The Ukrainian war has proved that the usually whiny European and American opinion industry is, however, more powerful than ever. War propaganda has proved overwhelmingly effective in presenting war as a fact of Nature, isolating any early class responses and spreading fatalism and passivity about its immediate consequences.
Evidently the core of this capacity is political and its origin goes back a long way. The absence of a minimum organized class framework makes workers weak in the face of ideological offensives. And on the other hand, the exhaustion of the revolts of the petty bourgeoisie also makes the framing of the latter class easier. It is easier to impose a social discourse when there are no organized social forces contradicting it.
However, the comparison with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the meaning and possible responses to the war were the subject of debate in the workplaces, shows us that not only have the correlations of forces between classes and the alignments within the ruling classes and their political apparatus changed in relation to the US.
Something has changed in the ways of communication that has made things much more difficult for the great mass of [precarious] workers (http://diccionario.marxismo.school/Precarizaci%C3%B3n), increasingly atomized and isolated. Especially among the youngest.
What is the crisis of the opinion industry?
The opinion industry, that is to say, that industry whose output is social opinion and whose implicit goal is to maintain conformity with the state and the system (newspapers, audiovisual sector, publishing houses, TV channels, etc.) is well aware of having pushed way too hard during the last decade.
These were years of crisis of the political apparatuses propitiated by different expressions of discontent of the petty bourgeoisie (from Catalonia to Chile via the rise of the far right in Germany or Italy) and by internal battles within the ruling classes (Brexit, trumpism, etc.) that called for a real ideological bombardment to keep the social upheavals within the controllable.
The result, as the industry's own reports claim, was an erosion of their direct influence over opinion generation from political and social current events.
These data point to two different but related problems. First, the emergence of a minority of active online people, many of them young or less educated, who have largely disconnected from the news, perhaps because they feel it is not relevant to their lives. And secondly, a widespread decline in interest in and consumption of news.
Digital News Report 2022, Reuters and Oxford University
According to the same report, news in general went from being of interest to 63% of the population in 2017 to only 51% in 2022. The report recommended "simplifying language" even further to reach "younger and less educated people" and stressed that adapting to the dynamics of Facebook or Twitter algorithms was not enough because "younger generations have turned much of their attention to more visual networks" such as TikTok or Instagram.
It's not just a campaign to encourage investment in a new type of social network. Agencies and news outlets have been under a new mantra for some time now. Easy and moving messages, that is to say, messages that provoke interaction -usually based on arousing a reflex to show repulsion or adhesion- expressed visually. No wonder they praise Zelensky's modernity and Ukrainian war propaganda driven by US advisors.
But let's take it one step at a time.
Information and knowledge in the Google world
In the prevailing model up until a little less than 20 years ago, the media divided the work between TV and radio - massive, immediate and more emotional - and newspapers - generally oriented towards the petty bourgeois opinion-generating reader in his or her circle - which gave context and opinion by orienting the information.
When, between 1997 and 2001, the world's leading newspapers dumped their archives on the Internet and made their content freely available, search engines seemed to materialize the idea that information was at your fingertips. The result was an erosion of newspapers' ability to control the audiences they had previously managed as playpens. But also a change in the way in which, culturally, the relationship between information and knowledge would be articulated.
This trend was radicalized during the decade when the first schools digitized children's homework and encouraged them to document and answer exercises using search engines at home. Learning then came to be understood as synonymous with searching, as an activity that produced immediate results. "If I want to learn something I Google it, it's all there."
The supposed democratization of knowledge eliminated the very idea of individual culture on which the educational system had been based. A person's culture had been understood as the result of a cultivation (hence its name), as the fruit that grew from the work of many readings and reasoning exercises. To acquire culture, said the old bourgeois pedagogy and with it the first alternative pedagogies of decadence, was to work intellectually in order to gain knowledge that would allow one to ask new questions by oneself.
The logic of the democratization of knowledge a la Google was quite the opposite: it claimed to do away with the need for prior contexts, it made immediate access to everything necessary to answer any question. You wanted to know why a crisis was happening? You looked it up. You wanted to know what a dicotyledon was? It was one click away. Everything was simply there and what it was all about, we were told, was knowing how to look it up.
Years later, what the studies say is that this new relationship with knowledge produces an excess of confidence in one's own abilities externalized in on-line information.
Compared to those who use only their own knowledge, people who use Google to answer general knowledge questions are not only more confident in their ability to access external information; they are also more confident in their own ability to think and remember. Moreover, those who use Google predict that they will know more in the future without the help of the Internet, a mistaken belief that indicates a misattribution of prior knowledge and highlights a practically important consequence of this misattribution: overconfidence when the Internet is no longer available.
