This is part of a series:
The Neoliberal Conspiracy 01 discussed the nature of conspiracy and the value of being aware of the possibilities of conspiracies of the already powerful. In our societies, these already powerful people tend to belong to the hyper-wealthy corporate class. I put forward the idea of a neoliberal conspiracy which supports ideas of:
- “free markets” which translates into the prevention of democratic attempts to reduce the power of corporations;
- wealth as virtue;
- the effectiveness of privatisation of common property and services with the aim of transferring wealth from ordinary people to the dominant classes;
- the denial of any public good without corporate profit, and;
- the radical destruction of tradition while pretending to be conservative.
I suggested that neoliberalism was a deliberate movement to counter to the elite crisis of “too much democracy” in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and a way of defusing the rapidly rising environmental movement, which threatened to prevent corporate exploitation of the material world.
In the second installment, The Neoliberal Conspiracy 02: Education, I described some of the ways that education was being bent in favour of wealthy people, and put under their control, with the consequence that people would be less able and knowledgeable to challenge them.
Education involves control of the information and quality of information given to various classes in society. Often the dominant groups are taught thinking and use of power and given useful connections, whereas the lower classes are taught the virtues of obedience and adapting to the desires and requirements of the powerful. Skills and knowledge are only relevant to the extent they allow students to fit in with the patterns of power. In Australia we subsidise already wealthy private schools (who put their fees up in response), and cutback funding to ordinary schools. This helps restrict access and cement the power and knowledge of the wealthy.
This blog now moves into questions of information provision and conveyance in more general terms. Information always forms part of power struggles, but in neoliberalism information is nearly all only part of a power and persuasion struggle; this pattern is intensified by the problems of information in a supposed information society.
Problems of information
One fundamental problem is that the world is a complex system, beyond the conscious understanding of any particular individual.
This seems magnified in so called ‘information society, in that there is so much information that we can always choose information which pleases us, and which states that those who disagree with us are simply wrong, or that their disagreement comes from intent or malice. People who disagree, are evil. This may help reassure us of our ability to navigate this complexity; even as it almost certainly leads to misunderstanding and folly.
Another problem seems to be that we always filter information by other information that we consider correct or probable. This information may be wrong to begin with; therefore inaccuracy runs the risk of accumulating, and making more recent “information acquisitions” even more precariously accurate.
The third problem is that neoliberalism, (or the support of corporate power and wealthy people through talk about free markets), cannot deliver what it promises; liberty and a functional high prosperity economy. It only delivers ongoing support for ecological destruction, suppression of dissent, destruction of government services, stagnant wages, economic crisis and plutocracy. The only techniques available to neoliberal governance is taxpayer support for big business (often through military spending), increasing the right of the wealthy to destroy ecologies, suppression of organised labour, government service cutbacks which largely affect the poor and lower middle classes, and taxcuts for the wealthy.
Therefore, in any kind of democracy, supporters of neoliberal corporate dominance and its lack of responsibility, have to have to stir up passions and misrepresent reality to gain support. There is no alternative.
Information and Behaviour
Information is important not just because it guides us through the world, but because it contributes to who we think we are. People with different theories of what it is to be a person, or category of person, or to be in the world, will likely have differing interpretations of events in the world, and hence different interactions with that world. A person who thinks that humans are competitive individualists, will behave differently and suffer differently to a person who thinks people are lovingly co-operative. They can both be wrong, but it changes behaviour and expectations.
By giving us modes of interpretation and setting problems, information is constitutive of our modes of being in the world, and our experience.
If you control, or heavily influence, a person’s information then you are likely to influence their understandings, behaviour and interactions. Most acts of communication exist to persuade other people to do things such as: collaborate with you, honour you, fear you, agree with you, help you, work for you, support you, fight against your enemies, behave in particular expected ways etc.
All of these attempts may have unintended consequences, partly because they are of limited accuracy and we live in complex systems, and people then have to deal with those consequences. That communication may not always have the intended effect is to be expected, but persuasion is still one of its primary aims. Rhetoric is fundamental, not incidental, to language.
