In the past few months the term “fake news” has come into the mainstream in a major way. A cursory definition based on its usage would have you believe it’s just an updated synonym for the old standby “propaganda,” but is this true? Yes and no. Our full assimilation into the information age has drastically transformed the way propaganda functions. Whereas in the past it was possible to withhold information and only present your preferred narrative, the current climate invites everybody to share all their information for the express purpose of cutting it all down and putting it on the same playing field. The idea is to put it in people’s heads that no information is reliable, no matter the source. Once this has occurred you have successfully discredited rigorous investigative journalism based on truth and fact. It’s suddenly no more credible than the .com ramblings of some kook in his rural Texas basement or perhaps more foreboding, the media apparatus of the state (i.e. @realDonaldTrump). This has long been a part of Vladimir Putin’s playbook where the cardinal rule is that in order to get people to believe in something, you first have to get them to believe in nothing.
To simplify (TL:DR in modern web speak);
Pre-information age propaganda = limiting access to information
Post-information age propaganda = discrediting all information (ie, fake news)
If information isn’t credible, framing and emotional narrative rise to the forefront of importance. What you say is less important than how you say it and the cognitive effect it has on the person you are speaking to. This is why Democrats lose election after election in spite of superior policy – Republicans know how to appeal to emotion while Democrats don’t think they have to play that game. We’re seeing how this plays out in reality, and it’s not pretty. The latest activity on this matter is the development of the “violence narrative” – an attempt to take the riotous activity of the anarchist group Black Bloc and associate it with the entire left-wing, liberal worldview. I will explain this soon but I want to start with a more obvious example of an expert in post-information age propaganda. I don’t mean Donald Trump (though he does qualify) but another media figure who has been compared to a more verbose version of Trump. That being cartoonist Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame.
This is the first paragraph of an article he recently wrote on climate change;
Before I start, let me say as clearly as possible that I agree with the scientific consensus on climate change. If science says something is true – according to most scientists, and consistent with the scientific method – I accept their verdict.
This is the third paragraph;
“So when I say I agree with the scientific consensus on climate change, I’m endorsing the scientific consensus for the same reason I endorsed Hillary Clinton for the first part of the election – as a strategy to protect myself. I endorse the scientific consensus on climate change to protect my career and reputation. To do otherwise would be dumb, at least in my situation.”
What have here is a massive contradiction, but one stated with authority and conviction, not unlike the way President Trump plows through his own non-truths. The first thing Scott Adams wants you to know is that he accepts climate change is a real thing. It’s the first sentence in his article on the topic, so therefore it must be really really true. A professional like Mr. Adams would not dare deny the work of science when he himself is just a cultural media figure. Therefore it should come as a shock when two paragraphs later he states that the only reason he accepts the science on climate change is to protect his reputation. In other words he is saying that he doesn’t accept the scientific consensus on climate change but he wants to confuse the reader into thinking he does so that he has more credibility. He’s giving you the runaround, like the narcissist he strives to be.
If we want to take Adams at his word in that he cares about his reputation and career (and this seems reasonable given that narcissists usually do care about this stuff) I’d posit that he has an anti-climate change agenda. Despite his claims, that’s more beneficial to him personally and professionally at this point seeing he’s become a bit of a right wing media darling in a similar vein as Mike Rowe. As the article continues Adams goes to great lengths to disguise himself as being balanced, saying hyperbolic things like “this is the only place you’ll see both sides of the issue!” That isn’t to say he doesn’t make good or interesting points but that’s always been the hallmark of good propaganda, no matter what era it comes from. It always knows just where and when to sprinkle in just enough truth to lend itself credibility.
On surface level Adams seems to be writing about the difficulty in figuring out the truth behind climate change. In the era of fake news however only suckers read things surface level. Look not at content or facts but framing and intent. Then you might see that this piece is designed not to bring people closer to truthful concepts but rather to fan the flames of debate in order to increase his popularity with his new niche audience. He is playing into the recent right wing promotion of information chaos, which in turn helps to discredit the order and limits imposed by science (liberally biased, naturally). This helps push the right’s anti-climate change agenda which they need in order to pull back all those pesky regulations that prevent enterprising American capitalists from exploiting the environment for profit er… um… I mean creating bountiful high paying jobs for the working class.
When analyzing fake news what one says often has less importance than when they say it – timing is everything. Just like you never get a second chance at a first impression, the first statement one makes tends to be the most revealing. Adams first statement was that he accepted climate change, though he carefully omitted his reasons for this until later. He dropped in a very mainstream point of view to set the frame that he was a credible guy. Compare this tactic to one used in numerous conservative responses to the recent punching of Richard Spencer on the day of Trump’s inauguration. This article by John Nolte of conservative news blog “Daily Wire” is a perfect example, though interestingly it’s a little bit trickier than what you get from a so called “master persuader” like Scott Adams. There’s some build up, starting with the first paragraph;
“Okay, fine, somewhere in my Twitter stream you will find a joke about my not being too terribly upset over this creep Richard Spencer getting sucker-punched on TV last week. My tweet was a joke, though, and I am clearly on record, time and time again, speaking out against violence and the encouraging/excusing of violence. Also, I am not The New York Times.”
