Competing Media Manipulations

I’ve been noticing something these past months. It partly relates to another thing I’ve noticed before. Facebook doesn’t always notify me when someone posts a comment and that is particularly true for strangers. I could set my account to private or whatever, but I don’t feel like doing so. What is different recently is the comments I’ve come across, when looking back at recent posts. It’s both what is posted and who is posting it that stands out.

There is a particular article from a particular website that keeps getting posted. The article is critical of Trump, listing some of his scandals and including some of the creepy pictures of him with his daughter. It’s the same article posted repeatedly for at least the past two months. More interesting, every Facebook account that is posting it is different. But they all show the account as being from Georgia (the country, not the state). I assume they are fake accounts.

I just delete the comments and block the accounts. It’s not of any great concern to me. If some organization or another wants to spam anti-Trump material, more power to them. It just makes me curious about who is behind it. And why are the accounts all portrayed as being from Georgia?

It reminds me of the paid trolls from the Clinton campaign. After a while, one begins to think that half the internet is being run as competing agendas of manufactured consent, political propaganda, perception management, public relations campaigns, astroturf, disinformation, controlled opposition, etc. All of it goes down to a deeper level beyond the obvious examples of fake news. This is magnified by how the media in general has simultaneously become concentrated into fewer hands and placed into an international system, which combined brings greater forces into clashing influence.

Meanwhile, the average person is drowning in a tidal wave of manipulation beyond his or her comprehension. The alternative media that could offer perspective too often gets lost in the noise.

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Polarizing Effect of Perceived Polarization

“You probably have the sense that polarization is getting worse in our country, that the divide between the left and the right is as bad as it’s ever been in any or our lifetimes. But you might also reasonably wonder if research backs up your intuition. And in a nutshell, the answer is sadly yes.”

That is how Robb Willer began his TED Talk, How to have better political conversations. A commenter said, “He never answered why the polarization has gotten so much worse though.” In my opinion, it hasn’t gotten worse.

The US presently isn’t more divided than it was during the 1960s, isn’t more divided than it was during the violent early 1900s, isn’t more divided than it was in the decades leading up to the Civil War, and isn’t more divided than among the founding generation of Federalists vs Anti-Federalists. This is another one of those simplistic, superficial, and misleading mainstream narratives. And yet it is an extremely compelling story to tell.

People aren’t disagreeing more than ever. It’s just that they are being heard more and hearing others more, because of the growth of mass media and social media. People are being faced with knowing what others think and believe, not being allowed to remain in blissful ignorance as in the past. People feel polarized because they see it in activist groups, mainstream politics, and corporate media. That experience shouldn’t be dismissed, as it feels all too real and does have real consequences. Still, this sense of conflict is misleading. In reality, most Americans agree more about most issues than they disagree. But it depends on how you frame it.

If you make Americans choose between the labels of liberal and conservative, most people of course will pick one of them and the public will be divided. You can use that to frame questions and so prime people to give polarized answers. But the fact of the matter is that if you give people another option such as independent, most won’t choose either liberal or conservative.

If you only give Americans two viable political party choices, many will consistently choose candidates of the same party from election to election. But most Americans identify as independents and would prefer having other choices. Consider the fact that some of the voters that helped Republican Trump win were supporters of Democratic Sanders. Few people are ideological partisans. That is because few people think in ideological terms.

Consider specific issues.

If you give people a forced choice question about whether they are for or against tough-on-crime policies, polarization in public opinion is the inevitable result. But if you ask people about crime prevention and rehabilitation, most would prefer that. The thing is few polls ever give people the full, accurate info about the available choices. The framing of the questions leads people to answer in a particular way.

That is because those asking the questions are typically more polarized and so they have an self-interest in finding polarized answers (in order to confirm their own biases and worldview), even if their motivations are unconscious. The corporate media also likes to frame everything in polarized terms, even when it isn’t the best framing, because it offers a simplistic narrative (i.e., entertainment news) that sells advertising.

If you give people a forced choice question about whether they support pro-choice or pro-life, you will get a polarized response from the public. But if you ask people if they are for both women’s rights and abortion bans, you’ll find most Americans support both simultaneously. And if you ask people if they want to decrease abortions, you’ll find almost everyone wants to decrease abortions. It’s just people see different ways of decreasing abortions.

