When Truth Falls Apart

How do we restore consensus in an age so divorced from fact?

Image: jimjarmo

If I have recognized the spread in drug warnings and financial doublespeak, where the corporate use of language approaches the absurd, where the shell of a communicative form is used to foreclose communication, I have also recognized it in forms of poetry that deliberately push us to confront the contingency and craziness of our culture’s use and abuse of words.

—Ben Lerner, “Contest of Words,” Harper’s Magazine October 2012

The lunatic notion of a “post-truth” or “post-fact” society gained traction during the administration of George W. Bush, whose lackeys lied their heads off so spectacularly and for so long, with the aid of the effectively state-sponsored Fox News Network. Mocked as “truthiness” by Stephen Colbert in 2005, and soberly analyzed in various books, the key idea of the “post-truth” society was this: if a given public utterance had sufficient appeal — emotional, political or otherwise — its empirical truth was immaterial. What we can be persuaded to wish to believe, in other words, is as good as the truth. How else to explain the long currency of such whoppers as the connection between Iraq and 9/11, the likely cost and duration of the “necessary” wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, “the smoking gun that would be a mushroom cloud,” the lawfulness of torture, and of domestic surveillance, etc. ad nauseam?

The peculiar mendacity of that catastrophic presidency left us with worse problems than a bunch of lies to put straight and reflect on. There’s a broken trust to restore — to the extent that it’s possible to replace toxic cynicism with healthy skepticism — in media and in government.

In 2004, a decorated Vietnam War hero ran for the presidency. This was an inconvenient fact for George W. Bush, his draft-dodging preppie opponent. It was vital, then, for the Republicans backing him to find a way to tarnish John Kerry’s service record while still noisily maintaining their “respect for the troops,” whom they were in the process of sending to the Middle East to be blown to bits by the thousand. The Republicans succeeded in discrediting Kerry through a new type of propaganda that effectively destroyed the obvious and instinctive assumption that a battle-hardened veteran and pacifist — and not the soft rich boy — would be better qualified to lead the country out of war.

The story of Kerry’s treatment in the media in the 2004 campaign provides a clear illustration of the cleverness and novelty of the Republican attack against him. Many politicians have resorted to the same playbook in the years since. As we enter the home stretch of this substantially more ghastly election, a review of their strategy, which I will call dismediation, is in order.

Dismediation is a form of propaganda that seeks to undermine the medium by which it travels, like a computer virus that bricks the whole machine. Thus, for example,

  • Information: John Kerry is a war hero who was awarded three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star;
  • Misinformation: John Kerry was never wounded in the Vietnam War;
  • Disinformation: John Kerry is a coward;
  • Dismediation: ‘Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’ are disinterested sources of information about John Kerry, equivalent in integrity to any other source that might be presented on the evening news.

These four narratives were distributed simultaneously across various channels during the 2004 election, though only one of them (the first) is true. To begin with, there was some criticism of how readily Purple Hearts were handed out during the Vietnam war. Two of Kerry’s wounds didn’t require time off duty, though that doesn’t matter a bit: the rules governing the award are quite clear that even the slightest wound sustained in enemy combat qualifies for the medal. That’s how the misinformation that Kerry hadn’t been wounded was spread, perhaps unintentionally giving a biased impression of his service. Accusations of cowardice followed, and these were disinformation — false information planted by partisans for Bush.

When he came home, Kerry became one of the best-known protestors against the Vietnam War. He testified in 1971, at the age of twenty-eight, before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations as a leader of the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War:

In our opinion… there is nothing in South Vietnam, nothing which could happen that realistically threatens the United States of America. And to attempt to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos by linking such loss to the preservation of freedom […] is to us the height of criminal hypocrisy, and it is that kind of hypocrisy which we feel has torn this country apart.

(Thirty-eight years hence, he would chair the committee he addressed on that day.)

The portion of the electorate predisposed against dirty hippie pacifists was as eager to hear criticism of Kerry then as it would be in 2004, but by the time of his campaign, many were unaware of either Kerry’s bravery in battle or his anti-war activism. This relative ignorance gave Bush Republicans an opening. The Swift Boat group was financed by Bob J. Perry — a rich Republican donor and associate of Karl Rove’s — and real estate tycoon Harlan Crow, a trustee of the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation. Together with Houston lawyer and former Swift Boat commander John O’Neill and conservative author Jerome Corsi, they cobbled together a book full of whoppers called “Unfit for Command.”

