Why CNN can’t interfere in an election

Just so we are all on the same page, this article responds to this wonderful argument by Kelly Ann Conway:

“Every single night, CNN was featuring another woman with another story. You played the Access Hollywood tape constantly, thinking it would hurt the candidate, he would never be elected,” she said. “CNN interfered in the election daily,” Conway said. She went on to blast the network for focusing on the Russia investigation, supposedly at the expense of covering the opioid crisis. “Zero [people] died because of impeachment. Zero [people] died because of collusion,” she said.

At first you might say, Dan, this is a ridiculous thing she said, why are you going spend several hours thinking about it? My students ask similar questions and they get to a really important point that I think lurks behind what Conway is saying: if people interfering in the election agree with me, why should I care?

I will go through several layers of ideas here, starting with some consideration of international relations, then getting into some of the deeper weeds in communication studies.

Why regulate international political activity?

Realists assume states to be self-interested actors in an anarchy. Liberals assume states are not necessairly the only meaningful actors on the international scene but that institutions, norms, and rules are critical for developing peace. Constructivists want to subject assumptions like peace, structure, and anarchy to further analysis. Unless one rejects that states will continue to exist, the prefernce for those states to maintain their legitimacy hinges on the ability of people in those states to assume they are acting toward a common cause.

Responses to the intervention of other states would range from: war to being seriously miffed. The issue here isn’t that states would interact, they do all the time and this is desirable. Student and cultural exchange programs are great, and states regularly show expressions of friendship toward the people of other states. If President Putin came out with a statement of support for a candidate that would be one thing: the idea of covertly manipulating another states people is a huge deal.

Generally if folks operate through consistent ethical norms things get better, if they lie/cheat/steal, things go badly. I could even see a legitimate mode of international political advocacy on a state level, but it definitely doesn’t look like this.

But the Russians are on my side, so it’s cool.

Let’s start with the quick and dirty argument: no, they aren’t on your side. They are on the side of entropy in the communication system. This means that they are on your side, also various left sides. Anything that can increase noise in such a way that you hallucinate signal, especially the scary signals that an old house makes a night. Adding their noise machine isn’t an amplificaation of your side actually weakens you, as they will articulate your side to other things and ideas that you don’t want. This is one of the most common things that I hear students argue, if the interlopers are making claims that I would make anyway if I had the means, they should be able to do so. It should be pretty clear, they aren’t darting into your debate to make a point to help you, they want to remove the dynamic controls on your debate to make it resonate out of control like an unbalanced washing machine.

More sophisticated argument. I argue in some forthcomming reserach that what the Russian game truly is depends on generating low-entropy messages that serve as noise. Rational critical debate functions, unfortuatnely, in a high-entropy information environment. The strategies used by bot networks are itended to lower the information stasis level of the debate and actually decrease the capacity of the channel for informing rational-critical deliberaton. There is a great scene in Star Trek: The Next Generation, where a depowered Q is being asked for help with a moon that is falling out of orbit. Our heroes on the Enterprise know that their ship isn’t powerful enoguh to move the moon, you know, because gravity. Q suggests changing the gravitational constant of the universe. The solution was not to change the universe but to use the warp engines to make the moon lighter. Yes, I do like Star Trek, the key here is that bot interventions have a role like the warp drive in this scene.

If you can shift the normal operational entropy level of the channel to that lower level, you have successfully changed the gravitational constant of the conversation. Hopefully your fellows in your country would choose, on the basis of their love of country, to opt for a higher entropy level conversation. If noising operations lower your level of discourse to grunts, the propspect for organzing meaningful social structures seems pretty much shot. This is a bad thing.

Aren’t people working in good faith?

It is possible that people within a country or public sphere system might choose to destroy that system or to leave it. This leads to bad faith: lies, conspiracies, fabulations, and many more. Historically, the editorial function of media would have excluded this stuff, given our current conditions of media, this is not really an option. At the same time, if you ever needed evideence of the Lacanian death drive, the idea that we have entire political movements that may be mainly comitteed to self-destruction is about all you need.

We should not necessairly assume that all claims are made in bad faith, but that our assumotion of good faith was itself an assumption that needs to be reevaluated. At the same time, in an age of bots, do not assume good faith.

Lying is good, Dan.

No, it isn’t. My general maxim: every revealed lie has the effect of the loss of one-hundred truths. Students are generally Machiavellian. They would totally lie to support their side. Without getting into the ethics of lying, we should rember Steven’s argument against using speed to a young Alex P. Keaton: it just doesn’t work.

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OK, you have convinced me that external propaganda is bad, but isn’t CNN interfering anyway?

Reportage is special. When CNN reports on horrible things about candidates it is doing so as a part of it’s role in the American press. And, let’s be clear, the presses of many countries are free to report and circulate in the United States.

Partisan press operations are already a part of the public sphere, see MSNBC and Fox News. All of the reports made as a part of the public sphere by these orgnaizations are well above board and healthy. Now, is it posssible that the false balance of CNN is corrosive to the idea of the truth? Sure. We can and should try to journalism better. That does not mean that CNN is a state actor working against the national interest of the United States.

Isn’t this CNN’s Fault?

Sort of, Zucker did give President Trump a vast quantity of free exposure in 2015–6 when he assumed that he could simply goose his ratings in the political off-season. The blame for this has been laid, at least by Zucker, on Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush for not being more preemptively entertaining more than a year before the election.

I smell a distinction without a difference…

Operating fleets of underground robots to distribute propaganda and illegally purchasing advertising are dramatically different than running a partisan newspaper. Not remotely similar.

But the US does this too?

Yes, and it is counter-productive.

Why have countries at all, isn’t a socialist new international coming?

No, it isn’t. Given the collapsing nexus between liberalism, democracy, and progress, you shouldn’t assume that the next order will be better. Most of the time this analysis seems to come as the result of reasoning from decades old deconstructive theory. Without getting too far into the weeds, the underlying conditions of the new international were tied to the conditions of communication, meaning that the prospects of transformation were tied to shifting conceptions of time/space in the first place. The rise of popular indexical signification in popular discourse (and the reaction against it) causes this position to age poorly as well. We have so many frameworks to theorize this area that, in addition to clarity, also allow us to theorize the modes of organization and the accretion of meaning. At this point it is the collision of frameworks toward clarity, rather than the absent hope for change that drives theorizing. Basically, no there is no reason to believe that this transformation is coming and such a deliberately difficult approach to thinking about it makes it less likely.

I appreciate the critique of Nationalism, I hope that with adequate protections large states can embrace pluralism that moves beyond the nation. Allowing nationalists in one country to mobilize the nationalists in another country is not anti-nationalist. The way past nationalism is through the development of both symbolically and practically legitimate state forms that include all people.

Executive summary: it is bad when an actor working in bad faith attempts to damage public sphere processes. This is what they are doing, they are not participating in the debate, they are trying to sabotage it.

Associate Professor of Social Media. Oregon State University. Read my book: Selling Social Media (Bloomsbury Academic), 2018.

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