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.
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.
All posts in this series:
- Propaganda School: Introduction
- Propaganda School Part 1: Guilt by Association
- Propaganda School Part 2: The Passive Voice
- Propaganda School Part 3: Editorialising the News
- Propaganda School Part 4: Headlines and Taglines
- Propaganda School Part 5: Anchoring
- Propaganda School Part 6: Metaphor
- Propaganda School Part 7: Predicting-the-Future
- Propaganda School Part 8: Appeal to Authority
- Propaganda School Part 9: Buzzwords
- Propaganda School Part 10: Lies, damned lies and statistics
- Propaganda School Part 11: Revenge on the Nerds