They also hired the guys who took down Michael Dukakis to make TV commercials attacking Kerry’s service. Swift Boater William Schachte shamefully insinuated that Kerry had deliberately wounded himself in order to secure a quick discharge. By the time the Kerry campaign realized people were paying attention to the Swift Boaters, the damage was done. Kerry had risked his own life in combat to save others, but a circus troupe of charlatans had sown the requisite doubts in the American electorate.

“Only in an election year ruled by fiction,” wrote Times columnist Frank Rich, “could a sissy who used Daddy’s connections to escape Vietnam turn an actual war hero into a girlie-man.” The lasting harm of this unfortunate episode, however, was not to Kerry’s reputation or to his candidacy. It was that afterward, millions of minds were uncertain as to what really constitutes “news,” or “reporting,” or “fact-checking.” This state of uncertainty hasn’t ever been adequately addressed, let alone mended.

In other words, the problem with my Republican relatives isn’t what they think of Fox News; everybody knows it’s propagandistic. The real problem is what Fox News et al., over time, have made them think of NPR, or MSNBC, or the New York Times. The Swift Boat style of twisting the facts has poisoned the well of public discourse for a whole generation of American adults — for all of us — by persuading so many that the confected “news” peddled on Fox is more or less equivalent to that on any other channel.

Dismediation isn’t discourse. It doesn’t disinform, and it’s not quite propaganda, as that term has long been understood. Instead, dismediation seeks to break the systems of trust without which civilized society hasn’t got a chance. Disinformation, once it’s done telling its lie, is finished with you. Dismediation is looking to make you never really trust or believe a news story, ever again. Not on Fox, and not on NPR. It’s not that we can’t agree on what the facts are. It’s that we cannot agree on what counts as fact. The machinery of discourse is bricked. That’s why we can’t think together, talk together, or vote together.

The success of dismediation projects like Fox News, Drudge Report and Rush Limbaugh’s radio show set the stage for Donald Trump, a buffoon beyond the satires of Dr. Strangelove or Infinite Jest. Trump happened in part because some of my cousins are now literally incapable of identifying facts, let alone weighing them. They apparently still intend to vote for a man who describes himself as “a genius” and in the same breath proposes to commit literal war crimes, break treaties, and steal the resources of other nations.

Dismediation is hard to combat, as it distorts not the facts, but the means by which facts can be understood. It’s like trying to win a chess game when the board has been flung into the air and the pieces scattered; quite often the bewildered victim finds himself trying in vain still to play e5 Qxe5 or whatever.

It’s easier to see dismediation when it’s practiced abroad, because foreign blinders are different from our own. Adrian Chen wrote in The New Yorker of the Russian troll farms he has been studying since 2014 — outfits operating armies of sock-puppet social media accounts churning out an avalanche of fake posts in order to produce the appearance of pro-government grassroots movements. But the real point of the troll farms, Russian activists told Chen, isn’t to make anyone believe the trolls. “The real effect… was not to brainwash readers but to overwhelm social media with a flood of fake content, seeding doubt and paranoia, and destroying the possibility of using the Internet as a democratic space.” The point is to prevent dissidents from finding one another, and to prevent any given individual from standing up and raising his voice.

There’s credible evidence that the Chinese government is engaging in similarly deceitful propagandistic practices on social media such as Weibo through its so-called “Fifty Cent Party.” A recent working paper published by Gary King, a social scientist at Harvard, estimates that the Chinese government fabricates in excess of 448 million “astroturf” posts annually (more than one million posts, every single day). “The goal of this massive secretive operation is… to regularly distract the public and change the subject,” King writes; the goal is to alter what constitutes “common knowledge.”

The Trump campaign is a would-be dismediation project almost certain to fail, simply because it was bound to hit the adamantine wall of his dishonesty and stupidity. He is so manifestly a con artist, a racist and an incompetent gross creepo that it’s nearly impossible to blur, confuse or fudge his true nature. All but the most willfully blind and/or deranged Republicans have therefore deserted him, and self-described conservatives find themselves, for the first time in years, actively questioning their own leadership. It’s become near impossible for Republicans to say to themselves, “Trump is only saying these false things for expediency’s sake, until he can get elected; after that, he’ll be fine.”

Trump is a black cloud with a silver lining. It’s so easy to see where the lies are. He is a grotesque, small-minded man unbelievably posing as the savior of the nation. The curtain has been drawn aside, and there he is, a sad little bullshitter, grabbling and pointing with his mean little hands into the camera, always at the camera.

