Friday, June 29, 2018

Forcing Cards — How to Identify Divisive Internet Propaganda Before Sharing

Posted By on Fri, Jun 29, 2018 at 3:58 PM

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We’ve all seen magicians manipulate cards in ways that make them appear to have astonishing gifts and the power to know things no ordinary mortal could possibly know. But all they really know is how to force a card — to present you with a choice that's no real choice at all, all the while letting you believe you’re the clever little monkey queering the illusionist's game via the exertion of  free will. Our sense of self-determination is what gives the trick its tension and makes it fun. But there's also usually cautionary lesson or two embedded in the trickster's marvels.

Good propaganda is like a card trick. It appeals to the vanities of self-awareness and control. Good propaganda campaigns are like a Vegas act, replete with sexy assistants, ordinary misdirection, and lots of good old fashioned bait and switch. Great campaigns play all sides to the user’s advantage.

Internet memes create a spectacular opportunity for card forcing, and for injecting divisive, peer-to-peer-spreading viruses into our daily political dialogues. These memes won't look like propaganda, what would be the point? The worst will look like every right-thinking person’s heart’s desire or some piece of apparently unassailable conventional wisdom. It will also be framed in a way that ensures a healthy mix of reflexive consensus and bitter rejection. I noticed an elegant and completely insidious meme making its way around Facebook this week and thought it would make a great study example. I thought I'd share it with the aim of developing better conversations, and maybe a good set of questions for determining whether or not the content we’re sharing online will have a positive or negative impact.

Here's the meme:

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While making a number of valid-seeming points, the ultimate message here is one of uncritical surrender to... well... whatever. There's also a healthy serving of Trumpian, “Get over it,” tacked on at the end. But to what or whom exactly are we all supposed to be surrendering and submitting? What kinds of imperfections are we supposed to start getting over in advance of discovery? Who’s going to have to wait (again!) for a place at the table? Which children will we open our hearts to and which ones will our drones open up on? Does the former hinge on a corrupt bargain requiring the latter? The decisions we make at the polls aren’t light ones. They should never be myopic, reactionary, or strictly self-serving. And whether you’re a Hill shill or a Bernie bro, finger-wagging at voters charged with the confusing task of group self-determination is always a poor community-building strategy.

I’m sure a lot of Trump-fatigued people can’t see a thing wrong with this meme — That’s what makes it genius. Whether it was developed by a Russian troll farm, or by a DNC troll farm doing the Russian troll farms' work for them, or by some doof on the internet doing work the DNC might otherwise do for the Russians, whoever created this black and white text-only marvel deserves all the rubles. With almost zero actual content, it has the magical ability to start fights and make people who agree about current POTUS being a nightmare, yell mean things at one another before they even have a candidate to back. That’s a tell if I’ve ever seen one.

Here’s a list of questions that might help us  separate constructive content from memes that make ol' Vlad Putin dance the merengue. I'm not a propaganda expert, so I know this is not a perfect list. Corrections, suggestions, and contributions are all welcome. My objective here isn't to be right — I'm not invested in that at all. Instead of competing for that distinction, how about we start some critical thinking about critical thinking, and how the content we share actually functions on the internet versus how we feel about it? 

1. Can any part of the meme’s overall content be reasonably interpreted, “fall in line or else”?

If so — and that’s completely evident in our sample — chances are good that the message you are about to share is divisive propaganda using fear and longstanding grudges to motivate. It’s the kind of meme that results in people who need to be in active negotiation with one another typing, “PIGFUCKER,” in all caps at 2 a.m. instead.
Of course, there’s truth at the core of this message: When people don’t unite they tend to lose. That attractive and real fact is like a wad of top shelf peanut butter in the mousetrap of political discourse.

