Understanding Media: The Smear Campaign

I recently produced a 9-minute documentary on Understanding Media: The Smear Campaign. It draws on an eclectic mix of cultural icons — everything from The Manchurian Candidate to I Love Lucy to Family Guy:

I was happy with the way it turned out, because I think it manages to do two things clearly:

1. Show how entertainment and news have become the same thing now;
2. Illustrate the mechanics and ethics of media smear campaigns.

I ask questions like “Why should we care whether news stories are true or false?” I stress the connection between media literacy and good decision-making. The principles are universal.

The points made in the documentary can be used as building blocks to explore characteristics of modern media, including the Internet. The next obvious question is “Why is it a problem if news and entertainment become indistinguishable?” The simple answer is that news is ideally supposed to give us factual information which we need, while mass entertainment is more like bread and circuses — something to please the popular taste by pandering to the lowest common denominator of appetites and prejudices.

Sometimes what is truthful is not palatable, but we need to hear it anyway. Otherwise we may continue to do wrong, thinking we are doing right. When news is tailored to please the popular taste, this can lead to a feedback loop in which people and events are portrayed not as they are, but as people want to view them, according to ingrained stereotypes. Likewise, there may be special interests who want to foist their world view on the general public in order to gain economic or political advantage.

Society has increasingly come to resemble a motley collection of interest groups in conflict, each of whom presents a different tableau of reality coloured by self-interest. Where self-interest reigns supreme, there is no such thing as an immaculate perception! Reality is socially constructed, and facts become more fluid than solid.

The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common: they don’t alter their views to fit the facts; they alter the facts to fit their views. Which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.

— Doctor Who as played by Tom Baker, “The Face of Evil,” January 1977.

One fact is that despite the best social planning by seeming experts, some people experience feelings of alienation in the mainstream, so they go forth in search of spiritual alternatives. While some people are targeted for smear campaigns due to a simple factor like their ethnicity, others may be targeted because they’ve successfully created livable spiritual alternatives.

If we are deep-thinking people, we may despair of finding objective truth in the mainstream media. What we tend to find are different flavours of information tailored to appeal to different target populations who are wedded to particular beliefs which they want to see confirmed. Reality itself becomes an object of falsification, and this problem is neither liberal nor conservative, but universal.

There is a dual nature to populism. America is an intensely populist nation, and this populism can be very good in that it tries to make life pleasant and happy for the average person. British writer C.S. Lewis voiced skepticism about any plan to close down all the pubs and force the “lower classes” to listen to classical music. But there’s an opposite extreme which is also troublesome: the notion that only popular things are right and true and protected by human rights. Make an idea or group look unpopular, and no one will care what is done to its advocates. Excessive populism can therefore pose a danger to political, religious, and artistic freedom. It can lead to lazy thinking in which no one bothers to lift a finger to stop grave injustices, as long as the injustices are being done to some depersonalized Other who is rarely seen in mainstream media and not portrayed sympathetically.

In a populist society, rights, freedoms, and the enforcement of laws intended to protect people come to depend on popularity. If you can make a group appear unpopular, you can do a great many things to them before anyone will sound a note of protest. That’s why accurate definitions, descriptions, and information are not merely of abstract interest to scholars. These things affect how people are treated (or mistreated) every day in society. Where hate material is successfully injected into the public discourse, this spurs acts of hatred and harassment, and also encourages local law enforcement to ignore pleas for help from victims, despite top-level policies intended to foster respect and tolerance.

Smear Campaigns Targeting Spiritual Teachers and Groups

The mechanics of the smear campaign are remarkably similar regardless of the different ethnic, political, religious, or gender preference groups being targeted. Still, I’d like to focus on the way these issues impact spiritual teachers and groups, who tend increasingly to comprise a minority as the majority marches toward secularism and materialism.

The glut of cheaply produced infotainment tends to cheapen the nature of reality itself, or at least how reality is perceived (as a series of shopworn memes). Just as a cardinal rule of commercial television is to keep the viewer glued to his or her set until the next commercial, the net effect of the pervasive secular media space is to keep people ensconced in a materialist world view where science, politics and business are the ruling factors, and the pursuit of pleasure is the primary leisure activity.

Does anything else exist? Yes, there are (and always have been) spiritual alternatives. But these alternatives become harder to see, hear or reify when we are thoroughly ensconced in the secular media space. So it helps to gain a little distance, do a little meditation, seek out sacred spaces where there is support for apprehending the broader spiritual reality. There are authentic spiritual voices to be found, genuine authorities on spiritual matters who can lead us from the unreal to the real. The rewards are many (greater insight, greater joy!), but here again we run into the problem of interest groups in conflict: Those who have accepted the materialist point of view tend to reject, condemn, belittle or suppress spiritual teachers and teachings. This is often done instinctually out of a certain worldly pride or hubris.

