This guest post is published in conjunction with the annual conference of the Society for Cinema & Media Studies, taking place in Seattle on March 13–17, 2019.

By Lee Grieveson, author of Cinema and the Wealth of Nations: Media, Capital, and the Liberal World System

In elections in the UK and US in 2016, an unstable bloc of militant liberals and neo-fascists fashioned new media and data practices to smash existing political norms and institutions in order to restructure reality, “deconstruct the administrative state,” and deregulate capital in order to and further hollow out democracy.[1] Ongoing press, parliamentary, congressional, and legal investigations on both sides of the Atlantic broadly reveal that political actors reworked the recently established practices of surveillance capitalism to marry the data produced by people in their interactions with social media and the Internet to psychographic messaging designed to influence their thoughts and actions. Commercial procedures of data surveillance such as those integral to the business model of entities like credit-rating agency Experian (1996), and multinational search and social media corporations like Google (1999) and Facebook (2004) were supplemented by practices that had emerged in the governmental sphere in the early years of the digital revolution when new routines of mass data surveillance were first established (like the PRISM program from 2007 as part of the expansion of “exceptional” state practices in the ongoing “War on Terror”). In the early 2000s, hybrid governmental/commercial consulting institutions began meshing data surveillance with what one of the British entities close to the centre of this history—Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL)—called “influence operations.” SCL deployed this data/media complex across the Global South. Cambridge Analytica, much in the news recently, grew out of SCL, and built on data harvested from Facebook and elsewhere (censuses, credit reports, insurance data, and so on) to construct psychological profiles of populations for political campaigns in the Global North to develop a near personalized propaganda system using digital screen media to influence political attitudes and conduct. Cambridge Analytica was deployed too by one of the campaigns in Britain to leave the European Union (EU), which broke electoral laws about spending and collusion to amass this data and use it to deploy media to shape the attitudes of voting populations. This illegality is yet to be punished as Britain hurtles towards an unknown future. Ongoing revelations from both sides of the Atlantic show, too, that the Russian state fostered digital practices to try to influence people or simply to virally spread confusion via strategies of propagating “disinformation” that have long been significant to KGB strategies for controlling populations and that are now integral to secret service (FSB) and military (GRU) practices to use the digital and cyber sphere as a component of “information warfare” to foster state interests. (Here broadly the weakening of NATO and EU alliances and the rolling back of liberal globalization, a project that has frequently found common cause with fascism.) Broadly, then, the “influence operations” enabled by the meshing of the collection of data about people integral to the digital sphere with media as a form of psychographic messaging or viral distortion were operationalized to transform political reality.

Obviously, the finance capitalists, libertarian/neo-fascist fossil fuel and tech oligarchs, and the criminal Russian state who financed (and often profited from) all this were continuing the long history of creating media and media systems to foster exploitative political economies. I explore the beginnings of that systematic use of mass media to sustain a globalizing liberalism—characterized by forms of territorial and economic imperialism—in my book Cinema and the Wealth of Nations: Media, Capital, and the Liberal World System. But it took me 12 years to research and write it, and as I completed it the bewildering events of 2016 marked a fracturing of that world and media system at the exhausted, violent end of the neo-liberal project. Clearly, future work needs to be a little bit speedier, not least because the recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report suggests we have around 12 years before irreversible climate disaster caused by industrial and carbon capitalism (and helped along by the funding of climate denial “research” and the broader effort to destroy epistemological certainty that is key to fascism and the fossil fuel oligarchs and corporations). Among the lessons I took from researching and writing that book were: scholarship about media needs to prioritise the ways media supplements power; that this needs to shape pedagogical practices; that this should extend beyond the university (which is largely a conservative and profit-seeking entity); and that of course scholarship and pedagogy are not enough in this extraordinary crisis. Media scholars need to become a collective, prioritizing scholarship and praxis that helps explicate and challenge these varied and intersecting logics of power. Certainly, as colleagues gather together for the North American Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference (in an expensive corporate hotel in an expensive North American city), there is no time like the present for the organisation of that global collective.

[1] Stephen K. Bannon, Conservative Political Action Committee, 22nd February 2017. (See, for example, Philip Zuker and Robert Costa, “Bannon Vows a daily fight for ‘deconstruction of the administrative state’,” Washington Post, 23rd February 2017.)