Propaganda School Part 9: Buzzwords

A buzzword is a fashionable term that comes into use seemingly out of nowhere and often disappears just as quickly. Buzzwords are very popular in the corporate world where they function as a kind of marketing tool for middle managers whose jobs by their very nature are ambiguous and ill-defined. Buzzwords serve to give the appearance of dynamicity or action. They are a kind of propaganda in that it’s the willingness of the reader and the community to accept their use which defines their power rather than any actual meaning they convey. This is not to say that buzzwords are meaningless and, in fact, often perfectly good words get used as buzzwords. But, when they do, their meaningfulness always diminishes.

Let me give one of my favourite examples of this process from the wonderful world of corporate IT where I make my living. At a company where I once worked they decided to give everybody a copy of a book the name of which I can’t remember. Management wanted everybody in the company to be on the same page about our new product development direction and this particular book apparently captured everything perfectly (was our new product direction stolen straight from a fashionable book? You bet it was.).

I tried to read my copy of the book but gave up about a quarter of the way through. Nevertheless, I did come across a phrase that was about to become a familiar part of my work life. It was called minimum viable product. The author of the book gave a quite specific technical definition of this term which was something like “the minimum number of features from which you can learn something.” The idea was for companies to get their products in front of customers as early as possible so they could get feedback. It’s a good idea. I would say it’s common sense but in the corporate world common sense is a rare commodity. In any case, that’s what the phrase and the book was explicitly about – learning from your customers.

Other people in this company read the book too and the phrase minimum viable product became an instant buzzword (or, should that be buzzphrase?) Everybody started using it. But, and this is the key point, they were not using it in the way in which the author of the book meant it to be used. They gave it the meaning “minimum number of features deemed politically expedient by management”. Of course, this was exactly the process that had always been used in the company where managers decided on the number of features based on their own considerations which were always kept top secret. The whole point of the book was the break out of that mindset and the phrase minimum viable product was the way to encapsulate the new mentality. Rather than adopt that mentality and use the phrase in the way it was intended, the old mentality was kept while the buzzword was used to give the appearance of a new way of working when in fact nothing had changed at all. Meet the new buzzword. Same as the old buzzword.

This little accidental social experiment revealed what I think is a very important point about propaganda that is often overlooked: propaganda doesn’t necessarily need to be conscious. When we think of propaganda, we think of evil people in dark rooms cooking up mischief. But propaganda can and does arise spontaneously in groups of people. It is actually a byproduct of shared interests. None of the managers in this company I used to work for had a secret meeting to agree to start misusing the phrase minimum viable product. It just happened organically. Their interest in this case was to keep the same control over the product delivery that they had always enjoyed while giving the appearance to their superiors that they were in fact following a new and dynamic process. This is, in fact, one of the main functions of propaganda: to give the impression that one thing is happening while a completely different thing is actually happening.

In the corporate world, buzzwords are also in the interests of another group of people: the incompetent/borderline incompetent. There are a lot of people in the work world who barely know how to do their jobs. But they do know how to remember the right buzzwords and this gives them the appearance of knowing what they are talking about. Most of us who work in such environments have had the revelation of finding out that somebody was completely incompetent. The surprise comes because they gave the appearance of competence because they knew the right language to use. Just like a sharply tailored outfit can make even an out of shape person look good, buzzwords and jargon can function to give a veneer of competence to the professionally challenged.

That’s how buzzwords function in the corporate world and it’s not much different in the public discourse. Whenever you have buzzwords you have some group who benefits from them and who get to determine their meaning. This year we have seen an explosion of buzzwords related to the corona event. The interest groups in this case are primarily the government and public health bureaucracy but also scientists and corporations related to public health. They have been the ones pushing the buzzwords. In fact, the very name of the supposed ‘new’ disease, covid-19, was created by the WHO. Others buzzwords we have learned include lockdown, social distancing, super spreaders, flatten the curve, levels one through four or tiers one through five depending on where you live etc etc. Here in Victoria we had a new one recently where the Premier designated the City of Sydney a Red Zone (or was it a code red, I forget). The point was, Sydney was now bad. Who came up with the phrase Red Zone? Is this a technical phrase used in public health or did somebody just make it up? Are there other categories like Yellow Zone or Green Zone? Who knows? And who cares? The point of buzzwords is not to be informative. Go back a year and ask anybody and they would have no idea what any of these words meant. They sprung into existence this year and suddenly everybody started talking about them as if they had always been there. The ability to create and define the meaning of buzzwords is actually a real form of political power and hence is an important facet of propaganda.

