Understanding Propaganda & Lies in the Age of Trump

There is a lot of anx­ious dis­cus­sion about Edgar Welch, who appar­ent­ly read a con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry online about a Wash­ing­ton, DC piz­za restau­rant and chose to storm inside with a bunch of guns and shoot the ceil­ing. The rise of so-called “fake news” in 2016 is blamed for his vio­lent behav­ior — fab­ri­cat­ed sto­ries meant to dri­ve Face­book shares and click-based adver­tis­er rev­enue. But it is not just fake news that is what is so wor­ry­ing, but the wide­spread adop­tion of lying and bull­shit that is turn­ing out to have pro­found real life con­se­quences.

It is well and good to acknowl­edge that these con­spir­a­cy sto­ries have no mer­it, but as Welch him­self shows, even say­ing this much does noth­ing to stop their spread. He did not believe that the sto­ries were fake, despite end­less attempts to say as much, until he per­son­al­ly got arrest­ed for threat­en­ing inno­cent din­ers with dead­ly weapon­ry. This is going to be a seri­ous prob­lem mov­ing for­ward because the pro­duc­tion of inten­tion­al­ly false or mis­lead­ing infor­ma­tion is going to dom­i­nate our infor­ma­tion­al cul­ture over the next four years, and it is vital to under­stand what that will mean for us as a soci­ety of infor­ma­tion con­sumers.

In any dis­cus­sion of fake news, pro­pa­gan­da, agit­prop, and oth­er forms of false infor­ma­tion, there is a fine line to walk about how to actu­al­ly dis­cuss the infor­ma­tion itself. In most news sto­ries about Welch, for instance, rep­utable news orga­ni­za­tions repeat scur­rilous charges about the pizze­ria — unin­ten­tion­al­ly ampli­fy­ing that mes­sage fur­ther. This was the same dilem­ma with cov­er­ing Don­ald Trump’s prof­li­gate use of hate­speech dur­ing the cam­paign: by cov­er­ing it (in CNN’s case, by broad­cast­ing it unedit­ed and with­out com­men­tary), media serves to ampli­fy the mes­sage. By most accounts Trump received over a bil­lion dol­lars in free air time sim­ply by cov­er­ing his speech­es.

That might just be the cost of doing busi­ness. Debunk­ing has its place, as does fact-check­ing, and argu­ing for the media to aban­don those essen­tial func­tions would be mad­ness. Yet there is a line, a fuzzy one per­haps but a line nev­er­the­less, where obses­sive debunk­ing becomes its own form of ampli­fi­ca­tion — one that can be mobi­lized delib­er­ate­ly by a pro­pa­gan­dist. Rus­sia relies on this effort exten­sive­ly through RT and Sput­nik: by flood­ing the zone with false sto­ries, they attract sub­stan­tial atten­tion through cov­er­age (by dis­cussing it, it becomes cred­i­ble to dis­cuss) and through neg­li­gence (by not cov­er­ing it, it becomes evi­dence of a cov­er-up). The dou­blebind of respond­ing to false infor­ma­tion is why it is so pow­er­ful, espe­cial­ly when wield­ed by unscrupu­lous fig­ures: it is hard to do, and hard to stop.

With the incom­ing admin­is­tra­tion of Don­ald Trump, pur­vey­ors of false sto­ries, of con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries, and out­right agit­prop are going to have a pow­er­ful role over the nation’s polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary appa­ra­tus. Michael T. Fly­nn, the new Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Advis­er, is infa­mous for his love of con­spir­a­cy sto­ries (he and his son have been some of the most vis­i­ble in push­ing the pizze­ria lie). On his Twit­ter feed, Fly­nn has said that Islam “wants 80 per­cent of human­i­ty enslaved or exter­mi­nat­ed,” and his 2016 book alleges a con­spir­a­cy of Islamists, Chi­na, Cuba, and Pres­i­dent Oba­ma. This is unhinged non­sense, but that does­n’t seem to affect Fly­nn very much: he seems to be unable to tell false infor­ma­tion from true (or worse: he does not care so long as it advances his agen­da).

Trump’s entire move­ment is filled with peo­ple who dis­re­gard the need for truth. On a recent radio appear­ance Trump sur­ro­gate (and for­mer paid CNN com­men­ta­tor) Scot­tie Nell Hugh­es said plain­ly “facts don’t mat­ter any­more.” She meant it as a defense of the Pres­i­dent-elec­t’s patho­log­i­cal lying about issues, about mak­ing up events and sta­tis­tics, and the mind­bend­ing­ly recur­sive log­ic of Kellyanne Con­way’s relent­less efforts to nor­mal­ize it. The aban­don­ment of even a token attach­ment to real­i­ty is baked into the move­ment — it is its essen­tial nature to run on bull­shit.

