News and Lies 1: In Defense of (some) Propaganda

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From John Ohno at Modern Mythology:

There’s been a lot of blow-back regarding fake news — which is to say, fiction using the style of news stories and disguised as news stories — since Trump’s election. The general premise is that false news stories circulated among the communities dominated by Trump supporters bolstered their support of him, and of course social media was leveraged to an almost unprecedented degree by his campaign.

“Our biggest incubator that allowed us to generate that money was Facebook,” says Parscale, who has been working for the campaign since before Trump officially announced his candidacy a year and a half ago. Over the course of the election cycle, Trump’s campaign funneled $90 million to Parscale’s San Antonio-based firm, most of which went toward digital advertising. And Parscale says more of that ad money went to Facebook than to any other platform.

“Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing,” he says. “Twitter for Mr. Trump. And Facebook for fundraising.”

At the same time, even politically-charged fake news has a powerful capability to aid us in the pursuit of truth. This seems paradoxical but isn’t necessarily so, as I’ll explore.

We should not ignore this history, but we should analyse what makes the standard discordian fake news different from the stuff that people are currently concerned about.

[C]ulture jammers […] introduce noise into the signal as it passes from transmitter to receiver, encouraging idiosyncratic, unintended interpretations. Intruding on the intruders, they invest ads, newscasts, and other media artifacts with subversive meanings; simultaneously, they decrypt them, rendering their seductions impotent. Jammers offer irrefutable evidence that the right has no copyright on war waged with incantations and simulations. And […] they refuse the role of passive shoppers, renewing the notion of a public discourse. — Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of Signs,” The Open Magazine

I should clarify that I will not be focusing on the distinction between satirical fake news and fake news made to be believed. Satire is of great value — there’s not just a cultural or propaganda value to satire but also a concrete procedural value to it — but we don’t solve all our problems by clearly indicating that certain stories or sites are fictional or satirical, and there’s a lot of good that can come out of fake news that isn’t clearly satire. (Furthermore, this doesn’t move us away from the problem of people sharing it uncritically and believing it, as anyone whose grandmother has forwarded them chain emails about Onion stories can attest.)

The history of using fake news for explicitly political purposes goes back a long way, but the current state of the art in this domain can probably be attributed to Paul Linebarger’s book Psychological Warfare — a description of US propaganda activities during the second world war, used as a training manual for the US army.

Linebarger’s advice is fairly straightforward, and forms the basis of what outlets like RT and Breitbart do: take true statements out of context, mix in fiction that the target audience either wants to believe or wants to fear, and construct the story in such a way that the target audience is led to a particular conclusion. Linebarger gives examples of descriptions of the good treatment of POWs — an enticement for soldiers, unhappy in the field, to surrender — and other stories suggesting that a group of soldiers allies are sex-crazed or have abnormal sexual prowess — an enticement for soldiers to desert their posts in order to safeguard their wives and girlfriends at home, and an encouragement to further distrust wartime allies whose history with one’s culture is more complicated.

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