2020-02-10

The New Propaganda

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by Neil Godfrey

An alternate information ecosystem was taking shape around the biggest news story in the country

The story that unfurled in my Facebook feed over the next several weeks was, at times, disorienting. There were days when I would watch, live on TV, an impeachment hearing filled with damning testimony about the president’s conduct, only to look at my phone later and find a slickly edited video—served up by the Trump campaign—that used out-of-context clips to recast the same testimony as an exoneration. Wait, I caught myself wondering more than once, is that what happened today?

As I swiped at my phone, a stream of pro-Trump propaganda filled the screen: “That’s right, the whistleblower’s own lawyer said, ‘The coup has started …’ ” Swipe. “Democrats are doing Putin’s bidding …” Swipe. “The only message these radical socialists and extremists will understand is a crushing …” Swipe. “Only one man can stop this chaos …” Swipe, swipe, swipe.

I was surprised by the effect it had on me. I’d assumed that my skepticism and media literacy would inoculate me against such distortions. But I soon found myself reflexively questioning every headline. It wasn’t that I believed Trump and his boosters were telling the truth. It was that, in this state of heightened suspicion, truth itself—about Ukraine, impeachment, or anything else—felt more and more difficult to locate. With each swipe, the notion of observable reality drifted further out of reach.

What I was seeing was a strategy that has been deployed by illiberal political leaders around the world. Rather than shutting down dissenting voices, these leaders have learned to harness the democratizing power of social media for their own purposes—jamming the signals, sowing confusion. They no longer need to silence the dissident shouting in the streets; they can use a megaphone to drown him out. Scholars have a name for this: censorship through noise.

From —
Coppins, Story by McKay. 2020. “The Billion-Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Reelect the President.” The Atlantic. Accessed February 10, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/03/the-2020-disinformation-war/605530/.
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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “The New Propaganda”

  1. And outrage fatigue and confusion and … we end up spending our time research the lies regarding the schoolchild in PA mentioned in the SOTU speech while the GOP minions are lining their pockets and serving their pay masters with quashed regulations none of us would approve of.

  2. I can’t speak for everybody, but this is what it feels like living in America according to my friends’ reactions, and this has been going on for over three years: President Trump has hijacked the government. We are tuned out, don’t watch the news anymore; it is too depressing. Why get depressed over something we can’t do anything about? It is mentally and emotionally exhausting whether we are tuned or out, because you can never tune out all the way. Trump then gets to do what he wants. That’s his strategy, I guess. Trump and Hitler and the Enabling Act of 1933…where we’re at now.

    1. German parliamentarians in 1933 had an excuse. When I visited Berlin and its Parliament I saw a room full of the names of politicians Hitler had had murdered. What excuse do the Senate Republicans have?

  3. I recall the Vietnam war days. There was debate, argument over our involvement. The two sides fiercely combatted one another in argument. Then there were the predictions of worldwide famine (Ehrlich). Again, there was heated debate between people in the same studio. People argued about the risk of smoking. About the dangers of modern music. About child-rearing. About race issues (how to treat indigenous people, immigration, marriage).

    The “only” voices excluded as being in an “alternate reality” were those that questioned the very premises of nationalism and capitalism.

    Today’s rift is totally different. There is no meeting point between the two major sides. Two “alternate realities” splitting the whole. And the U.S. has suddenly lurched into line with the rise of authoritarian regimes around the world. This is not good. It’s a worry.

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