed to make you think a certain way.

It will maybe come as something of a surprise to many to learn that modern, formalised propaganda techniques are yet another unexpected Belgian invention, finding their feet in the years around the start of the First World War, later expanded by the Bolsheviks and eventually becoming a primary tool of the Nazis and their master propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

Most propaganda is overt; statements of purpose, open vilification of opposition, etc., but some propaganda is very subtle and considerably more difficult to spot. It's this insidious propaganda I want to look at. 

One of the more overt of these subtle techniques is one of simple association. I employed it in a recent post about racism, where I said the following:

What I did next, though, was very deliberate misdirection, I used a photograph of another group, The Andrews Sisters, an all-white group. This practice is ubiquitous in media, and is always for nefarious purposes. It takes several forms, such as smearing somebody by randomly inserting their image into an oppositional article using well-understood cognitive shortcuts, often without the pictured person having any role in the narrative.

A much less subtle version of this tactic appeared in the Daily Mail in the aftermath of the murder of Tory MP Sir David Amess, penned by Dan Hodges. Here's his tweet:

It's pretty trivial to see what he's done here. While the text at the bottom says 'I don't know why Sir David Amess was killed', the piece leaps straight to the tenor of discourse on the left, drawing a cognitive line in direct contradiction of what he says in the text. He wants you to make the association, and to take away the suggestion Angela Rayner's conference speech is somehow responsible for the death of Amess, because it makes his job of selling the Tories to you so much easier.

It doesn't matter to Dan in the least that this is an obvious lie, just as it doesn't make any difference to those in parliament who've pivoted straight to talking about anonymity online when it was already abundantly apparent online anonymity is also not remotely a factor in this brutal and horrendous act of violence. As long as they've planted a cognitive seed to colour your perceptions, job done.

Let's look at something a little more subtle.

This past summer saw the Euro 2020 football tournament. There was a lot of kerfuffle about the England team 'taking the knee', with both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary referring to it as 'gesture politics'. This is in itself a propaganda technique designed to dismiss the valid concerns of those engaged in the act as somehow trivial. It is, in fact, the embodiment of white supremacy, attempting to shut down or control discourse regarding racism and downplaying it. That's a subject for another outing, though.

Inevitably, while the 'fan' protests and booing about taking the knee, an act designed specifically to respectfully give voice to deep societal concerns about how people of colour are treated and viewed, were quickly diluted and drowned out by the majority, once the team crashed out in the semi-final, there was a wave of racist abuse levelled at black players online. Not entirely incidentally, in the aftermath of the tournament, Twitter conducted a data trawl of accounts suspended in light of racist abuse, and their findings were, to those who've been paying attention, entirely unsurprising, especially when it came to the notion of anonymous users.

We also wanted to better understand the users we had permanently suspended over the course of the tournament. While we have always welcomed the opportunity to hear ideas from partners on what will help, including from within the football community, our data suggests that ID verification would have been unlikely to prevent the abuse from happening - as the accounts we suspended themselves were not anonymous. Of the permanently suspended accounts from the Tournament, 99% of account owners were identifiable.

More importantly for our purpose here, there was also a fair amount of discussion in the press. One such instance was particularly important, and well worth examining.

Staunch activist, anti-racist campaigner and musician Billy Bragg was invited onto Channel 4 to discuss taking the knee, and he was set against Calvin Robinson, a black man. During the course of the discussion, Robinson hit every branch of the white supremacist tree on his fall out of it, erecting all the worn-out tropes about Black Lives Matter being a neo-Marxist, anti-British, anti-family organisation, and smearing the taking of the knee as therefore inherently Marxist, all setting aside, of course, the act of taking the knee was first done under advice from a US veteran to football star Colin Kaepernick, neither of whom has any connection to the organisation or the movement.

The tactic, of course, is perfectly obvious. This is blatant promulgation of white supremacy. One might think a black
man can't be a white supremacist, or racist, but this is silly. If you align with racists, you're a racist. If you align with white supremacists and wheel out all their tropes against people of colour and their allies, you're a white supremacist, regardless of your own pigmentation. The point here is bringing on a black man to argue against a white anti-racist is quite obviously designed to make you think in a certain way; if a black man doesn't see the issue, there can't be an issue, right? I mean, clearly he's got more expertise and experience in these matters than the old white dude, right?

This raises an important point about how we deal with prejudices. In particular, it highlights a phenomenon well-understood by psychologists studying prejudices; internalisation.

We all carry around internalised prejudices. It's difficult not to, not least because many of the more prominent prejudices are societal, literally baked into the way we think as a society. It's easy to think a person of colour can't be racist because, obviously, a member of any demographic isn't going to work against their own demographic, surely? Except they can and do, and it's all because of internalisation of prejudices. They're so deeply embedded within our collective psyche it takes a real effort of will to even recognise them, let alone actively work against them. 