When buzzwords are brought into the general discourse from science, they can often obfuscate real issues. In recent weeks, we’ve seen a rather ridiculous form of this as virologists in the UK apparently discovered a new kind of sars-cov-2. The media struggled to know what to call it. Mostly they used the word strain but they also called it a variant and a mutation. As it happens, strain and variant have quite specific scientific meanings and using them interchangeably is not acceptable. Sars-cov-2 is itself a strain. So, saying there was a ‘new’ strain was a pretty bad error as it meant that there was really a ‘new’ virus. But in the public discourse, close enough is good enough. A strain or a variant or a mutation are all of the same efficacy when it comes to usefulness as a buzzword. In this way, important scientific distinctions are done violence when the words that define those meanings get thrown around willy-nilly in the public discourse. But, of course, our corona response is based on science, you know?

Buzzwords are usually very easy to identify because nobody in normal life uses them. In day-to-day affairs between people, buzzwords have no place. It’s only in political and quasi-political situations where buzzwords are used. So, if a word gets used that is not part of everyday language but is only ever used by corporate or government types, it’s probably a buzzword. A buzzword is by definition is a kind of power play. Like all propaganda, it aims to impose a meaning onto the world rather than uncover or share a meaning about the world. Scientific language is about precision. To fail to distinguish between strain and variant there would be a grave sin. But in propaganda it doesn’t matter. And the author of the book on product development I read in my old job is probably still tearing his hair out as corporate managers continue to use the phrase minimum viable product to mean what they want it to mean and not what he said it means.

Reader Exercise

It’s very tough at the moment to find any buzzwords (or any news at all for that matter) not corona-related but here is a nice satirical piece in the RT which makes fun of some of the corporate marketing blunders for the year. Some of the associated buzzwords are included. Have a read through and see if you can identify them.

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Propaganda School Part 8: Appeal to Authority

Appeal to authority is when you cite the opinion of some supposedly authoritative person or institution in order to justify an argument you are trying to make. Appeal to authority is mostly considered a fallacious form of argument but it touches on some deep aspects of human nature. It’s natural for us to gravitate to the opinions of well-known people on a subject if for no other reason than that they have probably built their career or reputation in that field and so should know more about it than we do. On the other hand, especially in science, it’s the argument or research itself that should be the thing we pay attention to and not the person who made it. That’s good in theory but even science is full of examples where people lent excessive weight to an idea because the scientist who came up with it was an authority figure in their field.

As a social species, we humans seem to be hardwired to believe statements made by people in positions of authority. This can go to ridiculous extremes as I have seen in my professional life. I remember one particular project I was involved with where the manager on the project, who was a high ranking manager in a very large company, was a complete moron. I mean that quite literally. This particular person would often speak total nonsense. It was quite common for the team to be having a meeting where everybody was reaching a shared understanding of a problem only to have this person walk in and start talking.  You could instantly feel your brain turning to mush and the shared understanding would evaporate into thin air. What was even stranger, though, was that the pronouncements of this person came to be a guide to our work. This wasn’t just for political reasons in that the person was the highest ranking in the group. People actually seemed to believe what the manager said. That’s the power of authority.

How one becomes recognised as an authority figure is not a straightforward matter. One of the foundational myths of our culture is that we live in a meritocracy and that the people who are in positions of authority got there on merit. It’s a nice story but it’s certainly not true on the whole. As my story of the moronic manager shows, people who are very dumb can rise very high especially in the corporate world. A guy I know who is a well-known figure in his field used to joke that the way he became recognised as an expert was to simply start calling himself an expert. He also published a book. It was a self-published book. But in the early days of self-publishing nobody knew the difference between self publishing and traditional publishing. Thus, calling yourself a ‘published author’ at that time was considered by most people to be a guarantee of expertise and so people would instantly believe that he was indeed an authority. How else could he have got a book published?

