“When people learn no tools of judgment and merely follow their hopes, the seeds of political manipulation are sown.” — Stephen Jay Gould
The real underlying currency of our world is not paper fiat, gold or even military might. It’s the narrative, and the ability to control it. Everything always comes down to this one real currency.
Governments, corporations and institutions seek to influence the actions of others; lobbying for looser regulations, campaigning for changes in consumer behaviour and normalising something that was previously only seen on the fringe. Each year billions of dollars are spent on telling a better story, one that can be channeled through the media to bring about change — or keep the status quo.
The Overton Window
The Overton Window is a concept in political theory developed by Joseph P. Overton which suggests that there’s a ‘window’ of acceptable ideas in public discourse. Everything inside the ‘window’ is normal and expected, while everything outside is radical, ridiculous, or unthinkable.
Overton argued that the easiest way to move that ‘window’ was to force people to consider ideas at the extremes, as far away from the ‘window’ as possible. Forcing people to consider an unthinkable idea, even if they reject it, make all less extreme ideas seem acceptable by comparison. It moves the ‘window’ in that direction.
The author Glenn Beck cast Overton’s ideas in a sinister, conspiratorial light in his 2010 best-seller, The Overton Window. The villain in the unimaginatively titled story, Arthur Gardner is an aging PR guru who plots to use the concept to foist his own objectives on an unsuspecting and gullible public. In his afterword, Beck urges readers to watch out for manipulation in their own lives. How does this affect our understanding of the media world?
First, and most obviously, if you believe the Overton Window is a useful framework then it can be a helpful model to influence change. To promote a non-standard idea, one should invest resources in making “unrealistic” arguments on the fringes for a long time, ignoring people who tell you that it is fruitless, crazy or impractical.
Second, even if you don’t believe in the concept, it can help understand what others might be up to. This might make sense of the actions of think-tanks, lobbying groups, political parties and even reality TV stars turned political leaders as they pursue seemingly daft ideas without any attempt to win the so-called “moderates” over to their view. They may be engaged in what they see as moving the Overton Window, and will see no need for their ideas to be accepted in mainstream opinion, at least not yet.
The best time for any one person or organisation to try and shift the ‘window’ is when people are disenfranchised and disillusioned. As so often happens with radical ideas it takes a strong story, a spark (an event that changes the public’s discussion) and a missionary (a person able to change the public’s perception and make them take notice) who can promote the narrative that will break the ‘window’.
“The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous.” — 1984 (the movie version)
The more divided we have become the harder it is to identify where the Overton Window begins and ends. But that’s the wrong way of looking at things. Instead, you should think of it as destabilising the realm of ideas that are palatable to the public by sowing confusion.
In the 1938 Victorian thriller Bella Manningham, Jack terrorises his wife, Bella, into questioning her reality. He blames her for mischievously misplacing household items, items that he has systematically hidden. Bella clings to a single shred of evidence: the dimming of the gaslights that accompanies the late-night trickery. The flame is the one thing that holds her conviction in place as she wriggles free of Jack’s control.
The verb to gaslight is normally applied to abusive relationships in which one party would “psychologically manipulate a person to the point where they question their own sanity”. Its political equivalent is known as non-linear warfare and was first documented by Vladislav Surkov, thought to be a close political adviser to Vladamir Putin. He argued that controlling the information battlefield was at least as important as the physical one. To achieve this, nefarious political leaders must continue to stoke “conflict to create a constant state of destabilised perception, in order to manage and control”.
While everyone else is trying to work out what the facts are, those who don’t care get on with doing what they want. And then you wake up and realise that all of the important things in your life, the ideas and beliefs that you held dear have been misplaced.
If it sounds eerily familiar then you’re in good company. In late 2019 a survey cited by The New York Times found that American voters trying to keep up with the constant barrage of political drama are ‘numb and disorientated’ and are tuning out.
Lord Business: Hi, I’m President Business, president of the Octan Corporation and the world, let’s all take extra care to follow the instructions or you’ll be put to sleep, and don’t forget Taco Tuesday’s coming next week, that’s the day every rule following citizen gets a free taco and my love, have a great day, everybody!
