President Trump’s victory will have massive consequences in the Anthropocene age, and I’ve been suffering a lot of criticism, and dismissal, from friends over the last year or so for predicting a Trump victory. Now it’s all over, I guess it’s time to explain the logic of the prediction, when people might even listen. My basic point is that to understand Trump’s victory, you have to understand how information and knowledge works in contemporary Information Society.
Most of the theory is argued at greater length in Disorder and the Disinformation Society: The social dynamics of information, networks and software. Routledge 2015.
1) The first point is simple. Information is primarily about power and persuasion. It is about shaping the world another person perceives and getting them to see themselves in a particular way, so as to act in a particular way. Information is not primarily about truth, but about magic. Repeated items, from respected sources, become taken as truth and create perceived reality.
More subtly we can conceive communication as operating on a continuum between: a) an attempt to use accuracy as a tool of persuasion and b) an attempt to persuade through deception. Even the most abstract science aims to persuade people of its truth and to change their behaviour accordingly. Persuasion is part of communication. Whether it is relatively accurate or relatively deceptive is not always easy to tell, and depends upon the contest involved. People may be more prone to deception in some circumstances than others. If they think the persuasion is a matter of life and death, or the people they are persuading are beneath them or potentially dangerous, then it probably becomes easier to persuade by deception.
I shall later on in this blog piece, suggest that information is about self-identity and magic. If you can persuade someone of the truth of the matter, then you change their sense of self and change their behaviour. A good persuader is a kind of magician.
2) There is too much information to uncover it all. Consequently need “truth filters”. People filter information by general knowledge (other already accepted information), and by group identity and processes of belonging. Group identity means that people who are perceived as being part of the group, or exemplary in the group are trustworthy. What they say, or information they pass is considered likely to be true – especially if it reinforces group identity. In the Information Age good information is often drowned by easy to process information that meets the requirements of group identity.
3) When Trump got involved the election was never going to be about accuracy, but about magic and his puissance, or his status as a ‘man of power’ able to carry people along with him.
4) Both candidates have a long term media history, which shapes the general knowledge people have to filter (or ‘frame’) information about them, and hence whether they are likely to listen to them or not, and how they evaluate them.
Clinton has been smeared for over 30 years by the mainstream media. Unfounded accusations have been reported and discussed repeatedly. The Republicans have spent millions trying to convict her of anything. In this cause they have made the accusations a public and repeated (and therefore ‘verified’) part of public discourse. She is their number one villain, and the media has played along – in general giving small coverage to her victories, or any of her achievements. You may have to be a fanatical Hilary fan to know anything good about her. Everyone else ‘knows’ she is suspicious, and criminal. At certain levels, the lack of criminal convictions proves that she is a form of superpowered evil, who escapes repeatedly (like Batman’s Joker or Poison Ivy). She is a strong evil woman; she is a witch.
Trump on the other hand has a long-time mainstream media coverage depicting him as a powerful, successful all-American businessman. His very name is promoted as an icon of luxury and success. He can sometimes seem a bit of a buffoon, but that humanises him and makes him a regular guy. In the US, business is generally conceived of as good, with successful business people almost always portrayed as having massive special and inherent talents which set them apart and make them a success – even the ruthless ones are ‘colourful’. In this filtering Trump become superhuman. A veritable god. Everyone who knows a little about Trump will know he is a great success, a triumph of the American Dream. You have to work much harder if you want to uncover the trail of failures, dark deals and privilege – this is usually hidden in the boring business pages, where some form of accuracy actually counts.
At a mythic level, or the level of ‘general knowledge’, the campaign was being fought between crooked Hilary and hero Donald or, if you prefer, an evil woman and an exemplary man. Gender was important.
5) Information is political and forms selves. As said previously, information is filtered by group identity and makes group identity. How people classify themselves, is part of the way people construct their self identity with others and in opposition to others.
In Information Society people tend to form ‘information groups’, which are based upon their identities and general knowledge. The purpose of the information group is to filter and gather information together; this reinforces group cohesion, and group and personal identity. It is a necessary artefact of information society with huge consequences.