Most pro-choicers aren’t for increasing abortions (i.e., killing babies). And most pro-lifers aren’t for taking women’s rights away (i.e., theocratic authoritarianism). It’s just they see different policies as being more effective in achieving what pro-lifers claim to support. The two sides at worst disagree about methods, not goals or necessarily even fundamental values. Isn’t it interesting that so many pro-lifers support a women’s right to choose, depending on how the question is framed?

If you give people a forced choice question about whether or not they support same sex marriage, you get an almost evenly divided polarization of public opinion, with an ever so sleight majority toward support. But if polling is done differently, it is shown that the vast majority is tolerant of or indifferent toward this issue. People simply don’t care who marries whom, unless you intentionally frame it as a liberal agenda to use the government to promote gay marriage and force it onto the public. Framed as an issue of personal right of choice, most Americans are perfectly fine with individuals being allowed to make their own decisions. Even the average conservative doesn’t want to force their political views onto others, no matter what is asserted by the polarized GOP establishment and partisans who are reactionaries, authoritarians and social dominance orientation types.

If you give people a forced choice question about whether they support gun rights or gun regulations, you will get what appears to be polarization. But if you give them a third choice of supporting both stronger gun rights and more effective gun regulations, most will take that third option. That is even true with NRA members who disagree with ideologically polarized NRA leadership. And it is also true of liberals, a demographic shown to have surprisingly high rates of guns in the household.

Here is the takeaway. The general public is not polarized, as research again and again has proven. It is the mainstream media and political elites, the political parties and think tanks, the lifelong partisans and ideological activists who are polarized. In economic terms, it the middle-to-upper class and not the lower classes that are polarized.

The apparent hyper-partisanship comes from not increasing number of partisans, but from increasing number of moderates identifying as independents and increasing number of non-partisans entirely giving up on the political system. I’d also add that it isn’t that this has happened equally across the board. Studies show Democrats aren’t any more liberal than they were decades ago (more conservative, if anything; or at least more neocon and neoliberal), even as Republicans have moved ever further to the right. This has caused public debate to become disconnected from the public opinion, disconnected from the beliefs, values and concerns of most Americans. On many major issues, the general public has moved to the political left which exacerbates this disconnection, creating a situation where the two choices are a conservative Democratic Party and a right-wing Republican Party.

The problem is that the polarized (or rather polarizing) minority entirely controls public debate and the political system. Watching this meaningless spectacle of polarized conflict and dysfunction, the non-polarized majority is some combination of not registered, not voting, voting third party, voting semi-randomly, identifying as independent, politically apathetic, demoralized, hopeless, resigned, confused, overwhelmed, frustrated, etc. Some of the general public can be temporarily manipulated by polarization, such as when given forced choices and when threatened with fear-mongering, but in the end their basic values and concerns don’t support polarization.

Meanwhile the party insiders of both main parties, when the issue is important enough to the interests of themselves, their cronies and the donor class, always seem to find a way to agree and cooperate about passing bills and enacting laws that further push public policy toward neoconservatism and neoliberalism. The culture war framing makes for good stories to tell on the corporate media for mass consumption, but they aren’t what drive actual politics.

At the very highest level of wealth and power, there is very little polarization and a whole lot of collusion and cronyism. Some would argue that even the political elite aren’t actually more polarized. They may be arguing more about more issues, even as the substance of conflict might not indicate any greater disagreement overall than in the past. Others, such as myself, would see most of the partisan bickering as yet more political theater to keep the public distracted.

Certainly, there is no polarization in the deep state, the double government, or whatever you wish to call it. Major public policies aren’t left to chance. Research has shown that the general public has little influence on what politicians do. Some take this argument further, pointing that often even elected officials have little power to change things. That is because elected officials represent a miniscule part of the entrenched bureaucracy. Besides, many political elites don’t necessarily operate within the government itself, such as think tanks shaping policy and lobbyists writing bills. For those who aren’t part of the ruling elite, this discourages them from getting involved in politics or running for office.

How would we know if our society is more polarized, in what ways, what it means, and to whose benefit? Polls don’t just tell us what public opinion is. They shape public opinion and polling during elections can influence voting behavior. And what data the corporate media decides to report and how they frame it shapes the public mind. Some might call it public perception management. Is the public really polarized or made to feel polarized or that everyone around them is polarized? What is the agenda in making the public feel divided and individuals isolated?