2. Is the message specific or vague? Also, is it active or reactive?

So you’re thinking about sharing a message you agree with. But is it addressing actual candidates, policy proposals, and goals, or is it making vague but nevertheless scary boogie-men? As we move closer to the midterm elections and to 2020, propaganda will personalize and get more specific, honing in on a handful of broad hot-button issues designed to provoke emotional and tribal response rather than critical analysis. But the most corrosive messages are sometimes the ones that keep us agitated, prevent old fissures from healing, and keep us squabbling over the past instead of plotting a course for the future. Our sample meme is exactly that kind of meme. When I shared it on Facebook with a cautionary message, people were arguing Bernie versus Hillary in a matter of seconds while trying to defend against my one and only point that this is purely divisive rhetoric with no tangible social value. Ralph Nader’s name made an appearance within the first hour, along with a few of the the usual odes to compromise and pragmatism that might also be reasonably translated, “Give up.” Absent any real objectives that might be debated or fine tuned, or named candidates with records and platforms to be parsed, vague memes create a perfect black mirror and purely reactionary environment. The latter of which is essential to herding.

3. Does the meme appeal to emotion or intellect?

We’ve all been exposed to some emotionally charged imagery lately. Mass shootings, children being separated from their families — it’s served up daily alongside a sampler platter of daily outrages. Emotional appeals aren’t intrinsically bad, but when a stated aim is to subvert rather than answer or engage critical analysis, chances are you might want to step back and take a second look.

4. Inclusive or alienating?

If your awesome meme’s goal is to recruit voters who must stand together to defeat a monstrously evil candidate that a good third of the country will enthusiastically support based entirely on racism and pissing off liberals, you probably want to build a big, strong coalition that includes a lot of the folks who didn’t, and still probably wouldn’t, vote for [insert your favorite 2016 here], regardless of your feelings for said candidate, their feelings about Trump, or any number of grievances regarding dirty politics, rigged systems, Russian trolls, or any other extenuating circumstance. Re-fighting this long lost campaign or even thinking about recreating it actually or by proxy in 2020, is insane by definition.

Our sample meme truthfully addresses the fact that no candidate will be perfect or pure, which is an obvious statement but with no evident value — like the attractive verities Shakespeare wrote about when he noted that, “Oftentimes, the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betray us in deepest consequence.”

It’s been said that folks who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it, and it sounds really good. But maybe that old axiom's not complete. Folks who don’t let go of history get stuck fighting the same battles with the same eventual results. But the topsy-turvy looking glass result of 2016 presidential election is drifting further into the past and and there are real opportunities to learn from past mistakes and not fall for the same tricks. When you're up against homogeneity, the most inclusive messaging is always going to be the most desirable. If the message demands unity but offers no unifying principle beyond "or else," beware.

That's all I've got. Now it's your turn. 

Friday, June 15, 2018

The "T" Word: A Memphis Collective Looks at Black Masculinity, Nomenclature

Posted By on Fri, Jun 15, 2018 at 4:34 PM

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In the time honored spirit of the answer song, the mixed-media art exhibition "Thug" was organized to converse with a past exhibit called "Fiber,"  a deep dive into black femininity. "Thug" organizers wanted to give black male artists from diverse backgrounds an opportunity explore the range and role of masculinity in black culture. Curator and photographer Ziggy Mack says The Collective's exhibit showcases experience.

"It looks at black masculinity and how society views it," Mack says. "And it also looks at sexuality within black masculinity.

"In black culture you see this kind of appropriation happen multiple times," Mack says, setting up context for the show's title. "Post-slavery as a people we'd taken the word boy and turned it on its head substituting the word man. Like, 'Hey man! How you doing my man!' That was a response to black men being called boy. And there's the N-word, a more controversial word. But another word we appropriated like taking lemons and making lemonade."

Thug, a similar appropriation, was re-appropriated in white culture where it's become a deracialized stand in for less socially permissible slurs. 

"The collective and I used it because we thought it would make people ask, 'What's this about?" Mack says. "And we used it to turn it on its head again. To turn it into something else. To build a body of art around the word and black masculinity."

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Commercial Appeal Mistakes Memphis Band Lucero for Mexican Entertainer — DAMMIT

Posted By on Thu, Jun 14, 2018 at 12:39 PM

Whoa! It's totally like we're seeing double.
  • Whoa! It's totally like we're seeing double.
Everybody makes mistakes, even your pesky Fly on the Wall. But the particular mistake I'm highlighting here makes me think it's time to abandon any faint shreds of almost certainly false hope we may have harbored that whatever's wrong at the Gannett-owned Commercial Appeal will work itself out.