An overconfidence that other studies show as pure and simple reaffirmation of social (and media) prejudices if not of superstitions or falsehoods fed by identitarian networks and closed opinion environments.
We show that three out of four Americans overestimate their relative ability to distinguish between legitimate and fake news headlines; respondents rank 22 percentiles above what is warranted on average.
This overconfidence is, in turn, correlated with consistent differences in real-world beliefs and behavior. We show that overconfident individuals are more likely to visit untrustworthy websites on behavioral data; to fail to successfully distinguish between true and false statements about current events in survey questions; and to report a greater willingness to like or share false content on social networks, especially when it is politically relatable.
On such intellectual environment, the new twist of media, propagandists and opinion industry, as we have seen, is "visualization". The new mantra takes the logic of immediacy of knowledge to its most brutal and false conclusion, "seeing is learning", to celebrate the shift from Google-style information seeking to TikTok or YouTube-style visual information seeking. The very syntax of the quote says it all.
Me and my friends, all about the same age, are all visual learners and with TikTok it's quick and easy to watch a video of something I want to know more about.
However, the falsehood of "seeing is learning" is dramatic when applied as a surrogate for collective school learning and personal study hours. It was perceived after the lockdowns when the educational evaluation rates of children who had replaced classes with audiovisual materials on the web plummeted worldwide.
In fact, when the effect of content produced by the pioneers of audiovisual teaching of basic science and mathematics on the Internet, such as Khan Academy among others, is analyzed, the results are devastating. Viewers believe they have learned something when in fact their prejudices have been reinforced.
And if this happens in basic learning, let alone in the internalization of news information. The big media blames TikTok as the main channel for the development and propagation of delusional conspiracy theories and fake news. But at the same time they set an agenda to adopt its formats. As of today, newspapers like the New York Times and magazines like Spiegel, regularly use on their front pages the stories format to link their contents and approaches to their own network managers.
In reality their complaint is not so much against the potential for manipulation as against the appearance of a competitor with a manipulative agenda of its own, as when they turned Cambridge Analytica's micro-targeting into a scandal only to bless it as an innovation when it was immediately incorporated into the marketing arsenal of their allied parties. And the fact is that under the media's platitudinous discourse on fake news lie hidden the difficulties of the big state media to confront the alternative media fed by the agitation of the petty bourgeoisie.
Because in the same period in which Google was transforming the relationship to knowledge, encouraged by the reduction of the scale of investment required, a cloud of confidential and digital newspapers appeared, which made their way using search engines to promote themselves and which presented themselves in opposition to the complacent moderate positions of the big newspapers with angry and strongly ideologized discourses. They are the digital origins of the new politics and the alt-right.
But overestimating the importance of that environment, which in the end, in the face of war and rampant crisis necessarily returns to the fold of the ruling class (see Podemos-IU and PCE in government in Spain or Meloni in Italy), is their literal business, not ours. We need to pay attention to the substantive changes that modify the conditions under which our co-workers and the working class in general start from in order to discuss, gain consciousness and organize as a class.
The virtualization of social relations and the reinforcement of propaganda
An article published earlier today in New York Times celebrated in China what is increasingly mainstream around the world: the success of dating apps is not just due to the increasing commodification of sexual encounters and intimate relationships. They are replacing work-linked socialization across a range of ages and situations that are steadily becoming more precarious.
For many people, apps have become virtual sanctuaries, a 21st century twist on what urbanists call the "third place," a community between work and home, for exploring hobbies, discussing popular topics, and meeting new friends.
The Chinese state, which is very comfortable in the use of digital technologies as tools of social control allows the apps to do as they please, as governments do the same. They will never disapprove of something that multiplies atomization.
It is on this atomized social space that the reinforcement of prejudices which occurs in the new information-knowledge relationship turns into reinforcement of media prejudices. This is the underlying tendency that allows us to explain why propaganda is more effective than ever and, what would seem contradictory, more crass than ever.
The raving world of Zelensky's or Trump's messages and the war chronicles that seem to be taken out of Twitch, are the offspring of the Google world, but above all of the conditions of generalized precariousness and atomization created by labor reforms and the changes in industrial organization. Even if we cannot take their messages seriously, we must take seriously what has socially allowed them to be considered credible by millions of people.
What is to be done?
The key to confronting the opinion industry, the atomization and mercantile destruction of the most basic human relationships, is to organize ourselves as workers in every way and in every possible space. Above all, real, tangible, physical spaces. Spaces in which the forms of communication and commitment overcome the poisonous logic that equates seeing to understanding and expressing individually to doing collectively.
Only then can we reach out to struggles, because struggles are coming, with class minorities prepared to provide clarity and guidance.