e²mc

evolving ecological media culture(s)

November 9, 2020
by Adrian J Ivakhiv
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Truth, trust, and the election

While last week’s election has resulted in the announcement of a new president and vice-president, with leaders of many countries around the world recognizing those results (and with global markets rallying their apparent support), the current Trump administration has not recognized them. As with the debate over the scientific veracity of climate change, what we have with this election is two sides, each of which has decried the other as a source of disinformation.

President Trump and his proxies have repeatedly claimed to be victorious and accused the Democrats of “stealing” the election through massive “fraud,” with the “mainstream media” complicit, censorious, and biased in the Democrats’ favor. All of Trump’s supposed enemies—in the Democratic party, among Republican “never Trumpers,” in the media, and ensconced in various levels of government—are taken to make up a “deep state” that is untrustworthy, nefarious, and committed to stopping his administration from continuing what they have “started.”

On the other side, the election has been taken to be fair, having played itself out more or less according to expectations — with in-person balloting showing more support for Trump, and mail-in ballots, which in most states were counted later, showing significantly more support for Biden (albeit with pollster projections somewhat off, as in 2016). (One of the possible reasons suggested for that degree of polling error is QAnon; more on them below.) The fairness of the election, despite known challenges, has been confirmed by international observers. The margin of victory for Biden is clear and Trump’s protestations are taken to be largely or completely unfounded and intended to disinform the electorate and rile up his base of supporters. This interpretation has been more or less accepted by most major media organizations, with governments around the world supporting it through their congratulatory statements to the Biden-Harris team.

As with the issue of climate change (and to some degree with Covid-19), the questions surrounding these election results, especially for media attempting to cover those results, are therefore: which side should we trust, and why? Is there a factual basis for deciding between them, or should both sides be given “equal air time,” with voters and observers being left to “make up their own minds”?

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November 7, 2020
by Adrian J Ivakhiv
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Trump’s advisers

One of the questions that has emerged as Joe Biden’s victory has become more apparent, especially following Trump’s falsehood-riddled rant on Thursday evening, is who are his advisers, who might advise him to accept his defeat rather than to go down fighting?

Media watchers should not be surprised at all that Trump, media hound that he is, mainly takes advice from those he relies on for his ratings. Their names include Sean, Laura, Rush, Lou, and Tucker, and at least a few of them (but not all) have begun seeing the writing on the wall and advising him to do the right thing (with the kid gloves that someone of his delicate nature seems to require).

As they do, the Fox News empire, which has been Trump’s single most influential propaganda outlet (and which most of them work for), is facing questions of what it will do as he goes down. The Intercept reports infighting within the Murdoch family that controls it. The longer-term question for media-watchers is how the two arms of Fox — the somewhat more responsible news anchors and the knife-wielding punditocracy — will continue to cohabit the same house, or if post-presidency Trump will try to drag his favorites over into a new right-wing media empire of his own making. (Reports of Trump considering starting his own network or buying out the slavishly pro-Trump One America News Network have been circulating for months.)

Meanwhile, the seemingly big issue for media watchers — how it is that pundits and pollsters got things wrong again? — might not really be an issue after all. In most respects, what has occurred is what was supposed to occur. Trump had long encouraged his supporters not to vote by mail, and has long planned to both discredit and disrupt the mail-in ballots, knowing that Biden supporters would be less likely to show up in person during a pandemic.

Greg Sargent summarizes what we all should have known would happen:

“Trump would rely on GOP state legislatures in places like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which refused to allow the counting of mailed ballots before Election Day, helping to create the delays that Trump would then exploit.

He would enjoy a big lead as the Election Day votes were counted first, allowing him to declare victory, and then insist that the counting of millions of other ballots constituted an effort to steal the election from him.

It all unfolded exactly this way. Trump’s broadcasting of his scheme surely helped persuade millions of Democrats to get their mail ballots in early. Meanwhile, in the days leading up to the election, he kept tweeting about a “GIANT RED WAVE COMING!”

These were the Election Day votes that would be counted first, and on Election Day, things went according to plan in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Trump then did prematurely declare victory early the next morning. And he has since launched a legal effort to try to invalidate as many mail votes as possible.

But Trump never thought to imagine that all those mailed ballots actually would get counted, that the system actually would honor the votes of millions who opposed him, that election officials and volunteers across the country actually do believe in democracy and are willing to work extraordinarily hard to make it function on behalf of the American people, on behalf of all of them. He couldn’t simply make all of that disappear.”

There are still questions for pollsters, and all the more for Democrats, to answer. And the big question for the country is: how is it that after four years of Donald Trump, roughly half the country still wants him as their president?

Al Jazeera’s Andrew Mitrovica phrases this question most acutely. The election showed, he writes, that Trump was not an aberration.

It was a choice of millions of Americans who are happy to vote for a nihilist who has used the presidency to promote his obscene brand and enrich his family and pack of sycophants at the expense of the increasingly phantom “national interest.”

