Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Distraction, Deception, Division

"I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace. And propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans using it so what I did was to try and find some other words, so we found the words 'Council on Public Relations'." - Edward Bernays

"Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban" - George Orwell

Any serious attempt to build a just and successful society must first take into account the myriad contradictions, flaws and biases intrinsic to human nature. Humans are capable of potentially anything, including acts of great good or evil. It is known that giving any human great power is potentially disastrous, just as it is also known that humans voluntarily support policies that do not benefit them, even those that damage them, while the list of cognitive biases all possess to some degree goes on seemingly forever.

In an era when democracy has been entirely subverted for use by major banks and corporations, literally billions of people are either ignorant of this fact, or they passively accept that they are serfs, useful only as workers, consumers or both.

Yet this ignorance and passivity can not be explained simply by the cognitive biases and flaws in human nature. It stems instead from a conscious and concerted campaign, the nature of which is described in this informative 35-minute documentary on the history of propaganda and its proponents. [Note: Please take the time to watch this]. It describes how experts on human psychology and propaganda techniques have actively aided governments and other agencies in taking advantage of the dynamics of social contagion and conformity to bring about desired results, most notably mass public support (or indifference) to the continuation of the status quo, one which not at all coincidentally benefits only the richest and most powerful.

When one takes a closer look at the many layers of misdirection that lie between the worldview of the average citizen and what is actually happening in the world, it is not difficult to appreciate why there are almost no people actively fighting; why the streets are not full of furious people surrounding Parliament, setting up gibbets and guillotines after each new outrageous act of corruption and deceit perpetrated with impunity by the very people we vote for as well as their bosses: the ones who fund the political parties and make donations to campaigns.

Indeed most never get past the very first layer: distraction. There are four major types of distractions, situations and events that ensure attention is focused not on the looting of our societies but on other 'stuff':

1. Unavoidable factors: The everyday things that affect us personally and can't easily be avoided like illness, old age, obligations toward family and kids, or simple survival from day to day, which requires time spent shopping, cooking and cleaning. Most of us have to work, and this takes up a great deal more of our time, while mortgages and other debts ensure that we have to keep working. Further, when one comes home tired from work, enthusiasm for any activity other than leisure is extremely low.

2. Perceived positive factors: Most people have interests or hobbies, and while many can be extremely rewarding and enjoyable, these also serve to take up yet more of our time. Major distractions in this area are computer games, music, television, movies and sport, especially football (both varieties), baseball and the Olympics. One need only take to Twitter to find various sport-related topics endlessly trending even after only minor controversies. Sport is an especially powerful distraction in that not only is it viewed throughout society in a positive way, people can get heavily involved in it personally, whether as an athlete or a fan. And it works: millions of people spend literally months of their lives reading and talking about sporting trivia.

3. Society factors: Social media is an enormous boon for activism, and is in no small part responsible for the mass awakening to corporate crimes and corruption. However, it is used by the overwhelming majority for time-wasting: exchanging pictures of cute animals, doing pointless quizzes on sites like Buzzfeed, and engaging in banal, inane conversation with others who have nothing else to do. [See the extent of 'pointless babble' on Twitter here.] Here all forms of media also contribute with waves of celebrity gossip, manufactured controversy and other drivel designed to simultaneously maximize the number of website hits and deflect attention from issues that citizens actually need to know about. Political leaders themselves here serve as a focus of public anger and outrage, with hordes of people screaming obscenities at David Cameron or whoever else is the villain of the hour, in the full knowledge that this is indeed one of their roles: to misdirect public hostility away from the true enemy.

4. Escape factors: Drugs (prescribed, legal and illegal) are common ways of escaping the depressing realities of life, and their side effects do much to keep people distracted. Other forms of escape involve overdoing things and may even be destructive: food, shopping, gambling, sex and so on.

As if these factors, which affect everyone to a significant degree, were not enough, we also have to deal with deception on a massive scale.

At all levels of society and in more ways than can be counted citizens are bombarded with lies. Politicians make promises before elections and go on to do the precise opposite once safely ensconced; teachers fail to inform you of the past crimes of your nation; and parents feed you all kinds of nonsense as they seek to protect you. Ads tell you that the product being hawked is somehow essential for your continued existence; celebrities say and do things that sponsors and PR handlers tell them to: like endorsing health or diet products that you don't actually need. Most are well aware of this more direct form of deception yet remain susceptible, particularly to marketing and advertising techniques.

A most insidious and damaging form of deception is achieved through the utilization and deployment of fear. Professors George Gerbner and Larry Gross of the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s researched the effect of television on viewers in the United States in the belief that in the few decades since its appearance and mass acceptance the medium had come to wield a power over humanity comparable to that of religion.