In information society, information problems are intensified, because a great deal of self image and status (as a independent thinker, or not being a ‘sheeple’) appears to come from being ‘right’ or ‘correctly informed.’ This renders self correction even more difficult than usual. Many people engage in ‘virtue signalling’ about this: they are sane, righteous and calm thinkers while everyone else is unbalanced, or swayed by hysterical propaganda, or the orthodoxy. This does not lead to calm discussion. Despite the complexity, there seems little humility about our capacity to understand what is going on.
Distribution and distortion of information
Irrespective of the possibility of using information for deliberate control, whenever free production of information exists, then information tends to get widely distributed for the following reasons, non of which contribute to accuracy:
1) We select information because it confirms what we already think, and confirms or fits in with our existing biases or the information we have already accepted. This is a form of information filtering, that means we do not have to change our minds every time we encounter contrary ideas.
- 1a) Much important information will be filtered out, by this process.
- 1b) One of the first things we filter out, is this process, as it implies we are not good processors of information. We can see it in others, but less easily in ourselves.
2) Information is spread because of its propaganda function, which those distributing it think benefits them or their allies – or at the least confirms what they already think. In this set-up, accuracy is a minor concern because lies and misdirections which support the supposed ‘underlying truth’ are acceptable. This seems to be the default neoliberal position.
- 2a) Propaganda is often designed to appeal to an audience’s existing biases, and shift that audience in the direction of the emitter. It is a form of crafted manipulation.
- 2b) It has long been known that a convincing lie will travel much faster than the correcting truth, and with the internet the lie will hang around and be rediscovered, repeatedly. Climate deniers can reuse the same false facts repeatedly, despite the number of rebuttals. Rebuttals tend to get forgotten.
- 2c) Propaganda can also use distractions. If people are worried about the wealthy, get them worried about wealthy people who don’t push the neoliberal line like George Soros, and Bill Gates. Then ignore the behaviour of all the other billionaires who may be more of a social threat, like Rupert Murdoch, Charles Koch, or Donald Trump. This also helps keep the wealthy in line, as they can fear what will happen to them if they transgress in what they say.
- 2d) While most neoliberal propaganda is internal to the country and comes from deniable sources, there is also external propaganda from other countries which tries to undermine social functioning, as a form of non-violent warfare. Thus the Russians supported Trump to help destroy the US (although the tendencies of the pro-Trump audience to distribute anything that supported them, also led to the making of fake news to ‘attract eyeballs’ and get advertisement money). It is possible that some of the ‘covid is not serious in any way’ material is being distributed for the same reasons. Likewise US government and corporate propaganda to encourage capitalism is well documented. At the same time it is possible that relatively accurate information can be denounced as foreign propaganda.
3) Information is spread when it is issued by people we identify with, and therefore consider trustworthy. This seems to be one of the standard ways of filtering large amounts of information. The filter is quick and allows us to move on, or act.
- 3a) We also tend to think, that information issued by those we don’t identify with, or identify as being opposed to us, is necessarily false. This easily becomes the basis of ‘polarisation’, or what I am calling ‘shadow politics,’ in which we project our own denied failings onto others and blame them for all our problems. This again is a standard neoliberal trope to build support, although it is not only used by neoliberals. Once it becomes established, it influences most communication.
- 3b) Hence Trump attempts to threaten any media or reporter who dares to disagree with him, and accuses them of lying – even if the media organisation they are working for is 95% in favour of flattering him. In neoliberalism, loyalty to the underlying cause should be 100%. Any organisation which does try and be impartial and only report the truth is suspect – perhaps because neoliberalism cannot be supported by the truth.
- 3c) This category-effect means that some people argue they must be right precisely because other disliked people disagree with them. Disagreement does not lead to discussion but to confirmation.
4) Information which is highly emotionally charged can appeal directly to our feeling self. Emotionality, often generates a sense of truth or reality (“If I am angry with that person, there must be a reason, and the anger must be justified”). It also functions to prevent reflective thinking, and to confirm people’s allegiance to the information source and increase their hostility to counter-sources. If a tightly controlled company or person uses this strategy (e.g. Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, Fox News), then they may be getting an audience for the advertisement space they sell, ‘telling the truth’ according to their biases, and influencing people not to trust other sources and stay with them. The standards of evidence are lowered. Sometimes scathing humour can serve this function.