He ends by quoting Noam Chomsky: “We are moving towards cataclysm. There is one country in the world, the United States, that wants to put its foot on the accelerator.”

The person whose foot is on that accelerator just got 70 million Americans to vote for him.

There is lot of work ahead, for the rest of us. That starts with continuing to analyze who Trump’s, and the science-denying radical right’s, real “advisers” are, and how and why their version of reality resonates with so many Americans. That it resonates increasingly around the world makes the question even more acute.

November 2, 2020
by Adrian J Ivakhiv
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Well, here we go…

Deep breath, Americanos. Let’s brace ourselves for what may be the messiest, most litigious and disruptive Interregnum in U.S. history. (“Interregnum” = the 79 day interval between Election Day and the swearing-in of the next president.)

What could possibly go wrong — besides strategic disruptions of in-person voting, blocking and disputing of the vote count (especially of mail-in ballots, which strongly lean Democrat), a victory proclamation based on early results before the mail-in count can result in the anticipated “blue shift,” proclamations of massive voter fraud (which the last few months of “mail-in voter fraud” claims have been preparing us for), emergency recount motions in multiple states (with postmarks becoming this year’s “hanging chads“), caravans of Trump-supporting (and sometimes armed) “ballot guardians” and “coup protestors,” appeals to state and federal supreme courts (for a replay of Bush-v.-Gore, this time with a clear conservative majority), and a state of emergency, to be quelled by riot police and military units when fights erupt in the streets, all in an attempt to bypass election results and re-impose “law and order”?

At least if we are ready for these measures, we won’t be too surprised. If we get through it all unscathed, it will be a little short of miraculous. (It can’t hurt to hope.) And no matter what happens, it will be studied for years to come. (That is, unless the condition becomes terminal.)

The question for media studies geeks will be: what have the media learned since 2016? What should we be learning, going forward? Gauging the answers given so far, we/they have either learned nothing, a few things, not enough, or we’re not sure. Perhaps we will find out.

October 30, 2020
by Adrian J Ivakhiv
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Laptop from hell?

On the disinformation front: Two things seemed to move the “laptop from hell” story yesterday, one of them forward (sort of), one of them back (to the drawing room?).

The first was Glenn Greenwald’s splashy announcement that he is resigning from The Intercept, the investigative journalistic platform he helped found, because of apparent censorship of an article on the Hunter Biden story, censorship Greenwald claims is widespread among Biden-supporting media today. What strikes me most about this is (1) that Greenwald seemed so intent on getting the story out in time to influence the election (which the editors seemingly didn’t think was a good idea, given the uncertainties), and (2) that his proclamations about censorship and disinformation (by a source with a long history of critical coverage of Joe Biden) appear disingenuous in light of his decision to go running immediately to Fox News for an interview on the Tucker Carlson show (despite Tucker). Wow, Glenn, something funny about your choice of venue…

The second thing is NBC’s apparent scoop that the document behind the story was faked at least in large part by an anti-China economics professor named Christopher Balding. Of course, just because there was faking involved to get the story out doesn’t mean there’s no story of some kind there. But at this point, voters might just know enough about Trump’s kidsinvolvements in different countries to have a comparative reference point for taking in a new story about Hunter Biden.

Meanwhile, the number of new coronaviruses infections in the U. S. continues to break records, topping 90,000 yesterday, with some questioning the high number of “excess deaths” that aren’t even included in the current count.

Addition (2:20 p.m. Eastern time): Zeynep Tufekci has just posted on the Hunter Biden story and, as always, makes some very astute observations. The “real questions,” she writes, concern “How much media attention should be given, to what parts of the story?” In the digital age, she argues, it is not speech but attention that is restricted and regulated. There is whistle-blowing and there is whistle-drowning, which this story is an example of. Like Hillary Clinton’s e-mails in 2016, it is “designed to flood the public a flurry of allegations that make it very difficult to concentrate on the important questions facing us.”

The media’s role, in Tufekci’s assessment, should not be to devote equal attention to allegations about both candidates — rather like news about climate change should devote equal attention to scientists who research the topic and professional obfuscators of it. It should be to devote “proportional attention to allegations and stories according to their credibility, scale, scope and importance.”

October 29, 2020
by Adrian J Ivakhiv
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Five days to Tuesday

While a record-shattering 76 million people have already voted, Election Day itself remains the milestone that several media-political developments seem to be aiming toward. The reasons for that aren’t restricted to the goal of catching those last remaining undecided voters. There is also the question of the election’s aftermath and what will happen if the results (as expected) aren’t entirely conclusive. The risks of violence are being monitored by global election-monitoring groups including the International Crisis Group.