They developed a hypothesis known as Cultivation Theory and found through their research that over time the perception of reality of heavy, long-term viewers is subtly changed, eventually coming to closely resemble the televised version. Crucially, it was found that the more often such viewers were told or shown something, the greater significance they attached to it. Conversely, issues rarely or never encountered on television were attached relatively little or no importance in comparison.

These findings have far-reaching consequences. As TV delivery has become more and more violent and dramatic, heavy viewers tend to see the world as a more dangerous place than it actually is, particularly with regard to personal safety. Gerbner labelled this 'Mean World Syndrome', and found that affected people tended to believe, for instance, that violent crime was prevalent even if it was falling, and that they felt more likely to be a victim of a crime. Gerbner et al. developed a Mean World Index, which comprises three statements:

Most people are just looking out for themselves.

You can't be too careful in dealing with people.

Most people would take advantage of you if they got the chance.


In the real world, as anyone who has met people outside their default social circle will tell you, by and large the opposite is true as long as you treat others with politeness and respect.

These findings can be extended beyond the realm of fear and television. If a narrative is adopted, repeated and reinforced throughout various media, this can only cement the perceptual reality adopted through the distorting lens of the mass media.

As the overwhelming majority of media is owned by corporations, a narrative that serves the purposes of such entities and their proxies can be hammered home literally twenty-four hours a day (with lashings of celebrity and other manufactured distraction for both starter and dessert).

As discussed, Cultivation Theory shows that the greatest significance is attached to issues that are most relentlessly repeated, and that the converse is also true. No surprise then that, to cite a recent example, the British public is woefully ignorant of the reality of...well, pretty much everything:

From the article:

Teenage pregnancy: on average, we think teenage pregnancy is 25 times higher than official estimates: we think that 15% of girls under 16 get pregnant each year, when official figures suggest it is around 0.6%.

Foreign aid: 26% of people think foreign aid is one of the top 2-3 items government spends most money on, when it actually made up 1.1% of expenditure (£7.9bn) in the 2011/12 financial year. More people select this as a top item of expenditure than pensions (which cost nearly ten times as much, £74bn) and education in the UK (£51.5bn).

Benefit fraud: people estimate that 34 times more benefit money is claimed fraudulently than official estimates: the public think that £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is claimed fraudulently, compared with official estimates of £0.70 per £100.

[Aside: the linked article contains a lot of other useful information and links].

Those who believe it is a conspiracy theory to suggest that there is a corporate media agenda to frame a narrative that serves corporate interests need to ask themselves why every single massively skewed perception held by the public works to the advantage of those who wish to promote condemnation of the poor and those eligible for benefits (like single mothers); why it serves to enhance public support for the break-up of state services, which are then handed out to private corporations, especially generous donors to political campaigns and party coffers. One or two skewed perceptions? Maybe. Every single one? Something is wrong. And when you know that the mass media is overwhelmingly owned by corporations who benefit in one way or another...that's an agenda right there.

Conspiracy theories are not even required. By an unhappy coincidence, the very system that creates this mass distraction and confusion relies on keeping consumers engaged via an endless stream of manufactured ever-increasing drama, shock, scandal and crisis in order to drive up ratings and clicks and increase potential advertising revenue. Employees of media entities, in order to keep getting that monthly salary, need in almost every case (with a few honourable exceptions) to tow the editorial line, churning out wave upon wave of what is often pointless nonsense, even in the so-called serious press.

Within media bodies that consider themselves serious analysts of national and global affairs like the BBC and CNN and newspapers like the New York Times and the Guardian, narratives are adopted (on Syria, for example, as explained by Media Lens) that benefit the interests of their owners and - by extension - the (actions of) national governments 'elected' with their funding. This can apply to any field, including foreign policy. War, for example, is desirable for large corporations in that it drives up clicks and viewership for the media; creates heightened fear and hence greater public support for more draconian surveillance measures or reduction of civil liberties; and obviously benefits the arms companies. It further provides opportunities to test new military equipment while simultaneously extending Western hegemony and neoliberal economic ideology more and more deeply into resistant areas (currently Ukraine, Syria, Iran and Venezuela among others in varying forms).

The employees of these bodies also, in the main, come in various shapes and sizes, from outright apologists for corporate interests to servile careerists desperate to associate themselves with the denizens of the halls of power. When faced with any threat to establishment narratives, the questions and challenges to the threat literally write themselves, with all corporate media journalists well aware that any major digression from the establishment line may result in waves of derision and condemnation from peers, potentially damaging chances for career advancement.

Consider the case of BBC Hardtalk presenter Stephen Sackur when faced with uber-threat Glenn Greenwald who - via the disclosures of Edward Snowden - is aggressively engaged in removing the petticoats of power one by one with seemingly a new NSA/GCHQ codename every week. Sackur, knowing full well he was facing the establishment's version of the antichrist, knew he had to put on a show, to ask questions that made it clear that the establishment utterly condemns this upstart 'stealing' and publishing secrets and hence greatly damaging the fight against terrorism etc. At the same time, from a personal point of view, Mr Sackur needed, in order to protect his own standing and career within the establishment media, to make it very clear on which side he stood.