When the bot and/or out-of-towner editing Memphis' daily paper can't distinguish between Lucero the Mexican entertainer and Lucero the enormously popular Memphis band, there's a problem. When said bot and/or out-of-towner turns to a general image search instead of scanning the local paper's own archives, it's really bad.

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The error was made announcing the lineup for the Mempho Music Festival

Tom Lee Park Redesign 'Totally Unrelated To Atlantis' New Riverfront Chief Says

Posted By on Thu, Jun 14, 2018 at 9:31 AM

Definitely not an irradiated Gill Man.
  • Definitely not an irradiated Gill Man.
At a press conference in their Front Street headquarters on Tuesday, Carol Coletta, head of the Memphis River Parks Partnership (MRPP), previously called the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), told reporters that her organization’s plans to dramatically alter the landscape of Tom Lee Park have nothing to do with her predecessor’s ambitious project to raise the lost, subaquatic city-state of Atlantis from the depths of the Mississippi River.

“Our plan will activate the park space for all Memphians, and make it more attractive to Memphis In May festival goers,” said Coletta. “It’s totally unrelated to the RDC’s plans to raise Atlantis.”

Coletta joined the RDC in March, replacing Benny Lendermon, who had announced the public-private partnership's multimillion dollar plan to spend millions of dollars on targeted nuclear explosives that would trigger powerful earthquakes bringing the long hidden city/state of Atlantis back to the Above World, presumably to rule over a golden age of peace and prosperity for Memphis and the Mid-South region.

“Now some people will say that the new undulating hills we’re building in the flood zone of one of the most powerful rivers in the solar system would be an ideal spot for burying the thousands of horribly burned gill-men cadavers that have been washing up on the banks of the Big Muddy, but you would be wrong,” said Coletta.
“We acknowledge mutation is an ongoing problem in this area of the river,” she added. “But we prefer to focus on making the riverfront great for everybody.”

Similarly, a rebranding effort that changed the name of a corporation devoted to riverfront development (RDC) to Memphis River Parks Partnership (MRPP), was in no way caused by news reports associating the RDC with the effort to raise Atlantis.

“Having a new name that doesn’t come up in Google searches next to the words ‘raise Atlantis’ and ‘nuclear weapons’ was in no way a factor in our decision to rebrand,” said Coletta. “Look, the truth is, there wasn’t much to the Atlantis thing. It was really overblown by the media, right from the beginning.

"When Benny's crew of nuclear demolition engineers got to where they thought Atlantis was going to be, there wasn’t anything there. So, they left. That’s what happened.

"Those earthquakes you want to ask me about, we had nothing to do with those. Completely natural phenomenon.

"We’re just laser-focused on making the riverfront better by cleaning up all the radioactive material from the shoreline and disposing of it somewhere that’s not Tom Lee Park.”

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Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Commercial Appeal Names Harding Academy Volleyball "Volleyball of the Year"

Posted By on Wed, Jun 6, 2018 at 8:25 PM

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In the photograph to the right you can see an unnamed woman* holding onto a very special volleyball named Lauren Deaton. For those who don't already know her, Lauren is a Harding Academy volleyball. Go Lions! She was very recently named "Volleyball of the Year"  by The Commercial Appeal, Memphis' once proud, now Gannett-owned daily newspaper.

Lauren's father Wilson, the sports equipment whose life was famously celebrated in the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away, had nothing to say about his daughter's achievement. He just sat there in silence, his crimson smudge of a face an infuriating enigma.  It was almost like he was saying, "Why wouldn't she be Volleyball of the Year?" So I got defensive and said, "What's your point?" But he just kept his silence while somehow also asking, clear as day, "Are you saying my daughter Lauren's not good enough to be Volleyball of the 
Wilson Deaton
  • Wilson Deaton
Year?" And I said "no" and we went on like that for some time before Wilson finally thanked me and bounced down the sidewalk. I watched him roll to his Mini Cooper where Lauren had been patiently waiting, also not saying a thing.

As the pair drove off I couldn't help but think I'd get better interviews if the CA would give awards to people instead of stupid balls. Maybe that's racist of me. I just don't know anymore.
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*Congratulations to the actual Lauren. Awesome job! We're sorry the CA makes it sound like you're gear. 

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Goodbye Colonel Tommy

Memphis Artist and entrepreneur Tommy Foster has died. He was 64.