Being quoted or published in the media is another way to become an authority figure. There is a symbiotic relationship between the media and the ‘experts’. The media uses experts to justify a position on an issue and people who want to be known as experts will try to get themselves published in the media. Having seen just a glimpse of the inside of academia through my honours degree, I can say that there is a lot of jealousy among the faculty about the academics who get featured in the media. This is especially so because the expert game is almost zero sum. Once a newspaper has featured an expert once they tend to want to use them again as it’s simply easier to go with the same person as last time. Thus, it tends to be certain academics who will become the recognised authority on a subject in the public eye while other equally, and perhaps more, competent colleagues are overlooked. From the point of view of the journalist and the broader public, science is science. If we want to know something about linguistics, we should be able to ask any linguist and get the answer. Same for physics. Same for microbiology. Same for epidemiology and so on. But inside academia scientists and scholars usually know who is competent and who isn’t and they know it’s not necessarily the most competent who seek the public spotlight. We’ll see a classic example of that shortly.

There are also other individuals and groups who claim to speak on certain subjects not because of scientific expertise but simply because they represent a point of view. I once knew a guy whose brother had somehow became the media’s go-to man on the subject of men’s rights. The guy I knew was one of the nicest and most generous people I have ever met. I only met his brother once but they were like chalk and cheese. The brother was a deeply weird guy. He had apparently had a bad breakup with his wife and had turned the episode into a personal quest for justice on behalf of all men. This led him to start a men’s advocacy group. The group had only a handful of members and certainly would never have qualified for the attention of the mainstream press. However, the man got himself into the papers by getting charged with stalking his ex-wife. From memory, he was acquitted of the crime but his behaviour and outspoken attitude had caught the attention of the media who then started to use him as an ‘expert’ whenever subjects such as child custody or similar divorce issues came up.

This man was an example of what you might call the anti-expert. These figure prominently in propaganda as they ostensibly represent the other side in an argument but they do so in a way that the media knows will be unpalatable to the majority of the population. As far as I could tell, this guy had some valid points about men’s rights in relation to child custody after a divorce. But the way he spoke and his general demeanour and appearance marked him out as a bit of a whack job. That’s a feature, not a bug, when it comes to propaganda. If the media wants to favour one side of the argument, they will choose a seemingly reasonable and logical person to represent the side they favour while having a nutter represent the other side. They thereby give the appearance of balance while also swaying the reader’s opinion. This kind of thing happens all the time and is a variation on the guilt by association theme from post 1 in this series.

The use of experts and appeals to authority form a very common part of the media landscape. As educated readers of propaganda, we should always be questioning the experts or authority figures presented in the media. Who are they? Why were they chosen? Which other experts or authority figures were not chosen?

For this week’s first example, I can’t help but turn yet again to the RT for a semi-comic example of the appeal to authority. Check out this short article about corona in Russia. Why it’s semi comic is because the expert in this case, Maxim Starodubtsev, makes a statement that is a complete non sequitur. I’ve tried to parse it several times but whichever I do it I simply don’t know what he’s talking about. It’s possible this was simply a bad translation from the Russian but the other statements attributed to Starodubtsev in article also don’t make sense. As a result, the whole article doesn’t make sense. It’s an article that doesn’t really say anything. But it does feature an authority figure to say it.

In the age of the internet, it’s incredibly easy to look up the experts and authority figures who are cited in the media so that you can get a feel for their worldview and how it is being used by a particular media outlet. Maxim Starodubtsev doesn’t return a great deal from a search, presumably because he’s a Russian and doesn’t get translated into English much. Possibly that’s because what he says doesn’t make any sense. This next example does make sense at least in purely linguistic terms. It’s one that I came across while doing the research for my book/blog series on corona and I think it really highlights the power of checking up on the experts who are quoted in a media article.

Corona has been a bonanza of expertise with authority figures being called on daily to fill the pages of newspapers or the minutes of a television news broadcast. This article from the NPR is a case in point. It features a large number of experts and authority figures giving their two cents on the issue of whether sars-cov-2 came from bats. But the expert that caught my attention was one near the bottom of the article – Peter Daszak. Daszak is a zoologist but also a member of a non-profit organisation called Ecohealth Alliance which is a kind of advocacy group for wildlife preservation. I had been researching about the purported bat origins of sar-cov-2 as it was a key point in the public that justified why the virus was ‘new’. As a result, I had seen the name Ecohealth Alliance already and, after some searching to recall where I had seen it, I retrieved another scholarly article that was also about bats and coronaviruses. At the bottom of the article is the text “In the version of this article initially published online, the authors omitted to acknowledge a funding source, USAID-EPT-PREDICT funding from EcoHealth Alliance, to Z.-L.S. T”. Putting two and two together, I realised that EcoHealth was funding published scientific research. That struck me as odd given that they are a non-profit with clearly political/social motivations. In the NPR article, Daszak was being presented as a scientific expert and yet his organisational affiliation was a political one. A quick perusal of the Ecohealth website confirms this.