Nolte is humanizing himself by letting us all know that yeah, he felt none too bad to see physical violence enacted against the self proclaimed leader of the “alt-right” (which is now synonymous with white supremacy). He goes as far as to call the guy a creep, just to make sure we all know that Mr. Nolte in no way approves of the viewpoints of Mr. Spencer. He also clarifies the he’s very much anti-violence in any way, shape or form (he was just joking, after all!), thus further laying down the frame that he’s a decent guy with good values. What follows is an overly elaborate and hypothetical construction of Spencer as an actual Nazi. Hypothetical because in reality Nolte wants to enforce the notion that really the guy is just an unpleasant kook and nowhere on the level of actual Hitler. This is down to downplay the danger people like Spencer represent to society and in particular minorities. This is summed up in his fourth “paragraph” (just one sentence, for potency I guess);
“For argument’s sake, I am ready to stipulate that Richard Spencer is one sick and twisted piece of racist garbage.”
In his next “paragraph” (again, one sentence) he drops the true bombshell, already hinted at in paragraph one;
“Nevertheless, in its attempt to normalize and excuse and rationalize any kind of political violence against anyone, even a Nazi, The New York Times is more a Nazi than Spencer.”
Though not as direct as Adams, the tactic Nolte uses is essentially the same. Adams emphatically stated that he believed in climate change but then quickly made that belief subordinate to another point about the fuzziness of truth and unreliability of science. Nolte emphatically states that he despises Spencer and goes as far to paint a picture of him as an honest to god Nazi before revealing his true target – the NYTimes and by proxy, the liberal left. From one of the final paragraphs in his piece;
“This push for and encouragement and normalizing of violence among the left and our national media, is no joke. It’s been going on for years, in Ferguson, in Baltimore, from the Obama White House, and within the institutional left.”
Let’s overlook the fact that a death from a purely ideological left wing terrorist attack hasn’t occurred on American soil since 1981. During that same time period since then there have been numerous deaths associated with domestic right wing terrorism in multiple attacks. That’s merely a side point to the fact that right-wing motivated violence is more likely to be state sponsored than left-wing violence which tends to come in the form of civil disobedience that generally spares harming individuals in favor of property destruction. This paradigm works very well for the right because state sponsored violence is not only legal but far more brutal and effective than anything pesky civil disobedience can muster up. The military and police have wide latitude to do what they want and not face legal repercussions, for better or worse (some may argue they need that latitude to perform a tough thankless job, but that’s another topic).
State sponsored violence however doesn’t have to come from an organized and sanctioned group. It can also be self-defense, and thus legal (ie Trayvon Martin). This point is reinforced by the creepy way Nolte’s article ends;
“Buy guns, America. You need to be able to defend yourselves and your loved ones.”
So just like Adams wrote an article denouncing climate change disguised as an article about the fuzzy nature of truth, Nolte has written an article essentially endorsing violence disguised as an article about how the left should be villainized because they endorse violence. Left is right. Up is down, something something 1984. It’s all very confusing and intellectually draining to try and follow. What’s not confusing is how Nolte comes very close to advocating the murder of political opponents by planting the seed in people’s minds that if you don’t kill the leftist first than the leftist might… um, sucker punch you in the face.
What we have seen happen here is an example of the right wing media writing about political violence in a way that falsely frames it as purely a leftist phenomenon. Were this just some rambling kook on a right wing dumping ground then this wouldn’t be much of a problem but sadly these things don’t stay so neatly contained. The extensive media coverage of the riots at UC Berkeley in response to a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos handed the right wing media a golden opportunity for a more concentrated effort to paint the left as violent and threatening and possibly even something worth countering with violent force of your own, if necessary. This narrative has been created and framed independently of the facts, which in the case of both Berkeley and the Spencer punching still seem rather fuzzy, lost in the tides of information and “fake news”.
There is no doubt that violence is occurring in America in 2017 but who is really being harmed? Rather than accept right wing narratives at surface level, people need to be asking deeper questions. Is the broken window at Wells Fargo bank in downtown Berkeley really more egregious than the thousands of sick and disabled people who could die with the repeal of the ACA? Is Spencer taking a sucker punch more disconcerting than the fear minorities live in thanks to the spread of his ideas? To me the answers here are obvious but perhaps the kind of violence I’m talking about is too esoteric to play well on CNN. On a logical level I think most of us know where the most harm is being committed but thanks to their expertise at controlling narratives, the right wing has put the emotional view front and center and are using it for political gain. Luckily enough their act is not a hard one to replicate, and the facts being on your side makes for a more definitive tie breaker than a Mike Pence trip to the Senate. It’s time the left learned how to beat the Breitbart’s and Daily Wire’s of the world at their own game.