“Message control” or “frank speech” as a response to Corona crises management?

An essay by Richard Weiskopf

The success of the “measures” proposed by the government to contain and control the Corona virus depends to a large extent on the willingness of the population to go along with these “measures.” This willingness is contingent on a variety of factors. In this post, I pick out one factor that has a significant influence: the communication behavior of the government, or the communicative relations between the governed and the governed. I would like to briefly introduce two different models and put them up for discussion: that of strategic communication and that of frank speech.

Strategic communication and message control

In political and organizational communication, “strategic communication” is often offered as the means of choice when it comes to implementing “measures” efficiently. This model recommends that organizations and governments communicate strategically to various stakeholders. Messages and news that the organization/government sends out should be clearly structured, formulated uniformly and without contradiction, and sent out with the aid of suitable media.

In terms of communication theory, this idea is based on the classic sender-receiver model developed by the mathematicians Shannon and Weaver in the USA in the 1940s. The aim here was to explore how a message defined by a sender can be transported to a receiver in an efficient manner.

This model not only describes the relationship between “sender” and “receiver” in an ideal-typical technical understanding, it also has reality-constituting effects. Transferred to the social realm it establishes a model of command issuance and turns rulers into monological instruction givers. In the modern world, of course, the arrangement is packaged appealingly. It does not appear as an issuance of orders and is not usually delivered in a command tone, although this may at times come through. Modern techniques of rhetoric – framing, priming, NLP, etc. – (should) help to get the message across efficiently.

This monological model of communication also underlies the popular concepts of “nudging.” Here, “choice architects” determine what is good and right for people. Based on behavioral science, a “choice architecture” is designed to guide people’s choices in the desired direction. A set of (more or less gentle) “nudges” is arranged around people in such a way that, bypassing their ability to reflect, they are put on the right path.

Especially since the intensified datafication of all areas of life, nudging concepts have also been digitally upgraded. The idea of “hypernudging” combines individualized, target group-specific “addressing” (microtargeting) based on profiling and predictive analytics with targeted influencing along the lines of Skinnerian conditioning programs.

A systematic combination of all these techniques can be observed in the example of the Chinese Social Credit System (CSCS). Here there is not only a central “transmitter” – in this case the Communist Party (CCP) – and a “message control” in the form of state propaganda. In addition, one can also study in this model how a wide variety of management techniques are combined to ensure not only that the government’s message reaches the population and is implemented effectively. The CSCS goes much further: it is about producing the “good citizen” in the form of the “trustworthy person”. The government defines the model of the “good citizen” and uses a wide variety of methods to collect and generate data, creating profiles of people via algorithmic processes, making them comparable and calculable by assigning them a “score,” dividing them into “trustworthy” and “non-trustworthy,” and distributing rewards and punishments (incentives) for “good” and “bad” behavior, respectively. Those who collect enough plus points are allowed to travel abroad, use the high-speed train, can hope for allocation of a nice apartment or allocation of a school or university place for their children, etc. – misbehavior results in the corresponding deductions. According to reports, the system is very well received – at least in certain sections of society. The trust score is not only an entrance ticket to many areas of life, it is also proudly used as an identity marker and even seems to increase a person’s value on the marriage market or in online dating services. As a trustworthy citizen, one can enjoy many benefits, but as a non-trustworthy person, one is excluded from many opportunities and areas of social life. The “two-stroke mechanism of reward and punishment” is taken to a new technological level with the help of data, databases and algorithms. This cybernetic control model can accurately be described as “Panspectron” – an advanced version of the surveillance architecture of the Panopticon, in which people are no longer observed from a central point, but are surrounded or encircled by a multitude of “sensors.” These constantly produce data, store it, and feed it into various profiling machines that use algorithms to design images and constructs of people that can be used to capture people down to the smallest detail, register their movements, and steer them along desirable channels.

This model turns the governed into recipients of orders and instructions. According to the model, they should not reason and debate, but function. In this model, citizens are the object of information, but not the subject of communication. The message is transmitted to the “receiver”, it is prepared and drilled into him. The receiver has the task of “decoding” the message. Expressions on the part of the “receiver” – counter-speech, contradiction, questions, protest, etc. – do not occur in this model; at most these forms appear as “noise” which impairs the clarity of the message and the efficiency of the communication and which must accordingly be avoided or suppressed as far as possible.

Frank speech

An alternative model of communication, which configures the relationship between government and population in a completely different way, would be the model of “frank speech” or parrhesia (truth-telling). Here, it is no longer a matter of “sender” and “receiver” connected by a communication channel, but of speaker and listener connected and bound by a “double pact”[1]: The speaker who expresses the truth clearly and unambiguously in frank speech binds him/herself to the content of what is said and accepts the consequences associated with speaking this truth. The listener, on the other hand, has an ‘open ear’. He or she must have a sensorium for the concerns, questions, and needs of the others (the manifold speakers) and he or she must (be able to) allow criticism and accept being told the truth. Through this pact, frank speech becomes a “parrhestiastic game”. This “game” requires a double courage: the courage of the speaker to speak the truth, even if he/she risks being punished for it (by being ignored, sanctioned, excluded and banished, and in extreme cases killed), but also the courage of the listener to confront a (perhaps unpleasant) truth that can also disrupt the (self-)image of the sovereign subject.