In my corona book, I noted that this was an example of a trend that’s become all too common in modern science where the funding is provided by groups who have a political interest in producing certain findings. Hardly a recipe for rigorous and unbiased research. That’s a reason to be extra careful about scientific experts and even cited research that are presented to us in the media. So, this was a really good example of where doing a quick bit of research on an expert paid dividends.

Imagine my surprise then when Daszak popped up on my radar just recently for almost exactly the same reasons that I had stated in my book. A couple of months ago, Daszak was chosen to lead a task force investigating whether the sars-cov-2 virus emerged from a virology lab in Wuhan. Recall from the articles above that Daszak had been a strong exponent for the bat origin theory (even though there is actually no evidence for that theory at all). Well, it turns out his scientific peers also think he has a massive conflict of interest in heading the task force and the article is about their objections. The article is also fascinating as it features scientists talking openly about the politicisation of their field especially in the wake of corona. The reason why it’s so perfect for the subject of this post is because, just the like the media must choose an expert to represent a story, so the task force must choose a leader for a task force. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the scientific community agrees with that. In this case, there was open and very public dissent. The Daszak story is the perfect example of why we as readers of propaganda should always assume that whenever a scientific position is proferred in article you can be sure there are many scientists who would disagree with it. If they are not in the article then there is a good chance they have been left out on purpose.

Even scientists can get called ‘conspiracy theorists’ for proposing theories that go against the dominant narrative. Sad to say, this corruption of the science has been going on for quite some time. It was never a good idea to blindly ‘trust the experts’ but it’s a completely naïve position given what goes on in science these days.

Reader Exercise

For this week’s exercise, which I admit will take some time, read the NPR article cited above and pay particular attention to the position of Peter Daszak as presented. Then read the article which contains a number of opinions from scientists in the field on why Daszak is not suitable to lead an investigation into the origins of sars-cov-2. How does the new information you now have about Daszak change your understanding of his expertise and therefore the veracity of the NPR article?

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New Novel: Narquinxa and Xandalus

I’m very pleased to announced that my new novel, Narquinxa and Xandalus, is now available.

It’s a sci-fi, adventure, romantic comedy. It’s my first novel featuring a female protagonist (technically, she’s an alien) and also my first novel that isn’t adults only (if it was a movie, it would be rated M). Think Douglas Adams writing a romantic comedy and you’re in the ballpark.

Available in ebook and paperback through Amazon. Otherwise, check your favourite online book retailer for availability.

Propaganda School Part 7: Predicting the Future

Remember that news article you read that predicted the GFC and then the GFC happened exactly like they said? Or how about that visionary piece of investigative journalism that foresaw the Trump or Brexit victories? What about that journalist back in December last year who broke the corona story before it became international news?

What? You don’t remember? Well, neither do I. And I am, of course, just joking. There weren’t any such news stories. At least not that I have heard about. Humans are really bad at predicting the future so it’s no surprise that the media isn’t any good at it either. Nevertheless, a great number of media articles are about the future. This is one of the trends in journalism that was exacerbated firstly with the rise of the 24 hour news cycle which was related to an expansion in television broadcast licenses and then the appearance of the internet. Both of those developments had the effect of radically increasing the demand for ‘news’ because there was more time to fill on the news channel and more space to fill on the online newspaper. Almost by definition, this meant that lower quality news was dredged up to fill the gap. Stories that wouldn’t have made the grade in the past now got thrown in to meet the insatiable desire for novelty needed try and keep people’s attention.

At the same time as there was an expansion in the demand for stories, there were budget cuts to journalist staff due to falling revenues. Stories about the future are a way to make up the difference between the desire for content and the lack of trained staff to produce it. The cool thing about the future is that it hasn’t even happened yet. As such, it can’t be fact checked or disproven. This allows more reign for the imagination and less need to check up on sources and verify details.

