So America just elected an incompetent, possibly insane billionaire president, and now it seems the media’s got a new coping strategy to adjust to the inevitability of a Trump administration. Oh wait, hang on, what I really meant is that they have totally flipped out and started a new moral panic about “fake news.” Naturally we have to pretend that fake news is a new phenomenon, because anything less might suggest we have some serious problems with our society- from corporate consolidation of media and the relentless profit-driven scramble for ratings and views, to the lack of critical thinking in education and the ridiculous idea that all opinions are equally valid. Just to be sure, some folks in the media would have us believe this is an external threat, specifically one coming from Russia. Put simply, this is bullshit, but I’ve got a lot to say about fake news so please strap yourself in.
I guess the logical place to begin is by saying that fake news is nothing new. Liberals did virtually nothing to oppose the corporate takeover of AM radio in the 80’s and 90’s, which, along with the revocation of the “Fairness Doctrine,” essentially turned America’s talk radio medium into a non-stop sewage pipe belching out right-wing propaganda. Even big names like Rush Limbaugh weren’t averse to spreading conspiracy theories about Bill and Hillary Clinton. If you want to know the roots of some of the wackier Hillary-related conspiracies today, you really have to start with something called The Clinton Chronicles. For those of you too young to remember or not from the US, American politics during the 90’s basically consisted of outrageous scandal after outrageous scandal, and many conservatives were acting as if the US had been taken over by a radical socialist junta. The lexicon included terms like jack-booted government thugs, black helicopters, and New World Order. And then…in 1996…it wasn’t just radio anymore.
Fake news reached new heights with an actual fake news cable TV network, known as Fox News. While the claim that Russia influenced this most recent election is highly dubious, Fox News certainly swayed a US election within four years of its existence. An outside observer might think that American liberals rallied against a foreigner-owned TV network that engaged in all manner of dishonest tactics, but that’s not necessarily true. The documentary Outfoxed spoke of something called the “Fox effect,” whereby other TV networks moved to the right in order to get a piece of Fox’s action. This had disastrous effects during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, as one might expect, but hey- capitalists gonna cap.
It’s also worth noting that around this time, Alex Jones was building his media empire. In addition to Jones’ non-stop conspiracy mongering from 1996 onward, you also had sites like World Net Daily, founded in 1997. And in case you think I’m picking on right-wingers too much (as if that’s bad), remember Oliver Stone? JFK was a boring, conspiracy theory laden production which came out a few week after the Soviet Union broke up. These aren’t just pre-Russia Today; they’re pre-Putin. The simple but inconvenient (for some) fact is this: Virtually all Russian propaganda for foreign audiences is nothing but rehashed conspiracy theories, largely from the United States.
So why is the media and all of liberaldom panicking about fake news now? Well one thing is that for years, they dismissed it and made fun of it. Now, in a way, it seems to be upsetting their precious liberal order, and so they’ve suddenly decided it’s a problem. But as I alluded to in the beginning, admitting too much would require choices they don’t want to make such as free higher education or more critical thinking classes in school (I suspect liberals are too cowardly to face the inevitable conservative backlash over this). Thus, the threat needs to come from somewhere else, as this recent Washington Post article claims.
Yet there’s something rather amusing about that article. It relies on an anonymous source (the reason they have given for their anonymity doesn’t hold water) based in the US. In other words- exactly the same tactic that actual Russian fake news uses all the time, i.e. misrepresenting a dubious source. And just like any other fake news story, WaPo‘s article got cited by other publications, such as Gizmodo. Way to fight fake news, guys!
There’s also a far more serious issue at stake when we allow charlatans to pin all their woes on Russian propaganda- they are in fact helping Russia’s propaganda war. Recently we’ve seen a perfect example of this with the EU resolution against Russian propaganda.
First of all, the resolution was proposed by Anna Fotyga, a member of Poland’s Law and Justice Party. In case you hadn’t heard, that’s the same party that wants to criminalize women for having abortions and recently dug up the remains of Poland’s ex-president to prove that Russia somehow caused his plane crash. Why is her proposal so hypocritical? Well as it turns out, the Law and Justice Party’s propaganda in many ways mirrors Russian propaganda about the European Union, i.e. Europe is nothing but gender-bending degenerates rapidly being overrun by Muslim migrants. What is more, the party’s politics in Poland are eerily similar to those in Russia. The media and courts come under attack for their independence. History is rewritten as “patriotic” and those who dissent by insisting on staying factual are punished. So to sum up this point, though it is a minor one, the resolution was proposed by the least qualified person to speak out against propaganda.
But far more important was the fallout of the resolution. If you read RT or Sputnik’s reaction, you’d think they’re totally pissed about this resolution, but I assure you they are not. Shortly afterward Putin actually congratulated Russia’s “journalists” in response to the news. Do you know what that means? It means no funding cuts for a while.
See the only performance metric RT and Sputnik have is basically “Look! The West is afraid of us! See how angry they are?” They almost literally say exactly that in their own material meant for Russian consumption. Every panicky op-ed demanding that the EU do something about this Russian propaganda is liable to be snatched up by the propagandists themselves so as to justify their already inflated budgets in this time of crisis. So you can imagine how the Kremlin reacts when they find serious public figures in the West actually claiming that Russia swayed the election in favor of Trump. As immature and childish as the RT/Sputnik performance metric is, the widespread panic over Russian propaganda says “This is working. We’re winning. Let’s keep going and see what else we can do.”
What then, is the right way to respond to the threat of fake news? First of all- it’s domestic. Deal with it. Second, fake news and echo chambers are a symptom of our capitalist society. If this last election taught us anything, it’s that the ruling class on both sides of the political spectrum is extremely out of touch with much of the country, including their own constituents. If someone doesn’t start addressing the social causes of this, then Americans will continue checking out of real politics and tumbling down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and fringe politics. So what is to be done?
In counter-insurgency warfare they have this term called the “population-centric” strategy. While it’s hard to find historical examples of purely population-centric strategies and not every population-centric strategy resulted in victory, in general this strategy tends to work much better than its opposite, known as “enemy-centric” strategy. The current Western approach to Russian propaganda could be termed as an enemy-centric strategy. Every proposal comes down to responding to the Russians, which is problematic because as we have seen, the West can’t control Russia’s actions (though I suspect they don’t want to).
What I propose is a sort of population-centric strategy, meaning that the focus is put on American and Western societies. It means opening up more dialog, addressing controversial issues, and actually resolving those problems that alienate people and perpetuate cynicism. This isn’t going to be easy. It means we’re going to have to start talking to people with bizarre politics, many of whom may display traits of cult-like brainwashing. But there is ample research to suggest that attacking someone’s beliefs, however absurd they may be, only causes them to double down and retreat further into a bubble. Meanwhile if Western institutions do more to address people’s needs, provide more tangible, visible stability and prospects for advancement, and also show accountability for their past actions, many people will open up and be willing to talk.
Do I believe that Western governments will adopt such a strategy? Personally I’m skeptical, because doing so threatens the status quo even more than Russia ever could, but at least we could say we warned them.