Umberto Eco (1932–2016)

Antidote to the Tweetmaster

You have to hand it to President Trump. He is a mass media genius whose rat-a-tat-tat Twitter messages have left the Resistance gasping, fuming, and searching for an effective response.

I have personally returned fire at the President in slashing tweets. But these are pathetic, ineffective efforts. (I have roughly zero Twitter “followers.”) Just when I came to realize my Twitter impotence, however, I stumbled on an intriguing theory explaining my frustration: I had been targeting the wrong person.

The theory emerged 50 years ago. It was the core of a 1967 talk on mass communication by the Italian intellectual Umberto Eco, famous for his novel The Name of the Rose. Eco thought deeply about media and culture. In 1973, Eco’s concept resurfaced in his essay Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare. Semiological refers to the study of signs and symbols, one of Eco’s fascinations.

Eco, who died last year in Milan, had 82,000 Twitter “followers.” I’m guessing he found tweets to be a supremely interesting mass conveyor of signs and symbols. Trump uses this medium brilliantly. A tweet’s 140-character limit allows him to skip the nuances of thoughtful discourse and merely transmit “code” to those he is trying to influence.

In Eco’s construct, the mass communication chain has a sender, a channel, and a recipient but also what he calls “code” that is shared by the source and the recipient. Code is an often ambiguous signal that recipients read differently depending on their sociological circumstances. Today, we might call it “the narrative” in public discourse. Code is important, often determining a message’s true impact. Eco offers this example: “For a Milanese bank clerk, a TV ad for a refrigerator represents a stimulus to buy, but for an unemployed peasant in Calabria the same image means the confirmation of a world of prosperity that doesn’t belong to him and that he must conquer.” Trump is a master of ambiguous codes, and Pennsylvania coal country is his Calabria.

In a single tweet, the President can convey combativeness, intimidation, contempt, vanity, and cheerful optimism. The Resistance may read visceral expressions of racism, despotism, deceitfulness, and ignorance. Yet judging from their tweets, his partisans see the very same message embodying strength, moral fortitude, and fierce loyalty to a shared culture.

In the hands of a clever propagandist, mass media have a powerfully numbing impact, Eco believed. But he saw hope in directing opposing messages not at the sender but at the recipient. As he puts it, “The battle for the survival of man as a responsible being in the Communications Era is not to be won where the communication originates, but where it arrives.”

Here, Eco offers an antidote: if you cannot occupy the chair of “the Source” (or his smartphone), you have to wage cultural “guerrilla warfare” to make an impact. This requires reaching massive numbers of recipients to alter their perspective and change or dilute the code. As a theorist, Eco offers few concrete tactics beyond grassroots political action, demonstrations, sit-ins, student rallies, and better teaching of critical thinking — all utopian, he admits.

But then, think back. Which Resistance messages have had the most impact in blunting Trump? I would list the Women’s March, airport travel-ban rallies, and viral Congressional town hall meetings. The nightly videos of boisterous town halls are widely viewed as having raised doubts about relegating Obamacare to the dustbin. Jimmy Kimmel certainly changed the Obamacare narrative from a powerful TV soapbox. Another on-the-ground example might be the Reverend William Barber’s “Moral Monday” vigils at the North Carolina Legislature. In incremental ways, they can sow doubt and alter the code.

To this list of actions, I’d add satire. In 1945, George Orwell wrote: “Every joke is a revolution.” Today, Stephen Colbert is a satirical revolutionary. In many ways, he adheres to the communications genre known as “culture jamming” or “viral activism.” Culture jammers battle what they see as harmful manipulation by modern advertising and Establishment group-think. They often fight back with irony. The vintage 2004 website sponsored a “Vigil for Corporate Welfare” and the “Million Billionaire March.”

As Trump wages information warfare, I’m convinced that “guerrilla” tactics, not tweets, are the most effective response. Perhaps the Resistance needs to stop waiting for Bob Mueller, grab a megaphone or a pink pussy hat, and take to the streets again. Umberto Eco would be proud. We just might go viral.

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