Welcome to the Denial Machine

Since last year’s presidential campaign in the US and Donald Trump’s election victory, the debate around (social) media and fake news or false information has kept the Internet busy. But although it’s complicated and exhausting to research what we can trust, its more important than ever to be able to recognize, understand, and deconstruct strategies used to manipulate public opinion. Only recently the independent right-wing opinion platform Breitbart announced the plans to open a German desk this year when the federal elections are taking place.

Artist and researcher Marloes de Valk investigated on those methods starting with events in the Eighties, drawing parallels to today’s media landscape. In her essay written for Web Residencies No.1 (2017) by Solitude & ZKM on the topic »Blowing the Whistle, Questioning Evidence«, she shows: propaganda has become more direct, yet the patterns remain the same. In this interview she talks about the tricky world of propaganda, fake news, and leaked documents and also how a dark-humored art game designed for the emblematic 1985 NES video game console may help us to navigate through it.

»My role as an artist is one of critical reflection, trying to bridge the gap between everyday experiences and developments in society. Developments such as: the increasing invasion of privacy along with people’s need to feel a part of social groups, the increased speed at which products are produced and thrown away and the way people now define themselves through the consumption of goods, the literally suffocating grip of the oil industry on governments and the powerlessness people feel in the face of climate change…«Marloes de Valk

CH: For your web residency, you wrote an essay that maps existing research on strategies used to manipulate public opinion, focusing on events taking place in the Eighties. Why this decade and what are the events you are focusing on?

MdV: I focused on the Eighties because it was a decade in which many of the problems we face today were becoming painfully apparent. The collateral damage of industrial capitalism became visible at the same time as the rise of neoliberalism – the strong belief that an unregulated market will solve all problems –, while ignoring the fact that no financial incentive was present to trigger this market driven problem solving. Scientists realized acid rain was caused by the burning of coal, that the ozone layer was thinning because of CFC’s, that the climate was changing, and that this was caused by the burning of fossil fuels… The way that governments, and the industries that were negatively impacting the environment, responded to those concerns set us on a course that we are still on today – one of eternal delay. There were successful measures taken to deal with CFC’s and acid rain, but it took much longer than necessary due to very efficient campaigns funded by industry to cast doubt on the severity and causes of those problems. This is still true for global warming.

Reagan’s favorite campaign slogan, »get government off your backs« is, of course, the wet dream of any industry dealing with, or facing, regulation. Trump has started rolling back many regulations and this is not the only Reagan policy he is echoing. Not only did he trademark Reagan’s »Make America Great Again« campaign slogan in 2015, but he also adopted his »peace through strength« foreign policy. The U.S. »would have a military so strong that we would never have to use it«, he said at a rally in Phoenix in 2015. Fingers crossed he never hears of Reagan’s extremely risky, untestable and potentially nuclear war triggering »Star Wars« plan to build a defensive shield against incoming nuclear missiles in space… Hmm… But he did and Trump wants a big missile defense system too. National Review published an article rooting for a Strategic Defense Initiative revival last year: »Reagan understood missile defense could help make America as great and safe as it could be. Now it falls to President Trump to follow through on that brilliant vision.«

CH: The point of departure for your writing is a computer game, What Remains, that is also the title of a larger game and research project investigating how technology and the media influence the way we perceive ourselves focusing on global warming. The game will be developed for this project. What is this computer game and how does it work and look like?

MdV: What Remains is a new game that we will develop in the upcoming months. We developed a demo last year. What Remains is a darkly humorous, authentic Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) 8-bit game based on how public opinion was, and still is, shaped to prevent the creation of government regulations needed to protect us from man-made environmental disasters. What Remains is an art game for the emblematic 1985 NES video game console, immersing the player in an Eighties adventure to save the planet by rousing the public’s outrage over the lack of regulations the government imposes on corporations to protect citizens. What Remains is a reflection of the political effects that have been shaping the world for the past few decades. In this context, the NES stands as a metaphor – a device from that same period, originally designed only for entertainment and consumption, now being repurposed as a tool for creative expression. Being nostalgically couched in the past, it acts as a symbol to that time’s influence on the present.

CH: It’s interesting that the medium of a game is used for a project researching mechanisms of spreading and believing false information by media. How do you link the game to your research and how will people participate?

MdV: The research will be the basis for the story of the game. Both very literally – through using the events and people involved in them to write the different quests and characters – as well as on a more conceptual level – through taking the insights gained from our research and using them as guiding principles in the development of the overall plot. The beauty of using a game to tell this story is that the player is personally involved in making choices and navigating the tricky world of propaganda, fake news, and leaked documents. Through the historic events of this time, and by using well documented facts upon which we build an alternative story line, we can draw parallels to today, and create through distance a more engaged commitment to current events. We are writing a story everyone can relate to, about trust and being part of a group, 7.4 billion strong.

CH: How do you research the »public opinion manipulation strategies« in the essay? Can you give an example of one? What are your sources?

MdV: The strategies I describe are the result of sifting through events described in several books and documented on several online platforms. Merchants of Doubt (Oreskes and Conway, 2010) was an important source, as were the Oxford Handbook of Climate Change (Dryzek, Norgaard and Schlosberg, 2011) and Requiem for a Species (Hamilton, 2010). After reading about events that illustrate a certain strategy, I looked up relevant documents. For instance: when writing about strategy #5 – »aggressively disseminate the facts you manufactured« – I looked for documents from the Tobacco Institute about the media tour consultant Alan Katzenstein did in order to influence public opinion to prevent regulations against second hand smoke. I found the Truth Tobacco Industry Documents Archive, a database containing over 14 million internal corporate documents, released through leaks and litigation. One of those documents listed all 62 media interviews Katzenstein did for the Tobacco Institute in 1987. Seeing a copy of a document with your own eyes has a different impact than reading about it. It makes the deliberated nature of these efforts to manipulate people so much clearer.

