I recently sat down with my friend and mentor Douglas Rushkoff to record an episode of his excellent Team Human podcast. We covered a lot of ground, from 20th Century Arab Nationalism to the alt-right, Zizek, magick, fake news, and poor, poor Pepe the frog. We also get into my theory of emerging styles of social solidarity and political action, which I hope to flesh out in subsequent work. Team Human is an amazing podcast, and deserves a spot in your rotation if you’re looking for rays of hope in our dark little timeline.
Unfortunately, word count prevented a more in-depth description of the Digital Fairness Doctrine I’m proposing. Likewise, there are many nuances to defining “fake news” that have to go unaddressed in an OpEd this brief. I’ll elaborate on these points in a future post, when the semester is over and all the papers have been graded.
Can tall tales swing an election? That’s the question being asked today in conference rooms across the digital media industry.
After Donald Trump’s startling presidential victory, many are wondering if an abundance of misleading or simply made up news stories gave President-elect Trump the edge he needed to win. Critics are calling on media companies to regulate the spread of phony news reports. Already, platforms like Facebook and Google have announced plans to curtail fake news by revising their algorithms and user policies. But will such changes really improve the trustworthiness of online news?
First, some perspective…
Have you heard? Hillary Clinton is dying of Parkinson’s disease. Also, Donald Trump thinks the United States shouldn’t have stopped the Bosnian genocide. Angry mobs of “Bernie bros” are hurling chairs at Democratic staffers. And President Obama, who smells like sulfur, is followed everywhere he goes by a swarm of flies.
These are fake statements, pulled from the bowels of the internet. Can you tell?
If you get your information from social media, the world is an almost supernaturally dark place these days. Our feeds and timelines are jammed with outrageous and incredible accounts that prove what we all already suspected: our political opponents are crazy. Maybe some of them are downright evil.
The good news is that much of what you read via social media isn’t true. The bad news is that more and more people believe it is…
Back in June, when word first came of Guccifer 2.0’s hack of the Democratic National Committee, few understood just how big an impact it would have. The hack seemed to be little more than a bit of opposition research and some fundraising spreadsheets. Wikileaks’ Julian Assange pledged to release enough info later that week “to indict Hillary Clinton,” but when nothing materialized, people just sort of moved on.
(For the record, I did get how big a story this was. And to their credit, so did a few others, including Alexa O’Brien, from whose Twitter I first heard about it.)
Even back in June, it was obvious that Russian intelligence was at least partly involved in the DNC hack. Writers like John Schindler—who oddly enough writes for the pro-Trump Observer—have been banging the drum to connect Wikileaks with Russian intelligence for some time now.
Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin must have no interest in dealing with Hillary Clinton for the next 8 years. Clinton, remember, has presided over what is essentially a de facto proxy war between the U.S. and Russia in Syria. Trump, on the other hand, wants to be Vladimir Putin’s best friend. Really, the Russians would be fools not to try helping Trump win the election.
And the Russians are not fools. Which means they absolutely did not shoot their wad this early in the season. Surely not to get Debbie Wasserman Schultz fired. There will be more leaks. Worse leaks. And these leaks will be thoughtfully timed to inflict maximum damage on the Clinton campaign.
The only way I can see this backfiring is if there are too many leaks. More than one or two more file dumps, and it becomes obvious even to the average American voter that Wikileaks and the Kremlin are out to manipulate U.S. politics. That, I believe, would generate sympathy for Clinton and hostility to the perceived meddlers. This is already the Clinton team’s damage control strategy. One more well-timed drop, however, could absolutely tank Hillary’s hopes and open a clear path for Trump to the White House. The Kremlin wants that, and I believe it has the resources to try to make it happen. I’m calling it here: expect an October surprise.
On Monday night, Melania Trump sent a signal to Trump’s digital troll army. And no one in the press even noticed.
They were too preoccupied, you see, with a handful of lines that Melania’s speech obviously cribbed from one given by Michelle Obama at the 2008 Democratic Party convention.
How could Trump’s team be so stupid? journalists were asking themselves. This was a layup gotcha moment. If a hard-luck freelancer hadn’t been the one to catch it, then Team Blue would surely have noticed. Did team Trump really think they wouldn’t get caught?
Of course not. In fact the Trump campaign counted on getting caught for their plagiarism. That’s why they cribbed from, of all people, Michelle Obama. Because here’s the ugly truth: Only writers care about the actual act of plagiarism. The mere act of plagiarism will send reporters into a feeding frenzy, but the general public couldn’t give less of a damn. The public cares about plagiarism if the source of the stolen content is significant (like, oh say, biting from Mussolini). But even then, it’s not like they care a lot.
