Tim Adams on the media in Putin’s Russia:
In this culture war, disinformation was critical. Russian TV and social media would create a climate in which news became entertainment, and nothing would quite seem factual. This surreal shift is well documented, but Snyder’s forensic examination of, for example, the news cycle that followed the shooting down of flight MH17 makes essential reading. On the first day official propaganda suggested that the Russian missile attack on the Malaysian plane had in fact been a bodged attempt by Ukrainian forces to assassinate Putin himself; by day two, Russian TV was promoting the idea that the CIA had sent a ghost plane filled with corpses overhead to provoke Russian forces.
The more outrageous the official lie was, the more it allowed people to demonstrate their faith in the Kremlin. Putin made, Snyder argues, his direct assault on “western” factuality a source of national pride. Snyder calls this policy “implausible deniability”; you hear it in the tone of the current “debate” around the Salisbury attack: Russian power is displayed in a relativist blizzard of alternative theories, delivered in a vaguely absurdist spirit, as if no truth on earth is really provable.
Social-media propaganda directed at Americans works the same way: in contrast to earlier forms of propaganda, which sought to arouse people to action by alerting them to new and previously unseen truths, this kind of propaganda is meant to be soporific: it seeks to make people indifferent to what’s true, incurious, and accepting of whatever addresses the emotions to which they are most fully enslaved.
Long ago William Golding wrote a witty little essay called “Thinking as a Hobby” in which he identifies three levels of thought. Grade-three thinking, “more properly, is feeling, rather than thought”; it is ”full of unconscious prejudice, ignorance, and hypocrisy.” Grade-two thinking — which Golding came to practice as an adolescent — “is the detection of contradictions…. Grade-two thinkers do not stampede easily, though often they fall into the other fault and lag behind. Grade-two thinking is a withdrawal, with eyes and ears open.” Grade-two thinking is shouting “FAKE NEWS” and asking people whether they always believe what they’re told by the lamestream media, or pulling out your ink pad and rubber stamp and stamping BIGOT or RACIST on people who don’t line up with you 100%. I would say that such behavior is not “lagging behind” so much as digging in your heels and refusing to move — which herds of animals do far more frequently than they stampede.
When grade-two thinking is challenged its perpetrator will typically fall back to grade-three, as David French discovered: ”The desire to think the best of Mr. Trump combined with the deep distaste for Democrats grants extraordinary power to two phrases: ’fake news’ and ’the other side is worse.’
I’m reminded of an encounter at my church. People know that I opposed both Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton. They often ask what I think of the president’s performance. My standard response: I like some things, I dislike others, but I really wish he showed better character. I don’t want him to lie. I said this to a sweet older lady not long ago, and she responded — in all sincerity — “You mean Trump lies?” “Yes,” I replied. “All the time.” She didn’t answer with a defense. She didn’t say “fake news.” We’d known each other for years, and she trusted my words.
For a moment, she seemed troubled. I wanted to talk more — to say that we can appreciate and applaud the good things he does, but we can’t ignore his flaws, we can’t defend his sins, and we can’t let him define the future of the Republican Party. But just then, her jaw set. I saw a flare of defiance in her eyes. She took a sip of coffee, looked straight at me, and I knew exactly what was coming next: “Well, the Democrats are worse.”
Jacques Ellul argued half-a-century ago that the purpose of propaganda is to “provide immediate incentives to action.” But propaganda that encourages us to dig in our heels, or just drift with the social-media current, is propaganda all the same. What remains absolutely essential from Ellul’s book is his understanding that the person “embroiled in the conflicts of his time” (49) is most vulnerable to propaganda — and he could not have imagined a society so locked into the current instant as we denizens of Social Media World are. I’m going to close this post with a long quotation from Ellul that was incisive in relation to his own time but is devastatingly accurate about ours. I’ve put some especially important passages in bold; and I’d like you to notice how Ellul anticipates Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. Here goes:
To the extent that propaganda is based on current news, it cannot permit time for thought or reflection. A man caught up in the news must remain on the surface of the event; be is carried along in the current, and can at no time take a respite to judge and appreciate; he can never stop to reflect. There is never any awareness — of himself, of his condition, of his society — for the man who lives by current events. Such a man never stops to investigate any one point, any more than he will tie together a series of news events. We already have mentioned man’s inability to consider several facts or events simultaneously and to make a synthesis of them in order to face or to oppose them. One thought drives away another; old facts are chased by new ones. Under these conditions there can be no thought. And, in fact, modern man does not think about current problems; he feels them. He reacts, but be does not understand them any more than he takes responsibility for them. He is even less capable of spotting any inconsistency between successive facts; man’s capacity to forget is unlimited. This is one of the most important and useful points for the propagandist, who can always be sure that a particular propaganda theme, statement, or event will be forgotten within a few weeks. Moreover, there is a spontaneous defensive reaction in the individual against an excess of information and — to the extent that he clings (unconsciously) to the unity of his own person — against inconsistencies. The best defense here is to forget the preceding event. In so doing, man denies his own continuity; to the same extent that he lives on the surface of events and makes today’s events his life by obliterating yesterday’s news, he refuses to see the contradictions in his own life and condemns himself to a life of successive moments, discontinuous and fragmented.
This situation makes the “current-events man” a ready target for propaganda. Indeed, such a man is highly sensitive to the influence of present-day currents; lacking landmarks, he follows all currents. He is unstable because he runs after what happened today; he relates to the event, and therefore cannot resist any impulse coming from that event. Because he is immersed in current affairs, this man has a psychological weakness that puts him at the mercy of the propagandist. No confrontation ever occurs between the event and the truth; no relationship ever exists between the event and the person. Real information never concerns such a person. What could be more striking, more distressing, more decisive than the splitting of the atom, apart from the bomb itself? And yet this great development is kept in the background, behind the fleeting and spectacular result of some catastrophe or sports event because that is the superficial news the average man wants. Propaganda addresses itself to that man; like him, it can relate only to the most superficial aspect of a spectacular event, which alone can interest man and lead him to make a certain decision or adopt a certain attitude. (46-47)
Maybe I should blog a read-through of Propaganda.