Pandemic, War and the (il)logic of ‘methink’

Polarisation of positions, opinions formulated by ‘experts’ with no real qualifications or by people who have never dealt with a particular subject but who speak out anyway, the need to generate traffic to support the monetisation of content, a paroxysmal search for visibility at any cost, influencers’ self-referentiality pushed to the extreme, ‘moral’ indignation that prevails over the law and the principles of law… It sounds like the umpteenth indictment against the destabilising effects caused by social networks. However, in reality, it concerns the world of so-called ‘professional information, which has demonstrated macroscopically and definitively that it is affected by the same ills. By Andrea Monti – Abridged version of an article initially published in Italian by Strategikon – an Italian Tech Blog

A fil rouge, thick as a hawser, links media communication on the Coronavirus, the election of the Italian President of the Republic, the energy crisis, and the Ukrainian question. As in Hollywood action movies where the plot is always the same and only the setting – endless prairies or planets at the edge of the galaxy – changes, professional information has essentially abdicated its role of mediator between facts and people to become an amplifier of opinions. In several mainstream television programmes, the presenters have taken an a priori partisan stance, unilaterally orienting the programme schedules according to their convictions. The content and form of the reports, the selection, authoritativeness and different ‘presentability’ of the guests, the ‘steering’ of the debate, everything aims to support a thesis or simply generate controversy.

Of course, everyone has the right to express their ideas, but it is not true that all ideas are equal. There are right and wrong ideas. The Constitution protects the right to freely express one’s thoughts, but not the right to be right. To put it succinctly, the right to free speech does not mean the right to free speech. This principle applies to the ordinary citizen and, firstly, to media professionals claiming to be public opinion’s watchdog.

It is extremely difficult to draw a line between the often harsh necessities of reporting dramatic events and their exploitation by clickbait. There is, however, something deeply disturbing about debates with bombings in the background, reminiscent of the endless, inconclusive – and therefore attractive – post-soccer match TV quarrels, in the invitation to ‘follow the war minute by minute’ as if it were the evolution of a reality show or, worse, a snuff-movie, in the blind repetition of this or that narrative, depending on which side one has chosen to be on but after thirty seconds of advertising.

Like many other phenomena, this change in the professional media depends on how information technologies have been disseminated and by the transformation of people into consumers, perfectly described by the cartoon-disguised dystopia of Wall-E. Every day, worldwide, events happen that deserve to be told. Before, the timing of news dissemination and the possibility of access to facts was very diluted. It allowed to ‘think’ about the editorial choice and ‘understand’ the event before that. The elimination of the time-space between an event and its transformation into news made possible by information technologies structurally changes the process of industrial and economic exploitation.

Assembling truly original information, in real-time and on any relevant event, is extremely expensive; it becomes even more so if the need is to be online ’24/7′.

Moreover, faced with the complexity and overabundance of events, no journalist can seriously think of being an expert on any subject to a level where they can cover it with real knowledge in such a short time. As a result, it is impossible to ask the ‘expert’ sensible questions, but above all, it is impossible to understand his answers. However, the temptation to give in to the seduction of’ in my opinion is increasingly irresistible because of the need to occupy airtime, newspaper space, feeds and posts on content-sharing platforms. Even professional information thus becomes individual, self-referential and – often – simply wrong.

The aim is no longer to make people understand but to prevail one’s thesis. It is necessary to avoid the complications of technicalities. They are too complex to explain (and even more to understand) and therefore useless to ‘hook’ the spectator. They need to be replaced by imprecise and non-rigorous simplifications that do, however, serve their purpose. Oportet – it’s Latin, not Russian – to produce dopamine or adrenaline rushes, no more and no less, as happens with the marketing of alcohol, drugs and extreme experiences. The imperative is to sell pleasure instead of awareness.
An example is the debate on ‘whether’ and ‘how’ to supply arms and means to Ukraine. The topic is extremely complex not only from a political point of view but also from international law and war law. Few people can deal with these issues with any real expertise. One only has to think, for example, of the implications of the Alabama Claims, the diplomatic dispute between the United Kingdom and the United States which, in the late 1800s, ended with the Crown paying compensation for violating the principle of neutrality by supplying American Southerners with ships later used in the civil war against the North. Does this principle of law is compatible with the Russo-Ukrainian conflict? If so, can it be decided by a simple decree-law? Is it compatible with the use of the civil protection state of emergency? Are we in danger of having to pay ‘war damages’ for having taken the side of a belligerent (or for not having done so to the end)?

As said, these are complex issues that cannot be ‘handled’ by those who – and this also applies to parliamentarians – lack a solid technical background. However, this does not prevent, or even encourage, decisions (whatever they may be) based on a do-the-right thing rather than on a rational assessment of the available options. All this, debated for longer on a talk show rather than in its proper forum. This dissonant consonance between politics and information shows a different way of influencing public opinion. The Fascist propaganda based on Minculpop’s tissues and widely practised even during the Cold War was initially overtaken by the prop-agenda theorised by Noam Chomsky and, today, by choice to make opinions prevail over competence, to make Gorgias win over Socrates.

The distorted use of social networking platforms is not the only problem that pollutes the public debate on Country’s critical issues. The construction of a consensus based on irrationality also depends on professional information that winks at these mechanisms and uses them without moderation. It would be important to open a serious thinking to understand what is happening because never before has professional information directly influenced the survival of individuals and communities. There remains, however, the reassuring knowledge that this will not happen. Not, at least, because of this article, which will certainly not be read.

Too long, too articulate, too difficult to metabolise.

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