By selecting Michelle Obama’s speech as the source of their theft, the Trump campaign ensured that news coverage would focus on the act of theft (which no one but journalists cares about), and not the actual source of stolen content. This was a calculated and successful gambit to control the media narrative for the critical first day of the RNC. It directed news coverage for that all-important first day, and helped steer the tone for the days to follow. In doing so, it distracted media attention away from potentially damaging stories and gave the Trump campaign one crucial day to correct mistakes learned on the first night of the convention. All the while the media was busy chasing errant clichés.
As is often the case in politics, you won’t find a smoking gun to prove any particular reading of the situation. However, later in her speech, Melania made another odd reference. “He will never, ever give up,” she said of her husband. “And most importantly, he will never, ever let you down.”
This line, I believe, is the key to understanding Melania’s speech, and by extensions “her” plagiarism.
The line is what is known in internet argot as a “Rick Roll.” That is, the playful insertion of a reference to 80s pop milquetoast Rick Astley in unexpected places. The meme originated on the 4chan message boards, which has (along with its spinoffs) served as a fertile recruiting ground for Trump’s troll army. The channers and their surrogates in the blogosphere have made much of Trump’s powers of persuasion, and there are rumors that some have even infiltrated the campaign at high levels of influence. It’s possible—indeed, in my opinion, very likely—that the Rick Roll constituted a wink at those in the know, communicating sub rosa that this was a speech with both exoteric and esoteric messaging, and that therefore its words had been carefully selected from start to finish. It was an act of reassuring the faithful that the Trump campaign was acting consciously, was not careless, stupid, or thieving. It was a secret handshake, an acknowledgement and quiet thank-you.
I don’t believe Melania was aware of any of this. Nor do I think that Trump is a closeted /pol lurker. But there are people in any campaign whose job it is to understand every facet of its base of support. The chan culture (in particular the ultra-edgy 8chan) has been a tireless fighter on behalf of the man they literally call their God Emperor. If that doesn’t earn you a wink, what does?
All throughout the Obama years, the opinionating liberal press couldn’t genuflect low enough for the forecasts of folks like Nate Silver and the “brilliant” explainers delivered daily by Vox, et. al. A new breed of data-driven blogger had arisen to show us the way! Like the neoliberal system itself, whose water they carried so gratefully, this new strain of explainer-style analysis would be unalarming, orderly, and smugly self-regarding in the manner of the socially liberal, economically corporatist readership to whom it catered.
Imagine their shock last night, when a real estate developer and reality show host with the aesthetic sensibility of Tony Montana ground their bien pensant Hobbiton-on-Hudson world into gravel beneath the heel of his in-all-likelihood-gold-lamé-lined Bruno Maglis.
What the Slates, the WaPos, the NYTimes, New Republics, FiveThirtyEights, Voxes, and other respectable bobo organs failed to understand is that they weren’t heralding the arrival of a new breed of brilliant, impartial forecaster. This was merely the ascendent moment of a new generation of partisan press hacks justifying their own self-interested political prejudices.
Pundits of the FiveThirtyEight and Vox ilk turned out to be not brilliant oracles so much as avatars of a conformist, bourgeois, liberal Upper West Side and Dupont Circle Gen-Xer class, at last come into its own. They saw what they hoped to see, predicted what they hoped would happen. And, well, what the thinker thinks, the prover proves.
During the Obama years, when their neoliberal order went unchallenged, these pundits could do no wrong. But now that Larry David and the villain from a long lost Mark Twain story are violently challenging the neoliberal dispensation, it’s clear these people couldn’t predict a sunset. That’s because their analysis was never based on an impartial gathering and crunching of data. It was based on a careful selection of data confirming what good coastal liberals already “knew.”
In fairness, I’m no better. I was correct in predicting the rise of Trump, but only because, like the Nate Silvers and Matt Yglesiases of the world, it confirmed what I already believed: the white working class is coming apart at the seams, and it will try any desperate measure to save itself. If the country implodes as a result, well, at least those smug Democrats and movement conservatives who have been so brazen in their contempt for the precarious working class will suffer alongside everybody else. In my way, I’m no better than the hacks whose humiliation I’m celebrating this morning. If there’s a hell below, we’re all gonna go.
