News and Lies 1:

John Ohno on 2016-11-23

In Defense of (some) Propaganda

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.

The goal of this kind of work, which we might call propaganda news stories, is for the target to actually believe the stories and come to the conclusions suggested. Linebarger suggests that the goal of such stories should be to convince enemy soldiers to surrender or desert their posts, so that war can be ended with a minimum of bloodshed, and that to bolster the effectiveness of this kind of propaganda, all of the things that can benefit the enemy soldiers once they follow the suggestions provided by these stories should be made true — in other words, one should suggest that POWs are well treated and then actually treat the POWs well, even if the POWs are treated better than the neighbouring citizens.

There’s another form of fake news, of about the same vintage, that would specifically be coming out of the intelligence community: the double cross. Knowing that a party is listening but skeptical, one can produce fake news or fake documents that are a mix of truth and fiction produced in such a way that the end goal is to produce confusion and greater skepticism — to waste the time of the opposition. A good example is the idea that carrots promote night vision — which was, in fact, a story that was circulated locally in Britain to simultaneously hide the existence of advances in radar and radar detection systems and push the Axis powers into a series of ill-fated and expensive attempts to improve soldier eyesight with dietary changes. Another good example is “red mercury”, a fictional chemical that was mentioned in leaked nuclear weapon plans — these plans looked fairly convincing, but anyone working off them would spend a great deal of time looking for the imaginary red mercury, resulting in a delay in nuclear weapon development.

Linebarger’s propaganda approach is fairly straightforward: if people believe the news story, they can be controlled; if they don’t, they can’t be controlled. The trick is to compose stories that people want to believe — and it’s no trick at all, if you have a sufficiently nuanced understanding of the culture and history of the target group. While positive uses are possible here — the historical use of these stories to convince Nazis to surrender or go AWOL would be seen as positive by most — this tool is basically totally dependent upon the intent of its wielder, and it can be turned against anybody in a rather uninteresting way.

The double-cross is more interesting, because it deals directly with the idea of a nuanced, skeptical, sophisticated audience. It’s less predictable in its concrete results, but an environment saturated in double-cross media is an environment that is extremely resistant to Linebarger-style propaganda. Anybody with a vested interest in determining truth, when dealing persistently with a consistently yet not systematically unreliable source of data, will develop a habit of skepticism and reflexive self-awareness that borders on paranoia, and such a habit is extremely useful when actually isolating truth from fiction.

There’s a third kind of fake news, which I’ll call the single-source double-cross. This is the kind of propaganda produced by long-running state media that are required to toe the party-line — think Pravda, or North Korean press releases. Like Linebarger-style propaganda, it has a clear goal which can be trivially determined by the target population if they’re inclined to look critically. Like the double-cross, it is created with an awareness that nobody will take it at face value.

However, the major difference is that it comes without opposition — anything it says, true or not, will be backed up by any other media released, because all of the media are required to adhere to the same set of rules. Knowing that what the media says is in some places false, but at the same time having no alternative view provided, we cannot produce a consistent view other than the official one and risk engaging in a kind of learned helplessness.

Everyone in Russia in the early 1980s knew that the managers and technocrats in charge of the economy were using that absurdity to loot the system and enrich themselves. The politicians were unable to do anything because they were in the thrall of the economic theory, and thus of the corrupt technocrats. And above all no-one in the political class could imagine any alternative future.

In the face of this most Soviet people turned away from politics and any form of engagement with society and lived day by day in a world that they knew was absurd, trapped by the lack of a vision of any other way. — THE YEARS OF STAGNATION AND THE POODLES OF POWER,” Adam Curtis

Some of the coverage of filter bubbles with regard to fake news has focused on how self-segregation has allowed Linebarger-style propaganda to become extremely effective in certain communities, which is true.

Other coverage instead focuses on the idea of “post-truth” politics, which is essentially a combination of the double-cross and the single-source double-cross: when we self-segregate, we can turn the regular double-cross into a single-source double-cross by only sharing stories we find agreeable, even if we know that they aren’t true. It’s important to note that the filter bubble isn’t some recent invention, or some conspiracy by tech companies. When we don’t think clearly and critically, we have a tendency to ignore information we don’t like and hoard information we do. When we’re provided with the ability to share a stream of information of unknown veracity with a group of peers — chosen via some kind of semi-mutual consent — we self-segregate based on who shares information they like.

But, where a double-cross media landscape promotes a sophisticated, skeptical, cosmopolitan approach, the aggressive filtering of dissent provided by social feedback producing a single-source double-cross landscape promotes a nihilistic approach: “everything is fake, and I don’t know what to believe, so I’m not even going to try to learn anything”.

In other words, if you expose yourself to a media mix that is both appealing and unappealing, apparently true and false, you’ll end up becoming a more effective and discerning thinker, while if you filter that same spew by appealingness you will end up a less effective and less discerning thinker.

People like Joey Skaggs — and others who take a discordian-inspired culture-jamming approach — are attempting to improve critical thinking via fake news. For instance, Cat House for Dogs,

“Cat House for Dogs,” said an ad in the Village Voice, “featuring a savory selection of hot bitches…” Along with this ad, a press release was sent to the media saying that if your dog graduated from obedience school, if it was his birthday, or if he was just horny, for $50 you could get your dog sexually gratified. This was not a breeding service, but purely a sexual pleasure service.

The phone rang off the hook as hundreds of people called to talk to New York’s first and only dog pimp. Surprisingly, not only were the calls from bonifide customers willing to pay $50, but there were just as many calls from people who wanted to have sex with dogs or watch dogs have sex with other people. Dog pimp, Skaggs, recorded all of these incoming phone calls.

When contacted by the news media, Skaggs got together 25 actors and 15 dogs and staged an elaborate performance in a SoHo loft — a night in a bordello for dogs. The performance featured models posing with female dogs in look-a-like outfits, and actors posing with the male dogs waiting to view the bitches. Friend Tony Barsha played a bogus veterinarian on site who, when interviewed, explained that the female dogs were injected with a drug called Estro-dial to artificially induce a state of heat. If a bitch was already in a natural state of heat, she would be given a contraceptive called Ova-ban, so there would be no fear of fatherhood.

The intent here is clearly different than those who want to use fake news to manipulate you into voting a certain way, or people who want to wear you down to the point where you’re unwilling to even complain.

Where Linebarger-style propaganda tells you what to believe and satire tells you that other people’s beliefs are silly, culture jamming of this type encourages you to question your beliefs by making you consider believing something silly. And in terms of ill intent, the worst that can be accused if such efforts is that they cast shade on the legitimacy of press outlets that carry the story without being in on the joke. There’s no harm to be rendered by that in light of the Post Factual, and plenty to gain.

Surrealism is the key. Surrealism will shock your mind of its track. Surrealism can shut your mind down for a fraction of a second, allowing you to experience the world for just a moment uncensored. — Operation Mindfuck

See also:

News and Lies 2: On Post Truth

We Can Weaponize Fiction, But How Do We Monetize Truth?

BladeRunner and the Synthetic Panopticon