One thing is so clear as to be beyond all argument. We don’t have a functioning democracy: gerrymandering, establishment-controlled nomination process, third parties excluded from debates, partisan corporate media, perception management, think tank propaganda, astroturf organizations, paid trolls, voter disenfranchisement and suppression, campaigns and political access determined by big money, revolving door politics, regulatory capture, legalized bribery, pervasive secrecy and unaccountability, etc. So, we don’t have elections that offer real choices and actual influence. And because of this, we don’t have political elites that represent the citizenry.

I’m not sure what polarization means within a political system that is oligarchic, plutocratic, corporatist, and inverted totalitarian. Is it really polarized or is it working according to design? And for the all too real divisions that exist, are they ideological or demographic? Are the majority of poor, white and non-white, politically polarized in any meaningful sense when most of them are so politically apathetic as to not vote? As inequality grows along with poverty and desperation, will our greatest concern be how polarized are the tiny minority of the remaining middle-to-upper class?

* * *

Inequality Divides, Privilege Disconnects
Political Elites Disconnected From General Public
Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism
Warmongering Politicians & Progressive Public
Racial Polarization of Partisans
Most Americans Know What is True
Liberalism: Label vs Reality (analysis of data)
Non-Identifying Environmentalists And Liberals
US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism
Public Opinion On Government & Tea Party
Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life
Public Opinion on Tax Cuts for the Rich
Most Oppose Cutting Social Security (data)
The Court of Public Opinion: Part 1 & Part 2
Vietnam War Myths: Memory, Narrative, Rhetoric & Lies

* * *

7 in 10 Americans ‘Not Upset’ with Gay Marriage, New iMediaEthics Poll Finds
by Andy Sternberg and David W. Moore

Liberal Policy Preferences are Everywhere
by Yeggmen

America Is Much Less Conservative than the Mainstream Media Believe
by Eric Alterman

America Not as Politically Conservative as You Think
by Lee Drutman

Why most conservatives are secretly liberals
by John Sides

You’re Probably Not as Conservative as You Think
by Tom Jacobs

You May Think You’re Right … Young Adults Are More Liberal Than They Realize
by Ethan Zell and Michael J. Bernstein

The End of the Conservative Movement (Still)…
by George Hawley

Ideological Labels in America
by Claassen, Tucker, and Smith

Political Ideology
by Jost, Federico, and Napier

Operational and Symbolic Ideology in the American Electorate
by Christopher Ellis and James Stimson

The Ideological Right vs. The Group Benefits Left
by Matt Grossmann

In Search of the Big Sort
by Samuel J Abrams

Who Fits the Left-Right Divide?
by Carmines, Ensley, and Wagner

Despite Headline, Pew Poll Does Not Show a Polarized America
by Todd Eberly

Most experts think America is more polarized than ever. This Stanford professor disagrees. And he thinks the 2016 election has only buttressed his interpretation.
by Jeff Stein

Polarized or Sorted? Just What’s Wrong With Our Politics, Anyway?
by Alan I. Abramowitz and Morris P. Fiorina

Disconnected: The Political Class versus the People
by Morris P. Fiorina

Has the American Public Polarized?
by Morris P. Fiorina

America’s Missing Moderates: Hiding in Plain Sight
by Morris P. Fiorina

Moderates: Who Are They, and What Do They Want?
by Molly Ball

Politics aren’t more partisan today–we’re just fighting about more issues
by Heather Hurlburt

Preference Change through Choice
by Petter Johansson, Lars Hall, and Nick Chater

(Mis)perceptions of Partisan Polarization in the American Public
by Matthew S. Levendusky and Neil Malhotra

(Mis)perceiving Political Polarization
by Nathan Collins

Americans overestimate political polarization, according to new CU-Boulder research
by Greg Swenson

The Effect of “False” Polarization
by Matthew S. Levendusky and Neil A. Malhotra

Your opinion on climate change might not be as common as you think
by Leviston, Walker, and Morwinski

Constructing Public Opinion
by Justin Lewis

Does Media Coverage of Partisan Polarization Affect Political Attitudes?
by Matthew Levendusky and Neil Malhorta

Do Partisan Media Add to Political Polarization?
by Anne Kim

The Limits of Partisan Prejudice
by Yphtach Lelkes and Sean J. Westwood

Elite Polarization and Public Opinion
Joshua Robison and Kevin J. Mullinix

How polarisation in Washington affects a growing feeling of partisanship
by Harry J Enten

Elite Polarization, Partisan Ambivalence, and a Preference for Divided Government
by Lavine, Johnston, Steenbergen, and Perkins

Ideological Moderates Won’t Run: How Party Fit Matters for Partisan Polarization in Congress
by Danielle M. Thomsen

How party activists, not voters in general, drive political polarization
by Gillian Kiley

Polls of Persuasion: Beware of the Horse Race
by Alicia Wanless

Vote all you want. The secret government won’t change.
by Jordan Michael Smith

Regurgitated Scripts

Below is something written back in November 8 of this year. I share it because illustrates clearly a problematic worldview.

