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 [then] 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 the 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. 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 later, Kerry 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 had been 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 CNN 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 sure 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—again—for a man who described himself as “a genius” and in the same breath proposed to commit literal war crimes, break treaties, and steal the resources of other nations. They’ve been effectively blinded to such a degree that the crimes that Trump appears to have committed right in the open after taking office make no difference to them.
Dismediation is hard to combat, as it distorts not facts, but the means by which facts can be understood. It’s like trying to play chess 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 has long engaged 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, estimated 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.”
In 2016 it appeared the Trump campaign was 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. Didn’t matter, in the event.
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, in November 2020?
“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 the authorities, in whom we place our confidence to do so for us. This 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 the 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”?
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 intolerable, in any cause, however just.
Editors’ note: The original version of this essay appeared at The Awl on November 3, 2016.