America’s Propaganda Apocalypse Was Decades in the Making

Years of policy failures built our modern media reality long before Elon Musk shared his first meme. Reformers need all the help they can get to reverse the tide.

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Americans have always had a strained relationship with factual reality.

From early efforts to redefine genocide as the justified expression of deity-sanctioned exceptionalism, to generations of marketing designed to cultivate inadequacy, Americans have been conditioned to conflate artifice and reality. While the internet has been a democratizing force, the attention economy has also exploited our naivete at unprecedented scale. Americans are all too familiar with the resulting existential havoc, be it the rise of the QAnon cult, the dangerous impact of Covid conspiracy theories, or meme-fueled election denialism.

This“death-by-infotainment” was long-predicted by a steady stream of academics, who warned that decades of media and policy failures, mindless consolidation, and a general disinterest in adequately funding an independent press, had created a fertile playground for collective delusion at the hands of an unlimited supply of snake oil salesmen.

The primary beneficiary? Corporations and the U.S. right wing, which have worked tirelessly over the last 50 years to build an alternative-reality propaganda apparatus designed to cordon off Americans into potent epistemic bubbles and echo chambers, unchallenged by the pesky confines of critical journalism, science, regulatory oversight, or reality itself. The check has come due, and despite the media’s newfound obsession with disinformation, meaningful reform has proven hard to come by.

A history of delusion

Propaganda and misinformation, of course, aren’t new. Human history is peppered with the use of propaganda by governments, corporations, and militaries keen on shaping public perception in their favor. The tactic more concretely came into U.S. focus in 1918 as governments tried to galvanize public support and recruitment efforts ahead of World War I.

“Mass communication, in a word, is neither good nor bad; it is simply a force and, like any other force, it can be used either well or ill,” Aldous Huxley observed in 1958. “Used in one way, the press, the radio, and the cinema are indispensable to the survival of democracy. Used in another way, they are among the most powerful weapons in the dictator’s armory.“

In the 1970s, corporations and the right wing responded to the rise of successful auto safety and anti-smoking activism with the creation of the conservative think tank—covertly-funded, pseudo-academic enterprises often designed to use cherry-picked data to derail consensus and reform on a bevy of issues ranging from consumer protection to pollution standards.

Exxon spent years using such think tanks to spread climate change denialism disproven by the company’s own research. The tobacco industry spent years using think tanks to deny the proven link between smoking and cancer. U.S. broadband giants routinely use such organizations to pretend that broadband monopolies aren’t a problem for American consumers.

At the same time corporations were injecting pseudo-science into the discourse, they were learning to game the country’s regulators. Corporations now routinely flood regulators with waves of artificial support from fake or even dead Americans for government policies in stark opposition to the public interest.

By the 1980s, the GOP had embraced AM radio, creating a cottage industry of controversial shock jocks paid to inform partisans their very worst impulses were, in fact, correct. In the 1990s, as U.S. media began to consolidate, the party focused, successfully, on supplanting real local TV news broadcasts with homogenized propaganda.

The right-wing grip on propaganda

More recently, the GOP has capitalized on the death of local newspapers by creating “pink slime” news operations: fake local papers designed to look like real journalism, but specifically built to spread political propaganda to an American audience increasingly incapable of discerning fact from fabulism.

The GOP has also begun heavily funding vast networks of right-wing influencers, pundits, and online pseudo-news empires, all working to generate a vast ocean of often incoherent outrage and moral panics, custom built to distract the press, public, and policymakers from an ever-growing platter of U.S. policy failures.

While the internet has received its fair and often deserved share of blame for a marked rise in discord and delusion, data suggests the real problem began decades earlier with the rise of a consolidated mass media apparatus and the birth of Fox News: arguably the most successful modern propaganda machine ever built.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 election win, researchers studied 4 million stories to determine the driving force behind modern American conspiratorial thinking. The authors of Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics found their answer in cable news.

“As we analyzed these millions of stories, looking both at producers and consumers, a pattern repeated again and again that had more to do with the traditional media than the internet,” Harvard-based author Yochai Benkler observed in 2018.

Research suggests that while Russian trolls and tech giants often do play an ugly and clumsy role exploiting the malleable brains of fact-averse Americans, the lion’s share of the blame for our information apocalypse rests squarely on a very broken traditional media industry and politicians that long ago abandoned democratically representative reform.

The GOP’s manufactured ideological bubble hasn’t been without its downsides. There’s a fleeting awareness among some right-wing strategists that the party’s extreme ideological isolation—which has included a refusal to participate in public election debates—helped contribute to a wave of bizarre, low quality candidates unpopular in the midterms.

The natural counterweight to America’s growing propaganda problem, real journalism, has proven comically ill-prepared for the challenge. Decades of media consolidation and layoffs have resulted in a sorry soup of homogenized gibberish that thrives on superficiality and controversy in a quest for advertisement engagement.

The problem is particularly pronounced on the local level, where quality local papers have been eviscerated by hedge fund managers, creating vast news deserts where most local controversies and scandals now routinely go unreported. The result is a less informed and more divided public and a measurable impact on electoral outcomes.

The diversity-challenged U.S. press has been widely criticized for rampant “both sides” or “view from nowhere” reporting that often panders to right-wing ideology in an effort to reach “objectivity” in a bid for illusory objectivity. As a result, modern U.S. ad-based access journalism has proven easily and repeatedly exploited by authoritarian propagandists and corporations alike.

