During the 2008 financial crisis, Rod Blagojevich, the governor of Illinois, took on Bank of America by suspending all state accounts with the bank and publicly criticizing them for their role in the subprime mortgage crisis1. In 2009, he was convicted for corruption charges, including his attempt to exchange Obama’s former senate seat for political favors, and is currently serving a 14 year sentence in Federal Prison. In 2007, governor Eliot Spitzer of New York pushed the controversial policy that granted undocumented immigrants the right to gain driver’s licenses and pay for car insurance2. In 2008, Spitzer resigned from his position, admiting revelations that he solicited prostitutes. In 2017, speculation arose that Mark Zuckerberg could potentially be running for president in 20203. This year, Zuckerberg faces continued scrutiny over data collection and privacy within Facebook after revelations of Cambridge Analytica data collections.
These are incidents involving wealthy individuals, who have sought after monetary and political power. There is nothing directly linking any of the incidents I juxtapose against one another, yet it’s easy for our brains to make those jumps. This is how propaganda is made. The reality is that powerful leaders do not rise in a vacuum. Where once opposition was removed via murders and Stalinesque political purges, in our modern, civilized democracies, leaders are destroyed by defamation, propaganda and prisons.
We like to think our media is free and independent, and in doing so we ignore how few companies truly control the narrative we consume. An excellent example is the recent decline of iHeartRadio (a.k.a Clear Channel). The largest radio broadcaster in the United States is now under the control of its creditors via debt acquisition4. In 2012, 90% of US media was owned by just six corporations, giving us an illusion of choice5. Radio, TV news and press are heavily concentrated industries, often beholden to advertisers and owned by board members with their own agenda based around power and corporate growth.
People in political positions have to keep their essential backers happy, by offering them rewards in exchange for their support. Those who are executives over media and news companies are an excellent choice for support because they can literally guide the narrative set fourth by the outlets they own. They don’t even have to utter a single falsehood, but can alter the national narrative simply by which stories they choose to promote and which ones they choose to bury. Politicians also have to deal with potential contenders competing for their power.
“No one has absolute authority. All that varies is how many backs have to be scratched and how big the supply of backs available for scratching.” -Mesquita, Smith. The Dictators Handbook6 (p25)
Governor Spitzer had sex with prostitutes. So did Jerry Springer, former Mayor of Cincinnati. Let’s not forgot that Bill Clinton was impeached, not for having sexual relations with his intern, but for lying about it under oath. There is most likely a pretty large percentage of American politicians, at all levels, who pay prostitutes for sex. But they have enough influence that everyone simply looks the other way, until they piss off someone powerful enough to turn that media attention back around.
What Blagojevich did may have been unethical and deplorable, but not unprecedented. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, famous for his statement about the Internet being a “series of tubes,” was convicted of corruption charges in 2008. The indictment was later dismissed, vacating the conviction7. Certain types of contributions and gifts have always been legal, but even more extravagant bribes and money laundering are most likely more commonplace than we’d like to admit. In this way, people who hold power and influence can advance by knowing how and when to accept gifts. They can also use knowledge of other contributions and bribes to take down their enemies.
“It is likely that he was guilty since bribery is commonplace in Chinese business dealings. It is also likely that he and others who have been prosecuted for corruption in China were ‘chosen for political reasons.’ In autocracies, it is unwise to be rich unless it is the government that made you rich.” -Mesquita, Smith. The Dictators Handbook6 (p98)
This is speculative, but I suspect Zuckerberg may have crossed a line when it became apparent he was considering the possibility of a presidential run. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fictional novel The Great Gatsby, Zuckerberg would most likely be considered a member of the nouveau riche. Families who have pedaled influence in America may have felt the need to remind Zuckerberg of his place, and that he and his entire model is still susceptible to the older and more traditional forms of media.
When news of the Cambridge Analytica story hit the tech communities, the biggest surprise from within the tech sector was the lack of surprise. Those of us who worked with advertising agencies and marketing teams knew the extent of data collected by Google, Facebook, Adobe and others. The hole which allowed for the data extraction was patched by 2015, breaking one of my own applications. One thing that’s not mentioned in the media is that the change also prevented Facebook users (those that were developers at least) from getting full access to their own data.
Media coverage on Facebook has also been highly moderated and selective. Aaron Greenspan’s Ask Me Anything thread on Reddit was locked, and posts to his blog concerning Zuckerberg have been moderated on sites like HackerNews8. Greenspan was in a legal battle with Facebook over trademark disputes, which were settled in 20099. The details of his relationship with Facebook are best described on his Quora post about being classmates with Zuckerberg in University.
I’m not by any means apologizing for the actions of people like Blagojevich, Spitzer or Zuckerberg. I’m not defending Facebook as I’ve felt for years that social media gives people a false sense of relevance and have primarily used it to promote my own content. But I do doubt the narrative that non-famous people are deleting their Facebook profiles en-mass. For many people I know, Facebook Messenger is our only communication link. Even those who delete their Facebook accounts simply move to other messaging services, sometimes ignorant that services such as WhatsApp and Instagram are also owned by Facebook.
I would like to see a bigger push to independent, federated social networking services, but I doubt the #deletefacebook campaign will accomplish that. I think if people took a step back and looked at the bigger picture, they’d see the outside of a rich man’s pissing contest. The truly Orwellian part of this narrative is not the exposure of Facebook’s data industrial complex, but instead the focus given to it by traditional TV, web and print media.
In 1929, Edward Bernays created a campaign for the Tobacco industry to encourage more women to smoke. With a publicity stunt during an Easter Parade in New York, and a few select words given to certain reporters and photographers, pretty soon every newspaper outlet in the country was printing headlines about Torches for Freedom. Bernays was able to equivocate smoking an addictive substance with the right for women to vote. It showed there need not be a large conspiracy, just the right amount of advertising and a careful inception of an idea for news media to take off running with it. We may have exchanged print for screen real estate, and the papers of the 1930s didn’t have an interactive comments section, but overall not a lot has truly changed in the way the news media is used, controlled and used to control.
In the book 1984, Orwell may have been satisfied with his characters experiencing a “two minute hate.” The American media, however, is like the lens of a magnifying glass focusing the sun on a small toy soldier. Today’s media can focus American outrage into a 24/7 long hate that the party leaders of Oceania could only dream of. We are focused on our leaders instead of on all the influential and essential people surrounding them who are really controlling the narrative.
Spitzer Grants Illegal Immigrants Easier Access to Driver’s Licenses. 22 Sep 2007. Bernstein. New York Times. ↩
More signs point to Mark Zuckerberg possibly running for president in 2020. 15 Aug 2017. Carter. CNBC. ↩
These 6 Corporations Control 90% Of The Media In America. 14 June 2012. Lutz. Business Insider. ↩
Facebook and Think Computer Corporation Resolve Trademark Dispute. 22 May 2009. Facebook. ↩