The result is a train wreck that is well worth watching. Sackur's unashamedly establishment line, loaded terminology and weak arguments are pulled apart with contemptuous ease by a journalist who has demonstrated on multiple occasions his disdain for double standards in MSM reporting. Informed viewers will come away feeling vindicated. Less informed ones, the large majority who have mostly swallowed the establishment implication that Greenwald and Snowden are easing the facilitation of terrorist plots, may or may not have been turned off by Greenwald's combative style. And the BBC gets away with yet another dose of establishment disapproval.

And this disapproval is important as it plays into cognitive biases like the bandwagon effect, confirmation bias and system justification, which all serve to increase the likelihood that the view of a person will have been distorted by the media's skewing of reality...

...Leading to the most dangerous way people are kept lost, distracted and confused: The War on Community. Divide and rule may indeed be the oldest trick in the book, but that's because it works. It is not much of an exaggeration to say every single injustice on Earth ultimately comes from the idea that some humans (or groups of humans) are perceived to have or portrayed as having more value than others. The concept of equality of value of human life is fundamental to human rights laws and democracy; it is Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And it has been ripped to pieces by relentless division via manufactured conflict in every single area of life throughout our education systems and media.

Religion, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, rank, occupation, you name it - all serve to conceal the fundamental truth that we are all equal in value; that we differ only in cultural background and other environmental factors - cosmetic concerns against the fundamental truth of our shared humanity. The purpose of this division is clear: to ensure people are less able to organize as a community or unify effectively against those who rule them. To cite an example, demonization of the poor makes it more palatable to the middle classes when vital benefits are stopped, as they have been in the UK under the coalition government, leading demonstrably to the wholly unnecessary deaths of those found 'fit to work'.

What can we do about this assault on human dignity and unity? The very first thing is to educate oneself and others about how people are led around by the nose by entities with the huge resources necessary to do the job on the scale required. Then one must take the major step of abandoning the corporate media completely and instead focusing attention on the 'truthtellers': independent or freelance news sources. Find out who they are, share their work as widely as you can, and give them encouragement and support.

Most vitally, they can be trusted not to mislead you because they are judged only on their honesty and record; they know that any attempt to lie or mislead will lead to readers abandoning them, something paid journalists are less concerned about because, unless they really mess things up for their employers, they know they will always get their pay check.

And do not only give them moral support. Many truthtellers are independent journalists, bloggers or activists forced to give up their limited free time after work and other obligations. Unlike the big-name journalists who are contributing to the debacle described in this article with their apathy, their servile submission to corporate power, and their wilful denial of the deadly fruits of their journalistic failure...unlike these people, many truthtellers write or act with no financial reward whatsoever.

If you really appreciate what these independents do for you, reward them financially, even if it is just a bit of loose change. Calculate how much money you currently give to corporate media, to Rupert Murdoch and his ilk with Sky etc. - the very entities that are lying to you and causing this mess. If you're British, get rid of the TV so you no longer have to fund the establishment-serving BBC. You can even boycott the products advertized on the channels you have been watching. Calculate how much you spend in total and give that money instead to the 'truthtellers' of your choice, the ones who survive only on donations and refuse to run corporate ads.

In this way, not only do you reward the right people and make it more likely that other like-minded, talented writers or activists will enter the fray, you also starve the corporations of the only two things corporations want from you: your cash and - more vitally - your attention. You will also benefit enormously from living a life suddenly free of television: endless advertising and brainwashing.

This is not to say that corporate-owned media should be abandoned completely: there are good people there whose work should be followed and shared. However, fundamentally changing your default sources of information - making the corporate media a fallback option only, and supporting instead independent, ad-free sources of information may at least begin to tip the scales back toward sanity.

If there is to be any hope of making humans a community again, one where everyone shares the world's resources and helps each other, where the default options are no longer war, misery, inequality and destruction, and where such a suggestion is not sneered at dismissively as a hopelessly naive pipe dream, ordinary citizens must begin to take matters into their own hands in as many ways as they can. One way is to flatly reject the mind control foisted upon almost always unsuspecting news consumers - your family and friends - by entities that have only their own interests at heart.

And those interests - profit, control, entrenchment of power, suppression of democracy and progress - are antithetical to those of you and yours.

Distraction, deception and division are extremely powerful weapons that have been used since the dawn of civilization to keep the masses down; fighting themselves or each other. With so many layers to get past, is it any wonder so few are out on the streets demonstrating? The overwhelming majority are either too distracted (ignorant), deceived or divided to even know the true face of the enemy: trans-global corporate power and its aim of eternal, unchallengable hegemony.

Written by Simon Wood

Twitter: @simonwood11

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