Covert persuasion and fake news are the new normal

Lazy politicians and powerful figures seem to welcome aggressive behavior, gregarious manners, unverified rumors and patent lies

We live in unfortunate times. At the height of our current technological evolution, everyone can easily communicate with everyone else and the best of all possible worlds is taking shape. We are (supposedly) witnessing a democratic progress toward a new world order. However, we are also facing a fearful social regression, a spiraling trend hard to explain even by resorting to Le Bon’s “Psychology of Crowds”.

Especially lazy politicians and powerful figures seem to welcome aggressive behavior, gregarious manners, unverified rumors and patent lies. This way they intend to mesmerize and tame people worldwide. They try to expose and channel our worst irrational impulses into trade wars, religious conflicts and suicide terrorism acts.

On the other hand, each of us is fully aware of human and environmental tragedies produced by today’s consumerism, yet we like to function as consumers. We realize that we are being treated as subjects rather than citizens, but we limit our participation to a seasonal vote. We firmly believe that freedom is not a commodity, yet we continue to trade it for cheap. We complain about a lack or degradation of meaningful social relations, yet we are unable or unwilling to change our own.

Corruption and lack of transparency have gained common acceptance, but the moral stigma applies to anybody except our clients or associates. All are equal before the law, yet violations are acceptable in a personal necessity. Lying is unacceptable but it helps us to get by. Respecting others is a fundamental social trait, yet our own contempt deserves to be overlooked.

The emergence of a glittering world of global and immediate communication often gives way to our inability to actually feel empathy and compassion. Any globalization process produces a search for self-identity at local level that, in turn, tends to create political, ethnic or religious rupture or hatred by widening our human differences. The result is an insecurity anxiety compelling us to seek protection in easy and known havens.

To avoid the difficulty to reconfigure mental and cognitive patterns models, we prefer to stick to the surface in our reasoning and to think according to stereotypes or general beliefs, looking for reassurance in a TV reality show or on our therapist couch. We need some scaffolding to hold the lopsided structure of the reality principle that goes against frustrated desires and tomorrow fear.

Today’s consumerist society is based on intangible flows where we compete to seize aesthetic and playful assets, while information itself has become a futile commodity. Appearance overpowers reality and any form of criticism becomes useless.

According to Guy Debord, our “society of the spectacle” satisfies exactly by denying us something precious: a desire to learn and know, the tools to fully understand reality, a chance to experience life first hand rather then through vicarious experiences. In a world based on virtual and mediated realities, we find ourselves accepting at face value everything that we read or hear, without posing any questions or engaging in fact-checking.

Our tech- and social media-infused lifestyle seems to imply that everything should be made public, that everybody is entitled to discuss every single topic on earth. However, mainstream media and professional reporters still play a gatekeeping role in today’s information ecosystem. Even when they act as some “democracy watchdogs”, their job is actually to select and shape particular aspects of everyday life, in order to make them palatable to “ordinary” people. We also shouldn’t forget that often their job succumbs to commercial logic and unbridled competition. In today’s super-fast news cycle, it is imperative to catch many reader eyeballs and suit demanding advertisers — even, if necessary, by deploying narrative techniques and other strategies able to transform blatant lies in shining truth.

Now this “disinformation process” has a novel ally: the digital environment, with its potentially continuous reconstruction of real events, re-packaging of objective facts, visual and highly emotional impact. By further exploiting the viral nature of web posts, text and email messages, and the hypertext references strengthening each original sources, nowadays it is not too difficult to convert something that is barely plausible into something else that feels and looks as factual and real.

We are equally convinced that any institutional communication meets objective criteria and its content is not manipulated or engineered simply because it is serving its citizens. We are not aware that often what we receive is instead some form of political communication, an interpretation provided by lawmakers (or their agents) to foster their own agenda. In these instances, often professional journalists and “spin doctors” do not hesitate to “sex up” any news item or topic in order to advance the government interests.

A similar process applies to scientific or statistical reporting, especially when it lacks a peer-review process or shared sources and it is entrapped in flexible but “authoritative” policies.

Drowning in an ocean of signs and symbols, we have less and less time to decipher the deep meaning of those bombarding messages — more often than not, we have no choice but to surrender. Every day our family, school, church and other social structures tell us what to do, what to think, where to go. They are eager to assault the cognitive structure of atomized human masses deploying their guns of persuasion.

Indeed, persuasion can be defined as the intent to obtain, modify or prevent a certain behavior through specious reasoning or emotional allures, thus inducing the “others” to do what they would never do by themselves. Therefore, we should be careful about “smart” techniques that entice our automatic responses and cause major modifications in the deep structure of our consciousness. Such covert action could activate behavioral mechanisms of action and reaction that are more suitable for battery-farmed chickens than human beings…

Teacher, journalist, hacktivist. Privacy advocate, copyright critic, free software fan, cybersecurity curious.

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