Truth be told, the only consistently reliable forecaster in the whole political blogosphere is Steve Sailer, mostly because he is every bit as contemptible and Machiavellian as the American political system itself. Morally, I’d say the scourge is too good for him. But an accurate barometer is an accurate barometer. Sailer’s reliability is a cruel fact of nature, like dolphin rape, or gerbils eating their offspring. We must learn to accept reality on its own terms. I recommend reading him, and then doing weekly penance.
So look, we’re all sinners in the hands of an angry God. And by God, I of course mean the neoliberal globalist order, because like God it is a preexisting force of nature that we must never question. In a way, I’m not even upset. I’m just another jaded decadent, grateful for one moment of relief from a life of neverending ennui. I believe the French have a word for it.
No matter how this shakes out, a lot of people are going to be even more pissed off six months from now. So knuckle up, goons. It’s gonna be a sick, deranged summer. And you didn’t have to graduate Columbia j-school to see it coming.
Discussing Muslim-world politics requires a lot of thoughtful study and reflection. It’s a tough subject to report on from the West, since the cultural context is by definition foreign. Before writing anything I usually have to do days, if not weeks, of contextual research to avoid making a Michael Weiss of myself. All of which makes it a great subject for academic work, but a tough topic to blog about.
So since my general area of expertise is extremism and media, and the American election is turning out to be, uh, extremely extreme, I’m going to be writing about that too from now on. Since I live this madness every day, it’ll be easier to shoot from the hip. And since I’m commenting on my own culture and country, I don’t feel bad being a little mean, which (let’s face it) makes for better reading.
Last week, Danish teenager Lisa Borch was convicted of the stabbing murder of her mother. Such crimes, of course, are not unheard of, but what makes the case of Lisa Borch stand out from other grisly family slayings is the teen’s reported fascination with the famous beheading videos of the Islamic State.
Aged 15, Lisa Borch spent hours watching footage online of the decapitation of hostages by Islamic State militant Jihadi John…Borch was sitting on a chair in the living room watching videos on her iPhone when police arrived. When officers asked where her mother was, she simply pointed upstairs. When police subsequently examined her computer, they found the teenager had watched videos of IS executions for hours at a time… (read more)
There is very little to connect Borch’s actions with true domestic terrorism. She doesn’t seem to have made any concrete plans to flee to the caliphate, nor has she made any public statements avowing jihad. Borch’s fascination with the Islamic State appears less indicative of her own political and religious feelings than of a disordered attempt to integrate her violent urges. In this schema, the caliphate becomes a kind of dark, symbolic telos representing psychological wholeness, where her impulses might be domesticated not through repression and sublimation, but through radical acceptance. In this sense, Borch’s crimes do not resemble those of Ali Amin or Shannon Maureen Conley so much as the so-called “Slender Man stabbing” of 2014:
Prosecutors say two 12-year-old southeastern Wisconsin girls stabbed their 12-year-old friend nearly to death in the woods to please a mythological creature they learned about online…One of the girls told a detective they were trying to become “proxies” of Slenderman, a mythological demon-like character they learned about on creepypasta.wikia.com, a website about horror stories and legends. They planned to run away to the demon’s forest mansion after the slaying, the complaint said… (read more)
The Borch murder—and the public’s reaction to it—is not a case of terrorism motivated by the ideology and geopolitical success of the Islamic State. Rather, it is a new cultural manifestation of the IS specter, this time as an object of individual psychosis and collective moral panic. This is a fascinating development. The prospect of the Islamic State joining the ranks of such pop cultural boogeymen as Dungeons & Dragons, Marilyn Manson and Grand Theft Auto indicates a tangle of contradictory cultural significance that is at once ridiculous and sublime.
There is almost always an element of absurdity to moral panic. Even at the time, villainizing AV club nerds who played D&D during lunch period seemed like the kind of stupidity only possible in Reagan-era American. More recently, journalist Dave Cullen has decisively shown the mendacious silliness of blaming Marilyn Manson—a goth drag queen—for the Columbine massacre. Putting the Islamic State in the same company as hapless scapegoats like D&D, Marilyn Manson and Slender Man feels like a fitting insult.
However, those of us who grew up in the midst of one moral panic or another know what glamour these boogeymen can acquire once at center of a good media circus. By making a parochial scapegoat and boogeyman of the IS assassin, we risk trivializing real dangers posed by Islamic radicals, and may even confer a rebel chic onto them. Whether this new role as parent’s worst nightmare ultimately undermines the Islamic State’s credibility or strengthens it will depend on just how sensational future murders are—and how credible the assignment of blame is deemed by teenagers witnessing the spectacle.
