Many-to-many Propaganda

Politics as We Know It Is Doomed

Politics as we know it is doomed and the democratisation of propaganda is to blame.

Politics has been dominated by large “broad church” political parties for a century or more. Most democracies have evolved into a left-right duopoly. Conservative vs Labour, Republican vs Democrat. Nationalists, socialists, and greens, cling onto the sides.

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But this system is doomed. Large political parties that appeal to broad swathes of the population were a product of broadcast media. Branded political parties manufactured packages of beliefs and left- or right-leaning newspapers and television stations broadcast them to the mass market.

The advent of social media has broken apart the media business. The branding power is gone. The broadcast channels are gone. The mass market is no longer massed. Political parties are adapted to an environment that no longer exists. They will go extinct.

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The Medieval Hiroshima

The Castello di Monte San Giovanni Campano, just outside Naples, is the medieval Hiroshima. It was destroyed in February 1495 by a powerful new weapon. The world was changed forever.

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A dispute over the succession to the throne of Naples, stoked by Pope Innocent VIII, led to the invasion of Italy by King Charles VIII of France. His army, at 25,000 men, was large but not unlike many other medieval armies – except for one thing. His siege train included forty heavy bronze cannon, powered by gunpowder.

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Happy Cosmonautics Day

On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in space. At 06:07 UTC a Vostok rocket lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in what’s now Kazakhstan and lifted the 27-year-old Soviet air force pilot into orbit and into history.

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The launch fixed the Soviet Union’s place at the head of the Space Race, when spaceflight marked the leading edge of superpower technology.

Spaceflight is no longer a superpower monopoly. Today, 58 years later, the Space Race is led by SpaceX, one of many private companies opening up spaceflight.

This morning (NZ time), an Israeli non-profit organisation came painfully close to landing the first privately-funded spacecraft on the moon. The probe was launched in February this year on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It got within a few hundred metres of the moon’s surface before its main engine failed and it was unable to slow its descent enough to land softly.

Three hours later, SpaceX launched the world’s most powerful rocket, the Falcon Heavy, carrying a Saudi Communications satellite. The satellite was nothing out of the ordinary, but the Falcon Heavy’s centre core and both side boosters, made near simultaneous landings and will be used again. Not only is this an extraordinary technical feat that puts traditional launch providers to shame but it will transform the economics of spaceflight.

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After decades of stagnation, spaceflight is exciting again!

Is Poland a Real Country?

Poland has the things you’d expect of a real country: a flag, a currency, and its own phone number. But it lacks others, like borders that stay in the same place. The national anthem, entitled Poland Is Not Yet Lost, suggests something’s not quite right.

The national anthem was written in 1797, when Poland was no longer a real country, having just been divvied up by Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick William II of Prussia, an arrangement that would be echoed in 1939 with the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

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Nobbling the Nobility

Democracy is not a natural state of affairs. Ever since the first Mesopotamian states formed, ten thousand years ago, kings and warlords have wielded power over the rest of the population. These rulers have maintained their positions with violent enthusiasm. Any who didn’t were quickly replaced.

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Democracies have been rare and fleeting, popping up briefly in Ancient Greece and Rome and more recently in Europe and America.

There’s a sense today that democracy is failing. Tweets, news reports, and books point to well-funded lobbyists, foreign meddling, the corrosive effects of social media, and the inability of legislatures to decide on anything. There’s palpable worry about what’s being lost.

From our vantage point, it’s easy to think that democracy is the natural way of things. Lapses into dictatorship, as happened in Spain, Italy, and Germany in the 1930s, are the aberration. The truth is that our viewpoint, from a place of prosperity and safety, is unusual.

Instead of asking how democracy might be failing, let’s first ask: how did it ever succeed?

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Tim Whatsit

Donald Trump casually discarded 700 years of tradition last week, referring to Apple CEO Tim Cook as “Tim Apple.” What are surnames for, anyway? We all knew who he was talking about, especially since Tim Whatsit was sitting right there, keeping a straight face.

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The gaffe made Twitter lose its collective mind – admittedly a low threshold to cross. Tim Cook was celebrated for changing his Twitter name to Tim [apple emoji]. Alex Thingummybob at Wired magazine called it a “most legendary sub tweet.”

