The last word:

by Julia Lesage

Rarely do I hear about a book, quickly buy and read it, and find it explains many things I’d researched and been thinking about for years. This happened recently when I heard an NPR story on Francesca Bolla Tripodi’s new book, The Propagandists’ Playbook: How Conservative Elites Manipulate Search and Threaten Democracy. Tripodi is a feminist ethnographer who is also an expert on algorithms and search engines. She writes for popular outlets as well as scholarly works, and has even given Congressional testimony on search engines. After reading her book and tracking down some interviews with her, I felt like I was hearing the other shoe fall. That is, in 1998 Linda Kintz and I published an anthology, Media, Culture and the Religious Right, which meant we were doing our research on these topics in ’96 and ’97. On reading Tripodi’s book, I more fully understood the trajectory of what I had then called, following Pierre Bourdieu, the conservative habitus or conservatives’ widely shared choices in politics, culture and lifestyle. Furthermore, The Propagandists’ Playbook introduced me to a new concept—that many conservatives practice their own kind of media literacy, applying ways of studying a text long a part of Protestant Bible study, to do frequent Internet searches on political issues. Tripodi’s book traces the mechanisms and consequences of that practice. (I will describe more about that in a bit).

Tripodi has chosen to make her book highly readable, indicating in general how the keywords we use in Internet searches ordinarily function with platforms like Google vs. how these search engines can be “optimized” or manipulated. Looking at the larger context as well as the lived experience of conservative habitus, which she observed close up as an ethnographer, Tripodi does not just analyze the media or computer algorithms but posits what she calls the conservative information ecology: interlocking institutions, platforms, and actors that have a stake in creating a closed circle within which information and affect are shaped, circulated, sought out, and received. One of the limits of search engines is their reliance on keywords, the phrasing we use in a search—e.g., consider the different results from searching “undocumented workers” or “illegal aliens.” In addition, the Right manufactures villains and misdeeds in politics, articulating succinct phrases to characterize them, knowing conservatives will search on these, and there will be plenty of podcasts, articles, blogs, YouTube videos, etc., “seeded” for users to find in their searches. Her discussion of the Right’s invention of villains, in fact, reminded me of something I’d begun to follow in the 90’s, when Hilary Clinton was already being fashioned as a “witch.” For years this unrelenting attack on her in Right blogs and news reports continued in much the same way, culminating in the emotional but empty call, “Lock her up.”

In fact, the Right has been more effective at propaganda than the Left, especially in honing the most advantageous key words. It is no accident. In an essay I wrote for Media, Culture and the Christian Right about Christian Coalition organizing tapes, I noted how even small local chapters for political action were taught to articulate apt phrases. In a tape on press relations and communications, Rebecca Hagelin, then media director for key conservative organizations, discussed how local Coalition chapters should prepare for speech making, even to make spontaneous comments. Research was key, she said, but also the groups had to rehearse collectively to decide how to phrase all their important issues in a catchy and memorable way. As I wrote at the time,

“In terms of propaganda, this aptitude, cultivated so carefully through extensive preplanning, has proven to be the Christian Coalition’s genius, turning a moral conviction into a well-turned phrase that seems to sum up rational social-policy agenda.”

What has changed since then is not only the massive expansion and consolidation of the Internet, with search engines and social media amassing a large amount of personal data on everyone, but also the use of sophisticated tools available for manipulating search. Companies specializing in search engine optimization (known as SEO) serve both merchandizing and elections. And both in the ‘90s and now, the Right has consistently had a more coordinated, interconnected media strategy—funded through corporations, think tanks, and televangelists. It is far more adept at structuring coordinated messaging than is the Left. For example, in the 90s, in an age of fax-machine and mailing list activism and satellite television outreach, Paul Weyrich, one of the founders of the Heritage Foundation, maintained a 24-hour news and information studio in Washington DC for his network, National Empowerment Television, which then delivered a daily summary of the previous days’ news and talking points to Congressional staffers. Also, in the same period, Pat Robertson used his vast mailing list from the 700 Club and its outreach to join with Ralph Reed to initiate the Christian Coalition to train grass-roots Republican activists in chapters across the country. Concurrently, the Left, with its idealization of a counterculture, eschewed top-down mainstream institutions and authority, was always underfunded, and perhaps was inspired by an implicit sense of utopian socialism. I make this contrast because the Left, with all of its idealism, is where I have long resided. It is just now that I can trace how the seeds of this conservative information ecology, then planted, are now blossoming.

Perhaps the most important new knowledge I gained from reading The Propagandists’ Playbook was an understanding of conservative users’ search and reading strategies and their use of the Internet. As an ethnographer, Tripodi immersed herself in Right media and activism. She discovered that her informants were avid searchers for political information, their version of fact checking, using mostly Google. Tripodi explains this kind of information-seeking by her informants and then demonstrates its presence in Right media. She traces this conservative model of reading and information gathering back to the history of Protestantism, which placed an emphasis on individual Bible reading. That is, a major social change in the Reformation was the assumption that everyone could draw their own lessons from the Bible by directly reading it and applying it to their lives, socially leading to greater individualism and egalitarianism. This is a different media literacy from what I and most of my peers teach. The textual analysis (of both literature and film) that I learned and still use pays attention to literary and media conventions and intellectual/artistic milieux, what Bourdieu would call “the field of cultural production.” In contrast, the conservative model of “scriptural” reading looks for information to see “what’s there” or “how it applies to me” with context stripped out. It beggars analysis, honing in narrowly on the text and individual interpretation. That is why strict Constitutionalism has such support. The Internet is full of conservative users seeking out a kind of truth, but as Tripodi describes them in an article in Wired,

“they are actually participating in a scavenger hunt engineered by those spreading the lies.”

Lest all this seem terribly pessimistic, it does suggest a new strategy for teaching, which is to re-examine and articulate keywords. In a wonderful early text of Second Wave Feminism, Mary Daly in Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (1973) points out that naming and classifying are attributes of power. Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault said much the same thing. What we define verbally, and how, is related to what we do or don’t see or understand. Capitalist and political marketing, so interrelated, rely on this principle, as well as on the emotional valence of words and images. Creating keywords and listening to how others use them endow the user with a kind of confidence and power. There are lots of things to teach about keywords. Doing computer searches with framing the search in very different ways; making up key words for a fictional product; thinking about what’s catchy and quotable; finding things on the Internet opposite from what you believe and analyzing the language. I think it is also useful to analyze theories of discourse and discourse communities, as well as the legislative force of discourse—what must or must not be expressed. Keywords are a path into discussing political disagreements and lead immediately into understanding the political, personal, and economic valences of modern communicative strategies. 

In an environment rife with censorship, such a return to teaching rhetoric seems a delightful prospect. Some of you are already teaching some form of media literacy.  I would love to see more articles in Jump Cut on this kind of teaching and its results.