Post Singapore (III)

I arrived at Changi Airport about ten Sunday night. After clearing Customs (where my long name was not remarked upon because of its ridiculousness but rather because palangi don’t usually have so many middle names) I headed to the outside world, one filled with heat and humidity..

The queue for the taxi was long and, whilst not arduous, taxing (see what I did there?). When I got in the taxi I realised just how much of a Libertarian paradise this place is; the taxi driver’s onboard computer was showing ads, but they were aimed at the driver, being about buying a better cab and getting more training, rather being for my ‘benefit.’

I was also amused by the sign on the driver’s seat that read “Belting up is compulsory.” When you are jetlagged that seems very funny.

Anyway, I didn’t get to the hotel, the Mardarin Marina, until eleven, which was too late to meet up with my other conference attendees. I was now on my second wind, which was good and bad; it was five in the morning to my bodyclock. I drew a bath, ordered french fries and checked my e- mail.

My sleep was intermitent.

I woke awkwardly and ate a bemused breakfast. The coffee, which tasted awful and had the kick of goldfish, failed to raise the spectre of my vim and vigour. With nothing better to do, I decided to give a paper on the epistemology of rumours.

So, what to say about the workshop?

Well, first, my talk was not my best work. I’m glad I didn’t record it. The paper version is much better.

That being said, my talk’s inadequacy didn’t seem to be noted by the attendees, which means I might just have been a little precious at the time. Two things contributed to that; a lack of real sleep after the flight and my being moved from second speaker to first.

That particular move, being made to speak first, was a little unexpected. Originally I was the third speaker; there was going to be a talk on Critical Theory and media-blindness in regard to academic discussion of rumouring and rumour-mongering and then a talk by a fellow philosopher, followed by me. Greg, the organiser, realised after the papers were submitted, that the fellow philosopher actually referenced my paper in his, so it made sense to move me to second place. I didn’t see a problem with that, especially after I read said paper.

Still, being moved to first speaker… Well, that was a challenge.

Greg wanted the philosophers to set up the discussion, which I think is all fine and good. I just wish I had had more than fifteen minutes notice of this fact. My original plan was to build on the first paper; either accept or reject its definition and then explain why I think rumours are reliable. Being moved to first place meant I had to situate the debate and introduce the definition, which on one level is good; I set up the terms of discussion, but on another level this was bad, because I wasn’t adequately prepared for that.

It didn’t help that as soon as I got to the lectern I realised that my jetlag was either going to let me read my notes in silence or talk to the audience in a blind fashion.

Still, as I said, my colleagues seemed to think it went well, although I do wonder whether that was because I got my second wind in the Q&A.

And, I did manage to get people to talk about rumours as being reliable.

When I first wrote this up I had a fairly detailed listing of who spoke and on what, but I’ve decided to forgo the details and talk generally ((I will say the following, though, about one paper. Chris Lundry talked about the case of Noordin Top and rumours as to the shape of his anus. His paper would make a great Fortean Times article (I must suggest it to him). Basically, some people still think that a funnel-shaped anus is evidence of homosexulity and the Indonesian government seem to have deliberately spread a rumour that Top, a terrorist involved in the Bali bombings, was a Sodomite, which rather defused his potential matyrdom.)).

The first panel was a mostly academic discussion of what rumours are. That was my role in the proceedings; to talk about rumours in a conceptual manner. Axel Gelfert, the other philosopher at the table, and I were very much on the same page when it came to the notion of rumours and their reliability, although Axel’s paper had a Kantian focus on rumours being some attempt to persuade a hearer of the proposition being rumoured, and how trying to persuade hearers of propositions they do not know to be true is morally suspicious (I’m sure Axel will correct me if I’m wrong about this). I don’t think rumouring is meant to be some kind of persuasion; I think it’s best thought of a social grooming behavior where people try to tease out just how plausible a proposition is by testing it out on others.

The second panel was mostly in the field of political studies and sociology. The papers were case studies; Babak Rahmini told us about the rumours spread before, during and after the last Iranian Presidential elections and Mark Woodward gave an entertaing talk about how the seemingly implausible rumour that Suharto that was collecting magical heirlooms from all over Indonesia turned out to be true. We also had a talk on how Twitter was used to confirm or deny rumours after the 2008 Mumbai bombings.

The third panel was were, to my mind, it got interesting, because the case studies here were often informed by the presenter’s involvement in strategic information.