On that darker note, we should realize that the Danish case demonstrates the inarguable success which IS has had in conjuring the specter of its hooded assassin and insinuating him into the digital sphere. The Islamic State has achieved what most marketers only dream of doing: forging a brand icon so singular and resilient that it can be set loose to wander through the media ecosystem, reproducing itself independent of corporate oversight, all without suffering the slightest alteration or dilution.
I’ll be addressing this last point in more detail this November, when I present my paper “Brand of Brothers: Marketing the Islamic State” at the 2015 National Communication Association conference. Briefly: I believe that the eerie resilience of the IS brand owes something to the very form of its violence. The act of beheading is a corporeal analog to archetypes of trauma and psychosis that run throughout the literature of depth psychology.
As Jungian analyst Donald Kalsched writes in The Inner World of Trauma the image of decapitation “haunts these patients’ psyches, supervising dissociative activities…We have an image of a violent decapitation – an intended split between mind and body. The neck, as an integrating and connecting link between the two, is about to be severed” (p.13). In the ideations described by Kalsched, a blank-faced man with large, black eyes—in essence a photo negative of “Jihadi John”—emerges from the murk of the unconscious to sever the patient’s head from his body, effectively symbolizing the act of disembodiment and dissociation so frequently experienced in moments of trauma. The cosmetic similarities between Kalsched’s imago, Jihadi John, Marilyn Manson and Slender Man are there, if only by virtue of their very neutrality.
The act of decapitation is therefore emblematic, containing within it the essence of trauma itself, “reminding one of Jung’s early suspicion that ‘fantasies can be just as traumatic in their effects as real traumata’” (p. 14). This may well explain the durability of the IS icon, and perhaps prophesies his future role in the urban legends and moral panics that periodically sweep through the civilian West.
He is, quite literally, the boogeyman himself.
It looks like the Islamic State’s official currency has at last gone from design mock-up to actual minted coin.
The coin will be called the Islamic dinar, will be struck in precious metals, and will theoretically function as the currency of day-to-day exchange throughout regions controlled by IS.
“The group could feasibly make as many gold, silver and copper coins as it wishes to, but the only value this so-called currency is going to have is the value of the precious metal itself.”
In all fairness to Flashpoint and Mashable, at least they’re thinking about the political biases of the Islamic dinar. Other sources, from the Washington Post to the BBC have offered little-to-no analysis, while one editorial circulating around SkyNews, YahooUK and elsewhere offers a few scrambled economic truisms before moving on to the admittedly more thrilling, but less informative, blah blah death cult drum-beating.
That granted, any argument for the Islamic dinar’s worthlessness is, at best, a polemical strategy. It does not reflect economic reality. And from a media-theoretical perspective, it’s absolutely incorrect.
Currency is a medium. Besides functioning as a means of barter and trade, it communicates, reinforces, and even introduces cultural values and practices. In this sense, the Islamic dinar has the potential to be highly valuable as a tool for transmitting and rewriting the cultural practices of regions controlled by IS.
The Flashpoint spokesman is absolutely correct that the Islamic dinar per se will have no value outside its region save as precious metal. But this is only a small fraction of the what currency does. What Flashpoint’s position ignores is the surplus cultural value implicit in that unexchangeability. Most local currencies are hard, if not impossible, to exchange. We can see examples of this surplus cultural value in such existing local currencies as the BerkShare, Bristol Pound or Amsterdam Makkie. And when the value implicit in local currency is applied to a region as unstable as the middle east, and a culture as totalitarian as IS would prefer, this value has the potential to increase exponentially.
The primary biases of local currencies with limited exchangeability are threefold:
1.) A local currency strengthens community identity. This point is almost self-evident. A currency that shares the name of one’s region or community, and belongs only to members of that community is both a symbol and enforcer of in-group identity.
2.) Local currency keeps wealth circulating within a proscribed region and society. It discourages hoarding, speculation and foreign extraction of wealth. As a consequence, there tends to be more opportunity for intra-community business, especially for small and medium-sized operations. Local currency therefore tends to foster the perception of an equal citizenry, while discouraging the formation (or at least the visible formation) of an economic elite.
