In the news today, via The Washington Post and GQ, is the story of a viral video of Biden. It’s a heavily-edited 19-second video that attempt to depict Biden as celebrating white nationalist values by ripping phrases and sentences out of context.
This is a technique every first-year composition instructor has seen where students quote out of context in an effort to (mis)represent an author. I say (mis)represent as sometimes those students are being intentionally deceptive but more often (I think) they are just misunderstanding. In other words it’s fairly unsophisticated. We are likely to encounter more technologically sophisticated versions of this strategy where the techniques of “deep fakes” will allow propagandists to create wholly fictional scenes. Presumably the clever versions of these would be in the form of shaky, mobile phone videos of behind the scenes moments where candidates reveal what they “really think.” Also, the content might prey on people’s existing fears and biases about candidates rather than making them say or do wholly absurd things. (Although even then, videos that portray opponents in ridiculous and/or demeaning ways, even though clearly fantastical, could have their value with some audiences.)
The one thing of which we can be sure is that there are limited technical means to stop the internet spread of such content. A second thing which appears fairly certain as well is that the corporations that have some power to limit the spread of such content appear to have little interest or will to do so. Neither of those conditions is likely to change prior to next November.
The response of the literate apparatus (to use an Ulmerian term) is to insist on our capacity to discern truth from falsity, to call, therefore, upon “critical thinking,” and rely upon existing literate institutions (schools, media, government) to take up the task. However, those approaches will have limited success, at best, in an electrate context. Yes, it is not difficult to use critical thinking and analysis to determine that this video is a fake nor to recognize that its purpose is to attack not only Biden but the entire Democratic and democratic process. But can you spread this message as quickly or as far as the viral video goes? Can you be more persuasive than the video to an audience that is simply not receptive to argumentation in the literate tradition? Can the literate intelligentsia stop itself from parsing this question of Biden’s position on race or gender? (E.g., “OK, no he didn’t say what this video represents him as saying, but what really is his position on this questions?”) In other words, as soon as the media starts putting Biden and these topics together in the same sentence on TV, isn’t the damage already done regardless of where their conclusions end?
What all that means is the people aren’t really all that interested in the truth. I mean we’re all dependent upon a pragmatic truthful representation of our reality which prevents us from tripping on things (because the staircase is really there) or drinking liquid soap instead of coffee. But do we really want to know the “truth” about our coffee? Is it good for us? Is it organic (what does that mean)? Was it shade-grown and equitably traded? Should those things matter? And what about the quality of the water in it? The truth is simultaneously exhausting and inexhaustible. What I really want to know is “would I enjoy a cup of coffee right now?”
And that’s closer to electracy, but in electracy those pleasure/pain mechanisms are institutionalized through the internet. So maybe you see that Biden video and it makes you feel a certain way. Maybe good. Is it true? Well, no, in the sense that it’s a mash-up of out-of-context video clips. But what does Biden “really think” about race or gender? The truth of that turns out to be an exhausting-inexhaustible question, just as it would for any of us. Because who among us knows what we really think? And we’re the ones doing the thinking (allegedly). Electrate institutions organize us along these affective responses and these literate responses are secondary.
So while we should engage in critical thinking and insist upon the ethical pursuit of truth, electrate political battles will never be won on those terms. Feeling has always been an integral part of elections. Generally if people “feel good” about their country and their situation then they want to stay the course, and if they don’t then they want change. Lee Drutman has a piece in The Atlantic that analyzes the increasing partisanship of the two-party system since the 1960s. While there are many reasons for that, one we must consider is the spread of television and national media in this period. Electracy may go back to the Bohemians of 19th century Paris as Ulmer suggests, but tv takes us to a new level and the internet an exponential step beyond that.
TV and now the internet have provided an institutional means for us to form into political parties of affect, and political battles will be won or lost on those terms.