For example, Scott Rushton’s paper was largely developed out of his time in Iraq working as a chopper pilot in Al-Hillal. He’s an academic by day and a member of the US Naval reserve by night, which makes me think I need a better day job so I can sound so impressive when I introduce myself at parties.

For the Conspiracy Theorists out there, the most interesting talk, if not just by content but also by who was giving it, was Todd Leventhal’s. Todd is the head of the Counter Misinformation Team at the US Department of State, so the fact that I am now admitting to being in friendly e-mail correspondence with him means that ‘serious’ Conspiracy Theorists will say I’m either compromised or will go ‘Ha, so he is working for them after all!’

Todd combats rumours (or ‘rumors’, as he probably prefers to spell the word) in the USA (you can read some of his work here). His resumé is impressive and the examples he cited of rumours he has had personal dealings with (that sentence seems wrong) was both entertaining and also a little depressing, something that was amplified in the Q&A session where someone pointed out that baseless rumours are rife not just in areas where one nation state is agin another but inside nation states, even ones which are seemingly stable and where you would think things would be nice and harmonious.

Which lead to the potentially disturbing talk at the end of the workshop about the West’s attitude towards propaganda.

It can be argued that the ‘West’ doesn’t do propaganda (let’s read that as deliberately targeted rumour propagation), which has been a problem in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where the so-called insurgent forces (I think ‘insurgent’ is a deliberately provocative and pejorative term which can skew the debate as to the legitimacy of political and military action) are rather good at propaganda (often, it must be admitted, because the insurgents are indigenous and thus know a) how their society works and thus who to talk to and b) are more trusted than the counter-insurgents, who sometimes aren’t local/indigenous).

Noe, the argument that the West doesn’t engage in propaganda needs finessing; during WWII a lot of propaganda was generated by the Axis and the Allies, and they were, for the most part, Western nation states. It also isn’t clear that the West is not currently engaging in propaganda (and this is where things get tricky, because what counts as ‘propaganda’ is a little ambiguous. I’m not going to finesse the argument because I don’t have the time and the ambiguity bugs me.

Anyway, technically speaking the West thinks propaganda is immoral and suspicious activity, and prefers things like leaflet drops and the like, which, as people like Todd, Scott et cetera admitted at the workshop, doesn’t often work. So the question was raised as to why we don’t engage in targeted propaganda? Someone (not a presenter) even asked why we don’t do it domestically…

Which is were things became a little fraught, with sociologists and the philosophers going ‘No, no, no, no…’ and other people going ‘Hmm, well…’

Which is why it’s taken so long for me to get round to expressing my thoughts about the workshop; I still don’t know what to think about where the Q&A went in that third panel. I suspect it’s a classic case of ‘You had to be there.’

But you weren’t, and through no fault of your own.

There is going to be a book (which I believe will be the collected papers of the workshop) which may serve to make my thoughts more concrete. I’ll want to review the papers to situate my paper (especially if the sequence of papers reflects the sequence of talks; I’ll need a new introduction to my piece), at which point I may have more to say.


llewelly says:

It can be argued that the ‘West’ doesn’t do propaganda (let’s read that as deliberately targeted rumour propagation) …

Not sure what you mean by the “West”, but there are a number of organizations in America, such as the Republican party, the Democratic party, the American Family Association, the Cato institute, the George C. Marshall institute, and so, which all engage in deliberately targeted rumour propagation. And many American “talk radio” shows are almost 100% deliberately targeted rumour propagation. There are also a number of businesses that engage in it as form of marketing. Most of this focuses on internal issues, rather than exterior enemies, but there are huge numbers of targeted anti-Muslim rumours circulating here in America.

That’s why I said I wasn’t going to finesse the argument; it’s not clear what ‘propaganda’ means here and, as you correctly point out, its not clear who ‘the West’ are.

Still, for ‘lovers’ of British music, as long as it isn’t ‘Westlife,’ we’re fine.

Johnny the Red says:

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies is pretty explicit in how security services on both sides of the Atlantic are constantly feeding propaganda to news services, often with the connivence of the journalists/editors writing the stories. The books I’ve read on the history of the CIA suggest the same thing, and I’ve got no reason to believe that the majority of, if not all, intelligence services operate propaganda arms as a matter of course. I doubt they call it that though … they probably have a benign name for it like “Information Dispersal Services”, in much the same way as “Human Resources” is a benign term for the machine that turns normal human beings into sausages.