The mammoth amount of available media in the internet age almost guarantees that we will see everything through the pinhole of our own worldview. We can so easily choose to experience only what we wish, and too often it’s the things we already agree with and believe. The walls of our gardens are grown very thick. What does “trust” mean in this new atmosphere? What will it mean, on November 9th?

“In theory,” wrote Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew (“the father of public relations”) in Propaganda (1928):

[E]very citizen makes up his mind on public questions and matters of private conduct. In practice, if all men had to study for themselves the abstruse economic, political and ethical data involved in every question, they would find it impossible to come to a conclusion about anything… from some ethical teacher, be it a minister, a favorite essayist, or merely prevailing opinion, we accept a standardized code of social conduct to which we conform most of the time.

That is to say, we choose not to investigate and reason out every question, but to trust authorities in whom to place our confidence to do so for us. It is an old vulnerability become newly dangerous, as the sources of information and disinformation have spread and multiplied.

Dismediation isn’t limited to politics. Business is a past master at it; Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool is particularly fine on that subject. More recently, Elizabeth Holmes proved herself a skilled dismediator, actively endangering people with faulty blood testing technology while ginning up a Silicon Valley fairytale around herself and her company, Theranos. It took government agencies and dedicated journalists who gave a shit about the truth to put a stop to her TED-talking baloney. What will you think, the next time a Silicon Valley triumphalist comes along bragging about “changing the world”?

The advent of Brexit in the United Kingdom, and of the presidential bid of Donald Trump — two national campaigns characterized by the wholesale spread of disinformation in mass media — resuscitated the concept of “post-truthin a number of recent pieces. If anything good can be said to have come of this election, it may be that the Republican candidate has demolished what remains of the “post-truth” era by demonstrating the poverty and malignity of lying as a campaign strategy.

The most heartening comment on the election so far came from Wisconsin conservative Marybeth Glenn, who made her feelings limpidly clear in a seventeen-part tweetstorm , condensed here:

When I saw Republican men getting attacked I stood up for them. I came to their defense. I fought on their behalf. I fought on behalf of a movement I believed in. I fought on behalf of my principles while other women told me I hated my own sex.

Not only charges of sexism, but I defended @marcorubio during Go8, I fought in my state to stop the @ScottWalker recall, etc… Now some Trojan horse nationalist sexual predator invades the @GOP, eating it alive, and you cowards sit this one out?

He treats women like dogs, and you go against everything I — and other female conservatives — said you were & back down like cowards. Get this straight: We don’t need you to stand up for us, YOU needed [us] to stand up for us for YOU. For YOUR dignity. For YOUR reputation…

I’m sooo done. If you can’t stand up for women & unendorse this piece of human garbage, you deserve every charge of sexism thrown at you.

I’m just one woman, you won’t even notice my lack of presence at rallies, fair booths, etc., You won’t really care that I’m offended by your silence, and your inability to take a stand. But one by one you’ll watch more women like me go, & you’ll watch men of ACTUAL character follow us out the door. And what you’ll be left with are the corrupt masses that foam at the mouth every time you step outside the lines. Men who truly see women as lesser beings, & women without self-respect. & your “guiding faith” & “principles” will be attached to them as well. And when it’s all said and done, all you’ll have left is the party The Left always accused you of being. Scum.

Here is an opportunity to make our politics better and more honest. To repudiate dismediation, to promote nuance rather than dogma, and to find such goals and policies that all principled people can agree on and move forward. It was a great thing to be able to unite with @MBGlenn. I was so happy to be able to find some common ground at last. We agree about the need to respect women! And we can fight for that together. Who knows where this rapprochement might end? Because it’s not possible for dismediation to occur in an atmosphere of mutual respect among citizens, re-establishing that respect should be our first goal.

Contrary to conventional opinion, it’s neither necessary nor remotely okay to lie in order to participate in politics. You can be a passionate partisan, make the best case you can for your side; nothing wrong with that. But there is an incandescently bright line between making your best case, and saying things that you know to be untrue. The latter is no good, not in any cause, however just.

There’s a chance, for the first time in many years, of restoring at least the goal of consensus among people of varying politics. We should be able to distinguish between good-faith attempts to inform us — partisan or otherwise — and self-interested, lying charlatanism. If the above is any evidence, that process of healing has already begun.

Maria Bustillos is a journalist and critic living in Los Angeles.