But, of course, then you encounter the notion of a 'useful idiot'.

I want it noted this is not my term, and I have strong objections to it, but they'd take us too far afield.

Properly, a useful idiot is anybody naïve who can be manipulated to evince a cause. Originally levelled at people who could be persuaded to work against their own government, it's become a blanket term to describe people persuaded to work against their own interests in some way. 

Media, by their manipulations of internalised prejudices, make hay of this. It's trivial to see how lining up a black man to argue against an anti-racist cognitively undermines the anti-racist in the mind of the viewer.

The best instances of internalised prejudice and the notion of the useful idiot come from misogyny, the oldest and most ubiquitous of our societal prejudices. Few of us have not, I suspect, encountered an instance of a man caught cheating on his partner and the partner blaming the third party rather than the cheating partner. This is internalised misogyny in defence of the patriarchy, and it's everywhere. 

We see it in the commentary of women (and men) about the appearance of other women or their behaviour toward men. Even going so far as to evaluate their own value by patriarchal metrics. Indeed, misogyny is so internalised we barely even notice it. Propagandists, however, have a field day with it.

Many, many times in recent months, I've seen women, fantastic scientists and gifted sci-commers, effectively dismissed in the press. In one instance I've only heard about but which reflects what I've seen, Dr. Deepti Gurdasani - one of the most truly gifted sci-commers this veteran sci-commer has encountered in very many years, was interviewed for radio about COVID. After the universal litany of Great Barrington Declaration/HART group pseudoscientific talking points were blathered over her calm presentation of the science, and Dr. Gurdasani had cleared the line, the hosts of the show went on to discuss how 'out of touch' she was, and how she didn't understand 'we have to accept risk'. To be clear, Dr. Gurdasani is not unaware of this, but her assessment of what risk is avoidable is far superior to the scientifically illiterate commentariat.

In the aftermath of this, Dr. Gurdasani had stopped doing press completely. I'm pleased to say I chatted briefly with her by email in preparation for this piece, and she's relented somewhat, though she is quite rightly being hugely more selective in who she speaks to. Even this is a huge loss to the public, but entirely understandable. All else aside, if a scientist is being used as a propaganda prop, the science cannot be effectively communicated. It doesn't help, of course, that debate is seen in the public sphere as some sort of sport, with the winner being the person who's right. In fact, the winner is the person who can convince the majority, which rarely has anything to do with being right. Popularity is the largest determinant.

One final example, because it's hugely instructive in the most subtle practices of propaganda in the press. Once again, it involves a scientist and, once again, it's a woman.

Look at the screencaps on the right. What's wrong with this picture? Nothing? Let me lay it out for you, then.

On the left is Professor Devi Sridhar, expert in epidemiology and public health, founding director of the Global Public Health Programme, Rhodes scholar and Chair of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh.

On the right is Professor Angus Dalgleish, professor of oncology, whose expertise in infectious diseases is largely around the immune-driven cancers from HTLV-1, along with identifying the CD4 receptor as a route to HIV infection. He also happens to be a signatory to the asinine and lethal Great Barrington Declaration.

If we were going from the banners alone, one could easily come away with the impression he was the more senior of the two. In fact, on every metric, she's his senior in this sphere. In fact, as Chair of a department, she outranks him academically as well. So why wasn't the title 'Professor' included in her banner?

It's telling that, of four academics on this broadcast, only the woman didn't have her proper title on the banner. Also telling is the fact all the other academics were promulgating the GBD/ HART narrative, exactly as in previous cases. And just in case anybody's wondering whether this was the result of asking about preference, it wasn't, as Professor Sridhar has quite clearly indicated in public since.

This is, in fact, a deliberate tactic and, indeed, it isn't too much of a  stretch to suppose, in light of all of the above, that even inviting female academics to participate is done precisely so this tactic, playing on our internalised misogyny, can be easily employed to colour our thinking about who should be believed.

Misogyny is an enormous problem. I'm sure we've all heard about the infamous practice of sending photographs of bits of anatomy unannounced (though one wonders what thinking is behind the notion you're going to impress a medical professional or medical scientist with the play-at-home version of the last chicken in the shop). Some of the stories I hear from women about the abuse and unwanted contact they receive are quite horrific, and all can be tracked back to these attitudes and the role the press play in promulgating them.

Of course, once we begin to recognise these practices, it becomes impossible not to see them when they appear, which can massively impact their efficacy.

In reality, propaganda of this sort is everywhere, and you'll see it too, if you have a proper gander.

Edited to add: And just as I puled the trigger on this post and went to share it, this...

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