It is human nature that we will not budge an inch if we are self-satisfied, if we feel we have achieved something great and want to hang onto it. At the same time, the materialist view is precarious, insecure, rooted in the impermanence of the body. Worldly people have a vested interest in discrediting spiritual teachers because worldly people instinctively fear being shown up — being shown that their greed is not beneficial, that they’ve essentially built a house of cards. So among some worldly people, there is tremendous hatred and resentment toward spiritual teachers. Of course, other worldly people have a progressive attitude. They are open to change, and admire spiritual people even if they feel they are not quite ready to go on the spiritual journey themselves.

There is a secular sphere and a religious sphere, and ideally these two spheres work in harmony. It’s an aberration when the secular sphere declares war on the religious sphere and wants to secularize everything by force. As I point out in an article discussing the French law banning Muslim women from wearing headscarves, spirituality is a natural part of life. Although it’s often convenient and appropriate to distinguish between the secular sphere and the religious sphere, the boundaries between them should be fluid. Religious freedom means the freedom to live life integrally and not be forced to doff one’s hijab, yarmulke, or sari for fear of being arrested, ticketed, or refused entrance to a public facility.

An enlightened view of religion is that whilst not everyone is religious or spiritual, those who are contribute much to the beauty, wisdom, and colour of the world we live in, and also have a role to play in finding solutions to society’s problems.

Nevertheless, there is currently a backlash against the progressive changes of the sixties, which ushered in a whole new era of spiritual freedom and possibilities. Some people want to roll back those changes, so they engage in historical revisionism and falsely smear sincere teachers who’ve made a lasting contribution to society. One way this is done is by giving undue weight to apostate accounts which are made up out of whole cloth and don’t jibe with reality.

The American media space is governed by market principles like supply and demand. There is, quite simply, a market for material smearing spiritual teachers and groups, just as there was once a market for virulent anti-Catholic material in the mid-nineteenth century. See Ruth Hughes on “The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk.” See also James R. Lewis:

Anti-Catholic literature originated as propagandistic atrocity tales, although authors soon realized they could enrich themselves through royalties while inspiring crusades against an unpopular religious group. This discovery pushed such literature in the direction of violent sensationalism and quasi-pornography. The process went so far that propagandists were sometimes arrested for selling obscene anti-Catholic literature. … “Convent tales” typically consisted of the recounting of one atrocity after another — a litany of evil held together by a thin strand of narrative.

— James R. Lewis, “Fantasies of Abuse and Captivity in Nineteenth Century Convent Tales” (footnotes omitted)

Today, there are propagandists for hire who will readily step in to fill the market niche for convent tales, ashram tales, or what-have-you; so you will get fake memoirs targeting spiritual teachers. As I noted in the documentary, personal vendettas, ideological obsessions, and economic greed can all move false accounts forward along the publishing conveyor belt. This was also the theme of two recent blog posts:

Can Salon Learn From Rolling Stone’s Mistakes? Part 1
How far would you go to get a book deal?

I’m not offering a Manichean world view which says that everything labeled “secular” is bad, and everything labeled “spiritual” is good. Life is more complicated than that. But in trying to make sense of reality, it helps to recognize that the secular media space doesn’t always relay accurate information about spiritual teachers and groups. There are structural reasons why this is so, some of which I explore here:

Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics
The Truman Show and Finding Reliable Spiritual Sources

(See also Dr. James A. Beckford’s article “The Mass Media and New Religious Movements.”)

These ideas are building blocks, so in the first post we can learn more about the nature of greed vs. self-giving, and how greed can blind people and make them want to lash out against those who adopt a self-giving lifestyle. The second post delves further into the different flavours of information we may encounter, some meant to spur production and consumption; some meant to lull us to sleep; others meant to frighten us into conforming to whatever notions society’s minders are retailing this year. (“Support our torture policy because people are coming to get your family!”) The relevance of Peter Weir’s film The Truman Show is given in this quote from media critic Ken Sanes:

The fake landscape Truman lives in is our own media landscape in which news, politics, advertising and public affairs are increasingly made up of theatrical illusions.

— Ken Sanes, “The Meaning of The Truman Show”

So somehow we have to get beyond these theatrical illusions in order to discover the deeper spiritual reality. A smear campaign is, after all, only one of many types of misinformation which may hinder us.

Motivations For Smearing Spiritual Teachers

No matter how kind or polite a spiritual teacher may be, his or her role is to offer illumination. Society is like a dark room where many things are not seen clearly. But when someone shines a bright light, then we see that some things are valuable, some things need to be transformed, and some things are like old junk which needs to be thrown out. Again, in a dark room we do not know what people are doing. But when light is shone, then their activities become apparent.

Some people feel instinctively that they will only be winners in a society based on self-interest and greed. If the paradigm shifts to self-giving, they won’t command the same power and respect, or their desires won’t be fulfilled. That’s why they oppose spiritual teachings, which for them are like water off a duck’s back — simply not absorbed.

If you try and talk about self-giving to people who’ve become selfish, greedy and ambitious, they will want to crucify you! They will say or do anything to suppress ideals of self-giving. This is the motivation for some smear campaigns against spiritual teachers. The news that a spiritual teacher was good, kind, and always remained true is not palatable to such folk, so they have to alter the facts to fit their views, paper over the reality with a demeaning stereotype. This helps them save personal face by keeping their world view intact: “Secular self-interest is the only reality. Those who say otherwise are charlatans. We have a fake memoir to prove it!” (bought and paid for).