Let me offer some initial context. The person writing it is a middle class white woman who is college-educated, married, lives in a nice house, and works as an actress in the theatre. She is a stereotypical white professional of the middle class and she gives voice to the privileged views of the liberal class.

Her views are not just typical but stereotypical, as she is perfectly playing the role cast for her. It’s a willing example of typecasting. Many others who fit her demographic profile would express the exact same views. It’s the liberal class reality tunnel.

I’ll break her comment down into parts. The first paragraph is about the perceived problem:

“We all know Donald Trump, we all have met him. I’ve met him in my professor whose eyes only focused on the male students when they spoke. I met him in a tow truck driver who disliked towing ‘colored people’, in men who seem to believe that the worst thing a woman can be is fat, in the manager of my first job who paid men more than women because they could lift heavy things. He’s the person who says they can’t be racist because they have black friends. He’s the roofer who changed his bid halfway through the job based on his own calculation error. He’s the guy at the gas station who grabbed my hands and asked if he could spoil me.”

I don’t like Trump, have never liked Trump, and don’t plan on liking Trump at any future point of my life. I have no need nor desire to defend him. I just don’t think that Trump as a person is the main issue.

As both sides have made clear, this was a choice between evils, not between one good and another. Even those who voted for Trump admitted in polls that they didn’t necessarily like Trump or agree with him. The large numbers of working class folk, minorities, and women who voted for Trump didn’t do so because his rich white male privilege inspired them. They were simply frustrated and outraged, and for good reason.

The above quoted view is a narrative framing. In the worldview of the middle class white feminist, Trump stands in for all these bad people.

Women who are poor, minority, immigrant, etc probably have a less simplistic view because they can’t afford to live in such a disconnected narrative. They don’t worry about who the professor is looking at because they and most people they know have never had the opportunity to go to college. They also know that it isn’t just truck drivers who are racially biased but also privileged white liberals like Hillary Clinton with the Clinton legacy of dog whistle politics supporting racialized policies. They can’t afford to be willfully ignorant of such harsh realities.

It’s not that everything this person says is false. I’m sure she has had some of these experiences. As far as that goes, many people have had far worse experiences, including the poorest white men who are a large part of the unemployed, police brutality victims, prison population, and those fighting on the frontlines of pointless wars promoted by war hawks — all the horrific injustices promoted by the policies of the Clinton New Democrats. This is why the narratives of identity politics are mostly comforting to the already comfortable.

Now the next part is not exactly the solution. It’s more a portrayal of the perceived victim.

“We all know HRC, we have all met her. She’s the boring lady boss who isn’t as friendly as we expect. She’s the super smart girl in class who seemed not to know how to smile and flirt to endear herself, who was told that honey catches more flies than vinegar. She’s the unapologetically ambitious career woman who makes a mistake and gets dragged through the mud for it, even though her male coworkers do the exact same thing and everyone looks away. She makes mistakes but somehow catches more shit for them than anyone else partly because she doesn’t follow the usual social scripts for a woman.”

Hillary Clinton, as a well off white woman, stands in for all the struggles of well off white women who deserve to break the glass ceiling so that they can join as equals among the well off white men. Clinton isn’t one of the wealthy plutocrats and powerful ruling elite. No, she is a victim of society and of the system that is trying to keep her down.

And here is the last part, the solution:

“This election makes me so anxious because if Trump wins, it means the sins of the entire first paragraph is more okay than the sins of the second.”

So, what is the solution? Vote for Clinton or evil wins. She doesn’t really believe anything Clinton has done is a sin for she shows no evidence to the contrary. She demonstrates a lack of knowledge of what is involved, both in this particular post and other things she has posted.