- 4a) Confident certainty is also persuasive to people in the in-group, irrespective of whether it is deserved or no, and this helps shut down discussion, or reflection. It is another hallmark of neoliberal communication, along with condemnation.
5) Some information may spread because it makes life easier, and helps collaboration, builds friendships and so on. It may have deleterious effects as well, but these are not as clear and tend to be ignored.
- 5a) Sometimes information which makes life easier, like delaying action on climate crisis, may hinder people from seeing needed information, which could keep them alive.
6) Some information issued by companies is simply hype, to sell products, or confirm their power in the markets. Such hype is likely to be designed to be memorable, and spreadable, so it affects markets, profitability, actions and general knowledge. Rather than going with existing technology to solve a problem, people may postpone action for the supposedly better hyper-innovative technology that is “just about to be released”.
- 6a) Markets, particularly financial markets, seem to be largely based on such hype, which is possibly one reason for financial bubbles, and people remaining loyal to businesses when they are near breaking, or hoping for the breakthrough that will keep markets stable and growing.
7) ‘Science’, or other modes of attempting to find accuracy, will be attacked when they disagree with neoliberalism. Scientists can recognise that while they have informed people according to the best of their knowledge, they can be wrong. Neoliberals are right before any evidence comes in, and are right whatever the evidence. Hence, science is automatically described as wrong whenever it disagrees with established bias, or interest.
- 7a) There is no role for recognition of limited, or temporary, certainty, or ongoing uncertainty. We can keep producing greenhouse gases and we know it will be ok if we don’t cut back just yet.
- 7b) Building real knowledge takes effort, time and correction. As said above, building or finding an appealing lie, can be much much quicker. The time and refinement process makes real knowledge look as if it is constantly changing, because it is responding to new data. People in this society think truth should be unchanging.
8) I suspect some people also enjoy producing confusion. Information confusion, means that we will be more likely to choose our information by its relationship to our existing biases, so it opens us further up to manipulation.
- 8a) The point here is that the information which gets taken up by others and spread by others (in the Richard Dawkins sense ‘memes’), obviously has some pull, and emitting lots of conflicting information with the same general push, may help some version of the information be selected and promoted naturally by other people.
9) US culture, in particular, is sunk in optimism and positive thinking. Problems can and will be solved. Recognising the problems can be defined as negative thinking, and is thought to bring on the destruction being recognised. In this framing, problems are easily forgotten, especially if there are too many of them. Supporters of President Trump, for example, frequently seem to forget his checkered business and political history, and always assume the best. Memories are removed by media not building histories and contexts for what is happening.
- 9a) Sometimes this optimism functions as denial – as, for instance, when the underground right (the real deep state) insists that Trump is fighting child abuse against evil Democrats, despite his dubious sexual past, and his apparent lack of interest in this pursuit (judging by his twitter feed). Trump also lowers environmental standards and tries to make climate change worse. This will abuse the lives of everyone’s children, but that cannot be dealt with, so we will assume Trump is doing something good to save us. Neoliberalism has to pretend to goodness at the mythical level, because it does seem harmful to most people, even if it does not intend to be.
- 9b) For some discussion of positivity and the response to the corona virus go to part 6 of this chain.
10) In neoliberal ‘misinformation society’ information does not exist to promote discussion between opposing groups, or accuracy testing. It exists to cause fracture and dislocation, and leave the wealth establishment in charge.
Information and Organisation
This is not an important part of this argument, but it may be helpful to remind people that organisations mis-transmit information, because of their structures. ‘Punitive Hierarchies’ in which the higher-ups have the right to punish or dismiss lower-downs, tend to set up systems whereby the lower-downs tend to give the higher-ups the information they think those higher-ups want to hear, as it is not worth facing punishment. The higher-ups also refuse to let those below know what is going on, to avoid challenge or to look ignorant. Eventually the whole organisation comes to live in fantasy, with decisions made on inaccurate data, and the expectations of what those people are reporting to, want to hear.
