The Voice of the System

Power corrupts. Power concedes nothing. Power tells itself just-so stories.

Nick Clegg photo

On the latter front, consider the corporate memo just published by The New York Times. Written by Sir Nick Clegg, Facebook’s VP of public policy and global affairs, this instructional missive was apparently just issued to all Facebook employees in anticipation of still more revelations about what it’s like to make profits by knowingly exploiting and damaging the general public.

Sir Nick begins with realism:

You will have seen the series of articles about us published in the Wall Street Journal in recent days, and the public interest it has provoked. This Sunday night, the ex-employee who leaked internal company material to the Journal will appear in a segment on 60 Minutes on CBS. We understand the piece is likely to assert that we contribute to polarization in the United States.

Memo reprinted in The New York Times, 3 Oct 2021

Note that the topic at hand is whether Facebook contributes to socio-political polarization.

Here, however, is Sir Clegg’s statement of the official Facebook position on this charge:

But the idea that Facebook is the chief cause of polarization isn’t supported by the facts.

Ibid.

This is a major example of what sociologist Linsey McGoey calls “strategic ignorance,” or “unknowing.” Every 9th grader can recognize the crude shift Clegg attempts. The plain accusation is that his organization is a significant source of a problem. Yet, by converting “a” into “chief,” Clegg moves the goalposts to a different field.

Not subtle. Not skillful. Not even clever. Yet this is part of what top genius execs, after intense rounds of emergency “team” meetings, get paid to do for our epoch’s dominant organizations.

As McGoey points out, such Orwellian chutzpah is no anomaly. It is, in fact, Business as Usual.

And, as you can see in this very memo, it’s not just the confabulation that’s newsworthy. These supposedly far-seeing masters of technical precision are also very quick to believe their own sophomoric petulance. Indeed, they tend to wax sanctimonious about it:

I know some of you – especially those of you in the US – are going to get questions from friends and family about these things so I wanted to take a moment as we head into the weekend to provide what I hope is some useful context on our work in these crucial areas.

Nick Clegg to Facebook employees

Friends, family, weekend, “our work.” Such valiance!

Facebook Knows What It’s Doing

Facebook knows it’s in the business of delivering eyeballs to big business marketers.

It also knows — and does not care — that, in doing this, it is fueling the American right’s continuing flight from rationality.

The WSJ reporters go on to explain that the FB brass know about this and choose to ignore it.

What was it that Upton Sinclair said about incomes and their effects on human minds?

The Sourcing Filter: Strong as it Ever Was

herman and chomsky faces

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s “propaganda model” of the functioning of the U.S. mass media is surely one of the few great achievements of twentieth-century social science. Its explanatory and predictive force is as strong today as it was in 1988.

One test of this claim resides in the remarkable Presidency of Donald John Trump.

Trump is obviously multiply pathological and virtually incapable of telling the truth, except when it happens as a mere coincidence. He lies so often and so freely that both the quantity and the audacity of the lies tend to defy their tracking.

This, as well as Trump’s frequent irrational attacks on mainstream media, offer a good way to judge whether it remains true, as Herman and Chomsky argued in explaining their “SOURCING MASS-MEDIA NEWS: THE THIRD FILTER,” that major corporate media will tend to give far too much interpretive weight to people in high public and private posts.

With this in mind, consider a very peculiar headline from today’s edition of The New York Times.

Yesterday, Donald Trump said, plainly and on the record, that he was going to discontinue the “task force” that has played such an important role in keeping him from severely worsening the domestic impact of the ongoing global SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Today, Mr. Trump has — entirely predictably — said he will, in fact, leave the task force in place.

The NYT‘s headline on this simple reversal? This:

“Seeming.” That, of course, is a counter-factual exculpatory adjective. Why is it there?

The only reasonable explanation is the one that comes from the Herman-Chomsky model: Treating TPTB with special reverence is so important to corporate mass media, that even such an extreme case does not break the “filtering” rule that inheres in the system: Official sources always have the benefit of the doubt, even when they are inarguably grossly unreliable.

Why NPR Sucks

Alexander Cockburn used to argue that, under corporate capitalism, one function of the major mass media is clever misreporting of important stories.