So what to do in response? A key chal­lenge here is even know­ing what to call this phe­nom­e­non. The term “pro­pa­gan­da” does not cap­ture it ade­quate­ly. Pro­pa­gan­da is, to vary­ing degrees, con­cerned with truth — it might not be true, per se, but it is an attempt to argue about some form of truth. A com­mon tac­tic of pro­pa­gan­da, per­fect­ed by the Sovi­et Union, is “whataboutism,” or the appeal to some mis­con­duct by “the oth­er side” in order to dis­tract from one’s own short­com­ings. What­boutism is com­mon in Trump move­ment (that is Con­way’s pri­ma­ry response to any crit­i­cism of Trump, for exam­ple). It isn’t lying per se, but redi­rec­tion. That is because pro­pa­gan­da is not nec­es­sar­i­ly untrue. The most effec­tive pro­pa­gan­da, as I’ve writ­ten else­where, is mis­lead­ing but essen­tial­ly true. What makes the Trump team’s use of false­hoods so chal­leng­ing, how­ev­er, is an aban­don­ment of that prin­ci­ple: they don’t care what is true and what is not true. If it’s true and serves their pur­pose they’ll use it. But if it is not true they’ll sim­ply make it up. When Con­way says what­ev­er a pres­i­dent does is pres­i­den­tial, but Bill Clin­ton was not pres­i­den­tial, she is con­tra­dict­ing her­self fun­da­men­tal­ly. But she does­n’t care that what she says is laugh­ably untrue. Truth does­n’t mat­ter to her, or to Trump.

Oth­er terms seem inad­e­quate as well. “Fake news” does not cap­ture the mali­cious­ness of the phe­nom­e­non Trump has adopt­ed. False news sto­ries are, as Kenan Malik not­ed in a recent opin­ion piece, as old as news itself. Yet the fake news flood­ing social media today is not sim­ply a crass appli­ca­tion of a plant­ed sto­ry for some polit­i­cal effect. William Ran­dolph Hearst very famous­ly faked an attack on US war­ship in Cuba in order to spark the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War; through Oper­a­tion INFEKTION, the KGB plant­ed fake news sto­ries that the CIA invent­ed HIV in order to kill peo­ple; yet these are not anal­o­gous to the infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment unfold­ing online right now. After those hoax­es were uncov­ered, even if many still believed in them, the very idea of truth and jour­nal­ism was not under­mined.

That is no longer the case. The idea of shared real­i­ty is under attack now. While Hearst’s fab­ri­ca­tion was even­tu­al­ly uncov­ered too late, we can all agree that it was a fab­ri­ca­tion. There is no such agree­ment in the mod­ern set­ting: Michael Fly­n­n’s son, for exam­ple, con­tin­ues to assert the pizze­ria lie despite its false­ness. He isn’t try­ing to get away with a lie, he just does­n’t care that it is a lie. And while the media efforts to push back against this ten­den­cy are wel­come, they are far too late to have much effect. The Repub­li­can Par­ty has been so suc­cess­ful at bul­ly­ing the press into sub­mis­sion to its agen­da that there is sim­ply no coun­ter­force to the bar­rage of insan­i­ty that comes out of the Right. Main­stream news­rooms obsess about being bal­anced and both-sides-do-it-too, to the point where a main­stream news anchor telling some­one that they are full of crap is rare that it becomes its own news. This instinct is reflect­ed in the end­less attempts to nor­mal­ize Trump’s extrem­ism (such as com­par­ing Don­ald Trump’s brag­ging about sex­u­al assault to Bill Clin­ton lying about a con­sen­su­al affair). Extrem­ist behav­ior is not a bipar­ti­san prob­lem. Both sides do not actu­al­ly do it. But you would have nev­er known that by read­ing the news dur­ing the elec­tion.

