Sunday, February 18, 2018

Understand Propaganda, and You Understand Fox News (and Russian Bots)

Laying the groundwork for effective propaganda, first one needs to soften the field: create failed epistemologies and muddled thinking. Wreak as much havoc as you can on critical thinking. Undermine established information sources. Then, let the games begin.

A snapshot in time on the road to the apocalypse?
Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, and Lee Atwater in 1985.

The best way I can put it -- preparing the landscape for a successful propaganda operation -- is to make your "truth" more palatable, believable, by first disturbing as much as possible what people believe to be true. Along the way, destroy public trust in heretofore reliable sources of information.

That, in a nutshell, is what has been going on since the Reagan Era and what has accelerated during the Trump Era. From Lee Atwater to Rush Limbaugh, from Glenn Beck to Sean Hannity, from Donald Trump to the Russian election meddling, the job wasn't so much to promulgate an ideology -- that, too -- but to muddy fucking everything up as much as possible.

Did you ever listen to Glenn Beck? Did you ever notice that he spent a good deal of time making absolutely no sense at all, often while using a blackboard in an ersatz professorial way, occasionally saying things like, "This president, I think, has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture. I don't know what it is."

It was preposterous to say this about Barack Obama. Whatever anyone thought of Obama, the notion that he hated white people is beyond absurd. His mother was white, the grandparents that helped raise him in Hawaii (Hawaii!) were white. Absolutely absurd. But, when viewed in the context of a narrative that was meant to obscure Obama's (rather stellar) character, it makes total sense, in as much as it serves by making no sense at all.

And so: When you look at all the continual nonsense -- non-sense -- streaming over the years from Fox News, you find that there were a number of levels on which Fox's propaganda could work. First, a viewer could take it at face value (Obama's a racist! I knew it!), or wonder what the viewer is missing (I never liked the guy, maybe he is a racist...) or just be generally bollixed (Wait, that can't be right...). After hearing Beck's remarks, the narrative is hopelessly muddied. Then, let Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Geraldo Rivera run it through the meat grinder night after night, and who knows what to think, except Obama's a racist, Hillary's a criminal, and Trump "makes a lot of sense."

Fast-forward to today. Fox News is best viewed as a conspiracy-theory disinformation unit of the Republican Party, and Donald Trump is best understood as a Russian Twitter bot. Think of him that way, and he doesn't seem crazy. Evil, dissembling, narcissistic, unAmerican, lots of things, but not crazy. Instead, he seems in on the game. And that's frightening. We would be safer if he were a clown.

Note. Three must-read articles that stirred me to write this are from Anne Applebaum revealing that Russian bots are at work muddying the conversation on the Parkland shooting, a college study by Kate Starbird of the University of Washington about how disinformation networks operate, and an article on media literacy in the age of misinformation by noted Internet researcher Danah Boyd. Definitely read them.

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