Tag Archives: propaganda

False Equivalence 101

An article by Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker references a new book on right-wing media, written by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts. The book–to be published next month by Oxford University Press– is titled, “Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics.

It debunks a favorite belief of politicians and journalists. As Toobin writes,

The Washington conventional wisdom presupposes a kind of symmetry between our polarized political parties. Liberals and conservatives, it is said, live in separate bubbles, where they watch different television networks, frequent different Web sites, and absorb different realities. The implication of this view is that both sides resemble each other in their twisted views of reality. Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity, in other words, represent two sides of the same coin.

This view is precisely wrong.

The two sides are not, in fact, equal when it comes to evaluating “news” stories, or even in how they view reality. Liberals want facts; conservatives want their biases reinforced. Liberals embrace journalism; conservatives believe propaganda. In the more measured but still emphatic words of the authors, “the right-wing media ecosystem differs categorically from the rest of the media environment,” and has been much more susceptible to “disinformation, lies and half-truths.”

This assertion sounds as if it is itself the result of propaganda–liberal propaganda, in this case. But as Toobin reports,

“Network Propaganda” is an academic work at the crossroads of law, sociology, and media studies. Benkler is a law professor at Harvard and a co-director of the university’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, where Faris and Roberts both conduct research. The book is not a work of media criticism but, rather, of data analysis—a study of millions of online stories, tweets, and Facebook-sharing data points. The authors’ conclusion is that “something very different was happening in right-wing media than in centrist, center-left and left-wing media.” Accordingly, they wrote the book “to shine a light on the right-wing media ecosystem itself as the primary culprit in sowing confusion and distrust in the broader American ecosystem.”

The book examines the way in which that right-wing “ecosystem” works. Stories frequently begin on conspiracy theory sites like Infowars; if they remained there, most people would either fail to encounter them or see them for what they are. But they “migrate” to outlets like Fox News, that claim to follow principles of objective journalism. The authors note that there simply aren’t significant sites on the left that mirror those on the right by trafficking in “chronic falsity;”  furthermore, the “upstream sources” in the center and on the left do adhere to traditional journalistic standards, so they debunk rather than parrot the stories contrived by those few sites that  crank out leftwing propaganda.

This lack of symmetry is why “Pizzagate”–accusing Hillary Clinton of pedophilia and of molesting children in the basement of a pizza parlor–was widely reported, while unverifiable allegations that Trump had raped a 15-year-old quickly died.

The authors’ telling conclusion, based upon their data analysis, was that Trump’s election wasn’t the result of Russia’s (admitted) interference, nor to Cambridge Analytica’s manipulation of Facebook.

Rather, it was the feedback loop of right-wing quasi-journalism that had the most impact—and that hypothesis has profound implications not only for the study of the recent past but also for predictions about the not-so-distant future.

This analysis confirms the suspicions of several of my colleagues who have “lost” their previously rational parents to Fox News.

The sixty-four thousand dollar question is: in a country committed to freedom of speech and the press, what can we do about it?

Our Very Own Pravda

Tom Wheeler headed the Federal Communications Commission during the Obama Administration. From all indications, he took his responsibilities seriously; he was a vocal defender of Net Neutrality, for example, unlike his replacement, a former Verison executive whose decisions have been reliable wins for big telecom companies.

So when Wheeler sounds an alarm, that alarm is worth heeding.

Wheeler has indeed sounded an alarm. In a report for The Brookings Institution, he highlights a recent, blatant effort at propaganda from Sinclair Broadcasting (aka the Fox News of “local” television–or, as John Oliver dubbed it, “the most influential media company you never heard of”).

“Many members of the media and opponents of the president have used this issue [separation of children from immigrant families] to make it seem as if those who are tough on immigration are somehow monsters. Let’s be honest: while some of the concern is real, a lot of it is politically driven by liberals in politics and the media.”

The above is the conclusion of a two-minute “must run” that Sinclair Broadcast Group forced its over-100 local television stations to air. Read by Sinclair political director (and former Trump White House advisor) Boris Epshteyn, the attack on the media and those who might disagree with the president is no great surprise.