With this powerful hypothesis in mind, take a listen to this little ditty from today’s version of NPR’s Morning Edition:

The story is about how Bloomberg News instructed its own award-winning reporters to stop probing the wealth and power of China’s ruling class [story behind paywall, of course], and went so far in the effort as to try coercing its journalists’ life partners into signing NDAs.

So, important story, for sure. But what, pray tell, is it about?

Surely, the story is about the severe limitations placed on journalism by private, for-profit media ownership — right, National Public Radio?

Nope. Not even close.

What, instead, does NPR — the supposedly alternative content “made possible” by its constantly-mentioned private sponsors — say their own story is about?

Mike Bloomberg might be a weasel.

What else at Bloomberg News is being hidden if such contracts exist that require such secrecy?

Facebook as Lightning Rod

lightning-rod-image The New York Times has obtained some of Facebook’s internal planning records.  These show that Facebook is what it says it is, what its founders have always understood it to be: a device for harvesting intimate knowledge of people’s private lives and selling that knowledge to corporate marketers.

The meat of the NYT story is the revelation that, despite pretending to promise the Federal Trade Commission that it would cease doing so, Facebook has continued to sell “what are known internally as “capabilities” — the special privileges enabling companies to obtain data, in some cases without asking permission.”

This means, among other things:

Facebook [has] assumed extraordinary power over the personal information of its 2.2 billion users — control it has wielded with little transparency or outside oversight. Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages. The social network permitted Amazon to obtain users’ names and contact information through their friends, and it let Yahoo view streams of friends’ posts as recently as this summer, despite public statements that it had stopped that type of sharing years earlier. [The New York Times, 12/19/2018]

Despite its importance, the great problem with this exposé is that it is yet another major case of rotten-appleism, of trying to portray a systemic imperative as a mere miscreant malpractice. As the NYT acknowledges, “personal data has become the most prized commodity of the digital age, traded on a vast scale by some of the most powerful companies in Silicon Valley and beyond.”

Why is that, and what entities and forces are genuinely responsible for the radical, progressively worsening market-totalitarianism of our life environment? It ain’t just ham-handed, yuppie-faced Facebook. It is, as somebody once said, a matter of Economics 101 in our supposedly best-possible, history-resolving system.

facebook finger-point image

Meanwhile, the proper answer to all this is not more silly efforts to regulate private-sector media providers. It is to empower the United States Postal System to enter the realm of modern communications, on all fronts, with full competitive aggression. A non-commercial, publicly-guaranteed social networking website, for example, could neatly and reliably dispose of all the problems inherent in Facebook, including the privacy issue.

The Trump Effect

stork carrying baby One important impact of the scum-floating-to-the-top phenomenon that is the Trump Presidency is its addlepation of the political left.

Here, for example, is the meat of an email I just received from Truthout:

“We live in an age where lies can be used to justify pretty much anything: revoke a press pass, deny thousands of people asylum, change laws affecting people’s basic rights. This is somewhat ironic, considering that we live in an age of technology more sophisticated than ever before.”

The proposition here is that, with Trump’s election, we have entered an “age of lies,” with the features listed above.

This is multiply precious.

First of all, the triumph of Trump has been foreseeable, if not predictable, since at least 1987, when The Art of the Deal consolidated this megalomaniacal rentier cretin’s Reaganite fame. Certainly, the thesis that government should be run like a business has always been at the heart of the ongoing Great Restoration/Reagan Revolution.

Et voila, this knownothing TV terminator.

Meanwhile, what kind of age do Truthout‘s people think we lived in before the wonderful Electoral College seated this mentally ill, proudly ignorant election-loser?

Here at TCT, we have always been impressed with the power of this observation by the late Robert L. Heilbroner:

“At a business forum, I was once brash enough to say that I thought the main cultural impact of television advertising was to teach children that grown-ups told lies for money. How strong, deep, or sustaining can be the values of a civilization that generates a ceaseless flow of half-truths and careful deceptions?”

Heilbroner said that in 1976.

Finally, how cute is it that Truthout supposes that modern technology somehow supports, rather than clashes with, truth-telling? Has the climate for realism and democracy ever suffered a more fateful blow than the one struck by the continuing ascendancy of electronic audio-video machines? That a lefty operation with “truth” in its name can possibly miss the deep importance of the old tech of print literacy and direct human conversation is, I fear, a true sign of the times — times which did not begin in November of 2016.