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Understanding the Illusions of the American Information Landscape

Understanding the Illusions of the American Information Landscape

The passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg about six weeks before the 2020 Presidential Election is the sort of chance event that future historians will likely point to as one of the stepping stones between the rocky shores of Trump’s crumbling America and whatever lies on the other side of November. Hopefully, part of whatever analysis those future historians provide will include a mention of the hypocrisy the Republicans are displaying in their decision to move forward with nominating her replacement with less than two months to go before a Presidential election after having spent countless hours arguing that a SCOTUS nomination in an election year should be deferred until after the election in order to give the people a chance to weigh in. The Senate GOP leadership argued this point in 2016 when they refused to consider Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland until after the 2016 election. Now they are arguing the exact opposite. To take just one example out of the myriad options, Lindsey Graham said in 2016, "I want you to use my words against me. If there's a Republican president in 2016 and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say Lindsey Graham said, 'Let's let the next president, whoever it might be, make that nomination.'" But less than 24 hours after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death, Graham tweeted, "... I will support President @realDonaldTrump in any effort to move forward regarding the recent vacancy created by the passing of Justice Ginsburg."

As I have written before, hypocrisy is dead and scandals no longer matter the way they used to. There was a time when scandals could take down presidents, but that time has passed. Blatant hypocrisy is now so overt that it’s occurrence is mundane. Therefore, instead of following the Democrats down their usual paths of un-self-aware indignation over Lindsey Graham’s and the GOP’s hypocrisy (after all, they too are hypocrites in the same way Graham is because they also argued the counterpoint to their current stance in 2016), let us step back from the fray for a moment and understand why, if scandals and hypocrisy no longer have the political impact they used to, we are suddenly inundated with scandals and hypocrisy in the Trump era. Why are scandals and hypocrisy so prevalent if they carry no consequences? The answer is simple: Trumpian politicians have realized that scandals, which were once things to be avoided, are also information bombs that can be dropped on the press as necessary to distract the citizenry from their democratic priorities. Trump took a weakness and turned it into a strength.

As simple as that answer is, however, it’s implications, the questions about how we got to this point, and our conclusions about where we should go next, are much more complicated. What is becoming clearer now more than ever is that a certain strand of media criticism, which has its roots in Noam Chomsky’s classic late-1980’s book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, is correct. Chomsky pointed out that the media industry in general, and the news media in particular, has a problem: it can’t sustain itself without advertising. For news media, the effect is a narrowing of the range of stories that get told. The types of news that sell the most ads are prioritized over the types of news that, while perhaps offering some other public value, may not be as lucrative. This puts the media in a bind: they must not publish things that could alienate advertisers but they must also tell the truth in order to maintain the trust of the public. When doing both at the same time is impossible, the media will usually choose to report a story in a way that supports an advertiser’s interests. As it turns out, the news that sells the most ads is the news that gets the most viewers. This news tends to be, among other things, scandals involving famous people and politicians. And because newsrooms have limited resources at their disposal, they must strategically place their reporters in spaces where income generating news is most likely to occur, one of those spaces being close to politicians. As politicians and news media figures build relationships, politicians can exert influence on journalists in many ways, such as by rewarding rival journalists with exclusive scoops depending on who reports any given story in a way that is favorable to the politician. The fact that journalists must stay close to politicians in order to curry favor and collect stories means that the types of news the public receives is often heavily influenced by politicians.

Trump and the GOP have taken things a step further than this sort of influence peddling, however. Instead of taking the adversarial press seriously, Trump and the GOP have simply negated the news media’s influence by using its business model against it. Because the news media needs scandals and hypocrisy to make money, Trump and the GOP use scandals to distract from other more consequential stories. Need to cover up an unpopular SCOTUS nomination? Distract everyone by meeting with Kanye West five days later. Need to cover up an Access Hollywood tape? Focus on the massive leak of your opponent’s emails. The examples are endless. The strategy works so well that Trump and the GOP have stopped waiting for the need to distract the public to crop up naturally and have taken to scandalizing the country for sport. Trump’s twitter account is a nonstop scandal generating machine. The effect of this saturation of the media with so many scandals that they can’t report all of them at once means that the news media ends up sensationalizing every story, thereby numbing the public and opening the media up to accusations of having cried wolf. When every story is scandalous, none of them are.