The only sin she sees Clinton being guilty of is being a woman in a man’s world. That is the narrative and the story was supposed to end with Hillary Clinton winning, the final culmination of a century of progressive aspirations fought for by good liberals. We need to ensure Clinton was elected in order to protect her as a victim from those who seek to victimize her. Clinton would have been the first Victim-in-chief. Just ignore the minor details of all those victimized by Clinton’s policies.

I commented about this on Facebook. A couple people I know commented. Here is the first comment:

“Sometimes I think our education system that forces us to memorize things and then regurgitate them onto a test to get a pat on the head is to blame for some of this stuff. This is practically a word for word script we’ve been fed about why we should like and vote for her.”

And my response: I spoke of willful ignorance. But that’s not quite right. Willful ignorance is not an excuse, for sure. I’m not even sure it’s an explanation. You get at the issue better than I did, articulating what was bothering me about this. It’s a near perfect regurgitation of a script.

A stupid and ignorant person wouldn’t be able to do that. To regurgitate a script like that, you have to be well informed about the scripts so often repeated in the media. And, as you say, this is a skill that has to be learned, it being most well learned by the well-educated. As research shows, sometimes the most well informed people are simultaneously the most misinformed people, as they simply take it all in without discernment and self-awareness.

One interesting thing is that less educated people are less polarized and partisan. If you’re working poor, you don’t have the time to pay attention to all of the scripts in media and memorize them. It takes a fair amount of time and effort to be able to regurgitate scripts like that, so casually that it seems like your own opinion.

The first victims of propaganda and public perception management are the most media-saturated and media savvy. These are the people who have the luxury of free time to regularly absorb what is coming out of the mainstream media and out of the party machines. These people are typically more politically active and connected to those who are politically active. They are the mostly middle-to-upper class partisans who have high voting rates.

Scripts such as these aren’t meant for the poor and disenfranchised. No, their purpose is to keep the most loyal partisans in line and to keep them from thinking any original thoughts.

This is what another friend wrote:

“Doesn’t much resemble the Hillary Clinton I’ve seen on camera and heard on NPR all these years. The woman doesn’t have an ounce if humility or accountability in her. And no, again, her male co-workers did not do the same exact thing. She smiled plenty in the early pics of her, she’s a war hawk who has little perceivable innate warmth, a great deal of privilege, and a serious credibility problem.”

And my response: I agree. This is the fantasyland version of Hillary Clinton or rather the bizarro world version.

I keep repeating that the kind and amount of damning evidence revealed during the campaign season about Hillary Clinton, the Clinton Foundation, the DNC, and colluding MSM hasn’t happened in living memory. I’m not sure it has ever happened before.

Also, I don’t know of any other major candidate in US history that was being investigated about political corruption and wrongdoing leading up to a presidential election. I know my American history fairly well. If someone knows of a comparable situation, I’d love to know about it. But, as far as I can tell, we are in new territory.

This is not normal. And I hope it never becomes normal.

* * *

One last thought:

As this deals with smart people, it would likely involve the smart idiot effect. Professionals of the liberal class tend to not just be highly intelligent but also highly educated. They tend to know a lot about certain things and often to know a little about a lot of things, as a good liberal education gives them. Even so, they typically know less than they think they know. Even experts aren’t experts outside of their field of expertise.

These members of the liberal class are generally successful in their chosen careers or else are able to find other work that is satisfying and pays well. They tend to be more well traveled and worldly. They aren’t isolated in that sense, even as they are isolated in a reality tunnel and media bubble. Their social and class position gives them a sense of confidence and competence.

They are able to argue well and articulate clearly, to offer plausible explanations and convincing narratives. They are smart and able to present themselves as smart. If demanded of them, they would throw out many facts to support their beliefs. And there would be some truth to what they said, even as the evidence they used was cherry-picked.

It reminds me of a coworker my dad told me about. He was extremely smart and could come up with answers quickly. When asked about why he thought a particularly way, he could then offer an instant reason that made sense. But over time my dad realized that he was mostly just rationalizing his intuitions, which doesn’t mean his intuitions were wrong even as the rationalizations may have had little to do with them.

The smarter you are, the better you are likely to be at rationalizations, either in inventing them on the spot or memorizing them.

As always, this isn’t limited to the liberal class. It just seems all the more egregious when good liberals act this way. It’s a need for certainty and easy answers, an ironically conservative-minded tendency. The problem is the world is more complicated than standard political narratives allow for.