Memes, Political Persuasion, and Political Intimidation

An interesting and important post at Quillette: Confessions of a Social-Justice Meme Maker.

I observe that political memes today tend not only to be oversimplified, which goes with the nature of the medium, but also to be insulting.  Political communication today has too often abandoned persuasion in favor of approaches which are believed to rally ‘the base’ while insulting opponents.

I am again reminded of something that Stalin’s master propagandist, Willi Munzenberg, said to Arthur Koestler back when Koestler was still a Communist:

Don’t argue with them, Make them stink in the nose of the world. Make people curse and abominate them. Make them shudder with horror. That, Arturo, is propaganda!

A very high proportion of political memes today would cause Munzenberg to nod in approval.

In addition to stirring up one’s own side (good for contributions and for election day turnout!), a sufficiently vitriolic stream of insults can intimidate opponents from speaking out, lest they themselves be subject to such attacks. This intimidation is more effective, though, when a political side largely dominates the channels of communication, as the Left dominates most American media today.

The insult-and-intimidate approach, though, does have a downside: it may well alienate people who are somewhat aligned with the opposing side but may still be persuadable.  Even if they are intimidated from speaking out, they may still remember the sting of the insults when they alone in the voting booth.  Few practitioners of meme-driven insults and other forms of hostile political communication seem worried about this side effect of their work, though.

A factor that should not be underrated: many people get a certain kind of pleasure from engaging in cruelty while feeling virtuous and also reinforcing their sense of membership in an in-group.  See this horrible example from the UK.  I’ve seen no evidence that this particular incident had anything to do directly with memes, but I’m confident that the same kind of attitude is well-represented among the forwarders and makers of malign political memes.  My 2018 post Conformity, Cruelty, and Political Activism is relevant here.

As I noted above, memes oversimplify, by their very nature.  As the author of the linked Quillette post winds up her piece:  “Everything worth knowing is much more complex than any slogan can possibly convey.”

While this is true, it is also true that the kind of simplification represented by memes is by no means a new thing.  Political cartoons, for example, can be seen as a forerunner of memes.  Is the effect of today’s bad memes any worse than that of scurrilous political cartoons in, say, 1900?  I think that it may be: In 1900, literacy (in a broad sense) was on an upswing, and key cultural institutions of society were encouraging more of it, as did the technologies of the time. Whereas today, literacy (in the sense of being able to read, follow, and understand arguments of some complexity) seems to be on the decline, a trend certainly aggravated by the short-attention-span nature of much Internet media.

Neal Stephenson wrote an interesting little book called In the Beginning Was the Command Line.  While the book does talk about human interfaces to computer systems, its deeper subject is the impact of media and metaphors on thought processes and on work.  He contrasts the explicit word-based interface to systems and to information with the graphical or sensorial interface.

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Ready to Ride

In the apocalyptic visions of St. John, the third of the four Apocalyptic Horsemen is Famine, the other four being Pestilence, War and Death. Death is always with us, one way or another, and we’ve had pestilence, AKA the Commie Crud for the last two years and counting, and War, in the shape of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine … so why not Famine, just to round out the set? The four horsemen usually go hand in hand anyway. Famine is almost a guarantee, as the Ukraine was a major wheat exporter, and now it seems that chemical fertilizers will be in short supply as well. David Foster has already posted a story about this, and other commenters have chimed in regarding the woes of the supply chain and the potential for famine in places and nations which had been able to move past such misfortunes, because of technological advances … advances now in danger.

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Worthwhile Reading and Viewing

Much political anger is based on attributing to opponents views that they don’t actually hold, according to this study, summarized and discussed on twitter here.

Paul Graham, who himself writes some interesting essays, says:

No one who writes essays would be surprised by this. When people attack an essay you’ve written, 95% of the time they do it by making up something you didn’t actually say, and then attacking that.

The skill of surgeons varies tremendously, with bottom quartile surgeons having over 4x as many complications as the best surgeons in the same hospital…so says this study.  And surgeons are keenly aware of who is good & who is bad – their rankings of others are very accurate.  Summarized and discussed on twitter here, where there is also a reference to the classic study  showing 10X range among programmers, and another study measuring the impact of managers on revenue performance in the game industry.

Some innovation stories from small US manufacturers, and a shop-floor driven tooling innovation at GE Aviation.

Speaking of tools, here’s a study suggesting that using mechanical tools improves language skills.

The limits of narrative, at Quillette.

Ryan Peterson, CEO of the digital freight forwarder Flexport, discovered an AI tool that lets you create art without being an artist, and has been having fun with it.

Where I was Last Weekend…

B-17 In Flight – at the Great American Airshow.

The first big airshow in two years, at Randolph AFB. Part of the air show included a sort-of-recreation of the attack on Pearl Harbor, with accompanying pyrotechnics. My camera was giving me fits, so I managed to capture some interesting shots with my cellphone. There may have been half a million people coming to the airbase for the show, which included static display aircraft and ground support vehicles from the Army, and the Budweiser Clydesdales and their wagon of beer too. What would the military do without beer! There must have been at least that many people watching the air show from verges, parking lots, open spaces and yards around the edges, too. (More here, from the Express News – their photographer had a much better camera than mine…)
Additional note – <Looks like FaceBook has disappeared that post – I put the pictures on my own website, instead.)

The Rage of the Prince-Electors

During the Middle Ages, in the time of the Holy Roman Empire, there was a small group of men known as the Prince-Electors.  They, and only they, got to choose the next Emperor.

We have something kind of similar in America today.  There is a cluster of influential and would-be-influential people who fervently believe that–while they might not get to actually selected the next President–they should have the authority to decide who may and who may not be considered for the Presidential role.  These Prince-Electors include national journalists, Ivy League professors and administrators, and high-level government officials.  Their primary means of action is via the control of communications channels.

The sense of entitlement is clearly displayed in an article by Robert Reich, in which he basically asserts that speech-control by social media is necessary to protect democracy.  Reich clearly believes that he, and those he considers to be his peers, should have the right to decide what Americans can read, see, and hear.

Many years ago, I was talking to a wise executive, who said something has that stayed with me:

When you’re running a large organization, you’re not seeing reality.  It’s like you’re watching a movie in which you get to see maybe one out of every thousand frames, and from that, you have to figure out what’s really going on.

This is very true in business, and it’s even more true in politics.  The control of what Frames people get to see, and in what sequence, is a source of enormous power.

This power reaches its zenith, of course, in totalitarian societies, where people are prevented from sharing unapproved Frames via threats of arrest, long prison sentences, and even execution. China under Xi and Russia under Putin are pretty close to this condition.  Vitaliy Katsenelson, in one of his essays on Russia and Ukraine, remarked that many of his friends back in Russia seem like they are living in the Truman show…ie, a totally controlled and imaginary environment.

We are not presently in that situation in the US, and Reich’s analogizing of Trump’s tweets with Putin’s information control is obscene.  (The whole piece is very 1984-ish…to ‘war is peace’ and ‘freedom is slavery’, add ‘censorship is democracy’.)  There are still enough independent sources of information in the US that people who make an effort can still break out of the walled gardens (complete with serpent) and formulate their own impressions of what is going on.  But momentum is powerful, and people are busy.  The frame selection role is very powerful.

There is real anger, on the part of the Prince-Electors, that anyone would dare to challenge their control of information flow…note the long-standing fury at the very existence of Fox News and talk radio.  I am sure the rage today is raised to a higher level, in the wake of Musk’s plan to acquire Twitter outright as opposed to merely taking a Board seat.

See my related posts Comm CheckDo the Lord Chancellor and the Archbishop Approve?,  and this book review.