Some of those who participate in smear campaigns were once spiritual seekers themselves, but unfortunately their desire and ambition won out over their spiritual aspiration. So it is like in politics: When a politician switches from Democrat to Republican, what’s the first thing that happens? The Republicans say, “How do we know you’re really with us? You have to hold a press conference denouncing the Democrats, saying how bad they are, and how all those years you were a Democrat you were completely deluded.”

Sadly, in American public life religion is conducted much like politics. So when some people lose their spiritual faith, they’re quickly caught up in the rip tide of apostasy. They don’t just cease their spiritual activities, they become bitter partisans in the senseless war against benign spiritual groups. This type of public “testimonial” condemning one’s former faith is considered unreliable by scholars of religion due to the social, political and economic factors at work, and the desire of the apostate to curry favour with a new secular peer group on which her future livelihood depends.

I turn a peculiar shade of green when I hear people claim that apostates would have “no reason to lie” about their former faith group. The truth is, apostates have every reason to lie. Chief among those reasons are the need to assuage guilt, to rehabilitate their reputation in the secular world, and to relocate blame for the failed spiritual relationship. Dr. Lonnie Kliever writes:

[T]here are some voluntary apostates from new religious movements who leave deeply embittered and harshly critical of their former religious associations and activities. Their dynamics of separation from a once-loved religious group is analogous to an embittered marital separation and divorce. Both marriage and religion require a significant degree of commitment. The greater the involvement, the more traumatic the break-up. The longer the commitment, the more urgent the need to blame the other for the failed relationship. Long-term and heavily involved members of new religious movements who over time become disenchanted with their religion often throw all of the blame on their former religious associations and activities. They magnify small flaws into huge evils. They turn personal disappointments into malicious betrayals. They even will tell incredible falsehoods to harm their former religion.

— Dr. Lonnie Kliever, “The Reliability of Apostate Testimony About New Religious Movements”

Extending the marriage metaphor, we’ve probably all known a married couple where the husband or wife was unfaithful and was eventually divorced by their partner. But if you ask them about it, the unfaithful partner will say, “Oh, I had to divorce so-and-so because he/she was crazy, or an alcoholic, or abusive.” They smear a former partner to conceal their own infidelities and avoid facing up to their own weaknesses.

One of the things it’s hard for people who haven’t studied these matters to understand is how a teacher is who is good, kind, virtuous and utterly genuine could be slurred by former followers. We have an inherent sense that if anyone came along who was so deeply good, surely everyone would admire him and no one would speak ill.

The reality is quite different. People who are that deeply good are often hated because the light they bring cannot help but reveal human weaknesses, human iniquity. As a race, we are still much more concerned with seeming more virtuous than we are than with becoming as virtuous as we could be. (Perhaps I’m channeling Bilbo Baggins a bit there!)

This discussion among scholars helps clarify that “to be persecuted and even executed” is “almost like a job description of being God’s righteous one”:

There will always be people who rail against the noblest of human aspirations. Peace hurts business, and that ain’t right! How do I know? I read it in the Daily News

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Sidebar: Caitlin Dewey on “What was fake on the Internet this week”

In her final column in the long-running series, Ms. Dewey writes (in part):

[W]here a willingness to believe hoaxes once seemed to come from a place of honest ignorance or misunderstanding, that’s frequently no longer the case. Headlines like “Casey Anthony found dismembered in truck” go viral via old-fashioned schadenfreude — even hate.

There’s a simple, economic explanation for this shift: If you’re a hoaxer, it’s more profitable. Since early 2014, a series of Internet entrepreneurs [Salon.com?] have realized that not much drives traffic as effectively as stories that vindicate and/or inflame the biases of their readers. Where many once wrote celebrity death hoaxes or “satires,” they now run entire, successful websites that do nothing but troll convenient minorities or exploit gross stereotypes. Paul Horner, the proprietor of Nbc.com.co and a string of other very profitable fake-news sites, once told me he specifically tries to invent stories that will provoke strong reactions in middle-aged conservatives. They share a lot on Facebook, he explained; they’re the ideal audience.

As manipulative as that may seem, many other sites are worse: there’s Now8News, which runs outrageous crime stories next to the stolen mugshots of poor, often black, people; or World News Daily Report, which delights in inventing items about foreigners, often Muslims, having sex with or killing animals.

Needless to say, there are also more complicated, non-economic reasons for the change on the Internet hoax beat. For evidence, just look at some of the viral stories we’ve debunked in recent weeks: American Muslims rallying for ISIS, for instance, or Syrians invading New Orleans. Those items didn’t even come from outright fake-news sites: They originated with partisan bloggers who know how easy it is to profit off fear-mongering. [Edwin Lyngar?]

Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, has spent several years studying how conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online, and he confirmed some of my fears: Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.

— Caitlin Dewey, “What was fake on the Internet this week,” The Washington Post

7 comments on “Understanding Media: The Smear Campaign

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