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
Joshua Foust is a writer and analyst who studies foreign policy.