Iteration as Persuasion in a Digital World

5 May 2021, 12:30 - 14:00

Online

The seminars provided a supportive, intellectually stimulating environment in which to share work and receive feedback from people in various disciplines.
– Chana Morgenstern (Early Career Fellow in Michaelmas 2018)

Part of the CRASSH Fellows Work-in-Progress Seminar Series. All welcome but please email fellowships@crassh.cam.ac.uk to book your place and to request readings. 

Dr Clare Foster

‘Iteration as Persuasion in a Digital World’ is a forthcoming Special Issue of AI and Society Journal,  edited by myself and Ruichen Zhang (Sociology). It is based on a series of Re- Network seminars held at CRASSH in Easter 2019 (e.g. http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/events/28053). The volume argues that social processes driven by repetition, such as cultural memory, belief-creation, and ideas of consensus, need urgent reconsideration in a digital public sphere. It explores the agency of repetition itself - for example, its ability to offer identity, to reify, and to direct attention - aiming to unpack exactly how the digital encodes the human, and vice versa. 

Articles in the special issue already e-published by Springer include: 

'’Women Activists’ strategies of Online Self-Presentation'
'Online Lockdown Diaries in Wuhan as Endurance Art'

'Reading vs. Scanning: Note on Re:print'
'AI Transparency: A Matter of Reconciling Design with Critique' 

'Re-directing Socialist Persuasion through Affective Reiteration: A Discourse Analysis of ‘Socialist Memes’ on the Chinese Internet'

'Recontextualising Partisan Outrage Online: Analysing the Public Negotiation of Trump Support among American Conservatives in 2016'

'’Pretending to Favour the Public’: How Facebook's Declared Democratising Ideals are Reversed by Its Practices'
‘Labor for Community on Facebook'

My own contribution to the volume, following the work of scholars such as Cailin O’Connor (2019), and tentatively entitled ‘Truth as iterative social practice’, reflects on the problems of false belief that come with the integrated psychological and algorithmic human landscape we now inhabit. I compare recent scholarship from different disciplines that characterizes the digital era as one of unprecedented disinformation, where simply countering falsehoods with facts is ineffective. I suggest that instead of seeing truth as a property or condition attached to content, it needs reframing as an iterative social practice, as a collective, performative, persuasive phenomenon, and one that, above all, is produced by repetition. Digital publics need new models for how to evaluate truth claims and beliefs, especially considering that public space in a digital era is not static, but constantly being produced; and that iteration is the principle goal of both the would-be neutral advertiser platforms, and those that actively seek to weaponise their affordances. In terms of solutions to these problems, I emphasise the importance of guarding against the persuasive agency of apparent consensus; that controlling narratives, labels, and networked associations is a live, time-sensitive matter of action; and that strategies of negative cohesion, blame, or enemy-creation are crucially dependent on practices of binary thinking, mutually strengthened by the tendency of algorithmically-driven media towards polarisation and silos. To conclude, I argue that many principles of critical ‘reading’ offer a great deal to publics as models to counter some of the most potent persuasive effects of technology. But in order to set restorative processes in motion, we must collectively recognise that we are no longer in a culture of discovery, where what matters is what exists, or is in fact the case; but in a culture of iteration, where what matters is what gets repeated. 

Clare L E Foster is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at CRASSH, University of Cambridge ('The Western Concept of the Original - forthcoming book Recognition Capital), and founder and co-convenor of the Re- Interdisciplinary Network and Re- blog. Previously she worked to establish the Cambridge Interdisciplinary Performance Network (CIPN). She teaches film history in the Faculty of History and playwriting in the Faculty of Education. Her theatre history Phd ('A Very British Greek Play') won the Classics Faculty's Hare Prize in 2016. From 1994-2009 she was a screenwriter based in Los Angeles.