Stories about the future also serve one of the primary purposes of propaganda which is to tell stories – aka shaping the narrative – aka spin. One of the prime techniques of storytelling (I’m talking here about all storytelling and not just propaganda) is foreshadowing. A good writer will titillate the reader by setting up an event in a story while leaving the details unresolved so that the reader will be eagerly looking forward to seeing how things pan out. Propagandists are storytellers, albeit very crude ones. They prefer to tell you exactly what is going to happen or, rather, exactly what they want you to think is going to happen. That is what I am calling: predicting-the-future.

Predicting-the-future is a common thing in an op-ed piece and, in the age of the internet, one often sees past work of op-ed writers retrieved from years ago to show how wrong they were in their prognostications. A lot of predicting-the-future stories are also simply press releases put out by individuals or organisations who are pushing a certain agenda. Using such press releases as the basis for a story is a lazy form of journalism that has become more common now that staff budgets have been cut. Slapping a press release onto a website is a cheap and easy way to fill out a page.

For this reason, one of the main things to do when confronted with a story that is predicting the future is to simply ask who is doing the predicting. In an op-ed piece, the answer is the writer of the article. In a news article, it’s almost always the case that some organisation is pushing an agenda.

Let’s have a look at some examples of predicting-the-future.

On loading up the RT just now, I found four examples on their homepage including the top story.

The answer to the question ‘who is pushing the story’ in this case is the UN. The actual content came from a speech given at the UN which was no doubt motivated by the desire to pressure countries into increasing their budget commitments next year. This was then ‘massaged’ by the RT into a general statement about what to expect next year. A nice example of editorialising the news on top of predicting-the-future. Doubleplus propaganda points to the RT for that.

This one is a straightforward op-ed predicting what will happen if Biden becomes President. Nothing much to see here.

Here is a piece which is an op-ed refuting somebody else’s claim about the future (in this case Trump’s claim about Biden). Strangely, the thing that does not exist already has a name. This is propaganda about propaganda. Pure fairy floss.

This one is a little more interesting. It is taken from the BBC where it was apparently put together by the ‘visual journalism team’. For that reason it’s a little harder to see who is pushing the agenda. However, the article contains material sourced from the WHO and, more tellingly, Pfizer and other pharma companies. So, this is essentially a piece of propaganda for Big Pharma paid for by the British taxpayer. The interested reader can view it here.

Finally, we have this one from Australia’s ABC which is a classic piece of journalism-by-press-release. In this case, the China State Council is the one pushing the story. This article is part of China’s ongoing propaganda campaign to frame itself as a modern, hi-tech power. Why is the Australian national broadcaster publishing it essentially verbatim? Well, they have to fill their webpages like any other news outlet. The interested reader can view the article here and the really interested reader might like to check back in 2025 to see if any of the Chinese government’s predictions have come true.

Putting things way off into the future is a favourite tactic of politcians who want to give the appearance of doing something about some hot button topic without actually making any real decisions or commitments. But politicians and other propagandists know that stories about the future function by targeting the subconscious mind. In cognitive science terms, this works in the same way as negations. For example, if I say “there is no elephant”, the subconscious mind forms the idea of the elephant. It is the conscious mind that adds the negation. The sentence still ‘works’ to get your subconscious mind to think of an elephant and that is where the propaganda value is.

The same goes for stories about the future. The subconscious mind forms the story and the conscious mind understands that it hasn’t happened yet. For those who are not paying full attention, the story works on the subconscious mind directly. But, more importantly, it also works in a very subtle fashion on those who are paying conscious attention. This is really the essence of all propaganda. It targets the subconscious and even stories that the reader consciously knows are nonsense will have an effect at the subconscious level. It is for that reason that the best defence against propaganda is not to consume it in the first place or to at least be very careful about who you are entrusting your subconscious mind to.

Reader Exercise

There is nothing particularly technical about stories that predict the future. As educated readers of propaganda, we must simply be able to identify them and always question who is pushing the story. For this week’s exercise, pull up your favourite online newspaper and count the stories that are predicting-the-future. In my experience, there will always be a handful of such stories at any one time.

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