Critical Reading, Online Scare Stories – and the Death Star

Yesterday, a petition from avaaz started going round the internet. It spread very rapidly, through twitter and Facebook. Many generally thoughtful, concerned people passed it on, some with words of anger or concern, urging others to sign the petition as well. This kind of thing happens every day, and I keep wondering whether anybody ever actually looks at this kind of thing properly.

I do sign online petitions sometimes, so I looked at this most recent one, too. But my only reaction was: don’t people actually READ this stuff before they sign and inflict in on their friends and aquaintances?

If you teach Classical texts or history, one skill you really want to teach your students is critical reading: scrutinising a text and trying to read beyond the superficial message it contains, to comprehend subtleties, ways of making you react in a certain way. In a world which is full of advertising, this skill is more important than ever before.  I really despair when I see that it is so terribly hard to make it a habit. Responsible citizenship and effective protest require critical scrutiny of communication, otherwise it’s easy to create outrage and exploit people’s perfectly well-intentioned anger (read an excellent discussion of a recent example which circulated in the UK)
Let’s look at the scare story in question, which is here (link may change one the specified time is up).

Here is the ‘information’ provided as per 13th September 2012:


3 Days to Stop the Corporate Death Star

‘Corporate death star’?! Really? – This wouldn’t be taken seriously in another medium, but it’s a pretty effective way of appealing to a specific readership for whom ‘corporate’ is going to sound suspicious from the start. We might also conjecture that the target audience will be found particularly in a certain age range – people  for whom the term ‘Death Star’ will be most effective in conjuring up the most effectively scary images. Many of these might be  well-meaning people who used to be activists back at school or university, and who might be worrying now that  they aren’t doing enough. Clicktivism is a comfortable solution: little time and effort, high good conscience factor. Find the right language to make the right demographic angry and click before they check the detals, and you’ll get a good turnout.

Also note that it was 4 days yesterday, so somebody is carefully counting down: urgency is one of the simplest marketing tricks in the book, and if you don’t have time, you might just click before you think.

Is that too cynical for you? I happen to think that this kind of clicktivism is a cynical business exploiting people’s good intentions. But let’s look at the ‘information’ provided to explian the context of this particular petition.

Details are leaking of a top-secret, global corporate power grab of breathtaking scope — attacking everything from a free Internet to health and environmental regulations, and we have just 4 days to stop it.

Question: Just how top-secret is this ‘powergrab of breathtaking scope’ (and what does that man anyway, once we get around the hyperbole)?
Answer: so secret that if we were actually told that the dastardly plot in question is the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (the term is mentioned in the actual petition, but not in the explanatory text), a bit of googling will get you a lot of information from a mix of sources (friendly and hostile). Claiming that something is so very ‘secret’ is, however, a good excuse for not providing any evidence   (see the Australian Government’s take on the agreement here).

What conspiracy theorists often forget is that top secret plots, especially if they are world wide and involve governments are VERY difficult to sustain. Actually, scratch that and make it ‘impossible’ rather than ‘very difficult’. And do they ever wonder why they are reading, on the web of ll places, about a lot that’s allegedly so secret?

Leaders of the 9 states involved in the TPPA

Picture of the leaders of a top secret global plot of nine states, as available on the Australian government website

And how global is this dastardly plot? It’s nine countries: The United States, Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.
How many of those who signed the petition bothered to check what it was about?

 Big business has a new plan to fatten their pockets: a giant global pact, with an international tribunal to enforce it, that is kept top secret for years (even from our lawmakers!) and then brought down like a Death Star on our democracies.

More emotional buzz words. How exactly would a giant global pact  with a tribunal to enforce it be kept top secret? Even if ‘global’ actually means nine countries, that’s pretty difficult, when you have democracies like Australia involved. And how can states actually engage in these negotiations, let alone signing a treaty, if it is being kept secret (drumroll) even from our lawmakers?!

Yoda and Luke Skywalker

'An Avaaz petition create you must, young Jedi'

And do we really want to trust somebody whose best shot at a scary metaphor is ‘Death Star’? Wouldn’t that suggest to you that they might not be entirely in touch with the reality of  events in a real world? Perhaps they see themselves as jedi knights with shining sabers, saving the universe from a dark shadowy empire. Well. If that’s he case, let me break it to you, Luke Skywalker, an avaaz petition isn’t going to do it.

 Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Walmart and almost 600 other corporate lobbyists are all in on the final draft — including limits on smoking laws, affordable medicines and free speech on the Net.

More language designed to make you nod along in disgust and distrust. The language and choice of examples suggests that this was created in the febrile political atmosphere of the States, where evidence counts little in political discourse these days, and many people are willing to believe the worst of anybody they consider ‘not us’. Shouldn’t we ask whether a multilateral trade agreement can actually do all this, and how?

The latest round of negotiations ends in just 4 days — but outcries in each of our countries could shake the confidence of negotiators and scuttle the talks forever. Let’s get to a million against the global corporate takeover. Sign the petition on the right. Avaaz will project our petition counter on the walls of the conference so negotiators can see the opposition to their plan exploding in real time.

Surely, by now the choice of words has made us suspicious? … ‘outcries’… ‘scuttle (sic) the talks forever’  … ‘global corporate takeover’. Well, apparently not …. the signature counter keeps ticking over mightily fast – over 200 000 in less than 24 hours. How many of these actually checked the details?

This makes me sad, it really does. Trade agreements are a very tricky matter. They can do enormous damage, and some have in the past. Mostly they do damage to poor states, and I think that people, particularly in the affected countries, should engage with the process, and ask some serious questions (it can be done a lot better, e.g. here, a random example I found through a simple web search). It seems true that preliminary negotiation positions (and a text, if one exists) haven’t been released. I should wonder, therefore, why so many people seem to know what’s going to be in it. I wish they did release a text or basic principles: it’s so easy to fill a vacuum with vague, meaningless scaremongering.

People are cynical these days – and rightly so. But I always find it worrying that people who are sensibly skeptical of the traditional channels of political discourse drop any form of suspicion and cynicism when they come across somebody who claims to fight ‘vested interests’, ‘stand up for the exploited majority’, etc., without any evidence or credentials. It’s important to do stand up to vested interests, and it can be done well (the Occupy movement comes to mind, and note their insistence on lectures and open discussion forums in many of their camps). We need to keep our wits about us.

Masses falling for emotive language instead of thinking for themselves are never an edifying spectacle, even if they don’t all stand in one large square cheering political oratory.

I don’t know about everybody else, but my signature is dearly bought, and I am not about to fall for empty words designed to make me angry and fearful, stirring (if clunky) prose making we want to be part of something greater. I don’t care whether it was done with good intentions, or just to prove to some geeks that five hundred thousand signatures can be got in a few days. Even if the cause seems good, it’s worth watching out for the signs of manipulation, especially if they are aimed to stroke our consciences and tap into our preconceived opinions: if it’s too easy to agree it’s worth checking whether grand rhetoric or pithy polemic hides a lack of substance or evidence.

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3 Responses to Critical Reading, Online Scare Stories – and the Death Star

  1. Nonconformistradical says:

    “If you teach Classical texts or history, one skill you really want to teach your students is critical reading”

    The need for critical reading ability is not confined to teaching these particular subjects. I wonder if the Wakefield MMR scandal would ever have happened if Wakefield’s poor research had been exposed properly for what it was rather than hyped by sensation-seeking newspapers.

  2. Andrew Suffield says:

    Ugh, that’s a terrible petition.

    TPPA is a nasty piece of work – people think they know what’ll be in it because it’s basically ACTA take 2, so there’s a presumption that it’ll do the same things we recently defeated in the EU parliament.

    But petitions are pointless because the whole point of the ACTA secrecy, and similar attempts for TPPA, is that trade agreements are ways to pass laws in foreign countries without ever involving the citizens of that country – so none of the people who have any influence over what TPPA will contain are going to care what this petition says. (There’s a democratic deficit hiding in here somewhere)

  3. It’s not the first questionable petition I’ve seen from Avaaz – I spotted one a few months ago where they hadn’t done their research. I too was disappointed and I’ve been more careful with them since.

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