Strategic Audio: Podcasts, Propaganda, and the Fairy Tales of Data Mining

June 24, 2021   •   By Michelle Chihara

IN 2018, the popular NPR podcast Invisibilia released an episode about a reality television show in Somalia called “The Other Real World.” Invisibilia tells stories inspired by behavioral science and aims to explore the “invisible forces” that shape human behavior. The episode in question spun a sweet, hopeful narrative about the power of music, a kind of Footloose fable set against the chaos of the failing Somali state and the rise of al-Qaeda-linked extremists.


“The Other Real World” episode discusses a reality television show much like American Idol, funded by an impartial and humanitarian United Nations. The reality competition, dubbed Inspire Somalia, asked Somali volunteers to risk their lives by flouting local prohibitions against music and television. The prohibitions were described on the podcast as the work of Muslim extremist group al-Shabab. By providing this forum for self-expression, according to Invisibilia’s reporting, Inspire Somalia would do far more than crown a winning singer, it would spread lessons about individual freedom and democracy — because of voting … on songs. “The ultimate goal” was to create reality television that would not only explore but “change human behavior,” and thus “change the world.”


Around the same time, idealistic rhetoric about the power of auditory art over human behavior was also being deployed by the “unicorn” Swedish platform Spotify. In fact, this episode of Invisibilia aired just as the streaming wars had reached out to join music and non-music content. Spotify was branching out from its deals with record companies, acquiring podcast start-ups, and cutting deals with National Public Radio to air their content. At the time of writing, Music Business Worldwide has just reported that the Swedish company’s share price tripled in 10 months during the pandemic, giving it a valuation of around $67 billion (US aid to Somalia in 2019 was about 0.0074 percent of Spotify’s value). Spotify touted the circulation of creativity, in music and non-music content, as part of its mission statement. In 2018, Spotify’s CEO greeted investors in New York before a slide that read: “Our mission: Unlock the potential of human creativity by giving a million creative artists the opportunity to live off their art and billions of fans the opportunity to enjoy and be inspired by these creators.”


Inspire Somalia. Inspire the world.


Podcasts have dominated the wave of start-ups in digital sound, the streaming wars in visual media matched by similar patterns of competition and consolidation in streaming audio. And to the extent that journalistic podcasts like Invisibilia have been generically categorized as creative, it’s because they rose to prominence using a new persona to tell nonfiction stories. If the clipped, military tones of the financial radio show Marketplace represented the traditional “objective” news anchor par excellence, then the Planet Money podcast persona — promising to make economic explanations fun, like going to the bar with your savviest friend — represented innovation. As they leaned toward documenting the journeys of individual reporters and hosts, many podcasts broke with existing journalistic conventions and ethical norms.


An intimate and vernacular tone over the airwaves is not, in and of itself, a new technology. In fact, the podcast persona could arguably be traced back to NPR in the 1990s, before streaming audio. A significant percentage of successful podcast hosts trained at Ira Glass’s successful and long-running radio show This American Life, then essentially repackaged their training as digital innovation. But the dominance of this new persona formed around technological shifts in the media landscape. And these tonal and tectonic shifts moved podcasts toward stories about the human potential of data-based behavioral science.


Stories about the power of creativity and behavioral science emerged around podcasts in the platform economy, where data analytics could use stories about behavioral science to gather and analyze more data. Spotify’s business model combines subscription and ad revenue streams with AI and the power of data mining at scale. In its quest for market dominance, it needed a runway of trust alongside its runway of capital, long enough for it to enter the land of the too big to fail. Spotify’s do-gooder corporate rhetoric packaged the algorithmic presentation of audio as a self-generating stream of influence over creative subjects — it streams digital audio in order to inspire the further streaming of digital audio.


Invisibilia and another hit about behavioral science, Hidden Brain, were designed by the nonprofit NPR to compete in the for-profit streaming wars. NPR used them explicitly as multi-platform formal innovations to enter the fray in “the year of the podcast.” Hidden Brain’s host called the show itself a “mini-startup.” It worked: Invisibilia was popular, NPR struck a deal with Spotify, its podcasts joined the experimental coordination data on the platform. This innovative form would sell behavioral science across radio and streaming audiences, gathering data for more behavioral science as it went.