Posted By on Wed, Jun 6, 2018 at 11:52 AM

Self portrait.
  • Self portrait.


Tommy Foster was the epitome of Memphis cool. Every day of his     too-short life, this artist and enabler of alternative culture in Memphis made the city where he grew up a more colorful place to live in and explore. In addition to building his own outsider-styled constructions, contraptions, and curios, the self-taught sculptor and painter founded spaces for other artists to display and sell their work. He operated a storied venue that hosted some of the best bands of the day while doubling as an incubator for a host of local players. He made safe, visually inspired and inspiring spaces where writers, poets, and would-be filmmakers felt comfortable working and sharing their words in a noncompetitive  environment.

In later years, Foster took pictures at parties. It was a gig, but also an extension of his art. As usual, this fanboy and trendsetter was showing Memphis its best, fanciest, and funnest self.

Foster, who sometimes signed his artwork "Colonel Tommy," lost a long, hard-fought battle with cancer this week. Even if you never met the man, if you've lived in Memphis in the past 40 years,  you've encountered some aspect of his marvelous, multivarious legacy.

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The first mention of Foster I could locate in The Memphis Flyer's digital archives is dated April 2, 1998 (and now reprinted here on the right, where you can click to expand it). It certainly wasn't his first appearance in our pages, nor would it be his last. But it's an appropriately colorful yarn and, in describing this life well-lived, it seems as good a place to start as any. On that date, the original Fly on the Wall column reported that the Java Cabana founder, who sometimes moonlighted as non-denominational minister, had sold his funky Cooper-Young coffee shop and would no longer perform Elvis-themed weddings in its Viva Memphis Wedding Chapel. He was packing up his decorated box of sideburns, wigs, and chunky gold sunglasses and taking his kingly matrimony business to the Center for Southern Folklore, which was then located on Beale Street.

Wedding packages were affordably priced starting at only $185.

Memphis is a  city of marvels and curiosities and Tommy Foster did his part to keep it weird and real. In the 1980s, he founded the Pyramid Club, an upstairs rock-and-roll bar on a stretch of Madison Ave. where all the buildings were leveled to make room for AutoZone Park and surrounding apartment buildings. Musicians who played there may remember the seemingly endless, narrow stairway as the "worst load-in in history" but it attracted players like Alex Chilton and personalities like musician/journalist Bob Palmer and it hosted performances by bands like Flat Duo Jets, Human Radio, The Grifters, and The Scam.

Foster almost singlehandedly launched coffee culture in Memphis  and laid a cornerstone for Memphis’ funky coffeehouse scene. He opened Java Cabana in the Cooper-Young neighborhood in 1992, at the dawn of the C/Y comeback.

Foster turned Java's back room into his Viva Wedding Chapel, so Elvis-loving couples wouldn't have to go to Vegas to get married by the King. It could happen in the birthplace of rock-and-roll in a funky little room where the walls were hung with folk art depictions of rock-and-soul saints. Foster's wonderful coin operated Elvis impersonator shrine— originally a window display for Java  Cabana— was replicated and placed in House of Blues venues across the country.
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Foster ran the quirky Viva Memphis photo booth, oversaw the creation of A. Schwab's fantastic soda fountain, and did so many other things I'm sure I'm leaving out. He'll be missed, but his spirit will be with us for some time to come.

A memorial service is planned for later this summer. Details to come.


 

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The CA Takes a P — Dammit Gannett!

Posted By on Tue, Jun 5, 2018 at 11:00 AM

Look, Gannett, it's not that I've got so much going on in my life that I don't have time for your nonsense. It's just that there's so much more interesting nonsense to think about. Like, "Can anybody else see that face in the leaves outside my writing window or have I finally gone starkers?"
I've started calling him Leaf Garrett
  • I've started calling him Leaf Garrett
But I can't think about that now. Now I have to think about this. 
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Is it a "P" that's missing or an apostrophe? Maybe the reader worries for "parents in decline." Maybe she worries for "aren'ts" in decline. That doesn't make any sense unless kids today are moving away from contractions. I suppose I could scan the syndicated advice column to discover the truth of the matter but if I'm honest with myself I probably wasn't gonna read this filler content anyway. 
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