Testing Chomsky’s Propaganda Model (6th in a series on critical thinking)

Propaganda Model

Last week in this series on critical thinking, I attempted to connect Plato’s Allegory of the Cave with the work of Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in Necessary Illusions. There they alleged that the function of the mainstream media (MSM) is and has always been the dissemination of propaganda. It’s purpose is to create a shadow world far removed from reality. In other words, President Trump is largely correct: fake news is the rule, not the exception. So, for instance, is fake history, fake economics, and fake religion.

Chomsky and Herman don’t expect readers of Necessary Illusions to simply accept their allegations. Instead, they propose testing the model’s predictions (enumerated in last week’s posting).  The first step in doing so identifies “paired examples.” These involve similar controversial actions, performed by the United States or its client states on the one hand, and by “designated enemies” on the other.

In Necessary Illusions many such pairings are provided – all of them, of course, taken from the 1980s, when the book was published. Then U.S. involvement in Central American wars (especially in Nicaragua) dominated the news. While historically “dated,” the examples still communicate what the authors mean by paired examples. In addition, even dated case studies can prove useful to research in order to broaden one’s historical knowledge, while at the same time testing the model’s predictions. (More current examples will be suggested below.) Those given by Chomsky and Herman include[1]:

  • Celebration of elections in (client state) El Salvador (widely criticized for their meaninglessness in Europe) vs. media adoption of the U.S. official account that the 1984 elections in (designated enemy) Nicaragua either never occurred or were hopelessly rigged, even though the Nicaraguan elections were praised internationally for their freedom and fairness (66-67).
  • The defense and rationalization of the U.S. downing of the Iranian air bus in 1988, vs. the furor over the earlier Soviet destruction of KAL 007 (34).
  • The lack of comment on Indochinese injuries and fatalities caused by U.S. mines left behind after the Vietnam war, and on the refusal of the United States to supply minefield maps to civilian mine-deactivation squads, vs. the denunciation of the Soviet Union for the civilian casualties caused by their mines in Afghanistan, where they did provide maps to assist mine clearing units (35).
  • Media indignation aroused in 1988 over alleged plans to build chemical weapons factories in Libya, vs. the media’s lack of concern for the extensive civilian casualties in Indochina caused by U.S. chemical warfare there through its use of Agent Orange (38-39).
  • The sympathetic support given Israel for its repeated invasions and bombings in Lebanon even in the absence of immediate provocation, vs. the identification of Nicaraguan “hot pursuit” of Contras across its unmarked border with Honduras as an “invasion” of a sovereign state (54-55).
  • The press position that Soviet provision of MIG fighter planes to Nicaragua would legitimate a U.S. invasion of that country, vs. media acceptance of the threat posed to Nicaragua by U.S. shipment of F-5 fighter planes to neighboring Honduras (55-6).
  • Portrayal of the World Court as the culprit, when the United States was condemned for its support of the Nicaraguan Contras in 1986, vs. press astonishment over Iran’s lawlessness when it refused to recognize the Court’s adverse decision during the hostage crisis of 1979 (82).
  • Portrayal of the World Court as the culprit, when the United States was condemned for its support of the Nicaraguan Contras in 1986, vs. press astonishment over Saddam Hussein’s lawlessness when he refused to recognize the Court’s jurisdiction, when it ordered him to cease his occupation of Kuwait in 1990.
  • Press outcry over the genocide of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, vs. its silence about the proportionately larger-scale slaughter in East Timor at the hands of U.S.-backed Indonesian invaders (156).
  • Criticism of Soviet failure to pay its U.N. dues, vs. silence about U.S. debts in the world body (222).
  • Focus on Nicaragua’s alleged failures to live up to the Esquipulas II accords, vs. relative silence about the much worse records of client states, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala (239).
  • The extensive media coverage given the 1984 murder of Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko in (designated enemy) Poland by policemen who were quickly apprehended, tried, and jailed, vs. the comparatively little space given the murder of 100 prominent Latin American religious martyrs, including the Archbishop of San Salvador and four raped American churchwomen, victims of the U.S.-backed security forces (137, 146-47).

Paired examples with more contemporary relevance might include:

  • The San Bernardino shooting on December 2, 2015 by Muslim, Rizuan Farook and Tashfeen Malik vs. the January 29th, 2017 shooting in a Quebec City mosque by white nationalist and supporter of Donald Trump, Alexandre Bissonette.
  • The U.S. nuclear weapons modernization program announced by President Obama vs. suspicions that Iran might have initiated a program to acquire nuclear weapons.
  • Iran’s nuclear weapons program vs. Israel’s.
  • Monroe Doctrine justifications for U.S. attempts to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua during the 1980s vs. Russian justifications for its invasion of the Ukraine beginning in 2014.
  • Russian and Syrian atrocities in the Battle for Aleppo in 2016 vs. similar acts by the U.S. and Iraq in the Battle for Mosul that same year.
  • Stories on Cuban political prisoners vs. stories on U.S. political prisoners.
  • Islam as an inherently violent religion vs. Christianity as an inherently violent religion.
  • The Jewish Holocaust at the hands of Germans vs. the Native American Holocaust at the hands of European settlers.
  • Alexander Putin as a “murderer” vs. Barack Obama as a “murderer.”