The group can, and often does, ‘protect’ people from the information possessed by other groups – it helps shield members and provide arguments to show how evil the outgroups are; to block flow and attempts at communication. These groups may overlap, but they tend to fall into exclusive categories.
The strategy of getting people worked up about how evil the outgroups are, and not letting them hear the views of real outsiders, is a good marketing strategy and is employed by some media outlets to keep and capture their audiences (aiming for profit reinforces lack of accuracy). It makes disloyalty hard. It reinforces group identity, and keeps people fixated on hearing what they want to hear to make sense of the world. Again, it keeps people ‘engaged’ and inhibits them from questioning the reality of what they read or watch.
6) This occurs for both left and right groups. However, the right is much better at manipulating it – and this is the source of their magic.
They rigorously police speech, and make sure people are on target and repeating talking points. It is amazing how quickly the same meme will be everywhere on the right, giving it the appearance of inevitability and truth. They are not frightened of encouraging rage, because that keeps people engaged and unlikely to actually converse with outsiders. They drive out outsiders, or make them scapegoats.
Repetition and reinforcement creates perceived reality. Eventually everyone just knows Clinton is a criminal and should be jailed, even if they are not sure what for, or reiterate that she was responsible for things that she has been cleared of or was never involved in. Her innocence in any one particular disconnected case does not prove she was innocent of all the charges (there are so many). General knowledge becomes personal knowledge.
The Republican party also could run memes in their groups to see which were likely to take off, and they did nothing to correct memes they knew where untrue if that brought them party loyalty, anger against Democrats and votes. They manipulated the system successfully, at the cost of not having policies based on reality – but fantasy has a greater pull (as it often does with sex, for example). The Democrats seemed constrained by an ideal of truth, and ideal of politeness (although this was the rudest election I’ve seen from the left- the relatively closed information group was having an effect, and groups are polarizing or defining themselves by opposition.)
People on the Democrat side, don’t find it easy to be as isolate. They generally, have to have to be involved with at least mildly right wing media, as the corporate sector controls the media, and pays for the media through advertising. Supposedly Left wing media does not have such a ‘closed box effect’ in the same way; it gives light right views, seeks balance etc. This media emitts plenty of pro-corporate right wing material – it seems ‘left’ because, in comparison with the mainstream right media, it’s not completely without a moderate perspective. However, this has also meant that the left have tended to accept the comfortable idea that neoliberalism was ok in principle, and that fighting it was problematic or extreme. The Right, in its more isolated media, managed to both promote corporate dominance and denounce its consequences.
7) Information groups tend to manufacture scapegoats to help form unity
These scapegoats can be blamed for all the ills of the world, and attacked/sacrificed, while keeping group members pure and unified. The scapegoats of a group, exemplify what its members must not be, if they wish to stay members. Treatment of scapegoats often functions as a threat to would be dissenters. You know what happens if you behave like them, or show sympathy to them. Scapegoats are often said to be from information outgroups.
On the right you have a range of choices to suit your placing; blacks, latinos, migrants, commies, liberals, godless liberals, wicked liberal business people, educated liberals, liberal women, femininazis, Hillary Clinton, or the interfering State.
Pro-democrat information groups tend to scapegoat the uneducated, or the really wealthy. In the US, few really believe that wealth is bad, so that position has little appeal, and the first simply proves the right’s point about educated elites. The left has no effective scapegoats to blame or sacrifice, so their groups are less tight, less bonded, less passionate and less integrated.
8) The faults of exemplars appear small
If a person is defined as exemplary of an ingroup, then their faults tend to be ignored or diminished in respect for their apparent virtues. Indeed faults may be seen as ‘things-everyone-does’ even if you don’t know anyone as bad as the exemplar. By becoming presidential candidate Trump, with his supposed business ability, was able to become an exemplar of the ingroup, and his faults excused – even if most Republican men and women would be horrified to meet an ordinary person who contemplated grabbing their daughters, or who appeared unable to tell the truth or make a consistent story. If a person becomes an exemplar of an outgroup (as Clinton did for Republicans, and Trump does for Democrats) then their faults become exaggerated and obscure their virtues – having anything openly to do with them shows massive disloyalty.
Clinton could never get herself defined as an exemplary Democrat, because of the mainstream media’s promoted general knowledge about her, and because many Democrats wanted a more obviously radical candidate – as said previously, you had to work to find Clinton’s positive record. This helped make her faults more visible to everyone, and lowered enthusiasm for her amongst nominal supporters, and this feeds into point 13 below.
9) Falsehood is expected
People in information groups are also not frightened of making up fiction, which sounds plausible or persuasive. If caught out, the groups will either ignore the failure, reiterate their falsehood more strongly, forget it for a while and repeat it later, accuse the revealer of unspeakable crimes, or say that everyone lies and the outgroup members are much worse. Once issued, a pleasing falsehood can separate from its refutation and easily be re-accepted.
People play the game that they know information is likely false. Everyone can say they are suspicious and smart, while accepting ingroup crap. This move effectively reinforces the idea that their opponents lie constantly, but they are clever and can see through this, as well as see through the few lies in their group. This keeps people loyal and on topic.
That Donald Trump made unreliable statements, was secondary to him making pleasing statements for his followers. He was also vague enough for his lies to be justified or ignored, should they ever become a problem. It also appears likely that because his followers did not expect him to tell the truth, they could select out the statements which were pleasing to them as being true and dismiss displeasing ones as strategic lies. Given Trump’s insistence on success, and the media’s promotion of his success, this made Trump an almost blank canvas for fantasies of success whatever the differences in how success might appear to his various audiences.
Being wrong involves a loss of status in this information world. So not admitting being wrong or failure is a mark of strength – of puissance if you like
10) The right pulls together. The left factionalises
The right have been pulling together for years. There should be nothing in common between libertarians and Christian fundamentalists, but they get on to keep power. The Christians have been taught to accept capitalism as part of Christianity. White supremacists can also get on with libertarians and non-racist Christians for the sake of power. There has been an effort to promote solidarity (often through scapegoating marked outgroup members), which is missing on the left. Partly there is no need for consistency in a political ideology. Different points can be wheeled out for different audiences. A party can argue for liberty one day, and authority the next.
Because Trump was centred in right wing media, the general informational and identity group pull would be for those who felt Republican to move towards cementing their loyalty towards the Republican party. Very few Republicans who had anything to lose really disowned Trump, when it came down to it; they joined in with their own side. Despite his lack of religion, Evangelicals supported him because the Republican party is their sole power base, he was not the evil witch and was a man who held the right opinion on abortion. No other issue was allowed to matter. They have a long history on this as well.
Followers of Bernie Sanders appear not to have done the same (I suspect Republican provocateurs stirred up dissension between Clinton and Sanders supporters; certainly there was a lot of rather peculiar fighting going on). Many people on the left could not bring themselves to say “I don’t like Clinton but Trump is so bad I have to vote for her”. Whereas, on the right, “I don’t like Trump but I won’t let Clinton get in”, seems to have been common.
11) Trump’s communication style fits in with this basic paradigm of communication
Trump stays on topic: “Make America Great Again”, “I’m a success. I can solve these problems”, “Things are bad and I’ll fix it”, but he is rarely specific. People can agree with him or think that what he says is good, but he produces few splits amongst his audience by elucidating matters of detail. He does not say what a “Great America” involves, which could cause disputes. He does not say how he will solve problems. He repeats himself frequently, as with “Crooked Hillary”, where he makes the unfounded charge part of her name, part of her out-group identity. This reinforces the ‘general knowledge’ people have, and creates the ‘crookedness’. Similarly dwelling on “success”, as an undefined category when attached to himself, appeals to all audiences who want to absorb their own success from him. He makes himself a ‘man of power’. People talk of his ‘genius,’ – another suitably vague term loaded with meaning.
