Propaganda and Cynicism02-12-2020
By Roger Berkowitz
McKay Coppins created a fake Facebook account and dived head first into the world of Donald Trump’s propaganda machine. What he found surprised him. And yet, it is exactly what Hannah Arendt argued 70 years ago about the nature of modern propaganda. The point of propaganda is not to make people believe it. It is to foster cynicism so that we don’t know what to believe and come to believe that nothing is true, no facts are reliable, and the world is simply a battlefield for partisan ideas. In such a world, truth retreats behind success as the value to be sought. What matters is victory, no matter the cost. Arendt understood that when factual truths are denied and substituted for by lies, the result is "an absolute refusal to believe in the truth of anything, no matter how well this truth may be established." Such cynicism, Arendt argues, is the true goal of totalitarians: "The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any."
The story that unfurled in my Facebook feed over the next several weeks was, at times, disorienting. There were days when I would watch, live on TV, an impeachment hearing filled with damning testimony about the president’s conduct, only to look at my phone later and find a slickly edited video—served up by the Trump campaign—that used out-of-context clips to recast the same testimony as an exoneration. Wait, I caught myself wondering more than once, is that what happened today?
As I swiped at my phone, a stream of pro-Trump propaganda filled the screen: “That’s right, the whistleblower’s own lawyer said, ‘The coup has started …’ ” Swipe. “Democrats are doing Putin’s bidding …” Swipe. “The only message these radical socialists and extremists will understand is a crushing …” Swipe. “Only one man can stop this chaos …” Swipe, swipe, swipe.
I was surprised by the effect it had on me. I’d assumed that my skepticism and media literacy would inoculate me against such distortions. But I soon found myself reflexively questioning every headline. It wasn’t that I believed Trump and his boosters were telling the truth. It was that, in this state of heightened suspicion, truth itself—about Ukraine, impeachment, or anything else—felt more and more difficult to locate. With each swipe, the notion of observable reality drifted further out of reach.
What I was seeing was a strategy that has been deployed by illiberal political leaders around the world. Rather than shutting down dissenting voices, these leaders have learned to harness the democratizing power of social media for their own purposes—jamming the signals, sowing confusion. They no longer need to silence the dissident shouting in the streets; they can use a megaphone to drown him out. Scholars have a name for this: censorship through noise.