Notes on some artefacts: Political discourse in America is becoming a semiotic hot mess | The Monthly

Political discourse in America is becoming a semiotic hot mess


American Dispatches by Richard Cooke

American politics and society has rarely, if ever, been as tumultuous as it is today.

September 12, 2018

Notes on some artefacts

By Richard Cooke


Political discourse in America is becoming a semiotic hot mess

Five or six years ago, around the time most people seemed to be spending almost all of their time on the internet, I began to notice a particular kind of online phenomenon, one that I did not have a terminology for. I started to call these moments “artefacts”, borrowing a term from photography that describes the machine-created distortions and ghosts that corrupt digital imagery. “An unintended alteration in data” is one definition, but this new kind of “artefact” was expanding beyond sporadic instances and becoming a persistent sub-theme in discourse at large.

The result was a type of semiotic collapse, one that first found its fullest expression in the absurdity of the 2016 presidential campaign, when news stories fabricated in Macedonia found a wider reach than The Washington Post. Countermeasures to interference in the coming 2018 congressional election look ineffectual, perhaps deliberately so. Artefacts will help define the contest, and one has already featured in the confirmation process of the prospective Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. During the hearings, footage was broadcast of Kavanaugh’s former clerk, Zina Bash, sitting behind the nominee, making an “OK” signal with one hand resting on her arm. This was interpreted as a secret sign, an insignia for “white power”, and received rapid and vociferous criticism.

Bash – an improbable neo-Nazi – is descended from Holocaust survivors on her father’s side and her mother is Mexican. Her husband declared the conspiracy absurd, and The Washington Post and others traced the lineage of the outrage to a prank on the message board 4Chan. Fittingly, this origin story was disputed. On 4Chan, trolls set out to trick members of the anti-racist left, persuading them that the arrangement of the fingers in the “OK” gesture represented the “W” and “P” in the phrase “White Power”. Some took the bait; others, like the Anti-Defamation League, did not, and insisted the sign was benign. Then real white power advocates began to use the symbol themselves, making it a “fake” white power symbol co-opted by real white power fans. When liberals objected, they were called hysterical and paranoid, seeing racism even in innocuous gestures. When someone prominent throws an “OK”, the illusion that they secretly support white power cannot be fully dispelled. So is it a real or unreal symbol of white supremacy? It is both, and neither. It has non-Newtonian properties. It is an artefact.

Like an obscenity, an artefact is easier to experience than to describe, though it can be triangulated. First, none of those participating in an artefact knows what it means. This creates an absurd and sinister sensation that puts it beyond human agency and intention. Take the Slovenian art rock band Laibach, who formed in 1980 when Slovenia was still communist, and adopted a fascistic and militaristic aesthetic as an ambiguous critique of state power. In 2015, Laibach became the first Western rock band to play in North Korea. This means that a totalitarian regime conspicuously eased its repression by scheduling a band that mimicked totalitarian regimes as protest against a different, now defunct totalitarian regime. Even Western audiences struggle to parse Laibach, let alone North Koreans who had never seen non-martial music, and were now expected to decipher martial versions of Western pop songs they had never heard. Laibach played songs from The Sound of Music. The DPRK party paper called it “very interesting and a success”.

Second, an artefact would have been impossible to explain to someone 20 years ago. In 2014, the official Twitter account of the Pope offered up a prayer for the suffering: “Lord, we pray that you sustain those who have been deprived of everything in Iraq. #prayforpeace.” It attracted a reply that quickly became notorious: “@Pontifex DESTROY MY PUSSY WITH YOUR GIANT MONSTER COCK”. This tweet may have been the product of a bot, which means, unlike the scabrous anti-clerical smut of the French Enlightenment, it was a bloodless and unintentional blasphemy. Imagine trying to explain this to a visitor from the past. Who swore at the Pope? Probably a robot. Who built the robot? Nobody knows. How did the robot come to speak to the Pope? Anyone can speak to the Pope now. There were attempts to reason with the bot, as though it had violated its directives. “Please have some respect. We are asking for prayers for the mass killing of innocent people!” said one account.