More­over, The GOP has erect­ed an alter­nate, ide­o­log­i­cal­ly extreme alter­na­tive media ecosys­tem — one that com­mands zeal­ous loy­al­ty and, in many cas­es, rivals the par­ty lead­er­ship itself for pow­er over where the move­ment goes next. There is no left­wing ana­log to this super­struc­ture, nor is there any ana­log to how prof­li­gate­ly they push lies and false­hoods. At the same time, main­stream news orga­ni­za­tions haven’t seemed to care very much about being played by right wing liars. The biggest exam­ple is Hillary Clin­ton, who has been the sub­ject of decades of mul­ti­mil­lion dol­lar spon­sored hatred that has also gone nowhere and nev­er turned up crim­i­nal wrong­do­ing. Her email serv­er was only the lat­est exam­ple of this cred­u­lous dis­cus­sion of a non-cred­i­ble scan­dal. Out­lets like the New York Times assigned mul­ti­ple reporters to cov­er the FBI inves­ti­ga­tion, but they could not be both­ered to assign one reporter to cov­er Rus­si­a’s con­cert­ed attack on the Democ­rats dur­ing the elec­tion (a mis­al­lo­ca­tion of resources their pub­lic edi­tor lat­er lament­ed). Did it mat­ter that the email sto­ry was being pushed by an orga­ni­za­tion that is an open, decades-long antag­o­nist to the Clin­tons? No — despite an actu­al sto­ry about how Judi­cial Watch is, essen­tial­ly, a law­suit troll fac­to­ry, the Times nev­er­the­less treat­ed the orga­ni­za­tion as a legit­i­mate and seri­ous source of news how­ev­er scur­rilous it turned out to be. And along the way they for­got to cov­er the fact that a hos­tile for­eign intel­li­gence agency was attempt­ing to defame a can­di­date and sway a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. It was a huge sto­ry, and they basi­cal­ly ignored it. The redi­rec­tion worked, and Trump skat­ed through the cam­paign with bare­ly a peep of crit­i­cal cov­er­age while Clin­ton was pil­lo­ried relent­less­ly over a scan­dal that no one could make stick.

As a result there has been no media push back against the bar­rage of lies, of false­hoods, of mis­lead­ing spin that emerges from the Trump camp until after he was elect­ed. There is some design to this delayed response. Chan­nels like CNN saw huge prof­its in not real­ly chal­leng­ing Trump, and even net­work exec­u­tives con­fessed to enjoy­ing how good Trump was for their rat­ings. Thus, it is not until Decem­ber that jour­nal­ists have begun not­ing that Don­ald Trump (and, ahem, most of his team) are ser­i­al, com­pul­sive liars. It is not until Decem­ber that jour­nal­ists who cov­er the media have both­ered to take a stand for push­ing back against the end­less bar­rage of lies that are com­ing from the new White House. Months too late, they have wok­en up to the fact that they declined to tru­ly oppose a man who is a con­gen­i­tal, uncon­trol­lable liar.

And yet push­ing back is mon­u­men­tal­ly dif­fi­cult. Fig­ur­ing out what is real and what is fake is real­ly hard. Most peo­ple sim­ply don’t have the time, so they get caught in cycles of con­fir­ma­tion bias — some­thing “feels” true, so there­fore it prob­a­bly is and they share it with their friends. Team Trump preys on this instinct (see here), as do the peo­ple who pub­lish lies to get web­site adver­tis­ing rev­enue. It is the heart of how this lie-dri­ven envi­ron­ment has tak­en form: the peo­ple who should have pushed back did­n’t both­er to, and nor­mal peo­ple who don’t have the time to push back got cap­tured by it.

So this is the new real­i­ty under Pres­i­dent Trump: a world where facts are imma­te­r­i­al and the peo­ple tasked with estab­lish­ing facts do not do their jobs except in fits and starts. “Don’t believe every­thing you read” used to be an Amer­i­can tru­ism — an acknowl­edg­ment that not every­one who writes some­thing down is being truth­ful or has your best inter­ests at heart. That seems to have gone by the way­side. Yet healthy skep­ti­cism is one of the best tools to com­bat the fire­hose of lies. It won’t work against every­thing: when the Pres­i­dent is a prof­li­gate liar, sim­ply express­ing skep­ti­cism is not enough. It requires response, but in a way that does not fur­ther ampli­fy his lies and smears.

This will not be easy. In fact it will prob­a­bly be very painful, even exhaust­ing, because lying is easy and respond­ing to a lie is hard work. This is an exis­ten­tial threat to the coun­try, one that still has no clear response yet. Devel­op­ing that response is some of the most impor­tant work to be done over the next few months. But that hard work is more vital now than ever before, because the bar­rage of lies com­ing from the Pres­i­dent-elect, his team of liars and insane ide­o­logues, and the for­eign gov­ern­ment help­ing him along, are threat­en­ing to upend fun­da­men­tal val­ues and norms that have gov­erned Amer­i­can life for a cen­tu­ry.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.