Most prominently, the Senate’s hearings on Big Tech, surprising in their timing so close to the election, are revealing themselves to be politically very interesting and contentious. I had earlier shared the view that the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against Google would be interesting to watch, and that it indicates some measure of convergence between Democrats and Conservatives, despite somewhat different motivations. Now it seems the divergence around big tech has become more obvious. Democracy Now‘s interview this morning with Digital Cultures Lab director Ramesh Srinivasan provides some interesting observations about Republicans’ claims that Big Tech is biased against conservatives, when data indicate Big Tech’s influence, not just here but around the world, has largely been supportive of illiberal politicians and the conspiratorial claims that often drive their campaigns.

Meanwhile, Politico has an update on what’s been happening with the Hunter Biden “laptop from hell” narrative. (Not much, it seems, as the right-wing mediasphere hasn’t been able to give it much traction.)

All for now. More to come.

October 26, 2020
by Adrian J Ivakhiv
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An average (pandemic-era, pre-election) Sunday

For an observer of the politics of the “media ecosystem,” so much can happen in a single day, and even in a single newspaper (the Sunday New York Times).

(“Media ecosystem” is a tricky term: if Benkler et al are correct, there are at least two media ecosystems in the United States. Others, like the authors of this piece on the “right-wing information ecology”, selected as “open-access paper of the week” by the excellent “The Syllabus” project, use the term “media ecology” or “information ecology” as if it were synonymous with “media ecosystem.” Technically, an ecosystem is a system of relations, while ecology is the study of something ecosystemic. My course title uses the term “media ecologies” not because there are multiple media systems — of course there are — but because there are multiple ways of studying and making sense of them. Some of them, or at least one, call themselves “media ecology”; others do not, but they still function that way. And of course, neither of these terms has much to do with the biological science of ecology, but that’s neither here nor there — unless you’re one of my ecologist colleagues. Or me, when I put my ecomedia hat on.)

Two front page articles in yesterday’s Times are of particular interest to us. “How the Epoch Times Created a Giant Influence Machine” (in the print version, “How an Obscure Newspaper Became a Bullhorn for the Far Right”) examines in detail the transformation of a newspaper affiliated with Li Hongzhi’s spiritual movement Falun Gong into a leading organ of pro-Trump, right-wing propaganda. I recently compared QAnon to Falun Gong and the “redemptive society” tradition in which it loosely falls. (I consider the empire-like network connecting Falun Gong to the Epoch Times, Shen Yun Performing Arts, and various other groups to be analogous, in its hostile relationship to the Chinese Communist Party, with the Gülen network’s relationship to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Both are shadowy, religious inspired and politically active, transnational movements aiming to create a kind of alternative power structure to those who currently run their home states.)

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October 24, 2020
by Adrian J Ivakhiv
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The pre-election media vortex

I haven’t followed up on the last post here on e2mc for the simple reason that the blog has hardly any followers right now (it’s been largely inactive since I used it alongside my film/media course in 2013). But since the course I mentioned in that post, Media Ecologies and Cultural Politics, is now in full swing, and since we’re dealing with all manner of exciting topics — including media coverage of the election, the pandemic, racial justice protests, and big tech lawsuits and controversies — it’s a good time to share some of my thinking more publicly (and that of the students’ if they care to join in).

Here’s something that combines a couple of posts I shared with the class over the last week or so.

Our topic these two weeks has been media disinformation and polarization, with a nod toward conspiracy theories. Among other things, we have been reading the Pew Research Center’s report on “U. S. Media Polarization & the 2020 Election,” Claire Wardle’s/First Draft’s “Essential Guide to Understanding Information Disorder” (which is a distillation of the much more detailed Information Disorder report), and Adrienne LaFrance’s “The prophecies of Q” from the Atlantic monthly’s “Shadowland” series on conspiracy theories in the United States. This follows our reading of parts of the book Network Propaganda (which we are finishing up this coming week).

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August 27, 2020
by Adrian J Ivakhiv
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Media Ecologies & Cultural Politics, the 2020 pandemic/election version

This space will soon become a supplementary space — a kind of “annex” — for sharing things related to the Fall 2020 University of Vermont class “Media Ecologies and Cultural Politics.” The previous version of the course was taught in 2013, with public sharing of reading information, videos, and conversation taking place here on this blog. You can read those old posts by starting with Week 1 and following through the “Next post –>” link found toward the bottom-right of each page, below the comment field.

A lot has happened since 2013. This year’s version of the course will naturally focus on the cultural politics of media in this time and place, dominated as it is by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the looming November U.S. elections, and the crisis of race and social justice in this country.

In 2013, the course was a Senior level seminar; this year it is a junior/intermediate level class. It is also, for the first time, a fully remote/online course. Most course materials and discussions will be shared and/or unfold in a pay-walled part of the Blackboard course platform, and it’s not clear yet how much will take place in the public space of this blog. However, my hope is that some, and perhaps even all, of our critical analysis projects and applied media projects will be shared here publicly.

At any rate, public input will be welcome. A brief course description is available here. A syllabus can be read here.

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