In “The Other Real World,” the power of popular music and popular media was a discovery that data science could use to help Somalis, whom the podcast positioned as culturally backward and in need of such help. American Idol would teach them a new “way of being.” The episode announces that “a certain kind of story” can “create a new reality,” and that behavioral psychologists, who came upon the universal power of poetics in the 1990s, could port this discovery to other countries and cultures with little to no risk of ethical violation. The behavioral scientist quoted in the episode saw the UN project in Somalia as part of a benign increase in the willingness of “foreign powers” to use “popular media to influence the emotional climate and therefore the politics of another country.”


This sentence was uttered in 2018, after about two years of constant headlines about Russia’s use of social media to influence the emotional climate and political landscape of the United States. One of the producers on Inspire Somalia even went on record in the podcast insisting that the show didn’t “feel like some artificial creation or some element of a strategic communication plan” — strategic communications, or strat comm, being the military’s term for new methods of propaganda and influence. Rather, she said, the episode “felt real. It felt like this transcendent space.”


The implication that Inspire Somalia was, in fact, strat comm remained.


Invisibilia was produced and shaped by different experts in the study of influence, who in turn exercised influence on the politics and climate of different countries. That’s what popular media does. On one hand, the amplification of Somali folk music within Somali culture seems like one of the more benign applications of soft imperial power abroad. But, on the other hand, if Inspire Somalia was a strat comm operation, whose was it, and who was being manipulated by its representation on an American podcast?


The financialization of digital audio — as it encloses audiobooks, podcasts, albums, and meditation apps across markets built with behavioral science — creates an evolving gray area of competing influences. Spotify is building a streaming empire with a data-rich, and therefore subtle, form of international reach. Spotify now knows what you listen to when, just as Amazon and Google know what you want, where you go, what you buy, what you do. The convenience and ease with which these technologies slip into intimate listening spaces hides the massive, international, financial consolidation behind digital audio. It also obfuscates the dynamics behind digital audio’s working theory of culture, as it shapes music, art, and journalism built with experimental coordination data, along with new applications and apps in fields like mental health, neurofinance, and quantum marketing.


As media landscapes shift, so do the conventions that once set the lines between independent news and strat comm, or between objective and subjective reporting. Not all of this reinvention is deleterious. Changes in news and distribution have spurred a bracing reckoning over the sometimes unbearable whiteness of mainstream journalistic objectivity, where a shallow “both sides” stance can cover for systemic racism. But “The Other Real World” was not a failure of journalistic objectivity — it seemed more like a total operational lack of healthy journalistic skepticism. As soon as I heard a reality television show in Somalia presented as a feel-good behavioral science story, I had the strong sense that I was the one, the American audience member, who was being manipulated. So, I did some digging of my own:


I. In 2012, oil discoveries off the coast refocused international attention on Somalia. That year, The Guardian reported that Britain was leading the dash for exploration, offering “humanitarian aid and security assistance in the hope of a stake in the beleaguered country’s future energy industry.” Already, the UN funds sound less neutral.


II. The founders of the production company behind Inspire Somalia were indeed British. In fact, the company had been the go-to contractor for a “shadowy propaganda unit” working in counterterrorism for Britain’s Home Office.


III. Run by two young men who met at British prep school, one of whom had worked in reality television, the company had a questionable track record. Under its previous name, it had not been transparent and forthright about its goals and funding sources, and some of the Muslim civil society groups whom it had approached and worked with felt betrayed. Especially in post–Cold War areas of conflict, it seems that civil society groups do not benefit from being perceived as unwitting puppets of Western interests.


IV. At a conference in London in 2012, Somali representatives objected to how British aid was focused on British priorities instead of Somali civil society. “When the British government decided to step forward it should have asked what Somalis wanted,” the coordinator of the Somali Relief and Development Forum said. “What they did instead was to identify a few areas. It failed to respect the process and priorities set by Somalis.”


V. One independent Somali commentator named Abukar wrote in 2014:


Breakthrough Media is also a threat to the Somali cultural and traditional society, the group belongs to the so-called ‘Don’t ask don’t tell’ community and they recruit only members of this group. For some reason, Independent Somali media companies are excluded from these kinds of UN contracts and the best they can get is to work for these abusive primary UN contractors with an insulting harsh pay.


VI. Producers who worked on Inspire Somalia told me, in person and via email, that even though Mogadishu was so dangerous that they could only stay in the city for a matter of days, they felt moved by what they saw. They said they pushed the British execs to give more of the money to the Somali contestants.