Already, the combination of international, rapid and multifarious online information exchange creates the conditions for artefacts. But it is the algorithmic currents driving the internet that make artefacts so ascendant. The effect of super-computers controlling human meta-desire is still unknown, and under-appreciated. It is barely commented on, for example, that humanity is now engaged in a machine-directed, mildly eugenic breeding program courtesy of online dating (already, two forms of relationships – those featuring significant height discrepancies, and those featuring childhood sweethearts – are now far less common than they used to be). The effect of these algorithms on forming political persuasions and voter intentions already looks ominous, but the next generation will be incubated by them almost exclusively, just as the sophistication and pace of these programs begins to really insinuate itself into our collective political minds.

I must admit that I have been rather sceptical of claims that computers, and nefarious people operating those computers, were able to sway the result of the 2016 election. It seemed implausible that an event this complex could be altered by social media posts full of obvious lies. If such crude disinformation (and so little of it, comparatively) could cripple America, it must have been on its last legs already. I am now not so sure about this, because I think the mechanism of action might be elsewhere. It is not the posts that are effective – like any sort of internet post now, they have negligible, marginal value. It is the accounts publishing the posts that have the impact, and they have a different purpose altogether.

Around one year ago, a journalist I know came across a standard pro-Trump trolling/bot account on Twitter. These are sometimes called “MAGA-head” accounts or similar, and they have bio descriptions that are flavoured with a distinctive soup of patriotism. This account was named @GuntherEaglemann, and Gunther was putatively “Fighting the good fight! #BackTheBlue and Support our Troops, USMC, Conservative | Helping the confused Left turn Right – one at a time”. His location was listed as Texas, USA, and he had 2335 followers. The journalist knew that Gunther Eaglemann did not exist because the picture of “Gunther” was a picture of himself. Once challenged, the account disappeared.

Who was Gunther Eaglemann? Who was behind this doppelganger? Was he a human or a machine? On initial impression, Gunther was created to mimic an American conservative, and then bolster or signal boost conservative-aligned posts. His name is hyperreal, somehow more American than real America, like a Darryl Archideld or Bobson Dugnutt. But I am not sure if Gunther is a copy so much as he is a template. Recently, what appear to be bot accounts have adorned themselves with even more unnatural symbolism, especially emojis of flags, #MAGA hashtags and Bible verses. Here is an example:

Southern Belle ⚜Cajun*Irish🍀 🇺🇸US Military🇺🇸& LEOs 💙🇺🇸🇺🇸 "Happy girls are the prettiest!" #MAGA 🇺🇸 Philippians 4:13 ✝️

It is impossible to say whether this is a bot account, though, because conservatives appear to be modelling their online presences on bots. This seems to be especially true of older conservatives. It is not the disinformation that is memetic, it is this formulaic eyesore “style”, which some users seem to be mimicking wholesale, either as an act of solidarity, or as a piece of trolling, or because they have a fluid and uncertain political position driven by emotion, which then takes shape as a learnt behaviour. Online audiences are not just experiencing artefacts, but making themselves into artefacts voluntarily.

The technology writer James Bridle’s essay “Something Is Wrong on the Internet” resulted in a slew of children’s content being banned from YouTube. Bridle wrote about a genre of videos, where specialist performers acted out themes and settings generated by algorithms, with often nonsensical or even disturbing results. “BURIED ALIVE Outdoor Playground Finger Family Song Nursery Rhymes Animation Education Learning Video” is a long way from Sesame Street. He noted that the real significance was not the result, but the lack of intent: the human beings involved may not have intended any of these outcomes, and the exploitation and dehumanisation were instead predictable systemic outcomes.

You can start to sense the political implications of these insights. The transmission of conspiracy theories is now much more rapid. Try making online enquiries about the Federal Reserve, vaccines, the September 11 attacks or the Jewish religion, and the results are quickly overwhelmed by conspiracy theories. The offline implications are more startling still. “Yesterday on facebook I saw a lady call a man she knows in real life a ‘bot’ because he criticized Rachel Maddow”, posted the account @subtlerbutler. (That lady might be onto something.) The shooting of the gorilla Harambe was not an artefact, but it became one, when a bizarre, meaningless event acted as a projection screen for off-piste and angry discussions about racism, zoo design, parenting and media discourse, all of which had nothing to do with an ape being assassinated.

The former-NBA star Dennis Rodman being sent to North Korea to “assist” in the peninsula peace talks, his fare paid for by a cannabis-backed cryptocurrency. That’s an artefact.

The Trump administration is an artefact.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


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