by Sumi Hollingworth
I’m finding more and more friends posting ‘news’ articles and the like on Facebook that (depending on the post) attract a flurry of excited or outraged comments and interaction, and then turn out to be ‘hoaxes’ or ‘spoofs’ as some brainy friend posts: ‘it’s not true,’ followed by a link to an article which exposes the hoax, and then everyone who believed it feels a bit silly. Recent examples include the Denmark Dolphin Slaughter scandal, where a Facebook post about the Danish brutally slaughtering Dolphins for sport – complete with graphic photographs – went viral (and see the exposure). More recently, there was a post about Lorde’s suppressed Grammy Award acceptance Speech (and see the exposure). In this, the young New Zealand singer songwriter is claimed to have had her real Grammy speech -‘a scathing indictment of global capitalism’ – suppressed and removed from live broadcast.
These stories, and their response, got me wondering what about the stories that don’t get ‘exposed,’ the stories that go under the radar? How do we know what to believe? I then I started thinking, as a sociologist does, that maybe it doesn’t matter if things that are posted on Facebook or Twitter are ‘true/real’, or ‘fake/spoof/hoax’. If people want to believe it, share it, circulate it, and maybe even take action as if it were ‘real/true’, then it becomes real in its consequences. I suppose this isn’t something new (says the sociologist again): government lies to us all the time. The mainstream media regurgitates it, and we want to believe some of these government lies sometimes, and sometimes we don’t. However, these observations lead me to wonder if perhaps we are witnessing a democratisation of propaganda. Anyone can write anything they like and publish it on an obscure indy-media URL and what they say can go viral. If people believe it, or at least invest in it in some form, then that is powerful.
I suppose I could insist that people need to check their sources more clearly (if they investigate the sources of articles they read at all), and ask ‘is this source reliable’? But realistically, we are all very busy, and that is really quite time consuming, given the amount of media we now digest daily. Furthermore, it is not actually that easy to work out which sources are most reliable, because of this democratisation of knowledge production: our reference points are not the same anymore. In David Beer’s words, we now live in and with fragmented, decentralised ‘mediascapes’.
Or maybe it doesn’t matter how reliable the source is? Maybe we just let the lines blur? Don’t know what’s ‘real’. What’s not. Just believe what I want to believe. As one post, on a Reddit conspiracy discussion forum stated, after the Lorde-Grammy-Speech–suppression debacle:
‘I upvote things that I want to be true. And I only read the title and maybe the first paragraph. That is a huge MAYBE. I’ll let some one else actually do a little independent thinking and reading to find out if it is true at all. Usually at that point I forget about checking back, move on to the next story, and just continue to believe that a satirical article is true. Then I share my brilliant opinion with everyone that will listen’.
While this is tongue in cheek, we are all gradually forming opinions based on this media we digest daily through Facebook and twitter, and we share it, and may act on it.
But one could argue that is just what used to happen with the Church: they tell us what is real, we act on it as if it is real. That was no preferable a situation. But now I feel like what I am being told is just more random. What knowledge gets produced, is believed, and gets acted upon, feels very random and much more incoherent. Knowledge hierarchies are crumbling. Or being shaken, at least. Who is (to be) more trusted? The Government? The Guardian? Spiked Online? Upworthy? NewsBiscuit? Religious figures? Celebrities? Man in the pub? And if anyone can produce and publicise knowledge and be believed, where does this leave the university and ‘the academic’? Apart from a handful of commendable academic bloggers, and the slow move to ‘open access’ journals, the university is busy producing knowledge, that is a mile away from being ‘bite size’, that very few people read, or can afford to have access to. One renowned academic association’s journal has even proposed to bar any of its editors from blogging, pushing academic knowledge into an even more rarefied position of access.