If we list mistakes made by heads of state, top to bottom, this gaffe is at the less catastrophic end. All of us talk like this all the time.

“I saw Mark for drinks last night.”
“English Mark?”
“No, rugby Mark.”

Most of us have lots of different names to different people. The Mark I know as “rugby Mark” might be “Christchurch Mark” to one person, “big Mark” to another, and “Mark next door” to someone else.

In the past, names have changed with circumstance. A child might receive a saint’s name at the time they were baptised, their ‘Christian’ name. A woman getting married would lose her patronymic, her father’s name, and gain her husband’s name.

We see a vestige of changing names for changing circumstances in the royal family. Queen Victoria was christened Alexandrina and Edward VII started off as Prince Albert.

We also use customary names for people whose official identity is unknown, like Jack the Ripper.

Add nicknames and diminutives to names that change with context and we have a complex tapestry of identity.

To insiders, all these overlapping identities provide a richly detailed social context. To outsiders, it’s completely opaque. In Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott compares the social context of customary naming techniques to the networks of little alleyways in medieval towns like Bruges. The layout has evolved for centuries to meet the needs of the locals.

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In contrast, the modern idea that everyone has an unchanging canonical name, registered with the government, is more like the grid layout of Manhattan. It’s dead easy for an outsider to find the intersection of 5th Avenue and 33rd Street but that doesn’t tell you anything about what’s there.

Being easy for outsiders to find is exactly what official names are all about. In England, the idea of inherited surnames arrived with the Normans. After the Norman conquest, King William wanted a stocktake of his new possessions. He ordered a survey of all the lands in England, what’s now known as the Domesday Book.

When the King wants to know exactly who owns what, it’s usually because he plans to take some of it. Knowing the ‘what’ tells the King how big the tax yield might be. Knowing the ‘who’ tells the King who to hit up for the cash. Stable identity, legible to outsiders, is essential to knowing the ‘who.’ In William’s day, tax was tied to land and so surnames were only common among the aristocracy.

Peasants survived another three centuries without surnames. In 1380 the English economy was in turmoil. Constant war with France bankrupted the Crown and the aftermath of the Black Death meant labour was in short supply. King Richard II announced a poll tax.

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Unlike King William’s land taxes, Richard’s poll tax fell on everyone. To administer the tax, county rolls were used to list everyone subject to the tax, and official names were recorded to make the population visible to the tax collectors. The Peasants’ Revolt, led by Wat Tyler and John Bull (or just Wat and John as they would have preferred to be known), marched on London in 1381, burning the county rolls as they went. Eventually the Revolt was put down, the rolls were redrawn, and surnames gradually became a part of everyday life.

A fixed official name in a government register is like a database ID, a unique identifier that allows a ruler to quantify his property. A list of literal “human resources” is essential for mass taxation and conscription, the financial and military fuel of the modern nation state.

As nation states consolidated their power from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, surnames spread with them. As those nation states spread across the globe forming empires, surnames followed. In the Philippines, for example, surnames were mandated on November 21, 1849. Scott, in Seeing Like a State, describes how those who didn’t have surnames were assigned them from a list. People in the provincial capital got surnames starting with A. The Bs and Cs and Es through to Ls were assigned along the coast, M- and S-names went up valleys and the end of the alphabet was assigned to the islands.

Official names have since been supplemented and superseded by passports, IRD numbers, fingerprints, DNA profiles, and facial recognition software, but surnames are what started us down the path of fixed identity and were essential to the rise of the nation state.

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Some have speculated that the technological forces that helped Trump to power are undermining democracy and paving the way for a techno-feudalism. No wonder that tech baron Tim Apple was so good-natured about Trump’s disregard for one of the nation state’s most ingrained institutions.

Measles Goes Viral

Mongol soldiers who died of bubonic plague during the siege of Kaffa were hurled over the city walls with trebuchets in a bid to spread the disease to their enemies. Genoese historian Gabriele de’ Mussi claimed in The Great Dying of the Year of our Lord 1348 that this was the trigger for the Black Death in Europe, which killed 25 million people.

