photo of Noam Chomsky by McMaster University
“The first casualty of war is truth.” — anonymous
The 21st century, since the inauspicious events of 2001, has thus far been a century of unending and expanding wars. Many of them have been military — Palestine, Chechnya, the CAR, Libya, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Nigeria, Syria, Yemen, Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia, Congo, Chad, Somalia, Ethiopia, Tunisia. Egypt, Mali, Sudan, South Sudan, India, Bangladesh, Colombia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Angola, Bolivia, Senegal, Mexico, Philippines, Niger, Nepal, Laos, Papua, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Indonesia, Moldova, Kenya, Macedonia, Azerbaijan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Russia, Armenia, Tajikistan, Algeria, Venezuela, Cameroon, Mozambique, Kyrgyzstan, Paraguay, Timor Leste, Comores, Peru, Ivory Coast, Bahrain, Ghana, Morocco, and I’m sure I’m missing a bunch.
And, of course, there is the ongoing “war on terror” and the “war on drugs”, which are arguably smokescreens to enable unlimited attacks on sovereign nations, and accompanying “intelligence” subterfuge, without justification or provocation.
That does not include political and economic interference, including sieges and government overthrows orchestrated or supported by foreign nations in about a dozen Latin American nations and an even larger number of African and Asian ones.
But perhaps equally-important in this century are the non-military wars battling for the “hearts and minds” of citizens — fights over votes, seats, laws, ideologies and tax dollars rather than land.
It is hard to deny, for example, that the US is engaged in a so-far-non-military civil war between neofascist elements, largely in the south and central states, on the one hand, and believers in real democracy on the other. The former, after decades of losing the propaganda war they blame on “liberal media”, have basically given up on the democratic process and are now seizing power by disenfranchising voters and exploiting the many anti-democratic holes in the US legal and electoral processes, including stacking courts with ideological extremists, gerrymandering, filibustering, empowering vigilantes and bounty hunters, and a host of other tactics.
Similar activities are occurring in many other countries, notably in eastern Europe, where neofascist governments now control many former Soviet bloc (and now NATO-member) states.
But possibly the most effective way to win and retain political power through seizing the hearts and minds of citizens, is through a mix of propaganda, mis- and disinformation, and censorship. This is especially true now, living with a ubiquitous and unceasing firehose of often-conflicting information, and exploitative for-profit “social” media controlled by a handful of dimwitted and unstable western oligarchs.
Military “intelligence” agencies have always been masters at propaganda and disinformation — it’s an essential tool in their arsenal. But with the massively-increased budgets given to the military, “intelligence” services, and “security” apparatus organizations (both domestic and international in their authority) in this century, and the exponential computing power that that puts in their hands, they can now do a much more effective job of controlling, directing, distorting, and suppressing information and debate than they ever could before.
During times of relative peace, we tend to ignore this massive accrual of power and influence because it is not used in ways that we think make much of a difference in our lives. But in times of war — military, civil, informational, or ideological — it can now make all the difference between ‘victory’ and ‘defeat’.
If you are a regular reader you know that I am not a believer in “good vs evil”. I don’t think those that can now wield this power are deliberately trying to get us to support monstrous misadventures or extremism. I think we’re all doing our best, including making use of power in ways we think will benefit and sustain our citizens.
Very few people describe themselves as extremists — and those labelled as such tend to insist that they’re just doing what they think is best, and that that’s not extremist at all. I am sure many of the American neofascists, for example, honestly believe that a permanent Christian theocracy run mostly by designated white males with “family values” would be a better system of governance than we have now, and that it would solve many of the social problems they perceive the current system has produced. They are of course wrong, but they are not IMO “evil”.
Anger, rage and hostility, in my experience, are almost always masks for fear, grief and shame. Fear of loss (of rights, freedoms, opportunity, autonomy, property, beliefs), fear of oppression, fear of suffering, fear of imprisonment and restriction, fear of the future. Grief over what has seemingly been lost or squandered. Grief over loved-ones’ suffering. Shame of incapacity, of failure, of ridicule. And it is this anger, rage and hostility, I think, that underlies most of our ever-present wars — military, civil, informational, and ideological. It is not an accident, I think, that almost all the war ‘leaders’ are males seemingly acting out their fear, grief and shame in military, political, economic and ideological “battles”.
Just to be clear about definitions:
- Propaganda is information (accurate, distorted or invented) that is deliberately worded in such as way as to provoke an extreme or wildly inappropriate emotional response.
- Misinformation is information that is incorrect, incomplete, biased or misleading.