Emmet: You have a great day too, President Business. Man, he’s such a cool guy. I always wanna hear more — Wait, did he say PUT TO SLEEP?
TV Presenter: Tonight on, Where Are My Pants?
Larry: Honey, where are my paaaaaaaaaaaaaaaants?
Emmet: ‘HA,HA,HA,HA,HA,HA,HA,HA,HA!!!’. What was I just thinking? I don’t care.
- The Lego Movie
The world is full of things to pay attention to: tonight’s episode of the latest reality TV show, a nightmare journey through traffic to get to work, your child’s poor school report to commenting on your friends latest Facebook post. Why bother with boring facts?
Politicians, governments and big corporations have always known the value of an entertaining distraction: pick a fight with a celebrity, overplay the benefits of a policy and fund research into something other than your unhealthy products. Isn’t that more eye catching that boring facts?
There’s even a word for it — agnotology. According to the book The Encyclopaedia of Misinformation, “Agnotology is the science of creating stupidity. It is the study of culturally constructed ignorance, usually manufactured by special interest groups to suppress facts and create confusion.”
The term was coined by Robert Proctor, a historian at Stanford University after studying the tobacco industry. For decades the industry had managed to fend off regulation, litigation and the idea that its products were lethal. They did this by disputing indisputable facts and questioning unquestionable sources. In short they sowed enough confusion for the public to doubt the facts.
One infamous internal memo from the Brown & Williamson tobacco company sets out the strategy: “Doubt is our product.” It “is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”
Those wishing to sow confusion embrace FUD — Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. You’ll find much more on these in part 2 of this book.
They’re not even pretending anymore
Efforts to normalise actions and behaviour are endemic in our society. In 2016 British film maker Adam Curtis released a documentary titled Hypernormalization. It paints a picture of a world dominated by narratives designed to nudge and control our actions for the benefit of corporations and politicians. It is rarely a simple linear process; it involves a step change in communication style and strength and a change in the behaviour of the broader population.
For example, in the run up to the second Gulf War with Iraq, the US and the UK (the main allies in the invasion of Iraq) sought to build the case for war. Authorities achieved this through the use of dossiers meant to strike fear into the population, suggesting that Iraq could launch a missile strike at Western targets within 45 minutes.
Gradually winding up the narrative can enable governments to introduce extreme measures that the public (in more normal times) would never agree to. This stretches way beyond military conflict. In the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis central banks introduced progressively more extreme financial policies. The goal being to keep the economic engine humming away, but that also had bad side-effects like rising wealth inequality. The narrative swung (via articles, reports and public appointments) towards even more extreme financial engineering.
What was once seen as ridiculous, comical or strange now seems normal. What once represented a rich vein of content for the media now seems a bit too normal to still be news. The Overton Window has shifted. People accept the “new normal” as reality.
How to spot the weaponising of the media
- Look to the fringe: It’s on the edge of a discussion that you will find attempts to move the Overton Window. Influential people who are active on social media and the blogosphere can affect the narratives that the mainstream media eventually cling onto. If you just focus on the mainstream media you won’t see it, until it’s already well on its way.
- A shift in language: Governments and organisations with power to wield may attempt to shift the Overton Window through subtle (or not so subtle) changes in language. For example, ahead of a conflict there may be an attempt to prepare citizens for a prolonged war. Whether bullets actually fly or not is irrelevant, look for the media narrative to become dominated by terms relating to national security. Watch out for language like the ‘enemy’ is seeking to ‘weaponise’ something previously seen as innocuous, or that they are going to ‘pull the trigger’.
- Ask why am I being told this now?: The news is fed to us for a reason. Always ask why am I seeing, reading or hearing this now? Now is the most important part of that question — why now? Although he denied he ever said it, the mantra associated with UK news anchor Jeremy Paxman was “why is this lying bastard lying to me?”.
Peter Sainsbury is the author of Pay Attention: 101 Ways To Tame The Narrative Machine, Be A Smarter Media Consumer And Stop Outsourcing Your Thinking