Which is worse when it comes to the global ‘dumbing down of society’ scams – Trump’s manipulating claims of ‘false news’ or the Chinese government’s ‘great firewall’ of digital censorship and propaganda? How are these ‘devious manipulations’ of popular awareness both different but also similar and perhaps ultimately related (especially re: consumer vs. authoritarian societies)? In each case, how do reasonable justifications and partial truths so often ultimately get swallowed up by distortions and even outright lies or deceptions? And how can we get young millennials around the world to give a damn about truth and justice (etc) anyway?
National governments often start with a reasonable and apparently admirable intent – and then for political, corporate and/or bureaucratic reasons ‘good’ policies so often get lost in or swallowed by bad ones. The current Chinese government initially impressed a lot of people globally as well as locally with intentions to stop the rampant corruption of local officials in cahoots with crooked business people (1). However, as well as a pretext for greater authoritarian controls, censorship and selective application to perceived threats, emerging reports about the use of the China ‘belt and road’ policy to rip off instead of helping other countries exemplifies a growing view of China. This is that whilst corruption is domestically targeted not so with Chinese firms operating overseas in the service of agendas of increasingly global domination (2) – in other words, that rogue Chinese firms and billionaires are apparently often being given a secretive licence to corrupt foreign governments and societies. This is ironic given that a key policy of Trumps’ program to make ‘America great again’ has been to challenge the growing and often bullying global imperialism of China (which seems to have been modeled on similar tactics by the US over many decades now) (3). But however admirable this may be seen as by some, it’s undone by the kind of arrogance and dishonesty involved in disingenuously dismissing critical media stories (and not just the misrepresentations of vacuous tabloid reports) as ‘fake news’ (4).
It would be amusing if not so concerning how Trump and China ultimately seem to share similar tactics for manipulating public awareness and reinforcing the dumbing down of their respective societies. The Chinese governments ‘great firewall’ (i.e. to censor or block outside links) was obviously designed in large part to keep the local population insulated from an open forum of discussion, critical thinking and access to ‘the truth’ of various matters more generally – i.e. ”to keep foreign ideas and uncomfortable truths out” (5). Many predicted that this would be easily circumvented by a smarter younger generation hungry for the truth – but by and large there has been a great lack of interest in doing so (e.g. using VPN to circumvent) by most Chinese including younger generation. This process has been directly proportional to development of China as a consumer society with a younger generation increasingly interested in just making money and seduced by associated dreams of a comfortable life spent mainly shopping (6). And, in any case, like leaders in the West, China has worked out that the best way to censor the truth on the internet or in society generally is to encourage information overload and the confusion of truth as well as the distractions of money and shopping (7).
If you think about it, Trump’s attempt to disable critics in the media (and social media) by labeling them as exponents of ‘fake news’ is ultimately related (8). That is, the 21st Century corporate seduction of society (and especially the younger generations) typically goes hand in hand with either direct or even indirect ‘authoritarianism’ also systematically linked to some form or other of scam or corruption. Trump’s tactic to label any news or views he doesn’t like as ‘fake news’ has helped further undermine or even destroy any residual trust in the media – going hand in hand with Trump’s support in the last US election with Russian interference as well as right-wing extremist efforts to plant false stories to misrepresent and undertake malicious character assassinations. Trump’s efforts to discredit, misrepresent and undermine is clearly a strategy to disable and dismiss the few independent and free-thinking journalists still writing for an increasingly corporate-controlled media increasingly interested in dumbing down with entertainment or making people passive through fear-mongering (i.e. the model often associated with Rupert Murdoch and others).
Yet with television as well as newspaper reporters being overtaken by social media as avenues of ‘news’ (especially for younger people) the ability of Facebook, Google and YouTube to facilitate (and more importantly to fail to correct) real ‘fake news’ exemplifies an ultimately similar ‘information overload’ strategy linked to another of consumer seduction (9). In such ways, around the world corporate and bureaucratic crooks alike (and so often in corrupt cahoots) support and celebrate the further dumbing down of society by the manipulations as well as seductions of the internet as self-inflicted tyranny (i.e. as Neil Postman once talked about in relation to television in his book ‘Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business’).
Around the world it’s not just milennials who have a shorter attention span, increasingly selfish motivations and a general ‘switching off’ from the world. The older generations seduced by smart phones are also rushing around with headsets oblivious to others – with research confirming that they also have increasingly become ‘skimmers’ regularly incapable of reading with any sustained depth or focus (10). In other words, regular internet addiction is too often going hand in hand with increasingly passive students and a general ‘dumbing down’ of education and society (11). Again, the crooks of the world celebrate the growing passivity of 21st Century middle class consumers especially, just as they so often ignore or just try to exploit the poor and disadvantaged peoples of the world as well. No wonder local politicians and bureaucrats are increasingly seen as and indeed are easy to influence. We have discussed many examples of this in earlier blogs, but an interesting example seen in recent days is Dick Smith’s focus on how Australian hotels and motels are being ripped off by online booking sites maintained by a couple of billionaire profiteers from oversees (12).
It might all be seen as a bit hopeless and inevitable. But not necessarily so. In recent days we heard about research done on cynical young Chinese – who if sufficiently informed about the kinds of truth available beyond the great China firewall then often show an encouraging sign of growing interest and a process of ‘waking up’ (13). Likewise, many forget how there are substantial number of young millenials in the West also with a passion to resist any unfair or corrupt status quo. And although the young remain cynical about their ‘elders’, in fact (as Theodore Roszak projected in his last books about global ageing societies), the growing ranks of seniors have hidden wisdom to harness against the ignorance and/or abuse of their growing marginalisation by corporate and bureaucratic agendas.