Old dictators can learn new tricks
Dr Ethan Plaut's research looks at communication technology and how and why it affects us.
"There's perhaps no more exhausting a subject of academic inquiry right now than digital propaganda. One can barely come up for breath. Not only is the propaganda itself being algorithmically generated at the speed of light, but research about it is also piling up. It's a fast-moving target.
"Our received ideas about propaganda usually come from the mid-20th century. We think the messages are simple, that they prey on ignorance, and therefore we may find solutions in education and literacy. Today, these are all mistaken assumptions.
"Media today are chaotic, and it's orchestrated, deliberate chaos — hard to make sense of, even for sophisticated folks. It's a propaganda strategy to exhaust and confuse people, deplete our attention and weaken our potential to resist. It aims to short-circuit thinking to prevent meaningful debate."
Media today are chaotic, and it's orchestrated, deliberate chaos — hard to make sense of, even for sophisticated folks.
"Also, when we are awash with media — propaganda or otherwise — it becomes harder to carve out a space for contemplation and sit with yourself and form your own opinions.
"While the digital divide is a big and legitimate concern, digital disconnection can also be understood as a human right and a luxury good. The person who's answering emails all night is not necessarily the person in charge. A lot of my research as a communication scholar is (somewhat ironically) about the ways we avoid communication!
"My scholarship is informed by experiences both as a professional journalist writing stories and as a programmer writing code. I loved the newsroom but left because I wanted to do longer, more in-depth research than is possible in a daily newspaper rhythm. Then, after my PhD in Communication and a couple years lecturing, I returned for a Masters in Computer Science to understand more deeply how digital media work 'under the hood'."
A lot of my research as a communication scholar is (somewhat ironically) about the ways we avoid communication!
"I'm excited about planning new, interview-based research projects in Aotearoa right now, and I've had a lot of fun sending Media and Communication students out into the field to conduct interviews for their own research projects this year. But a lot of my work is done alone, too, in libraries and at the keyboard, picking apart both documents and devices.
"If we're going to ask hard questions about how new media 'work' not only in the technical sense, but also how our personal, social, and political lives are being transformed by it, using just one research method isn’t going to cut it. From my corner of Social Science across to Computer Science, Philosophy, all over Auckland I've felt really blessed to find folks passionate about these same difficult problems that light me up."
If we’re going to ask hard questions about how new media 'work' … using just one research method isn’t going to cut it.
"Three years working as a journalist in Cambodia reoriented my life's work to social justice. I reported, for example, on indigenous Jarai and Tampuan refugees from Vietnam who were either spun in government propaganda as 'criminals' or erased completely from popular perception through censorship. At that time, the government held power through control not only of the military and economy but also of broadcast and print media. They just had an election and you know what? Old dictators can learn new tricks: Social media are a BIG part of their ground game now.
"Digital media are so beautiful, so dangerous, so complex and important, we need people across disciplines working together to find our way forward."