Book report: "True Enough" and "truthiness"
"Truthiness" is Stephen Colbert's term for something that feels true, although there's not necessary any valid evidence to support that conclusion.*
The author of "True Enough", Farhad Manjoo, wrote the book at the cold-call suggestion of a publisher's agent who liked his Salon columns. So as I read about manipulation of the media and the hidden motives of marketers, I couldn't help noticing that the author's selling his book. If he can't persuade us that this problem is worthy of our attention, then he hasn't motivated (or manipulated) us and his conclusions may lack credibility.
Despite those disclaimers, he shines a spotlight on some interesting tactics in the field of information dissemination. It's worth reading the book just to understand the issues and to be aware of the vocabulary.
It's a compact summary of the fragmentation of today's media. While a traditional 1960s marketing campaign had to work within the expensive confines of big-city newspapers and three TV stations, today's media is splattered across millions of websites and hundreds of multimedia outlets. Not only is the market fragmented, but its experience and professionalism have been diluted to the point where any ol' amateur can attract quite a bit of attention, let alone credibility. And it's
YouTube cheap, too.
Manjoo makes the point that people will believe what they want to believe, regardless of the alleged facts, and they're committed to their personal reality. Thanks to current communications technology, just about everyone can not only create their own reality but can find an audience and disseminate it around the world. The only thing that we all have in common now is that we don't have to have anything in common.
It's "confirmation bias", as well as a desire to attend only to sources that try to challenge your point of view without requiring you to change it. People avoid cognitive dissonance by selective exposure. We actually seek "weak dissonance" because then we can affirm our bias by discrediting the dissonant suggestion. [Don't retire, "re-wire"! Annuities, anyone?] We prefer weak dissonance over any sort of consonance-- we'd rather denigrate the other side's flimsy attacks on our ideas than to support our
flimsy overwhelmingly accurate attacks on their ideas, let alone endure our priests preaching to our choir. When a subject is too complicated to analyze, instead of marshaling our resources and researching and processing the information on its own merits we tend to revert to "peripheral processing"-- relying on "expert opinions" and heuristics even though their sources may be suspect.
The rest of the book delves into the details of manipulation by reviewing political campaign tactics, election voting discrepancies, conspiracy theories, "video news releases", "satellite media tours", product placement, astroturfing, and cable TV "news" channels. The author concludes that we're living in a world without trust, where everyone's motives are subject to scrutiny before we even listen to their message.
While I appreciate learning how to recognize when my strings are being pulled, I don't share the author's alarm. He seems to feel that "this time it's really different", and that the Internet has made it too easy for anyone to fool everyone. (Ironically as I was reading the book, my spouse was watching a PBS documentary on Nixon's 1946-50 Congressional election campaigns.) It's possible that Manjoo's experience is too
young shallow to lack perspective, although admittedly my experience isn't much deeper. I agree that the potential for abuse exists-- but his examples of the "good ol' days" show that the problem was just as bad before modern media, only a bit slower to catch on and a lot harder to refute. But when it caught fire, it spread just as quickly and caused at least as much damage as today.
Well, that's how it seems to me anyway. I don't have any actual data to support my conclusion, but it just feels right!
When you're done with "True Enough", I recommend "Predictably Irrational"…
*I have no idea who Stephen Colbert is or why he cares about the subject, so don't shoot this messenger. I'm just giving him credit for his concept. The book covers a lot of juicy media & political scandals but divulging their details here would instantly relegate this thread to the [moderator edit]ing Soapbox.
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