- Disinformation is intentional misinformation. Lying about, withholding, skewing, obfuscating or misconstruing what is reported for a purpose.
- Censorship is suppressing information or opinions, usually selectively. That can include self-censorship.
So what we’re dealing with now, I think, is a collision between two phenomena:
- (1) Our growing cynicism about what is true, thanks to the firehose of information (much of which is propaganda, mis- or dis-information, or censored), leaving us unsure what to believe, and
- (2) Our propensity to believe what we want to believe, what ‘fits’ with our prior understanding of the world, how it works, what we wish to be true, and what we believe to be ‘right’.
The consequence of this collision is what Hank Green calls a toxic mix of outrage and helplessness (or hopelessness).
If you’ve ever been moved to attend a protest, my guess is you’ve tasted that mix, and were driven to act on it. And if you’ve never attended a protest (or haven’t in a long time) I’m guessing that you’ve also tasted that mix, but felt sufficiently hopeless about it that you didn’t act on it.
The daily doom scroll invokes this mix every time we look at it. We may be tempted just to turn it all off, to throw out the useful information ‘baby’ with the misinformation ‘bathwater’. But for most of us, we can’t. We are driven to know what’s happening in the world, to make sense of it. So we’re sucked back in. Then what happens is:
- The triage test: We do triage on the firehose. We scroll past ‘news’ and ‘information’ that is neither urgent nor important to us. For each of us, that’s different. For me, celebrity news doesn’t pass muster. But if you’re part of a circle that eats up that stuff, you’re going to consider it important.
- The smell test: For the stuff that passes the triage test, we make a preliminary judgement about what it means. That includes an assessment of its veracity, completeness and possible bias, and how it ‘fits’ with what we already believed.
- Corroboration and/or challenge: If it seems suspect, we will likely read other sources, or talk with or message people we trust to get their take on it, or simply dismiss it as untrue. And if other people seek our take on it, that might also influence our own. Some of us will also challenge anything that seems too ‘pat’, too simple, and think about or seek other perspectives on it.
- Conflict: In some cases, there will be enormous tension between what we believe, and what the people we trust (friends, or respected writers or experts) believe. Or there will be enormous tension between what we had believed and what this new information now leads us to believe is actually true. For example, suppose you read something that suggests that the US/NATO have been systematically working for decades to provoke unrest, anxiety, and ultimately regime change in Russia, or you read something that suggests that the vaccines for CoVid-19 are actually dangerous for your children. If you and your friends have always been wary of Russia’s government, or if you and your friends have been tireless proponents of universal vaccination, this is going to be more than uncomfortable. Misinformation about the pandemic, and about elections and wars, has destroyed friendships and marriages and driven some into conspiracy cults.
- Resolution: Sometimes the most compelling resolution is to throw up your hands and admit you don’t know what to believe. But this is usually an untenable situation, because then you’re paralyzed. You have to decide whether to wear a mask or not, to get a vaccine or not, to agree “It’s all evil deranged Putin’s fault”, or to suggest it’s more complex than that. These are hugely difficult decisions that most of us would rather not be forced to make. But we will make them, and the consequences regardless will be significant, maybe even life-changing.
The goal of propaganda and censorship (and of cults) is to squelch dissenting views so that everyone marches to the same beat, and so that steps 3-5 of the above information-processing process are entirely avoided. We kind of like that — no one wants to be paralyzed by conflicting information or views, and no one wants to risk a friendship or shatter a long-held belief, all because of ‘rogue’ information that we just can’t deny. And you can kind of see the logic for propaganda during an actual war involving your own citizens. Scary, tragic, but perhaps understandable.
So that brings me to my questions about this subject, which probably have no answers, but which I think we ignore at our peril:
- Have the media ever been other than sources of propaganda? Given the dependence of the media on government graces to give them “exclusives” and “inside” information, isn’t it inevitable that they will self-censor, or suppress, information that is not flattering to the government, or their corporate sponsors? Who then can we trust to tell us what’s really going on in the government and corporate back-rooms?
- The media and citizens all fell hook, line and sinker for the utterly false narrative for the Iraq War, and there have never been prosecutions or even apologies for the lies. Now the government is acknowledging that some of the information it is giving the media about the Ukraine War is likewise deliberately false. All western governments, and almost all citizens, have accepted the simplistic narrative of the Ukraine War. Is it just human nature that we get played by these deliberate falsehoods? Is it in our best interests, at least in times of “war”? What would it take to prevent us all from falling for and repeating propaganda, mis- and disinformation when it’s so carefully and cleverly orchestrated?