The Trumpian insight into this scandal-centric mode of media production has coincided with the development in Western democracies across the globe of a powerful non-democratic force: the digital, financial world. The rulers of this world are wealthy: bankers, business leaders, technologists. While these elites are not working in cahoots with each other to control the world the way some conspiracy theorists allege, their interests do align with respect to politics: stability is good for business. For bankers and global corporations, a stable political sphere reduces turbulence in the markets. Trump’s method of managing politics by using the media’s addiction to scandals to distract and divide the citizenry was good, but to really defang politics, the media must not only distract the public with scandals, but also the scandals that politicians feed to the media must be false. On top of that, the public must know that the scandals are false so they become disillusioned and apolitical. The media and the public must never know what is real or what is true, and they must have their beliefs undercut so thoroughly that they no longer strive to believe anything. Once that is achieved, the theory goes, the markets will be stable.

The process by which politicians and global elites have decoupled politics from truth finds it roots in the mid-to-late 1970s, when radical leftists like the Weather Underground and the progressive wave of the civil rights era had long faded. In response to the failures of the Left in the 60s and early 70s to stem the overgrowth of the military-industrial complex, the prison system, and corporate America, many leftists had simply checked out of politics entirely. In his documentary titled Hypernormalisation, documentarian Adam Curtis explains this shift in attitude, saying: “Instead, radicals across America turned to art and music as a means of expressing their criticism of society. They believed that instead of trying to change the world outside the new radicalism should try and change what was inside people's heads, and the way to do this was through self-expression, not collective action. But some of the Left saw that something else was really going on – that by detaching themselves and retreating into an ironic coolness, a whole generation were beginning to lose touch with the reality of power. One of them wrote of that time, ‘It was the mood of the era and the revolution was deferred indefinitely. And while we were dozing, the money crept in.’”

By the 1980’s financial and managerial classes had so fully cemented their control over politics that it no longer mattered what the truth was: the only thing that mattered was what the public believed, including politicians themselves. Politicians could be distracted by scandals as much as the public, and both the right and left (but especially the right) quickly perfected the art of baiting the other side into engaging in distracting controversies. The lessons from experiments in political truth spinning from the 1970s and Cold War were by then routine for US rulers. To quote Curtis, “What the Reagan administration were doing, both with Colonel Gaddafi and with the UFOs, was a blurring of fact and fiction but it was part of an even broader programme. The President's advisers had given it a name - they called it "perception management" and it became a central part of the American Government during the 1980s. The aim was to tell dramatic stories that grabbed the public imagination, not just about the Middle East, but about Central America and the Soviet Union and it didn't matter if the stories were true or not, providing they distracted people and you, the politician, from having to deal with the intractable complexities of the real world.”

Things only got worse from there. Between the 1980s and the 2010s, the explosion of the internet and then social media meant that suddenly the financial industry and large technology corporations had vast amounts of data about our beliefs and behaviors. They also had a vast shadow economy that existed out of sight of the public and outside of democratic control. Only recently have details about the sheer scale of the global illicit financial economy become known, first with the Panama Papers and more recently with the FinCEN Files, which Buzzfeednews published today, saying, “The FinCEN Files expose an underlying truth of the modern era: The networks through which dirty money traverse the world have become vital arteries of the global economy. They enable a shadow financial system so wide-ranging and so unchecked that it has become inextricable from the so-called legitimate economy. Banks with household names have helped to make it so.” 