Truth-telling can take very different forms. It can for example consist of making clear, from the perspective of those affected, where the problems of individual “measures” lie. But it can also take the form of a critical questioning or problematization of government policy or a “bundle of measures”. Here, however, it is often difficult to distinguish “good parrhesia” from “bad parrhesia”. There are people who speak out in the face of imminent danger and take a high personal risk. In the context of Corona the case of Dr. Li Wenlinang is an example. He was the first to warn of the danger of the uncontrolled spread of the new virus in China and has become well-known as the “Wuhan whistleblower”[2]. As a consequence he was charged with “spreading false rumors” and “disturbing the social order”. Another example is the virologist Prof. Drosten, who became famous in Germany and beyond through his blog. What makes him a parrhesiast is not only that he speaks (even unpleasant) truths and thus accepts to be attacked[3], but also the fact that he revises his own (provisional) truths as soon as new insights or evidence arise in research. Similar is the example of Dr. Anthony Fauci, who on the one hand was the leading member of the Corona Task Force of the Trump administration, but at the same time also criticized the government’s policy and especially Trump’s behavior, thus also accepting the risk of sanctioning. Recently, he was awarded the1 million $ Dan David Prize for “speaking truth to power during the Pandemic.” [4] All three of the aforementioned embody a parrhesiastic attitude as scientists. “Good” science in the sense of parrhesia is oriented toward truth. It has a certain relationship to truth. It values truth and it is on the way to truth. However, it is never in possession of truth. The parrhesiast speaks the truth he/she is convinced of, knowing that speaking the truth is important (e.g. to save lives), but at the same time knowing that this truth is never final or absolute. The parrhesiast is open to criticism and self-criticism and can therefore – in the sense of truth – revise his/her own position.

On the other hand, in Austria and Germany one has for some time been observing a wide variety of so called “Querdenker” who stage themselves as “truthers” and like to present themselves as victims of state censorship and repression. They differ from true parrhesiastes, however, in that they simply ignore certain facts and instead trust their intuition or stick to their (supposed) truths, even when other insights or facts emerge. The “Querdenker” believe themselves to be in possession of the truth. They “know” what is right. They “know” this because of their presuppositions and because of a selective perception that constantly confirms their presuppositions. Facts that question their own worldview or their own position in the world are ignored, overlooked or reinterpreted. The Internet also offers many opportunities to fabricate one’s own personal “truth” from various sources and set pieces. Another phenomenon is what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt called “bullshitting”[5]. The so-called “bullshitters” are to be distinguished from the dogmatists, who believe themselves to be in possession of the truth, and the (corona) deniers, who spread the untruth against their better knowledge, e.g. in order to generate personal profit. According to Harry Frankfurt, these are people who have no relation to the truth at all. While liars believe to know the truth, but consciously hide it, the bullshitter simply does not care about the truth. He/she speaks (loudly) even if he/she has no idea about the matter, and he/she speaks and says what suits him/her at the moment, and of course he/she can flexibly change his/her views and opinions (e.g. there are politicians who at one moment make a strong case for intensifying surveillance in the state, but at the next moment stage themselves as freedom fighters in order to criticize the “Corona surveillance state” and the “outrageous censorship”).

In contrast to the bullshitter, the parrhesiastic speaker cares for the truth. However, not only (government) critics can be parrhesiastic speakers, but also those in power themselves. As a parrhesiastic speaker, a politician for example is primarily interested in telling the people the truth, even if it may be painful and unpopular. Of course, the speaker must consider in what form this should happen, at what time, with what media, etc. The art of making a speech effective is traditionally called rhetoric. For the rhetorician, the primary concern is to “get a message across”. Impressing and persuading the audience is paramount; a particular (ethical-moral) concern is secondary. In the modern political context, voter analysis and polls are important here. There are enough politicians who do not primarily say what is important to them, but primarily what the audience (the voters) wants to hear according to polls, or what they are most likely to be receptive to due to their “profile”. It is different in the case of parrhesia. Here, the (moral) concern comes first; questions of implementation and effectiveness come into play only later.

Conclusions

The first model pays attention to the efficient transmission of the message. It leaves it to the “sender” to define the “truth”. The model reduces citizens to message recipients. It underlies classical propaganda as well as the modern idea of message control. The alternative communication model of frank speech sets other priorities and configures the relationship between government and population in a different way. The focus is not on the efficient design of communication channels and media, but on the conditions of possibility of critical debate and reflection. The aim is to create spaces for critical debate and exchange at a wide variety of levels. According to this model, the relationship is no longer a monological one, but a dialogical or agonistic one, in which the struggle is about finding the right path.

The point here is not to streamline (top down) communication in the sense of ‘message control’, nor is it to instrumentalize dialogue as a means of creating consensus or as a means of securing legitimacy. Rather, it is about creating spaces in which different views and positions can enter into an open – and opening – exchange. In other words, it is about organizing a “game of differences”, a parrhesiastic game, that enables dissensus to become productive in the sense of disclosing new worlds. Research in Organization Studies can contribute to explore the conditions and possibilities of organizing such spaces.


[1] Foucault, M. (2011). The courage of truth. The government of self and others. London. Palgrave Macmillan, p. 12-13.

[2] See https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-55963896; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-LL9vK_Uh4

[3] In an interview for the Tagesspiegel Prof. Drosten referred to attacks by certain Media and on the Internet on his person and said “viele (nehmen) meinen Namen in den Mund als pars pro toto einer Wahrheit, die sie nicht hören wollen”. (https://www.tagesspiegel.de/wissen/christian-drosten-im-interview-wir-alle-sind-die-welle/26205276.html)

[4] See https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/fauci-dan-david-prize-israel-b1802610.html

[5] Frankfurt, H. (2005) On Bullshit. Princeton: University of Princeton Press.

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