Propaganda has a way of making the soberest and most responsible elements in our culture go all wiggy. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius filed a fretful column this week based on his interview with Richard Stengel, State Department undersecretary for public diplomacy. Ignatius and Stengel, America’s top counter-propagandists, advance all the most frightful clichés about propaganda.
The pair are on the same page with comments like, we’re living in a “post-truth world.” The Russians are waging “a war on information,” determined to make you think everybody is lying, they offer. The Russian hacks are “polluting the public information stream.” Our citizens are being exposed to “weaponized information, false information.” Ignatius concludes, “right now, the truth is losing.”
The news pages have been equally alarmist. The Washington Post recently published an article about Russian propagandists pushing a “flood of fake news” during the presidential campaign that may have affected the outcome. So panicky was the Post treatment of the topic that it cited the findings of PropOrNot, a group of anonymous anti-propaganda researchers who have produced a wide-ranging list of sites that they find suspect because they “reliably echo Russian propaganda.” The original list included such sites as Counterpunch, NutritionFacts.org, Truthdig, Naked Capitalism, Drudge Report, Truth Out and AntiWar as Russian dupes, and it inspired the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald and Ben Norton to denounce the Post piece as a McCarthyite smear.
The detection and isolation of state-sponsored propaganda is — and always has been — a laudable enterprise. And, obviously, the Russians now serve mounds of disinformation into our media diet. But is this contamination anywhere near as dangerous as some of the heralds make it out to be? Have the Russians really manipulated our politics and enslaved us in a post-truth world?
American anxiety about foreign propaganda goes back to at least the World War I era. As media historian David Greenberg writes in The Republic of Spin, Berlin fed “bulletins and capsules” supportive of the German war effort to U.S. publications. It wasn’t all that successful. “In the short term, the German propaganda campaign aroused opinion against Berlin. In the longer term, it primed Americans to cooperate with unconscionable anti-German practices and civil liberties crackdowns that they justified as wartime exigencies,” Greenberg writes. During World War II and especially the Cold War, violent totalitarian regimes that sought to conquer us produced huge volumes of strident, pervasive and even subtle foreign propaganda. In 1941, the U.S. government prosecuted German agents based in America, “effectively closing down the German government’s primary channels of information dissemination” here, media scholar Brett Gary writes in The Nervous Liberals: Propaganda Anxieties From World War II to the Cold War. Soviet propaganda helped to fuel the Red Scare and prompted the U.S. to build its own propaganda machine to disseminate its counter-claims, broadcasting news from the U.S. point of view into Europe and the Soviet Union.
This fear of foreign propaganda persisted into the late Cold War era, too, with President Ronald Reagan claiming in a 1987 interview — without citing any specifics — that the Rooskies were sullying America with untruths. “There is a disinformation campaign, we know, worldwide, and that disinformation campaign is very sophisticated and is very successful, including a great many in the media and the press in America,” Reagan told Washington Times Executive Editor Arnaud de Borchgrave. Ubiquitous Soviet disinformation was echoing on Capitol Hill, too, Reagan asserted. He believed that the closing of congressional committees investigating communist influence in America “shows the success of what the Soviets were able to do in this country with making it unfashionable” to be anticommunists.
Somehow the Republic withstood the propaganda onslaughts that were backed up by U-boats and nuclear weapons; although some Soviet efforts, such as the ones that capitalized on the civil rights struggle, made a mark, in general the truth prevailed in the free marketplace of ideas. So how distressed need we be today during peacetime about direct but discreet doses of Russian propaganda from venues like RT and Sputnik, myriad Russian disinformation and trolling operations going into the media stream, and the Russian-inspired fake-news adulteration of other sites?
I, for one, am having no trouble sleeping at night. Nor do I see a reason for a House Un-American Activities Committee reunion. The current panic over propaganda led by the American media and the government is only the old panic in a new guise with social media and non-mainstream news outlets taking the bulk of the beating. I wonder if Russian propaganda would be Topic A had Hillary Clinton beaten Donald Trump. The election post-mortems have been searching for a reason, or even a hint of a reason, for Trump’s victory, and the theory that Russian propaganda might have influenced voters has enticed both journalists and government officials.
Political ads often distort reality much in the same way propaganda does, expressing emotional half-truths and obfuscations to persuade voters. But the recent campaign, in which Trump spent about a third of what Clinton did on TV ads yet prevailed, proves that the masses are not susceptible to all the advertisements that money can buy. The volume of Clinton ads clearly dwarfs the combined output of Russian propaganda and disinformation but still did not change enough minds to win the prize.
In this sense, the shrillness of the propaganda debate reveals a deep distrust of citizens by the elites. The Ignatiuses and Stengels of media and government don’t worry about propaganda infecting them. Proud of their breeding and life experience, they seem confident they can decode fact from fiction. What they dread is propaganda’s effect on the non-elites, whom they paternalistically imagine believe everything they read or view. But they don’t. The idea that naïve and vulnerable audiences can be easily influenced by the injection of tiny but potent messages into their media feedbag was dismissed as bunk by social scientists as early as the 1930s and 1940s. According to what academics call the hypodermic needle theory (aka magic bullet theory, aka transmission-belt model), there is little evidence that the public was the defenseless prey of mini-doses of propagandists. Larger doses don’t seem to be very effective, either.
“We know from the entire history of communication research that attitude change is hard, and behavior change is even harder,” says Nikki Usher, a media scholar at George Washington University.
Does Russian propaganda have influence on the margins? Very likely. According to a Gallup Poll, 42 percent of Americans subscribe to creationism, indicating that faith supersedes reason for many people. In other words, if people want to believe something, all the textbooks they’ve been exposed to at school won’t budge them. Another Gallup Poll found that 53 percent of respondents could not identify the first 10 amendments to the Constitution as the Bill of Rights, signaling that the political views of the majority of Americans rest on a foundation of blarney and bull feathers even before the propaganda artists cast their spell. How stupid are Americans? Gallup tells us that 18 percent believe the sun revolves around the earth. (The kicker is that 3 percent had no opinion. How can you have no opinion?!) The well the Russians are allegedly fouling was never pure.
“Yeah, but the Internet and social media!” I hear some readers shouting in their computer screens. While it’s true that propagandists have never enjoyed such cheap and universal methods of distribution, the same technology makes it equally convenient for debunkers to search and destroy propaganda. Remember, as well, that it is a very big playpen the propagandists have entered, and the dilution factor benefits honest voices, which dominate.
Once a society commits itself to the free speech radicalism of something like the First Amendment, propaganda will automatically enter the media equation. We need to combat it the way we combat all bad ideas: with our vigilance and wit, knowing that we can’t ever completely expunge it from the atmosphere. Like its cousin, “fake news,” propaganda has always been with us and always will be. By our best non-hysterical efforts, refuting propaganda with the diligence we fight cockroaches, we can hope to reduce propaganda’s effect to that of background radiation. The truth loses battles but never the war.
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