VII. Invisibilia closed with the suggestion that Inspire Somalia helped make Somalia safe for music again. However, Inspire Somalia wasn’t primarily a show about music. Based on what streamed online, it seems to have been focused on entrepreneurs, with a musical segment — more Shark Tank than American Idol. It did feature some singers, but it’s not clear that it made them safer or brought the music back. One of the judges, a young entrepreneur born in Italy who moved back to his parents’ homeland in order to start a florist shop, was killed after the show aired, according to The Guardian and Quartz.


VIII. US and UK government databases show that Zinc Network continues to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars to execute contracts in war-torn parts of the world.


Invisibilia had the savvy, the budget, and the journalistic staff to get this stuff right. But Invisibilia got Inspire Somalia wrong because of the behavioral economic mode of storytelling in digital audio, because financialized power structures are already invested in finding rosy outcomes for compelling narratives built around ostensibly neutral data science and its ahistorical theory of “human behavior.”


The episode opened as a fairy tale about music and behavioral science:


ALIX SPIEGEL, HOST:


Once upon a time, there was music on the radio, but then the music started fading out. First one radio station, then another, then another — until there was almost no music to hear, and people started MacGyvering workarounds.


Once upon a time, NPR ran all foreign news stories by skeptical international bureau editors who might not have been duped by the strat comm expert who probably pitched this story to Invisibilia.


In 2009, The New Yorker ran an article about Somalia with the headline: “The Most Failed State.” In it, writer Jon Lee Anderson makes clear that the United States was trying to work with the Somali government during the period when the government, not members of al-Shabab, implemented restrictions on music and television. Multiple factions of the predominantly Muslim nation share histories that prompt profound anti-Western feeling, and the impulse to divide Somali society into innocent anti-al-Shabab versus guilty Muslim-extremist camps is a willful oversimplification. Also, while Mogadishu was indeed particularly contested and violent, Somalians did not need Westerners to teach them to stay committed to their own culture. They maintained a variety of independent journalistic groups and radio stations of their own. 


Invisibilia’s fairy tale language simplifies a complicated and brutal history by imagining a pre-modern local population set against Muslim extremists who somehow emerged from the primeval forest only after the Cold War ended. The political history of Western involvement is invisible in this tale. But locals do not see the United States and Britain as newly arrived, neutral, or humanitarian players; many must remember how it was the CIA that first armed the Afghani mujahideen. It is only Western audiences who might fall for Footloose and MacGyver as modern saviors in a distant African village.


Sitting on the Gulf of Aden, Somalia occupies a strategic connection point for global trade. In 1991, a Cold War–era dictatorship collapsed, and the country exploded. Despite this strategic importance, in 1993, after sustaining casualties, the United States pulled out of the region in an episode that inspired the movie Black Hawk Down. Since then, climate emergencies have exacerbated the suffering, and various local factions have used famine as a tool of war. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton participated in the London meeting in 2012, once again interested in Somalia once oil was on the table. For almost half a century, the United States supported bloody foreign dictators around the world in the name of anticommunism, and then abandoned their people. In 2012, Clinton called Somalia a “hopeless, bloody conflict,” as if the West bore no responsibility for the renewed eruption of these ostensibly purely cultural forces. But even this more nuanced summary still flattens the political history, which involves fossil fuel but can’t be reduced to its flows.


“The Other Real World” flattened history by waxing poetic about the power of music, about how Somali songs “entered through the ears but then did strange things to the body — made your heart contract at certain moments but at others, made your step lighter, made you feel like your worries could in fact be overcome.”


And to some extent, yes, in intimate spaces — as we cook and clean, when we’re alone in the car, or walking the dog in the blue light before dawn — streaming audio enters through the ears and does strange things to our bodies. But the neat, universalizing takeaways of behavioral rhetoric do not encompass culture’s power, nor does that power belong entirely to Western data science. Art and news and criticism can also bring us into contact with the limits of our own knowledge. Culture can make us question our role, it can defamiliarize our relationships to our memory cards and streaming platforms.


The people who risked their lives and died for Inspire Somalia were brave and creative, but it’s not clear that paying British strat comm operators for a Shark Tank spin-off did them any favors. In order to do narrative justice to their story, we would have to map out the true historic complexities around a cultural event that carried real meaning for them. I can’t do them that justice. But I can point to its absence.


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Michelle Chihara (MFA, PhD UC Irvine) is assistant professor of English Language and Literature at Whittier College, where she teaches contemporary American literature and creative writing. She is LARB’s economics editor.


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Featured image: “Close-up of a woman putting AirPods in her ears while getting ready for her workout” by Ivan Radic is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped.


Banner image: “Mogadishucapital” by Maxamed qalid is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped.