Back in Soviet times, the two main newspapers were Pravda (The Truth) and Izvestia (The News). And the standard joke was,
“There’s no truth in The News and there’s no news in The Truth.”
It was understood that the Communist Party, through its own organ Pravda and through the “government” newspaper Izvestia, was telling the people what it felt they needed to know. People read the paper, but also tried to divine what the authorities might be hiding.
The extent of the propaganda was evident in the experience of one of my Russian-language professors at Indiana University. In the summer of either 1986 or 1987 he led a student group to the Soviet Union, and they were supposed to visit Sochi, on the Black Sea. But once they were in the USSR, they were informed that they would be unable to go Sochi because of “civil unrest” in the city.
When they got back to the U.S., my professor learned that the real cause was a catastrophic malfunction of the city’s sewage system. As he commented, adopting a mock-Russian accent, “Yes, is civil unrest in Sochi. Can only mean that streets are full of shit.”
The remarkable thing, of course, was what it revealed about the information policy of the Soviet regime. It was understandable that they would try to hide the reality of what bad shape their infrastructure was in. It was more surprising that they would rather give foreigners the impression that people were rioting in one of their cities.
And beyond that, it was interesting that they thought it would work, that people wouldn’t find out what was actually going on.
How things have changed.
The Czech Republic has a free and uncensored press. On newstands you can find a range of dailies and weeklies, and the online offereings offer an even wider spectrum.
People criticize the government, they criticize the president, they criticized the government that was in power before last October’s elections, people call for “Czexit” from the EU and for the country to leave NATO, and people criticize those positions and explain why the EU and NATO are crucial to the country’s future.
And yet ...
In June, 2013, Andrej Babiš bought a company called Mafra.
Babiš was at the time the richest man in the country (owner of Agrofert, a sprawling agro-industrial conglomerate), and the leader of a new political movement, ANO (Akce nespokojených občanů—the Campaign of Dissatisfied Citizens).
He was also starting to come under attack for the way he’d gotten rich off of subsidies from the Czech government and from the European Union. And there was bad press surrounding the manner in which Agrofert had made some of its acquisitions.
What made Mafra so useful was that it was the owner of the two most influential Czech dailies, Lidové noviny (The People’s Newspaper, with a tradition going back to the late 19th century) and Mladá fronta DNES (Youth Front Today; it was set up right after World War II and run by the Socialist Youth Movement, but after 1989 it turned into a respectable and even right-leaning publication).
In terms of circulation, the Czech champion was a title called Blesk (Flash), but that’s really a tabloid, so as far as “serious” journalism, there was no matching the reach of Mafra’s titles.
In October, 2014, Babiš told the press agency ČTK that he bought the two dailies “so that they’d write the truth about him.”
The journalists Zuzana Vlasatá and Jakub Patočka documented how that works, doing a month-by-month content analysis for 2016 of how both papers covered Babiš and then-premier Bohuslav Sobotka, and comparing them with the coverage provided by Hospodářské noviny (The Economic News, owned by a different magnate).
In the Mafra papers, the large majority of the time their mentions of both politicians were classified as “neutral,” which helped to preserve the image of them as serious, impartial papers. The non-Babiš Hospodářské noviny also had predominantly neutral stories.
But when it came to “negative” or “positive” stories, Hospodářské noviny had significantly more negative than positive stories for both politicians (moreso in the case of Babiš, but not sparing Sobotka either).
Mafra’s papers were critical of Sobotka 6 to 7 times more often than they were favorable.
And they were nice to Babiš, their owner, 2 to 3 times more often than they were nasty.
(Data based on Table 10 on p. 105 of Žlutý baron, [Yellow Baron]).
As the authors note, the mentions of Babiš ramped up right in October, 2016, in Mladá fronta Dnes (the bigger of the two papers). And that just happened to be the month of nationwide provincial elections, in which Babiš’s party ANO was competing.
In addition to this technique of timing, the Vlasatá and Patočka note the importance of silence and spin:
From the comparison of Babiš’s dailies with Hospodářské noviny, it’s clear that the basic tactic of both of the Mafra dailies in defense of their publisher consists in the fact that they simply don’t write about events that would illustrate Babiš’s mistakes or inadequacies. Because silence is the first and most reliable method of manipulation: in general, a reader who doesn’t encounter a story has no way of determining that he should have expected it.
From the remaining numbers it’s clear that the Mafra dailies, in comparison with Hospodářské noviny, are carrying out only a minor shift in meaning. This is referred to with the specialized term spin. This is a much more effective method of manipulation than “carpet bombing” with the correct views, which starts to annoy people. This can be easily illustrated with the awkward propaganda of the communist regime, whose slogans hung on every corner, yet practically nobody believed them. People are most effectively manipulated when they themselves don’t notice it. (Žlutý baron, p. 106)And this is exactly where Sinclair Broadcasting put its foot wrong in last week with its coordinated announcement warning about “fake news” and throwing shade at mainstream media.
For years the company has been building up a collection of stations, buying up trusted local-news outlets. In addition to the way they’ve taken over familiar stations, their reach has been masked by the way they’ve purchased outlets associated with different national networks. The “branding” was the local station plus NBC, ABC, CBS, or Fox. There wasn’t anything overtly telling you that it was now a Sinclair station.
There are rules against owning more than one station in a given market, but the Sinclair brothers dealt with that by having their mother set up a shell corporation which would buy stations and then lease them back to Sinclair to operate.
(Info about Sinclair in this post is from Vox.)
The FCC fined Sinclair for this ruse, but didn’t stop them from using the same trick in the future.