Wheeler has been following the activities of the agency he headed, and he reports that under Trump,  the Commission has been diligently working to assure that Sinclair is able to expand the reach of its partisan political messaging.

By rewriting the rules governing local broadcasting, the Trump FCC is allowing Sinclair to turn supposedly “local” television operations into a coordinated national platform for the delivery of messages such as the one cited above.

When television was a relatively new communications medium dependent upon use of publicly-owned airwaves, the licenses of locally owned and operated stations were conditioned on undertakings to operate in the public interest, as local outlets for local news and information. In order to protect that localism, the law forbid national media companies from acquiring them.

However, the Trump FCC effectively allows a company to exceed the ownership limit. The agency replaced the rule prohibiting “sidecar agreements,” where a company claims not to own a station’s license despite collecting all the revenue, making all the hiring and programming decisions, and forcing the station to carry “must-run” content. Sinclair lawyers originally conceived these legal fictions to skirt the rules protecting localism, and the FCC rubber-stamped the charade.

While ordinary Americans are responding–haphazardly–to the White House’s daily, highly visible assaults on democratic norms and the rule of law, Trump’s appointees are working behind the scenes to dismantle the rules and regulations that have been put in place to keep plutocrats from raping the rest of us. What gets lost in all the anti-regulatory rhetoric is the fact that we owe clean air and water, safe food, and honest news reporting, among other important things, to good regulations.

Good regulations ensure that “level playing field” we all claim to support. I’ll be first to concede that not all regulations are good, but the answer is not a wholesale dismantling of the rules–if a regulation is outdated, or counterproductive, that particular regulation can be changed. That, of course, takes work–not to mention subject-matter knowledge and a commitment to the common good.

It is impossible to overstate the damage that has been done by propaganda arms like Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting. There are plenty of other propaganda outlets on both the Left and Right, preaching to their respective choirs, but none have the reach and influence of Fox and Sinclair. Sinclair’s propaganda is particularly potent because it is unrecognized– cloaked in the pretense of independence and localism.

When Mike Pence was Governor of Indiana, he made a much-derided attempt to establish an “official” state news bureau. Genuine news sources immediately dubbed it “Pravda on the Prairie.”

Thanks to Sinclair and Trump’s FCC, we now have Pravda for the whole country.

 

Words, Words, Words….

Words matter.

In the absence of symbols–words–to express an idea, we cannot form that idea. There is a substantial psychological literature on “framing” (I have often said that all of law school was an explication of the axiom “He who frames the issue wins the debate.”) Control of language is often tantamount to control of the people who communicate in that language.

Inept as it is at actual governing, the Trump administration does understand the power of language. When the President of the United States defends his anti-immigrant policies by claiming he wants to prevent an “infestation,” the equation of immigrants with vermin deliberately dehumanizes those immigrants.

It doesn’t stop with Trump’s vermin and “shitholes.”

Federal websites have been “scrubbed” of references to climate change–and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Recently, a regular reader of this blog shared an article with me that detailed a much more thoroughgoing effort to make language a tool of the Trump administration.

Consider us officially in an Orwellian world, though we only half realize it. While we were barely looking, significant parts of an American language long familiar to us quite literally, and in a remarkably coherent way, went down the equivalent of George Orwell’s infamous Memory Hole.

The author detailed her experience putting together an academic program on immigration. She had invited participation from the administration, and immediately ran into a maze of requirements. No ICE representative’s presentation could be taped, and the word “refugee” had to be removed from the description of a panel discussion.

The reason given: the desire to get through the administration approval process in Washington without undue delay. It’s not hard to believe that the administration that wanted to slow to a standstill refugees coming to the U.S. didn’t have an allied urge to do away with the very word itself. In order to ensure that ICE representatives would be there, the organizer reluctantly conceded and so the word “refugee” was dutifully removed from the program.

As the author noted, it made her wonder how many others had been similarly strong-armed, how many other words had been removed from various programs, and how much official rhetoric has gone unrecorded.

The very idea that the government can control what words we use and don’t at a university-related event seems to violate everything we as a country hold dear about the independence of educational institutions from government control, not to mention the sanctity of free speech and the importance of public debate. But that, of course, was in the era before Donald Trump became president.