Testing such paired examples involves

  • Locating news reports of both incidents in the mainstream media, e.g. The New York Times.
  • Counting the number of articles devoted to each incident.
  • Measuring the column inches devoted to each
  • Comparing the reporting of each incident, noting:
    • The source-bases of the articles in question and whether they conform to Chomsky’s predictions as earlier described.
    • Whether there are significant language differences in the reports of the “paired examples.”
    • The significance of the differences.
    • How the quality of evidence advanced or demanded in each case differs. (E.g. Is a “smoking gun” required for alleged U.S. crimes, while something less is tolerated as proving the crimes of designated enemies?)
    • Whether conclusions are drawn or implied about evil intent on the part of “designated enemy” leaders, while similar actions by the U.S. or its clients are excused or rationalized.
    • Whether conclusions are drawn or implied about the corruption and unworkability of the “designated enemy’s” system, while similar actions by the U.S. or its clients are explained in terms of exceptional crimes by officials at the lowest level possible.
    • Whether arrests, trials or convictions are accepted as indications that the system in question does work or that it doesn’t.

Conclusion:

Both Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and Chomsky’s propaganda model suggest that the problem of fake news has been with us for a long time. Even more importantly: critiquing it goes much deeper than merely analyzing what appears in the newspapers, on television or online. Instead, critical thinking often challenges its practitioners to make a 180 degree turn away from accepting what we’ve been told by beloved parents, teachers, priests, ministers, politicians, other public figures and friends.

No wonder it’s so intimidating to walk through our prison’s open cell door!

(Next week: My own journey from egocentrism towards Cosmo-centrism)

[1] Here all page references are to Chomsky, Noam. Necessary illusions. Toronto, ON: CBC Enterprises, 1990.

Noam Chomsky & Plato’s Allegory: It’s All Fake News (5th in a series on critical thinking)

Plato TV

Last week I reviewed Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in an attempt to show that problems of “alternative fact” and “fake news” have been with us a long time.

In their book, Necessary Illusions, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in effect, connect Plato’s parable to contemporary controversy about truth in reporting. The authors do so by explaining what they call the Propaganda Model of information dissemination through ethnocentric political discourse, education, and especially the mainstream media.

For Chomsky and Herman, such information sources create for us an unreal shadow world that fails to take into account the realities of the world’s unseen majority whose lives are shaped by U.S. domination. Besides explaining that theory, the authors offer a way of testing its veracity. This week let me explain the propaganda model and its predictions. Next week I’ll show how to test both.

To begin with, the propaganda model holds that the mainstream media function as vehicles of propaganda intended to “manufacture consent” on the part of our culture’s majority – often described within the cave as “special interests.” The majority includes workers, labor unions, the indigenous, family farmers, women, youth, the elderly, the handicapped, ethnic minorities, environmentalists, etc. The MSM and those they represent seek to secure the latter’s consent for policies favoring what is termed “the national interest.” This, according to propagandists, is the province of corporations, financial institutions and other business elites. Such interests in turn are served not only by the media, but by elected officials, educational institutions, churches, and so on. These latter often represent resistant grassroots movements as threats, since such movements actually seek greater influence on national life.

To control such tendencies, the media in the United States defines the limits of national debate within boundaries set by a two party system of wealthy government officials, by unquestioned patriotism, support for the free market, vilification of designated enemies (e.g. ISIS, Russia, China, Cuba, Syria, Iraq, Iran, North Korea . . .) and support for official friends (e.g. Israel, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain . . .). Support for such “client states” ignores their objectionable actions that often parallel and even surpass similar acts committed by designated enemies.

None of this means that “liberal” criticism is excluded from the national media. On the contrary, such criticism of either government officials (like Donald Trump) or the corporate elite is common. However, the media never allow serious criticism of either the free enterprise system as such, nor of the American system of government.

Testing this model involves comparing its predictions with specific stories as reported, for instance, in the New York Times often referred to as the nation’s “paper of record.” The predictions include the following:

  • More articles will be devoted to the “atrocities” of designated enemies than to similar actions by the U.S. or its clients.
  • Less space (column inches) will be similarly allocated for reporting the alleged crimes of the U.S. or its clients.
  • In either case, story sources will tend to be American government officials and intellectuals (university professors, think tank experts, conservative churchmen) friendly to U.S. policy.
  • The reporting of “enemy” crimes will devote comparatively little space to the “official explanations” of the governments in question.
  • It will depend more heavily U.S. government spokespersons, on opposition groups within the offending countries concerned and on grassroots accounts.
  • The crimes and “atrocities” of designated enemies will be explained in terms of a corrupt and unworkable system.
  • On questionable evidence or with none at all, the crimes and atrocities of “designated enemies” will be attributed to the highest levels of government.
  • Meanwhile the crimes of the U.S. or its client states will be denied, rationalized or otherwise excused.
  • Incontrovertible proof (a “smoking gun”) will be demanded to prove the “crimes” of the U.S. or its friends.
  • If admitted, these crimes and atrocities will be explained as exceptional deviations by corrupt individuals (at the lowest level possible).
  • The ultimate conclusion drawn from the discovery of crimes along with any resulting trials and convictions will be that the “system works.”