The mainstream press has responded to propaganda-fueled authoritarianism by either pretending the problem doesn’t exist or, as in the case of major outlets like CNN and CBS, shifting their coverage and editorial positions even further to the right to ensure they’re well positioned to profit off of controversy and chaos.

The result is a mish-mash of pulled punches and distortions, such as when the New York Times recently described Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ racist efforts to censor childrens’ books as a “brand building” exercise intended to “take on the education establishment.” The paper also routinely stenographs bad faith right-wing propaganda on LGBTQ+ issues.

While the U.S. left wing is no stranger to ideological bubbles, there’s simply no competent alternative in progressive politics to counter propaganda’s impact. Despite tired tropes about a “liberal media,” the lion’s share of U.S. media now caters toward centrist or right-wing ideologies, with progressive journalism relegated to the under-funded fringe.

As electoral demographics have become increasingly unfavorable to the GOP, the party has shifted its focus toward social media in a bid to further control and shape the public discourse. To accomplish their goal, the GOP began framing Silicon Valley’s belated and sloppy content moderation of hate speech and propaganda as “censorship” of conservative thought. There’s no evidence to support the claim; studies have repeatedly shown that the U.S. right wing tends to be more heavily moderated on social media not because they’re being unfairly censored by technology giants, but because as a party that’s drowning in propaganda, they’re dramatically more likely to spread misinformation online.

The GOP’s attempt to frame any online content moderation they don’t like as “censorship” has been buoyed by Elon Musk, who overpaid for Twitter under the pretense of “protecting free speech,” only to turn around and ban both left-wing activists and content critical of the planetary elite.

Is there a fix? 

There are solutions to the U.S. propaganda problem, but policymakers show little real interest in pursuing them at scale. In part because the controversy-laden attention economy is simply too profitable, but also because as a highly propagandized nation, the U.S. is perpetually distracted, distrusting, and resistant to meaningful reform—quite by design.

Finland has spent years boosting media criticism education standards and teaching children about propaganda in a bid to fend off information warfare by neighboring Russia. When such efforts are attempted here in the States—as when New Jersey attempted to modestly ramp up media literacy education—right-wing propagandists quickly decried it as child indoctrination.

The distrust propaganda cultivates is routinely exploited to undermine any attempt at reform. These efforts are deemed censorship, an argument that itself is propaganda, creating an ouroboros of bullshit the country struggles to disentangle from.

A recent effort by the Department of Homeland Security to create a Disinformation Governance Board to study propaganda specifically aimed at migrants was shut down after widespread criticism and worry that the U.S. government, itself no stranger to using propaganda, couldn’t be trusted to study even very narrow aspects of the problem.

Some local news dysfunction could be addressed by restoring media consolidation rules stripped away by the Trump administration, but the nation’s top media regulator currently lacks the voting majority needed to make such a reversal thanks to a sustained industry propaganda campaign aimed at keeping popular reformer Gigi Sohn from being seated to the FCC.

Countless academics have long argued that U.S. journalism should not be a for-profit venture and is in desperate need of public funding. Those conversations are generally a non-starter, despite evidence that countries with greater public-funding of journalism traditionally enjoy healthier, more vibrant democracies.

Modern propaganda is successful, in no small part, because it exhausts the public’s critical thinking capabilities. This act of “flooding the zone with shit,” to quote a top right wing propagandist, erodes already shaky public trust in modern institutions, making them more susceptible to radical ideologies like white supremacy, unchecked corporate cronyism, authoritarianism, and even the dismantling of foundational rights and democracy itself.

As a result of the GOP’s ideological crusade to dictate the contours of reality, America is mired in a sea of nonsense designed to infuriate, distract, and divide.

Fueled by propaganda and enabled by a controversy-hungry press, even basic efforts at reform such as implementing power-saving improvements in gaming consoles—or having adult conversations about the health hazards of gas stoves—are guaranteed to result in controversy and distraction, ensuring more meaningful reforms are quickly starved of oxygen.

The end result is an endless parade of facts-optional controversies on every subject imaginable, increasingly culminating in violence against marginalized communities, as well as a devastating impact on what should be fairly non-controversial public health messaging.

Fixing the problem requires coming to grips with the decades of cross-sector policy failures that fertilized our descent into madness. It requires tougher education standards, creative new models to fund independent journalism, and the rise of smaller, more resilient, decentralized social media networks free from the whims of egomaniacal billionaires.

The U.S. shift toward polarization is often treated as an inherent and unavoidable component of the American DNA. In reality, this dysfunction has been carefully cultivated for decades with a singular goal: the steady erosion of meaningful consensus and reform, and the establishment of an anti-democratic party free from the pesky confines of electoral reality.

Our modern media reality was carefully constructed by a rotating collection of powerful partisan strategists and opportunists keen on undermining science, journalism, and observable fact in a quest for power and wealth, dooming us all to a future of bottomless controversy, intentional radicalization, and some of the dumbest cultural discourse imaginable.

There is a path forward, but any cultural immune response requires finally embracing policies that prioritize something other than our relentless obsession with personal self-enrichment and attention, and an independent, well-funded press with the courage to speak truth to power.

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