In the context of calls for a more ‘public sociology,’ it is important for us, as sociologists, to engage with this knowledge circulation on social media. As Beer argues: ‘in order to understand contemporary popular culture we now need to acquire practices that afford an engagement with the complex and often unpredictable forms of emergence […] and the grammar of conduct that it offers.’ Going back to Lorde’s suppressed Grammy Speech, what grammar of conduct is going on here? I used the word propaganda earlier in reference to this circulation of stories on social media. The Oxford Dictionary defines propaganda as ‘information, of a misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view’. Arguably, this is often what these posts are. Personally and professionally, I thought Lorde’s supposed suppressed speech was brilliant with many well-founded, salient points in it; and I hate the idea of dolphins or whales being slaughtered. However, the way in which both of these messages were communicated was misleading, to promote a particular political view point. Yet, the way in which it is done is very interesting: What we have here with both cases is misattribution, be it for spoof or hoax purposes. The 17 year old Lorde is (mis-)attributed with having given a public speech about the tyranny of global elites (almost definitely written by an academic or someone with considerable training in academic writing); and the Danish government (mistakenly?) attributed with being responsibile for the mass inhumane slaughter of an endangered dolphins/whales (accurately attributed to the Faroe Islands, autonomous of Denmark). We could see these stories as a form of cyber-activism, but one in which the misattribution – clearly deliberate in the case of Lorde, or perhaps accidental in the case of the Danish Dolphins – gets the message out to a broader public by using the power of social media to send the message viral. Taking the Lorde case further, not only might we see this as a form of political activism, it also bears hallmarks of hacking. The (somewhat dry, though clearly important) message – our oppression by the domination of a global network of elites- is wrapped up in another more populist story (Lorde’s Grammy Award). Lorde is a mere puppet – a pawn in the game to get the story out. The technique works like a computer virus. It is a Trojan horse: you hide your weapon inside something else palatable- something people will more readily engage with. It is a clever technique.
But perhaps this is also about a desire for our celebrities to be more radical. The idea that Lorde is delivering this message makes it all the more powerful, subversive. Let’s be honest, who would have read a dry, lengthy, anti-capitalist rant had it been posted as-is, by a Professor so-and-so? In its entanglement with celebrity culture, this message gains even more traction. It is as if this kind of cyber-hacktivism is filling a political vacuum. The very circulation of these kinds of posts – the apparent thirst for these stories to be true – is itself culturally significant. The circulation of Lorde’s speech- seems to represent some desire to see celebrities speak out against injustice, to be a figure of critique and resistance. There is so much symbolic loading by others to produce her as something she may or may not be. Is this indicative of our thirst for public figures to speak out against the injustices of neoliberalism and global-capitalism? Even if we have Russell Brand and his new ‘anti-capitalist’ guise, or Matt Damon’s public speeches on civil disobedience, such outspoken celebrities are few and far between. We just don’t expect our celebrities to be so politically subversive and radical in an industry that is arguably conservative.
So does this label – ‘propaganda’ – capture what is happening here, with its associations with ‘false consciousness’ or even a lack of criticality among those who consume such information? Does this label do justice to the complexity of how and why these stories have such purchase? Why might we post these, in partial knowledge they are probably not true? Perhaps it is part of our social media identity and feeling part of a collective, political ‘community’ of alternative values, a community of subversion and resistance. Even when you discover it is ‘not true,’ a ‘hoax’, a ‘spoof’ you are not angry. It works, if you identify with the message. If you want to believe it.
However, I want to come back to my earlier point about which knowledge gets produced and circulated, feels very random and much more incoherent. What else are people thirsty to believe? The stories digested and circulated by people who aren’t in my Facebook network might look very different. Such as the Youtube video that has gone viral that Justin Bieber is in fact a shape-shifting lizard. In a recent blogpost I wrote on Russell Brand and accidental utopia, I celebrated Brand’s call for the revolution not to be serious but to be ‘fun’, somewhat random and accidental, so in some ways I invited this scenario. However, what concerns me is which messages will go viral, and will be acted upon? At the moment it seems like academics are woefully lagging behind in the way in which knowledge is packaged and delivered. There is something that public sociology can learn from this democratisation of knowledge on social media, the role, function and utility of hoax and spoof, and sociology might make useful alliances with online communities in engaging with this media.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Kim Allen and Rich Franklin for their contributions to these ideas.
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Sumi Hollingworth is a Senior Research Fellow at the Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research. She is a sociologist of youth and education and her research explores intersecting inequalities of social class, race and gender in the context of education.
Tags: academia, academic knowledge, accidental utopia, claims, facebook, hoax, hollingworth, information society, internet, knowledge, lorde, news, reliability, social networks, spoof, sumi, truth, viral, youtube