Trillions of dollars flow through these shadowy banking networks. As these networks grew into the monsters they are now, the wealthy classes reasserted their control over our democracy by purchasing most of the media outlets in America and the Western world. By the time the social media revolution came along, the ruling classes already controlled most of the sources of information Americans consumed. Suddenly, with their new digital powers, not only could the ruling classes of democracies control the public via the news media, but they could literally program beliefs into the public domain simply by manipulating the types of content shown online. Since 2000, just 6 corporations have owned 90% of all media in America (the composition of this group has changed due in part to corporate mergers and acquisitions, but even today just 5 or 6 companies own almost every major media company in America). Such centralization of power over the media has made it relatively easier for wealthy ruling classes to control the public discourse in many democratic societies, and America in particular. But it is in social media that the most recent innovations have been made. Social media is by its very nature anti-social in the sense that when we use social media, we are each alone with our screens, siloed off from each other in our own information spheres. Algorithms that are constantly learning about us make sure we see only emotionally charged content, because, surprise, surprise, it turns out that angry people click more than calm people. Thankfully for the ruling classes, these clicks that replace in-person democratic actions mostly affect only the digital sphere. The political impact is sucked away into data centers and servers where algorithms digest them and generate new content about new scandals to infuriate us all over again, and so we click more vigorously, and the cycle repeats endlessly.

To be clear, I am not saying there is some group of sinister world elites plotting to rule the world. The truth is more subtle, systematic, and coldly rational: since the business and finance worlds depend on political stability, it is in the interest of global corporations and financial powers to control politics. Since just a handful of corporations control the media, media businesses can self regulate to control the public discourse and contain it within the parameters of the interests of the ruling classes. This is achieved funding politicians and political activists who are controversial, who distract the public by generating lots of anger, and therefore lots of clicks, thereby co-opting the natural political impulse of human beings and channeling it into an enormous data-driven cash cow called digital media.

Of course, in order to keep the engine running, politics must generate reliably controversial content that will garner enough clicks to keep corporations happy. The political controversies need not be true. They need only be believable and make people angry enough for their behaviors to be predictable, i.e. for them to click on whatever ad or button or post or link that is on the screen in front of them. Trump and the GOP, as it turns out, are masters at generating a world of controversial falsehoods and lies that will distract you from dealing with the complexities of the real world and get you angrily clicking into oblivion. Trump especially revels in lying and the pain his lies cause other people. His personal propensity for narcissistic compulsive lying dovetails perfectly with the financial world’s demand for politicians who are skilled liars. The result is that the core philosophy of the Trump administration is that there is no such thing as truth, only “alternative facts,” as Kellyanne Conway so famously said back in the early days of the Trump administration, before anyone (other than Adam Curtis and is fans) really understood what was happening. A year or two later, Rudy Giuliani explicitly stated the rules of the Trumpian game in an exchange with Chuck Todd:

RUDY GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP`S LAWYER: I`m not going to be rushed into

having him testify so that he gets trapped into perjury. And when you tell

me that, you know, he should testify because he`s going to tell the truth

and he shouldn`t worry, well, that`s so silly, because it`s somebody`s

version of the truth, not the truth. He didn`t have a conversation

About…

CHUCK TODD, HOST, “MEET THE PRESS”: Truth is truth. I don`t mean to go,

Like..

GIULIANI: No, it isn`t truth! Truth isn`t truth!

Truth is not truth. That is the guiding principle of the Trump administration. Truth and falsehoods are tools that can be used to manage politics and political perceptions. In this view, where perception is everything, substance is irrelevant, only the appearance of substance matters, and politics is reduced to a sort of stage play. The DNC plays the role of the toothless liberal opposition in this pageantry, and they are not outside of the general critique of this essay. However, the liberal public and some of its politicians are at least simply naive and gullible, though well-meaning for the most part, whereas the right is both naive and gullible, but also malicious and anti-democratic. The right, via Trump, pioneered the art of deploying scandals and falsehoods that easily trigger liberals and their conservative base alike into distraction and disillusionment so that their behaviors align with the interests of the ruling class.