3.) By the same token, local currency tends to foster a sense of regional isolation. When a local currency may not be exchanged for a non-local one, trade between regions and nations becomes exceedingly difficult. To use the BerkShare as an example, one may purchase locally-produced groceries in BerkShares, but not computers, copper or automobiles. The Dutch Makkie is backed by users’ volunteer hours within their community, and is thus primarily accepted as payment for other services, not goods. In Massachusetts and Amsterdam, where citizens have access to national currencies, these local moneys are complementary. They may improve community cohesion and commerce, but always within the field of a larger national economy. In IS-controlled territory, however, such complementarity will not be an option, and regional isolation and in-group chauvinism are likely to flourish as a result.
Taken together, these biases promise to deliver exactly the cultural climate sought by the Islamic State. Facility of day-to-day trade improves infrastructure and the perception that IS is fit to govern, while the bias against hoarding supports IS’s rhetoric of (Sunni) Muslim equality in the emerging Ummah. Meanwhile, the practical impossibility of foreign trade bolsters IS’s attitude of righteous aggrievement and besieged urgency.
Since so much of IS wealth flows from Gulf-State sources, this new arrangement also has the potential to create a two-tiered monetary system—one for the citizens, and one for government. The currency of statecraft, (which alone can purchase guns and ammunition) will continue to flow to the political elite in the form of riyals, while the currency of wages will become segregated in the Islamic dinar. Upon full adoption of the dinar, it will therefore become even more difficult for any inhabitants of the Islamic State to acquire military, police, or political power without the blessing of IS leadership, thus protecting the entrenched Islamic State from local challenges to its authority.
It’s no surprise that the press sometimes comes up short in its appraisal of a phenomenon as complex as IS. As a former (small-time) journalist, I’m sympathetic to the pressure on reporters to master a complex subject in the time it takes most people to write an email. But Flashpoint is not a journalist on deadline. It’s a private intelligence adviser, presumably one with clients whose actions impact those of us living here in the West. It’s entirely possible that their quote to Mashable was strategic—or out of context—and does not represent the sum of their understanding when it comes to the Islamic dinar. I hope so, for so long as our analysis of IS remains polemical, we remain at a disadvantage, and therefore at risk. Our political goals may be motivated by ideology—liberty, suffrage, the rule of law—but the West will only begin to beat back totalitarian Islamic fundamentalism when our approach begins with actual facts rigorously organized by proven theory. Reality must always precede ideology, or else the latter is doomed.
If anyone is interested in learning more about currency as a medium, I strongly recommend Douglas Rushkoff’s doctoral dissertation, Monopoly Moneys, available online for free via Utrecht University Repository.
Over at Slate, Joshua Keating has published a piece warning readers that ISIS’s execution videos are proving an effective recruitment tool. It’s a brief article, and does not purport to be exhaustive. Nevertheless, I believe it exemplifies a broader failure on the part of Western analysts to truly understand ISIS as a media phenomenon. ISIS’s Violence, the headline reads, Is Its Message. With all due respect to Keating, whose work I follow closely, this focus on raw content is at best an incomplete assessment. In fact, the persuasive power of the Islamic State’s messaging can only be understood when considered as a part of the larger media ecosystem in which it exists.
The ISIS phenomenon does not exist in a media vacuum any more than it does a political vacuum. Which is to say, the ISIS videos are not merely the sum of their frames. Indeed, these videos’ true persuasive power resides in the modality of their presentation. As I’ve argued before, Western censorship (both corporate and governmental), by deferring full dissemination to marginal, or even sympathetic, media organs, ironically does the work of a media buyer for ISIS’s “advertising and marketing” wing. When CNN (or Slate) fails to show these videos for their complete grotesque duration, they abdicate the power to contextualize, and therefore to shape meaning. That power then falls to the jihadi BBSes, the Western-critical leak sites, and avowed neoconservative propagandists who, for a variety of motives ranging from neutral to malicious, honest to Machiavellian, are willing to present these executions in full. Contrary to Keating’s implication, viewers, including potential ISIS recruits, never experience raw content. Raw content does not exist out of context. Rather, viewers consume, interact, and even merge psychologically with the totality of the media-viewing experience, with all its many messages, explicit and covert, friendly or otherwise.
At this point, Western analysts with better resources than mine are measuring and debating the actual effectiveness of the ISIS videos as recruitment tools. Good luck to them. But unless they conduct their research with an eye toward the complete media ecosystem in which these videos exist and are consumed, their conclusions will be at best incomplete, and more likely inaccurate and misleading. Perhaps such repellant acts of cruelty really are effective means of recruiting “ordinary” soldier-types. But if so, I sincerely doubt this would continue to be the case were the power to shape their meaning not already handed over to so many malicious and irresponsible actors.