CH: Since last year’s presidential campaign and Donald Trump’s election victory, the debate around (social) media and fake news or false information has kept the Internet busy. Now even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg addresses the issue. How do you draw parallels to today’s media landscape with your project?

MdV: Chomsky and Hermans’ analysis still proves interesting when re-reading the propaganda model they describe in Manufacturing Consent (1988) to include channels such as the blogosphere, novelty discursive platforms and image boards – like 4chan and 8chan –, social networks like Twitter and Facebook, and independent news and opinion sites such as Breitbart where new phenomena arise such as meme-wars and cyberbullying. Propaganda has become more direct, bypassing in many ways the traditional print-media, yet the essence remains the same: both anticommunist and anti-regulatory propaganda aim at undressing democratic, constitutional states to the point where governments, independent journalists, and scientists have very little left to say or do in order to protect citizens from unchecked corporate greed. The project distills the strategies used in the past in such a way that it becomes apparent how they are still used today. Once you’re familiar with them, you start to recognize them even if they take place on Twitter instead of in a newspaper or on TV.

 

CH: »Who needs facts when we can have stories?« It’s complicated and exhausting to research what we can trust on the Internet and human beings seem to be designed for understanding and believing stories much more than facts as the research on persuasion shows. What are your strategies to stick to the facts?

MdV: My strategy is to be very aware of the fact that facts don’t mean anything outside context, and context always brings interpretation and bias with it. No matter how factual you try to be, this is inescapable. That is why claims to objective reporting are nonsensical, and why science is struggling to reposition itself. The only meaningful piece of information in reporting and scientific studies of environmental issues is a statement by the writer and publisher on potential conflicts of interest, such as funding from or financial stakes in the oil industry. Independence is critical, objectivity is impossible, and independent science and journalism is going to be biased. But, those are still the best we’ve got to critically reflect on ourselves – which is crucial if we ever hope to escape the self-destructive course we’re on. In writing the essay, I aimed at placing certain events that took place in the Eighties in a context that hopefully makes clear that nothing truly new is happening at this moment, that a lot is at stake, and that we can expect a copy-paste attempt to delay government regulation of heavily polluting industries.

CH: What is the concept of »truth« you are working with?

MdV: That could be the topic of another essay…

CH: As the curator Tatiana Bazzichelli already mentions in her statement, we are seeing a relatively new field of artistic practice, where art is seen as a mean for producing evidence of misconduct and wrongdoing, as well as a terrain of meta reflection on whistleblowing, leaking, and surveillance. How do you perceive your role as an artist in this context?

MdV: My role as an artist is one of critical reflection, trying to bridge the gap between everyday experiences and developments in society. Developments such as: the increasing invasion of privacy along with people’s need to feel a part of social groups, the increased speed at which products are produced and thrown away and the way people now define themselves through the consumption of goods, the literally suffocating grip of the oil industry on governments and the powerlessness people feel in the face of climate change – at once feeling responsible and unable to do anything substantial about it –, and the tempting nature of denialist arguments – that »it’s not as bad as it seems«, that »technological advances will solve the problem before it’s too late«, that »humans are an adaptable species that can accommodate this change.« My role is to engage with these topics from both the personal perspective as well as the larger context. To make tangible that, for instance, these leaked tobacco industry documents from the Eighties may have affected you personally, and that similar strategies might affect your choices today.

CH: How is this project related to your work and thinking in general? And what comes next?

MdV: My work always begins with genuine surprise and wanting to understand something, with a strong focus on how technologies impact our lives. This project started with the question of »Why is there no massive governmental and international action to combat climate change?« Without looking into to it, it is unimaginable. What is the worst that could happen? A cleaner world, still able to accommodate human life. But, when taking a closer look, the influence of fossil fuels on peoples lives on the one hand, and global politics on the other, is extreme and bloody and messy. The most horrific example is the war in Syria, with the uprising in part caused by the effects of an exceptional 3 year drought linked to global warming (Kelley, et al., 2015), and the escalation of the conflict caused by tensions resulting from a planned pipeline from Qatar to Turkey and Europe (Kennedy, 2016). The role of fossil fuels in this war is not clear enough in the media. Propaganda, the manipulation of public opinion, the manufacturing of consent seemed like a good way to approach this, to touch on how it affects people personally, to seek an answer as to why we are not storming the barricades.

As to what comes next… there is no project lined up, I’m working on What Remains for at least another year. This is a project with a topic that deserves more than a quick produce and publish cycle. I hope to develop it a lot more in the coming months, together with the rest of the What Remains crew: Arnaud Guillon, Chun Lee, Dustin Long, and Aymeric Mansoux.

Cooper, H. F., O’Neill, M. R., Pfaltzgraff R. L. Jr., Worrell, R. H., 2016. How Trump Can Fulfill Reagan’s Defense Vision. National Review. [Online] Available at: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/442532/trump-defense-spending-bring-back-missile-defense [Accessed: 05-05-2017].

Kelley, et al., 2015. Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought. PNAS. March 17, 112(11), pp. 3241-3246. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1421533112.

Kennedy, R. 2016. Syria: Another Pipeline War. Ecowatch. [Online] Avaiable at: http://www.ecowatch.com/syria-another-pipeline-war-1882180532.html?page=1 [Accessed: 05-05-2017].

University of California San Francisco, 2017. Truth Tobacco Industry Documents. [Online] Available at: https://www.industrydocumentslibrary.ucsf.edu/tobacco/