Most of us who are concerned about the environment are aware of Trump’s assault on science and climate data. The Department of Agriculture has excised the very word “climate change” from its website, substituting “weather extremes,” and changed the phrase “reduce greenhouse gases” to “increase nutrient use energy.”

We may be less aware of other areas where language has been manipulated. When the subject is government helping the less fortunate or combatting discrimination, the changes have been striking:  excluded vocabulary includes “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” and “fetus.”

Given the Administration’s preference for “alternative facts,” we shouldn’t be surprised  that the phrases “evidence-based” and “science-based” have also been discarded.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services dropped “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement.

Ben Carson’s Department of Housing and Urban Development ditched the terms “free from discrimination,” “quality homes,” and “inclusive communities” in favor of a mission that supports “self-sufficiency” and “opportunity.”

The State Department deleted the word “democratic” from its mission statement and downplayed the notion that the department and the country should promote democracy abroad. In its new mission statement, missing words also included “peaceful” and “just.”

The article gives many more examples, including the (particularly chilling) fact that the Department of Justice removed the portion of its website devoted to “the need for free press and public trial.”

The United States described by the substituted language is very different from the country most of us recognize. And that, as the author says, is the purpose. After all, language creates our realities.

It might be worth reflecting on the words of Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister for Hitler’s Nazi Party. He had a clear-eyed vision of the importance of disguising the ultimate goal of his particular campaign against democracy and truth. “The secret of propaganda,” he said, is to “permeate the person it aims to grasp without his even noticing that he is being permeated.”

Or perhaps “infested.”

Why Language Matters…

On the most basic level, language matters because the ability to use words accurately to convey one’s meaning is a critically important skill in modern society.

And let’s be honest: we assess the probable intelligence of the people we meet based largely on their use of language. That isn’t simply snobbery–fuzzy language more often than not signals fuzzy thinking.

An individual’s use of language is a reasonably reliable clue to that person’s conceptual agility.

Those of us who are unimpressed with Donald Trump’s repeated assertion that he is “like really, really smart” often point to his lack of language skills. Newsweek recently compared the vocabularies of the last 15 U.S. Presidents, and ranked Trump at the very bottom.

President Donald Trump—who boasted over the weekend that his success in life was a result of “being, like, really smart”—communicates at the lowest grade level of the last 15 presidents, according to a new analysis of the speech patterns of presidents going back to Herbert Hoover….

By every metric and methodology tested, Donald Trump’s vocabulary and grammatical structure is significantly more simple, and less diverse, than any President since Herbert Hoover, when measuring “off-script” words, that is, words far less likely to have been written in advance for the speaker,” Factba.se CEO Bill Frischling wrote. “The gap between Trump and the next closest president … is larger than any other gap using Flesch-Kincaid. Statistically speaking, there is a significant gap.”

Of course, it’s also true that genuinely bright people rarely find it necessary to tell people how smart they are…

Effective propaganda requires the manipulation of language, and that’s another reason to be alert to its use. Trump’s former consiglieri, Steve Bannon, clearly understands that in order to change social attitudes, it is necessary to change reactions to certain words. As a recent, fascinating opinion piece in the New York Times recounts,

In a speech last weekend in France, Stephen Bannon, the former top adviser to President Trump, urged an audience of far-right National Front Party members to “let them call you racists, let them call you xenophobes.” He went on: “Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.”

The author notes that this is a departure from the usual “dog whistle” approach taken by racists and xenophobes–Trump’s constant references to immigrants as criminals, for example, or the traditional, negative euphemisms for Jews and blacks. Bannon wants to eliminate the pretense, and change our reaction to words that convey straightforward bigotry.

Bannon is urging the adoption of an irrational bias against racial minorities, immigrants and foreigners, one that does not require reasons, even bad ones, to support it. And he recommends presenting such irrationality as virtuous….

But taking Bannon’s advice also requires rejecting any recognizable practice of giving plausible reasons for holding a view or position. To proudly identify as a xenophobe is to identify as someone who is not interested in argument. It is to be irrationally fearful of foreigners, and proudly so. It means not masking one’s irrationality even from oneself.