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British soldiers used smallpox against Native Americans during the French and Indian War in 1763, and probably targeted Australian Aboriginals with smallpox in New South Wales in 1789.

All major powers conducted biological warfare research during the 20th century despite the use of biological weapons being banned by the Geneva Protocol in 1925 and their production and stockpiling being banned by the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972.

The World War III that gripped imaginations for four decades was one of massed infantry, with Soviet and American tank divisions pounding each other, quickly followed by nuclear holocaust. Horrific as that would have been, biological and chemical weapons were considered beyond the pale – too nasty to use.

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The World War III that we got instead was that described by Marshall McLuhan: “World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation.”

Modern low-grade information warfare doesn’t respect any of the niceties of traditional war between nation states. There are no uniforms, no distinction between soldiers and non-combatants, no prisoners are taken, no respect for borders, and no prohibition on the spreading of disease.

The measles outbreaks in Canterbury, Waikato, and Auckland, like others in Washington and California, are one more front in the information war pulling our political systems apart.

Social media have allowed people with fringe beliefs to find each other and recommendations algorithms tuned for virality push people to more and more material that reinforces those beliefs. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have broken the manufactured consent that held mainstream politics together for decades. The disruption of the party line brought us Trump and Brexit. By the same mechanism, it’s no coincidence that recruitment of ISIS brides, flat-earthers, and anti-vaxxers has boomed at the same time. Measles has gone viral.

Anti-vaxxers are an eclectic bunch – some on the far left who hate “Big Pharma”, some on the far right who see mass vaccination as a government conspiracy. The original anti-vaxxers arrived alongside Edward Jenner’s original vaccines, opposed to the inoculation of humans with cow pox. Objections were often religious, claiming that preventing disease was interfering with God’s will. Satirical cartoons showed victims of inoculation sprouting bovine features from their arms, buttocks, and faces.

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The number of people opting out of vaccination has rocketed upwards in the last twenty years. In parts of Los Angeles, some schools have opt-out rates of 60 to 70 percent. The vaccination rate in West L.A. is now as low as in South Sudan. South Sudan’s excuse is that it’s a poverty-stricken failed state in the midst of a civil war. In Beverly Hills, the local folk medicine prescribes kale smoothies as a cure for all ailments.

The foot soldiers in an information war often don’t even know that they’re participants in something bigger. They may simply be passionate about a single issue, pro or con. They may enjoy winding people up on the Internet for entertainment. They may be failing B-grade celebrities looking for a bandwagon to hitch their flagging fortunes to.

Others know exactly what they’re up to. Russian trolls are manufacturing a vaccination debate to sow discord in American society. They’re neither pro- nor anti-vaccination but argue both sides in an attempt to create division and distrust.

Facebook advertising is cheap and frighteningly effective, enabling strife in a way that wasn’t possible prior to the rise of social media. During the Cold War, fifty gigatons of Soviet nuclear warheads did nothing to reduce American power. These days, Russian intelligence agencies can organise riots on American streets with $200 worth of Facebook ads.

In May 2016, Heart of Texas, a front for Russian intelligence, organised a protest to “Stop the Islamization of Texas.” United Muslims of America, another Russian intelligence front, organised a rally to “Save Islamic Knowledge,” at the same time and place. Hilarity ensued.

Analysis of bot-generated vaccination tweets shows an even split between pro- and anti-vaccination positions, as if the perpetrators are more interested in continuing the fight than in one side winning. Many of the tweets tie their reasoning to God, constitutional rights, or animal welfare – prefering topics that are already divisive, compounding the disruptive effect.

How do we make sense of things in a world where the manufacture of propaganda is cheap, easy, and global? Today, everyone is a publisher and instant communication connects everyone on the planet. We have to learn to live in an information environment unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Countering disinformation is extremely difficult. Throwing more data and more studies at sceptics is counterproductive. Explaining things to non-believers just reinforces their beliefs. The truth may be the only thing some people are immune to. But we can’t suppress disinformation either. Censorship is neither moral nor practical.

Marshall McLuhan’s guerrilla information war is in full swing. There’s no protection for non-combatants, no protection for children, and no Biological Weapons Convention. Spreading disease is just another day at the office for a Twitter bot.