- Social media, facing accusations of propagating mis- and disinformation and propaganda, have responded by tagging, “demoting” (so that no one sees it on their feed), and even censoring information that, using rather simplistic and arbitrary criteria, they’ve decided are potentially mis- or disinformation or propaganda. Given the harms that come from censorship and suppression of information that may later turn out to have been important truths, versus the harms of not censoring information that leads to actions that cause illness, injury, violence or death, who should be trying to strike that balance, and how can they do it better than the social media giants’ amateur censors?
- What are the ‘signs’ that indicate that media outlets are censoring or self-censoring alternative points of view even when they have credible evidence behind them? We need to know this so that we can at least flag these media for their biases. Who would be the best independent group to assess these biases? For example, the censorship of the views of Noam Chomsky since 2000, because of his ‘contrary’ positions on the CIA, NATO and Palestine, has been quite obvious. It would be useful to have the NYT flagged as one of the media organizations that have used their censorship power to suppress a lot of useful information on these subjects. Likewise, the suppression of alternative views by and about Julian Assange seems to me a travesty in a country with a supposedly free press, something we should all be aware of when we read the publications that suppress this information.
- How might we deal with the tacit censorship in the media that stems from their failure to report inconvenient truths about major wars and other events of global significance (eg Yemen, Ethiopia, the burning-alive of Russians in Crimea). Is there some way to find and track the important stories that the mainstream media are deliberately suppressing?
- Are we as a species inherently prone to being misled, conned, manipulated, played? Why? What is the evolutionary advantage of vulnerability to propaganda and misinformation?
- How much worse will this situation get if we continue to rely on “the market”, and incompetent tech corporations and governments, to solve it? Will situations like the Jan 6 insurrection, and other acts of mass violence, become more and more routine as we get more and more manipulated by propaganda and mis- and disinformation and censorship? What if anything can be done to prevent that happening?
I don’t have any answers. I just have a dawning sense that the real “artificial intelligence” problem we’re going to have to face in the next decade is coming from “intelligence” agencies, PR firms, pliant media, and military-industrial complex spinmeisters, not robotics firms. In these times of crisis and collapse, this is the last thing we need.
Thanks to Paul Heft for provoking, and helping me think about, this article.
Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman wrote “Manufacturing Consent” back in 1988 which delved into how supposed western democracies created all the things you describe in your essay. A prescient book for its time and our present situation.
You may have already seen this:
Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid
It’s actually much worse than just disinformation. It is a massive destruction of what little was left of our social cohesion, the so-called “social contract”. I’ve never been a fan of social media, but even I didn’t suspect that something as seemingly benign as a “retweet” button and its ilk could have such a manifestly destructive, dare I say evil, potential.
And now throw advanced AI “chatbots” into the mix and yea, behold ye wretched humans and weep at the world destroying dystopia we have created.
Recipe for disaster.
Take the ideas below, add a big dose of propaganda & stir.
“Robert Sapolsky is “your basic confused human when it comes to violence.” He’s for gun control but loves shooting people in laser tag. He doesn’t believe in the death penalty but has specific fantasies about how he would kill Hitler. He’s also a neuroscientist who studies stress and its effects in primates. So, naturally, he wanted to figure out what this dichotomy in human nature is all about.
Sapolsky explains our confusing relationship with violence as the result of two complications. The first: “We don’t hate violence; we hate the wrong kind,” he says. “Because when it’s the right kind, we cheer it on, we hand out medals. We vote for, we mate with our champions of violence. When it’s the right kind we love it.” The second is that “amid us being this miserably violent species, we’re also extraordinarily compassionate and altruistic.”
Sapolsky attempts to answer the question, “How do you make sense of the biology of our best moments, our worst and all the ambiguous ones in between?” The answer, he says, is you trace it back … all the way back.”
If you’re broke and/or your public library does not carry the book, this (below) is what I’ve used as my final option.
‘Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst’
Also: ‘War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning’
“War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is a 2002 non-fiction book by journalist Chris Hedges. In the book, Hedges draws on classical literature and his experiences as a war correspondent to argue that war seduces entire societies, creating fictions that the public believes and relies on to continue to support conflicts.”
I wonder if the next step might be people voluntarily signing up for a kind of “curated internet” experience, where some other party acts as a filtered portal to the world and saves them the waste and danger of filtering through all the crap in the informational environment. Imagine if you could agree to block 95% of the internet and put your faith in someone only sharing what you actually needed to know? It should be technically feasible, probably more economically viable than current models of online “journalism”.