Siloing, which is a kind of sideways hierarchy adds to these effects, as parallel groups consider themselves rivalrous, or cannot communicate.
Authoritarian organisational structures distort information. The more punitive those organisations, the more information distortion occurs.
Information and Ownership of Media
In neoliberal societies, the main sources of information about what is happening tend to be owned by wealthy people or corporations. These main sources tend to rely on other corporations for advertising revenue. This reinforces the tendency of these sources to primarily express the views of their owners and controllers, and the corporate class in general.
Inside recognisably strongly ideological media, such as the Murdoch Empire, people tend to give the news the spin they think the hierarchy requires – especially when the culture asserts that journalists get sacked for going against the wishes of the hierarchy. Even if a journalist writes the ‘truth’ this can be altered by a sub-editor who wants to please their boss. Given that people in the organisation tend to read the organisation’s news, this increases the news bubble they live within, and the ideological basis of that news.
Information corporations can also sponsor supposedly independent information sources, which reinforce their message, or make the message seem truer because it comes from many apparent sources. Sources are not independent or unbiased because they agree with you and are on youtube or in a podcast. Indeed podcasts should be suspect, because the people making them are rarely expected to give sources, and there is less time for listener reflection.
We can, in general, classify media as neoliberal or extreme neoliberal. Some neoliberal media organisations may appear to support human rights, minorities and so on (the so called ‘liberal media’), and others will be more or less open in their contempt for ‘difference’ (the so called ‘conservative media’). All of them will support some version of the corporate establishment, or some faction within that establishment.
Now there may be more principled sources of information than others, but even these are subject to the forces listed above, and there is little countervailing force in current distributions of information which leads to correction, and so news is likely to reinforce neoliberal dominance in general. Fox and the New York Times both support the corporate establishment in general, Fox probably even more so.
People informed by mainstream sources will be told that other sources which have different opinions and different news should be dismissed as biased, and people are unlikely to read or view it. Neoliberal media often campaigns fiercely against non-corporately controlled media, as for example when the Murdoch Empire and the Australian Government campaign against the publicly owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation, for daring not to always support neoliberal truth.
The more the media can inculcate a neoliberal bias the less likely we are to have any kind of democratic counter-revolution, and the more likely we are to have an authoritarian result – as there is no necessary connection between capitalism and liberty for most people.
We could consider information as existing in an information market. In this market people may well tend to choose what pleases them, or is useful to them, as they do for other items. We cannot know the value of information in market terms in advance – effort put into gathering accurate information, may not be appreciated, or valued, by the market. Amounts of labour applied to checking has little to do with ‘value’ on the market, in terms of sales or power.
Eventually the market, as an information processing device, will encounter reality and feedback effects will be generated; inaccurate, or even partially accurate, information will cause problems – perhaps even begin collapse, or start off the normal processes of ‘creative destruction’. Possibly this collapse can be delayed as when taxpayers bailout large companies due to the effects of what seems to be normal neoliberal crony capitalism, or when corrupt political systems get bailed out by increasing misinformation or militarisation of ‘law enforcement’, or by distraction techniques such as pretending the President is doing something constructive.
The conveyance of relatively accurate ‘conscious’ information seems a difficult problem. Part of the problem is the structure and patterning of information collection and distribution. For the reasons we have discussed, even if some organisations where not trying to manipulate us to support their power and dominance, then the distribution of relatively accurate information would still face problems.
There is no need of a deliberate conspiracy for media to attempt to support the dominant groups who own them, but some media probably is conspiring to support those groups, and to discredit any information which would suggest that information issued by people opposing them has any value.
Factoring in the likely presence of neoliberals needing to deceive the people in order to retain power, and the normal distortion effects of media transmission that we have discussed above, the chance of our societies surviving (or even admitting) any major challenge is greatly diminished, largely because we won’t be informed enough to make reasonable decisions, and information will simply become a political tool.