This bias will be revealed not only in the ways noted above, but by differences in language (words, phrases, allusions) employed in writing the articles in question.

Again, next week I’ll show how Chomsky and Herman suggest testing this model and its predictions.

Critical Thinking & Fake News (1st in a series)

fake-news

I’m currently writing a book on critical thinking. A first draft is being reviewed by Peter Lang Publishers. Peer reviewers are giving it the once-over. In this series, I’d like to expose some of the book’s key ideas. What I share immediately below tries to set the stage for  the analysis that will follow in subsequent postings, usually on Tuesdays.

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By all accounts, we’re living in a post-fact age, where it’s increasingly difficult to tell truth from falsehood. That’s why in our culture, contemporary debate rages over terms such as “post-truth,” “truthiness,” “alternative facts,” “fake news,” outright “bullshit,” and “propaganda.”

In fact, according to the Oxford Dictionary, the 2016 Word of the Year (WOTY) was “post-truth.” That same year, the Australian Macquarie Dictionary identified “fake news” as its own WOTY. The trend is unmistakable – signaled as far back as 2006, when “truthiness,” a term coined by Stephen Colbert, took the Oxford Dictionary honor. The Colbert term synthesized the trend’s direction. “Truthiness” was defined as “The quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.”

That’s what the post-truth era centralized: feelings over analysis. “Trust your gut and not your brain,” as Beppe Grillo put it while urging Italians to vote with his conservative Five Star Party against constitutional reforms.

Shortly after being elected, Donald Trump’s team took the trend a step further. Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway, introduced the phrase “alternative facts.” She was debating “Meet the Press” host, Chuck Todd about the size of Trump’s 2017 inauguration audience.

Conway defended the position expressed by Sean Spicer, President Trump’s Press Secretary. He had described the crowd was the largest in inauguration history. Todd disagreed citing D.C. police estimates that it was four times smaller than the number attending Barack Obama’s second inauguration. Conway responded, “. . . Our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that. . .” Todd answered, “Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.”

Philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt would put Todd’s point in even starker terms. Drawing on the title of his best-selling book, Frankfurt would say it’s simply “B.S.”  In On Bullshit the professor contrasts liars and bullshitters. The Liar, Frankfurt writes, cares about truth and attempts to hide it; bullshitters don’t care if what they say is true or false. Their only concern is whether or not their listeners are persuaded.

According to another philosopher, Ken Wilber, polls taken during the 2016 election cycle showed that truthiness was valued more highly by a majority of voters than researched facts. Day after day, Wilber writes, newspapers would keep count of questionable statements made by Donald Trump the previous day. Reporters would write things like, “Our fact checkers have found that Mr. Trump told 17 lies on the campaign trail yesterday.” To a lesser extent, they criticized Ms. Clinton’s statements. And yet, when asked who is more truthful, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton? the polls consistently ranked Trump first. This signified, Wilber says, that poll respondents valued persuasiveness more highly than what news reporters called truth.

Truthiness, alternative facts, and bullshit have given rise to widespread concern about “fake news.” During the 2016 presidential campaign, the phrase received prominence when it was discovered that Eastern European bloggers had concocted from whole cloth wild stories about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The stories were directed towards supporters of Donald Trump, and the concoctions’ only purpose was to have the tales go viral – while earning thousands of dollars for their authors. So, readers were treated to headlines such as: “JUST IN: Obama Illegally Transferred DOJ Money to Clinton Campaign!” and “BREAKING: Obama Confirms Refusal to Leave White House, He Will Stay in Power!”

Such headlines might make one laugh. However, Noam Chomsky reminds us that “fake news” is by no means a trivial matter. However, its principal perpetrators are not Macedonian teenagers trolling for cash. They are the C.I.A., the NSA, and the White House (under any president). Their messages are communicated to the rest of us through the mainstream media (MSM) whose function is the dissemination of propaganda. In Necessary Illusions, Chomsky and Edward Herman put it this way:

“The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.”

In other words, at least according to Chomsky and Herman, fake news has long been with us. It is the official policy of the country’s ruling elites.

Now that’s the “fake news” that should really concern us. It’s just about all we get from the mainstream media in this country. And it’s been that way at least since the end of the Second Inter-Capitalist War. In that sense, Donald Trump’s continual lambasting of the press is right on target. (Next week: There Really Are Alternative Facts!)