Should this trend continue, the future looks grim. One can imagine an America where politics is pure theater, where fake political parties or fake movements are created by the aristocracy to keep the rabble busy marching and protesting and donating and lecturing and pamphleteering for some cause or another. Qanon is a perfect example of this sort of nonsense politics that is being generated to manage the public perceptions of reality. The entire Qanon conspiracy movement is a wild goose chase off into click-land fantasies and away from any real political problems. One can easily imagine a situation in which all major political parties and movements become their own insidious version of fake nonsense politics. Indeed, even if the politics are real, so long as the opposition is there to curb the excesses of whoever is in power, the political sphere will remain business-friendly and stable. A disingenuous Republican Party could face off against an irony-soaked Democratic Party in a meme war for the presidency. Radical leftist groups may rise up to keep the left disunited while radical right-wingers function as a vanguard in the push for an ever more fascistic blending of corporate and government power. Meanwhile, one financial crisis after another crushes the working class and results in no jail time for perpetrators and no reforms to prevent future crashes. 

The unfortunate reality, however, is that the above description already applies to America as far I can tell. The information I’m receiving in my own siloed off information sphere indicates as much. Political parties may not be complete fabrications of the government, as they are in Russia and other illiberal democracies. But two dominant parties are controlled largely by the aristocracy and the donor classes, who spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year to buy political influence, buy advertisements, and fund political groups and campaigns to achieve their agendas. The DNC and the RNC together control billions of dollars of capital. This is not democratically controlled capital, of course, but it is political, and this money will be used to influence politics. The more one looks at the situation, the more one sees how much of American politics is already LARPING (live action role playing). For instance, Lindsey Graham is LARPING as a principled traditional heterosexual conservative Southern gentleman from South Carolina. In reality, he is heavily suspect to be a gay man who has been bought and paid for by oil lobbyists and who cares more about using the Kurds to defend oil wells in Syria than conservatism or traditions or principles. Given that he is putting on a show for the public, and given that he can change his script whenever he wants to without suffering any consequences from the an ensuing scandal (and even potentially benefiting from it), it is quite understandable, predictable even, that Graham would revise his previous position regarding nominations to the SCOTUS in an election year so glibly. The narrative he was propagating no longer fit the interests of the ruling conservative elites, who want more power always, not less power for democratic piety or some other non-lucrative reason. Liberals who are angry and clicking about it simply got trolled yet again.

The question now is this: how do we save our democracy from the siren songs of political fantasy land? Theater politics is not going anywhere. Quite the opposite. We must figure a way out of the house of mirrors if we can. Our relationship with social media and the news media is part of the problem. But the larger problem is wealth inequality and the gap between the rich and the poor. The wealthy no longer need the poor to know truths about the world in order to make money; in fact, it is better for the wealthy class if the working classes know only falsehoods so that their political convictions are misdirected and eventually disintegrate into frustrated disillusionment. Right now, the best we can hope for is a landslide victory for the Democrats in November and a return to relatively calmer media cycles in the post-Trump information landscape. But it is in the interests of the wealthy ruling classes that the public stays in video game worlds and other digital spaces where their clicks can be monetized and their politics muted from having any real-world impact. If there were a way to empower our clicks to change the world, we could begin to combat these trends. Perhaps some form of digital direct democracy is the future, where there are no representative politicians, or at least fewer and/or with less power. Perhaps the only way out is for a dedicated left to organize the largest mass movement in American history and sweep progressives into power. A lefty can only dream of that for now. Dreams and scandals, fantasies and fake news, disingenuous convictions and sarcastic ironies – these are the modes of political discourse available to us as we navigate the media landscape today. We are each in our hamster cages, running in our wheels. Will this ever change? It will likely get worse. And even if it did change for the better, would we even be able to tell? Even if we could tell, would we care? Deep disillusionment sets in when falsehoods are blended so completely into truth that political interest is snuffed out. Why believe in anything when you can’t tell which beliefs are based in reality? Causing us to not care about truth or falsity anymore – that’s how the Lindsey Grahams of the world win. As Noam Chomsky said in the film adaptation of Manufacturing Consent, (I’m paraphrasing here) “the detachment and equanimity with which rational and sane Americans watch events unfold around them... That is more terrifying than Hitler etc. because that is what allows these sorts of dictators to crop up.” For now, the best we can do is keep searching for the truth. In other words, don’t give in to apathy. Participate, march, donate, and vote. The best we can do right now is to keep caring.