How Do You Like It So Far uses pop culture to take soundings of a society in transition, exploring intersections with civic imagination and engagement, and social and political change. Henry Jenkins and Colin Maclay are your guides on this adventure.

Episode 22: Benjamen Walker and Wu Ming

This week we talked about conspiracy theories with Wu Ming1, of the collective Wu Ming, whose books inspired one the main conspiracy theorists on the internet, and Benjamen Walker, whose podcast often focuses on conspiracy theories. We cover: The art of blurring fact and fiction, and non-fiction, discrediting gatekeepers, can we ever really debunk, the role of satire, the hunger for complexity, pizzagate, the “deep state,” QAnon, and of course, president Trump.

Benjamen Walker tackles just these sorts of trends on his podcast, “Theory of Everything,” many of which trace back their current toxicology to 9/11. In a recent episode he delves into: when the truthers were gone, and how truthers merged into “hoaxers.” He identifies that with Sandy Hook, these hoaxes turned it into a “darker form.” He is a bit pessimistic since: “Looking for a way forward… I haven’t found it yet.”

Wu Ming is a pseudonym for a group of Italian authors formed in 2000 from a subset of the Luther Blissett community in Bologna. Previous to coming together, four members of the group wrote the novel “Q” in 1999. On 28 October 2017, references to Q emerged from the message board 4chan. In a thread called “Calm Before the Storm,” Q transformed into a government insider, with top security clearance who knew the truth about a secret struggle for power involving Donald Trump, the “deep state”, pedophile rings, Robert Mueller, and the Clintons.

The poetry of debunking

When reflecting on Q, the transformation and viral spread of something clearly originating as a work of fiction, leads us to ask: are we at a point where we cannot debunk any more? We move from “don’t believe what you read, believe me” to “don’t believe what you see, believe me only.”

Conspiracy theories work precisely because they discredit the authority trying to debunk the theory, and authority writ large is exactly what the hoaxers are rejecting. So how do you get around this? Wu Ming suggests that a game-like way of debunking could ultimately compete with the interestingness of the actual theory.

Wu Ming1 also shared his thoughts on the art of weaving fiction and non-fiction.

“Ordinary debunking doesn’t work. Because even if you debunk, believer keep believing them…. Conspiracists provide people with something they need. There is always a kernel of truth, hidden inside a conspiracy theory, because otherwise it wouldn’t work… when we debunk a conspiracy theory, we should be aware of that a kernel of truth.”

Wu Ming proposes that one way to combat this trend is “showing the stitches” — meaning that white hats should open up about about the amount of work required to create works of fiction like Q (similar to showing how a magic trick is done). What we need, he argues, is a “poetry of debunking” that makes the truth more interesting than the theory itself.

Please join us to hear this and more in what was a very interesting episode. Plus check out more links below for more content.

Benjamen Walker episode w/Brendan Nyhan (and more) on debunking

UN general assembly laughing at — or perhaps with — trump

penn and teller doing lift of love reveal

Chris Morris: Brass eye

Episode 21: Rohan Joshi from All India Bakchod

This week Henry talked to Rohan Joshi, from the comedy group All India Bakchod, who walks us through how to use comedy to confront social issues, particularly in the Indian context.   Joshi recently spoke at the Indian Culture Lab,highlighting insights Indian audiences could learn from Captain America.

            How do we still have a Captain America?… how has avoided the potential campiness of it?   He is always asking ‘what does it mean to be a Patriot?….He is a symbol of a soldier, propaganda, etc. But he never allows himself to just be that mindless drone. He is essentially driven by one question: “how do I use this for public good?… that’s what keeps him away from being a cog in the system.

            In the 70s, during the era of Nixon,  there was a captain America storyline… you may not know this because it was not in the movies… the thing that breaks his heart is when he finds out that the head of this terrorist organization is the president of the United States himself… Captain America is so disillusioned by this breaking of this American ideal that he gives up his suit entirely, and decides to become this state-less creature known He’s so disappointed that he takes off his suit and becomes “Nomad”.  He asks, when is it time to stop being a good citizen, and become a good person?

In his chat, Joshi also gets into other successful civic interventions that can be mounted through comedy.  An example was the massively viral video, from 2013 called “It’s your fault” that dealt with the issue of rape, focusing on the irony of victim-blaming.. They decided to create it after many high profile cases of sexual assault in India and the clumsy political and legal responses surrounding the issue. The sarcasm-heavy video mocks ignorant statements that high profile figures made in response to the assaults. Joshi described the process of creating the video, sharing that at one point, they passed it by academics and activists to “make sure we were using the right language and tone and not somehow replicating the same mistakes we had been hearing.” They also asked actress friends to perform the script. The worldwide response was much more than they expected, with people reaching out to ask if they could replicate the video as a means to combat widespread patriarchal issues..

The video, called “it’s your fault”:  

When reflecting on what to call this form of civic intervention, Joshi shared that simply calling it  “standup,” is too small , because of the impact and way it’s being used across different languages around the country: is it a movement of comedy that manages to better explain issues going on in India? Is it civic entertainment? Can we call it so?

Join us as we delve into these questions and more!

Episode 20: Anushka Shah and Civic Entertainment in India

In this episode, we get the chance to talk to Anushka Shah, who works as a researcher at the Center for Civic Media, MIT Media Lab. More recently, she has started a project called Civic Entertainment that explores the intersection of civic engagement with television, radio, and digital entertainment and film. This project researches the media effects of fiction on thought and behavior change, and explores how methods of social change available to citizens can be best represented in entertainment media. It also investigates the representation of protest and activism in current popular culture. She also runs a production studio in Mumbai called Civic Studios that creates civic entertainment content for Indian audiences. Shah tells us about the inspiration she, and other Indians, have gotten from popular media, and how she brought civic participation with entertainment together.