He, and his audience by proxy, engage in magical evocation. He makes his audience passionate, angry, involved, entranced. He attacks the scapegoats he borrows from their information groups. He is the strong man who will protect his audience from the nightmares he evokes. He motivates anyone prepared to respond to his key trigger words. He creates his temporary reality, and carries an audience to their reality in which he becomes central.
His campaign speeches are dislocated, rambling and hypnotic messes. They quite possibly derail any attempt at rational, evaluative or critical thought. They repeat his memes endlessly and vaguely.
On the other hand, Clinton goes on and on, believing in truth, planning and inclusion. Consequently, people in her audience argue about little things with her. They may get the impression they disagree with her a lot, she seems to have no sense of who to blame, or of who her ingroup is, so they don’t know what they are fighting against. So while you can’t altogether trust her, Trump says “a lot that makes sense”.
12) Fictional Demographics generated by information groups
Pro-Democrat people frequently told me that nobody could vote for Trump because he was clearly a manipulative braggart who knew nothing, despite similar facts not stopping people from voting for Bush Jr. twice. However, they could say this because they were in their own information world in which this was impossible. Not in reality. People would say women would not vote for Trump, but pictures from his rallies were full of women. People said that educated people would not vote for Trump, when a few minutes on facebook in right wing groups would have shown them otherwise. Trump’s potential demographic was always bigger than Democrats seemed to suspect, because the people they knew who were not going to vote for Trump anyway, were not going to vote for Trump.
13) Non compulsory voting
If people generally disliked Clinton, for no particular reason, they would not feel compelled to vote for her. However, Trump voters were passionate. They would go out and vote, and organise others to vote. There might be a whole body of people who had never voted who would vote for Trump. This discovery of previous non-voters was incredibly unlikely for Clinton, because of the general knowledge about her. That Clinton had a machine, simply reinforces the idea that she was compelling people to vote, not allowing spontaneity. Without voter enthusiasm, and with the general doubt about Clinton, she risked being lost beneath passion of Trump’s magic.
14) Surveys were undecided
Pro-Democrats would repeatedly point to surveys. However they nearly always forgot to report that sometimes these surveys showed huge levels undecided voters – say in the region of 25%. Unless one candidate is more than 25% ahead of the other, such a survey tells you nothing. If surveys two months out from the election still have huge numbers of undecided voters then that should worry people, but it didn’t – they took their reinforcement from their information group, not the data. People decided not to accept the uncertainty, or work with it, but to resolve that the uncertainty did not matter.
15) Surveys are not accurate anyhow
Old Anthropological issue. Particularly, if people think you are official, they will tell you what they think you want to hear. In general they will not tell you the truth if there is much of a chance they will be blamed or ridiculed for it.
When Clinton had been portrayed as the face of the system, then the likelihood people would lie or misdirect about their intentions towards her is huge. There was a large possibility that most of the undecided people had already decided to vote Trump, or were inclining that way.
Trump was a master of informational magic. He may not understand how it works, but it uses it to persuade and involve people, to shape their view of the world, through vague impressive terms, without giving them handholds to criticise him. The effectiveness of this technique is is reinforced by the dynamics of information in Information Society.
Information is primarily about persuasion, making groups, reinforcing views of the world and persuading people to act. It is only about ‘truth’ or accuracy in specific, and often hard to maintain, circumstances. Eventually, false information will cause upset and unintended consequences, but that may well be less important to those using it, than its socially more pleasing and empowering aspects.
The Russian interference does not alter any of this. The Russians helped spread rumours which were useful to Trump. They helped increase suspicion of Clinton, which was all that was needed to lower her vote. They helped portray Trump as a person challenging the system, rather than a person who would reinforce the corruption and distance of the system.
The closeness of rightwing groups led to these Russian messages getting intense spread, while people on the left just wondered how anyone could take these points seriously. The left forgot the way that information filters work.
Trump won and the Russians almost certainly helped, but they could only operate so effectively because of the factors described above.