Bannon’s rhetorical move of transforming vices based on irrational prejudice into virtues is not without historical precedent. Hitler devotes the second chapter of “Mein Kampf” to explaining how his time in Vienna as a young man transformed him into a “fanatical anti-Semite.” …. Such fanatical irrationality is, in Hitler’s rhetoric, virtuous.

Of course, comparing rhetoric and policies are two different things. No recent far-right movement in Europe or the United States has enacted the sort of genocidal policies that the Nazis did, and no such comparison is intended. But history has shown that the sort of subversion of language that Bannon has engaged in is often deeply intertwined with what a government will do, and what its people will allow. Bannon’s own cheer to the National Front members — “The tide of history is with us and it will compel us to victory after victory after victory” — shows clearly enough that he does not mean his efforts to end in mere speech.

Performing such inversions is an attempt to change the ideologies and behaviors of large groups of people. It is done to legitimate extreme, inhumane treatment of minority populations (or perhaps, to render such treatment no longer in need of legitimation). In this country, we are familiar with it from the criminal justice system’s treatment of black Americans, in some of the “get tough on crime” rhetoric that fed racialized mass incarceration in Northern cities, or the open racism sometimes connected to Southern white identity or “heritage.” Its aim is to create a population seeking leaders who are utterly ruthless and cruel, intolerant, irrational and unyielding in the face of challenges to the cultural and political dominance of the majority racial or religious group. It normalizes fascism.

Remember “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”? It was wrong.

Language matters.

Computational Propaganda, Part Two

After each new Trump travesty, my friends and family have taken to asking each other the same question: “Who the hell could still support this buffoon? How stupid would someone have to be to drink this particular Kool-aid?”

A recent study conducted by Oxford University apparently answers that (not-so-rhetorical) question.

Low-quality, extremist, sensationalist and conspiratorial news published in the US was overwhelmingly consumed and shared by rightwing social network users, according to a new study from the University of Oxford.

The study, from the university’s “computational propaganda project”, looked at the most significant sources of “junk news” shared in the three months leading up to Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address this January, and tried to find out who was sharing them and why.

“On Twitter, a network of Trump supporters consumes the largest volume of junk news, and junk news is the largest proportion of news links they share,” the researchers concluded. On Facebook, the skew was even greater. There, “extreme hard right pages – distinct from Republican pages – share more junk news than all the other audiences put together.”

The researchers monitored 13,500 politically-active US Twitter users, and a separate group of 48,000 public Facebook pages, and looked at the external websites that they were sharing.

The findings speak to the level of polarisation common across the US political divide. “The two main political parties, Democrats and Republicans, prefer different sources of political news, with limited overlap,” the researchers write.

The study did not find a high percentage of social media penetration by the Russians, but it did identify clear political preferences of those who consumed junk news.

But there was a clear skew in who shared links from the 91 sites the researchers had manually coded as “junk news” (based on breaching at least three of five quality standards including “professionalism”, “bias” and “credibility”). “The Trump Support group consumes the highest volume of junk news sources on Twitter, and spreads more junk news sources, than all the other groups put together. This pattern is repeated on Facebook, where the Hard Conservatives group consumed the highest proportion of junk news.”

There has always been a credulous segment of the American public; given our embarrassingly low levels of civic literacy, it shouldn’t surprise us that a percentage of voters unhappy with their position in the polity would “choose the news” that confirmed their biases. As a colleague of mine recently wrote (citations omitted),

The flourishing of scientific polling and the increased sophistication of social science research methods have provided scholars with an opportunity to put these concerns to the test, and the results have largely confirmed the worst fears of political philosophers. Foundational studies of voters and elections published in the mid-20th Century documented voters’ ignorance, wishful thinking, and reliance on simple cues like partisanship, and nearly 8 decades of subsequent research has largely confirmed those conclusions.The democratic polity is not now and has never been made up of highly knowledgeable, informed and engaged civic citizens.

And there are plenty of charlatans, would-be power-brokers and snake-oil salesmen ready to lead the willing down the garden path…..