Are the strategies of the mainstream media being employed against them to further the spread of political propaganda?
by Julie H Hotard
A number of the habits adopted by mainstream media outlets render them highly vulnerable to manipulation by political con artists. A recent situation is only one example in a long series of them. During a background briefing, held both in person and on a conference call, a senior White House official made a comment about a possible meeting between Trump and North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.New York Times reported the comment. Then Trump tweeted an attack on the New York Times, claiming that the newspaper was lying, and that the official does not exist. Many reporters were on the conference call of the background briefing, and knew what was said and who said it. Trump was caught in an obvious lie.
Propgandists use the habits and beliefs of individuals and groups against them. In this case, reporters have a habit of attending background briefings, agreeing not to record them, and keeping quotes anonymous. Maybe reporters ought to stop attending such briefings. Or they may want to attend only on the condition that they are allowed to record briefings, in case Trump decides to lie about quotes in order to, in turn, claim the press are lying.
Propagandists study, and take advantage of, existing media habits. Steve Bannon admitted to flooding the media with statements of his own choosing so he could block out coverage of facts that would be inconvenient to his political side. Bannon said in a conversation with Michael Lewis “The Democrats don’t matter…The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”
People like Bannon and Trump show no interest in truth. They are interested in manipulating media and their audiences in order to obtain, and maintain, power. Because media have a habit of publishing “news”, that is, new events that occur, propagandists artificially create “news” that will help them or harm their opponents. For example, they can cause large groups of their opponents’ hacked emails to be released every few weeks for a long time. This can cause the “news” to become simply about those emails and about the propagandists’ own speculations about the meanings of those emails.
In a Lesley Stahl interview, Stahl says she asked Trump why he attacks the press around the 21 minute mark in the video. Trump replied to her “I do it to discredit you and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”
Here Trump doesn’t hide what he’s doing. He brings transparency to the actions of political con artists.
In his conversation with Stahl, Trump lets us know that he is goal oriented– not truth oriented– when he speaks. Trump apparently doesn’t pay attention to the truth unless it happens to satisfy a goal for him, for example, the goal of manipulating voters to see him in a positive light or to get voters to see media as liars when media tell unflattering truths about him.
Propagandists’ speech is intended to control others—not to understand others, cooperate, problem solve, or discover truth.
Journalists and other media ought to be studying propaganda techniques and common con artist techniques. A few useful books on the topic of propaganda are hyperlinked here, as well as ones that are up to date with the current situation.
Many politicians and political operatives are not just propagandists, but also con artists.
Media need to accept that we are living in an atmosphere heavy with political manipulation. They should no longer report what chronic liars say, without clarifying what the truth is. Media need to be aware that political actors and pundits often make statements in order to manipulate media and/or their audiences—not necessarily because they believe the statements are true.
Calling political actors out on their lies is necessary for the audience’s sake. However, stating the truth won’t make propagandists stop lying, any more than pointing out that a mugger is robbing people will make him stop doing it.
Many in media act like stenographers “covering both sides” even if one side is lies. This ends up giving lies equal credibility with the truth. This habit may have been developed at the time of the Fairness Doctrine—a time when people in the public sphere were more likely to be telling the truth and arguing in good faith than they are now.
Media may need to develop a system similar to medical triage systems, to prioritize news. Which situations are likely to kill democracy quickly? Those are the ones that should be covered most often and most thoroughly. Media ought to simply forget the rude tweet that Trump made on the same day that he broke a major law that is essential to the functioning of democracy.
Democracy has an important problem here. Those who are laser-focused on acquiring power without regard for ethics, are more likely to acquire power and dominate others, if not stopped by anti-corruption laws or public actions. Given enough money, power and ownership of large media conglomerates, it is easy to manipulate the public in a democracy, turning it into a “propagandocracy.”
In addition to the influence on the public by propaganda media, there is also influence from propaganda companies that sway voters by manipulation of traditional and social media. The news about the probable influence on elections by companies such as Cambridge Analytica adds a whole new dimension to this problem. A recent review of the works of two popular authors, discussed below, offers an analysis of this.
“Harari inadvertently predicted our response to the Cambridge Analytica Scandal three years ago in Homo Deus. He said that exposés of the burgeoning algorithm industry would probably be rejected for the same reason that exposés of the public relations industry are habitually rejected: namely, because we don’t want to believe that we’re so easily manipulated. Like all liberal humanists, we place our faith in the freely-choosing individual. As such, exposés like this one are an existential threat. Alas, I now suspect that my own view of Hillary Clinton was shaped to some extent by these manipulations. I also suspect that some of my Facebook friends were inadvertently getting their “facts” from fake accounts set up by troll farms in St. Petersburg. Human nature being what it is, I imagine that most of them will double-down now. Because it’s hard to admit that you were duped, and that you’re not as skeptical as you think you are.
“Whoever controls these algorithms will wield a truly godly power. They’ll be able to influence or even decide elections without stuffing the ballot box, gerrymandering the district, or rigging the election. And they’ll be able to get you to buy things you don’t need in ways that’ll make the Don Drapers of the advertising world green with envy. In short, they will be able to manipulate you in ways that Orwell could scarcely imagine. Paranoid media studies gurus like Chomsky have been telling us how consent is manufactured for decades. But what will become of our democratic faith in the wisdom of the electorate when the algorithms of the future prove them right? Harari seems haunted by questions of this kind.”
Old media habits don’t work in the current atmosphere. “Covering both sides” equally is a disservice to the public who need to know the truth. There is an old belief by many in media that if both political sides are upset with you, then your coverage is fair. That rule no longer applies. Today we see intense outrage, and claims of unfairness—even without any truth to the claims—are used as a method of media and voter manipulation. Mainstream media that try to appease Right Wing critics often lean further and further Rightwards over time.
The reaction to Michelle Wolf’s comedy routine at the recent White House Correspondents Dinner, is one more good illustration of many of the unfortunate habits of media that make them easy prey for con artists who desire to destroy the free press.
With regard to the war on the media by the Trump administration, Alex Jones, the popular conspiracy theorist, describes where we are now. He calls his web site and media platform “Info Wars.” We are indeed in a war over information and truth. In some cases, conspiracy theorists like Jones wind up winning.
Of course, journalists don’t want to be at war. They just want to do their jobs. However, it is getting harder to deny the fact that we are immersed in propaganda, in both traditional and social media. We are immersed in it in many areas of life not even related to media. For example, many fundamentalist Christian churches in the U.S. are heavily immersed in politics, and have been so since the 1940s.
When we are immersed in propaganda, we are at war. Propaganda is war.
Propaganda can conquer a nation—or destroy the free press—without firing a single shot. Media editors, journalists, and managers don’t want to be at war. Almost no one wants to be. Yet if you are at war, and you deny its reality, you can’t protect yourself. That’s the danger in which journalism finds itself now.