When people complain about the poor state of journalism, a frequent defense is that “it’s just business.” It may be bad reporting, but the reason is that that’s what sells.
In the case of Sinclair, one may infer more of a propagandistic intent from the fact that they’ve often lost audience share after taking over a station and shifting its content in a conservative direction. It’s possible that the owners are serving some other business interest of theirs by providing conservative content that all their stations have to run, but they’re not directly serving the business interests of their stations.
But now perhaps they’ve gone a step too far with a move so blatant that a lot more people are paying attention to the “man behind the curtain.”
It’s hard to know how much of an effect there will be from this “outing” of Sinclair.
More seriously, it’s hard to know what to do about the larger phenomenon of our information space being distorted and what to do about it.
In 1937, a couple of scientists crafted a silhouette of a stylized bird. On one side of the wings there was a long protrusion, with a short nub on the other side. (See the image at the top of the post.)
If you “flew” this silhouette in one direction, the long protrusion suggested the neck of a harmless goose. If you flew it the other way, the long protrusion conjured a dangerous hawk, while the short nub was the hawk’s head.
The story that floated into my head this morning was that the scientists flew this silhouette over some young turkeys, sometimes one direction, sometimes the other. When they flew it with the long protrusion leading the way, the turkeys didn’t care, but when they went the other way, they responded as if a predator were in the area.
I read this story years ago, I no longer remember where. And as I recalled it this morning, it seemed to me a good metaphor—or not even a metaphor, but an analog, or an explanation—for what we’re experiencing now.
A turkey doesn’t need to know, “That’s a goose!” or, “That’s a hawk!” And on the evidence of this hawk/goose experiment, the turkey doesn’t know those things, because the silhouette was neither a good nor a hawk.
All the turkey has to know is certain traits that match up with dangerous or safe situations often enough so that responding to the first and ignoring the second is a good strategy.
Similarly, the things in our minds are not reality. When we read the news, when we talk to our friends, when we scroll through posts and comments on Facebook, we are not perceiving “geese” or “hawks.” We are stitching together a useful story.
“Useful” in this sense means different things.
Our story can’t be immediately fatal. Let’s say a guy takes the scraps of reality that make it into his mind, and he pieces them together into a story that says he can fly. If he then acts on that story and steps off of a 10th-story balcony, what ensues will be an automatic correction of his faulty mechanism for interpreting the world around him.
But short of that type of extreme, “truth” is not the guiding principle of selection.
We gravitate toward stories that make us feel good about ourselves.
We like stories that don’t challenge things we have already decided to be true.
We are rewarded for stories that make us fit in with the people around us, particularly when those people are in positions to help us, with jobs, promotions, connections toward a good marriage, and so on.
My sense—and this may be just a comfortable story—is that our society used to have some useful heuristics. It’s not that we knew the “truth,” but we were confident in what we knew and could go out and function in the world. And we elected governments that, even if we profoundly disagreed with their policies, they knew how to govern.
But now, life has turned into a daily exercise in open-ended epistemology. When you step back and look at Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and country-specific issues like Sinclair in the U.S. and Mafra in Czechia, you can find yourself paralyzed by an inability to figure out what it is you know, and you know that you know it, and how you know that you know that you know it ...
And partly as a result of our old heuristics failing, we’ve elected people who fundamentally don’t know how to govern.
Our old system was as close to truth as a turkey recognizing that “wings” with a long protrusion behind spelled “trouble,” and for many purposes that was close enough.
The web has changed our environment, making so much information about us available. And big data has provided tools that allow our mental space to be modified, for the benefit of those doing the modifications.
As we develop new tools to survive in this altered information landscape, we shouldn’t expect them to be perfect, but merely good enough to tell us when to run from a “hawk” or ignore a “goose,” at least most of the time.
In fact, there’s a funny thing about that “hawk/goose” story, which is that apparently it’s not true.
According to a 2011 paper in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, the study is described in many textbooks about animal behavior, but attempts to replicate have failed to find the same results.
In general, the ground birds seem to respond to anything new, but the stylized shapes of “hawk” and “goose” don’t actually seem to make much difference.
I said the story floated into my head this morning, and then it occurred to me that it had a useful connection to this half-written post on Sinclair and Babiš. But I wanted to get it right, so I looked it up, and found the paper linked above, that reviewed many failed efforts at replication of the original work.
And it wasn’t just a desire to get it right that made me look before I wrote. After I found this article, I vaguely recalled having brought up the hawk/goose story before with a biologist colleague, and maybe he said something about it not being true, and perhaps that corrective comment of his attached itself in my memory to the original story, not strongly enough for me to mark the story as “false,” but enough to make me hesitate and look more carefully.
Now that I’ve looked around, I’m reasonably confident I have the hawk/goose story correct.
But I still like it as a metaphor.
I described our old heuristics as useful, but they had their flaws.
The dominant filter for what was “true” didn’t have a lot of room for the perspectives of people who aren’t white or male—from my white, male perspective it looks like that has improved, but I’d hardly say it’s been fixed.
The dominant truth filter, at least in the U.S., favors stories about wealth and poverty that are easily contradicted by facts.
The dominant filter used to ignore the natural environment entirely. Now at least it pays lip service, but when you look at an issue like global warming, our system for deciding what to believe is about as useful as standing on a 10th-floor balcony and thinking you can fly.
I have the sense that we need new ways of interacting with information more generally, so that we can more confidently arrive at ways of seeing the world that are usefully true.
But I don’t have the least idea where they’ll come from.