The word media comes from intermediate, operating between the news makers and the public. The propagandists are winning in the digital world of the ‘post-fact era’. The attention economy has transformed itself into the misinformation economy in which it is profitable for some players to use widespread lies, conspiracy theories, and other propaganda, especially through social media. PR experts now outnumber journalists. The media are now the lap dog of the government rather than the watchdog of government, and no longer advocate for the governed. It is now possible for an increasing group of highly professional spin doctors, as well as naïve citizen journalists, and trolls, (among them not only humans but robots) to flood the news with purposefully targeted misinformation. At onetime responsible media held the powerful accountable by asking them hard questions and reporting on what they do. Journalists are no longer the gate keeper of public discourse in the post-fact era.
In fact, algorithms are now so widespread, and so subtle, that some sociologists worry that they function as a form of “social control.” The role algorithms play in this dissemination process is the best kept secret of the internet giants which have already grown into huge global media companies obviously without taking any editorial responsibility for the nonsense they are multiplying on their platforms. A significant percentage of media accounts are believed to be social bots. Algorithms are replacing journalists, and social bots are substituting for real trolls. On behalf of their employers / operators they influence public opinion on the web using fake accounts on social media platforms where they foment hatred and distrust with thousands of varied comments, but especially by likes and shares which are used to trigger algorithms. Fake news may be the largest threat to our society, yet most people are not acutely aware of this, or how to spot it.
The success of authoritarian leaders like Putin in stabilizing their rule of power can be explained by the case they are increasingly taking over the media space. Putin understood the power of the media and immediately after assuming the presidency in 2000 began forcing major TV channels to submit to his will. Oligarch owners were either co-opted, jailed or exiled, and by 2006 most major Russian media were either directly or indirectly under Putin’s administration’s control. Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Alexey Gromov, controls the political coverage and decides what foreign and domestic policies are to be covered, and how and, more importantly what is not to be covered. At Putin’s annual press conference all media are compelled to cover these news stories in order to not lose out in web traffic, although there is precious little news to cover. Putin uses loyalist media to ask softball questions to appear an omniscient and wise leader. Bits of trivial information are spoon fed to reporters through ‘informal sources familiar with the matter’ – so even critical outlets end up promoting the Kremlin’s bent by reporting what is essentially non-news.1
At one time Trump ruled the tabloid media with a combination of on the record bluster and off the record bluster. During the election Trump threatened the media directly suggesting he would open up the libel laws so he can have an easier time suing. Once Bannon joined his election team, he turned on the news media with escalating rhetoric, labeling major outlets as ‘the enemy of the people.’ Trump’s antics about such issues as the NFL are not accidental, he is getting feedback and constantly incorporating trends into his messages. Recently Trump suggested federal powers be used to revoke news licenses of networks to punish media who make unflattering comments about him. One thing is clear in both the US and Russia, the media are often distracted with outrage over absurd behaviour and non-sensical public statements, while ignoring what those in power want to be ignored.
Since the 2010 US Supreme Court decision that removed virtually any limits on how much money on US federal elections, and how much individuals can give to political action committees, the economic elite have been funding various activities to influence election results. Why did hedge fund billionaire Bob Mercer who is part of the economic elite, spent millions during the 2016 campaign to get Trump elected? Hillary Clinton did propose a tax on high-frequency trading of securities, which is reportedly a favorite of Mercer’s Renaissance Technologies. The Mercer Family Foundation gave nearly $3.6 million to Citizens United between 2012 and 2014, which sued for access to Clinton Foundation-related emails and whose president David Bossie also got a senior job on the Trump campaign. They’ve also invested in the Government Accountability Institute (GAI), which publishes the conservative author Peter Schweizer. Mercer’s investments in GAI, Breitbart and Cambridge Analytica paid dividends in the 2016 election.
Breitbart is owned in part by Bob Mercer, and run by Steve Bannon. Schweizer’s book, Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, a fearmongering look at the Clinton finances, was an influential source of talking points for Trump allies during this election cycle, providing fodder for one of Trump’s early salvos against Clinton and regularly populating the pages of Breitbart. Bannon co-founded GAI with Schweizer in 2012; with the stated mission to investigate and expose crony capitalism, misuse of taxpayer monies, and other governmental corruption or malfeasance.2 GAI creates rigorous, fact-based indictments against major politicians, then shops them to mainstream media outlets to disseminate those findings to the broadest audience. Bannon together with Bob Mercer and his daughter Rebecca Mercer, worked to ensure the victory of Republican insurgent, Roy Moore, in the Alabama Senate primary – part of the ongoing efforts of economic elite to influence the system.
Cambridge Analytica is a data mining and data analysis company supported by the family of Bob Mercer that creates strategic communication for the election process. This company found Facebook profiles – especially people’s likes – could be correlated across millions of others to produce remarkably accurate results. With the knowledge of 150 likes this model could predict someone’s personality better than their spouse, and with 300 it understood you better than yourself. It’s about emotions – it takes your physical, mental, and lifestyle attributes and works out how people function, how they react emotionally. This means your mind can be changed – behavior can be predicted and controlled. People don’t know it’s happening to them. Their attitudes are being changed behind their back. This provides the economic elite with sophisticated knowledge capabilities to propagate narratives, ushering in a new era of propaganda.3
Now the war of the bots creates many ways public opinion can be massaged and manipulated. Before the US election hundreds upon hundreds of websites were set up to blast out just a few links – articles that were all pro-Trump. This automation was used to blast out a certain message to make Trump look like he’s consensus. The system is also used to identify an existing trending topic – even if it is fake news – then weaponize it. It took Hillary’s emails, turned the news agenda, and, most crucially, diverted the attention of the news cycle – for all intensive purpose with ‘strategic drowning of the message.’ There are still snakes in the grass. There are sleeper bots – twitter accounts that have only tweeted once or twice, now quiet, waiting for a trigger: some sort of crisis where they will rise up and come together to drown out all other information. Many of these techniques were refined in Russia.
Today we live in a world where those who can afford to spend the most money to have their version of it advertised widely define truth. Post-factual politics is a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored. The neoliberals promoted minimal government and regulations which led to the looting of the public coffers by tax cuts and the accumulation of ‘public’ debt. In Canada and the US, neoliberalism has not succeeded in reducing either poverty or inequality. Austerity policies are code to ensure that governments do not expand safety nets to handle the problems of under employment and insecurity created by neoliberal policies. Today in the post-fact era people are more likely to accept an argument based on their emotions and beliefs, rather than one based on facts.
The mass media do not supply just facts and data, they also provide information on the ultimate meaning and significance of events which individuals use in decision-making. Relying on the internet and social media-based news, and the accompanying rush to be first to report a story increases the opportunity for misinformation being introduced. The immediate problem is not the five conglomerates that control 90% of the media. The real problem is the economic elite who now have the capabilities to propagate narratives in the media irrespective of who owns it. The Supreme Court decision in 2010 in favour of Citizens United that freedom of speech prohibits the government from restricting how much money corporations and non-profit groups can spend on US federal elections, must be reconsidered. Such action is required to address the fact that in the post-fact era individual choice is being undermined – economic elite can now determine what you think.
1 The Putin paradox: In Putin’s Russia, the hollowed-out media mirrors the state. (24 Mar 2017) https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/24/putin-russia-media-state-government-control
2 Gray, Rosie. What Does the Billionaire Family Backing Donald Trump Really Want? (27 Jan 2017) https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/01/no-one-knows-what-the-powerful-mercers-really-want/514529/
3 Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media (26 Feb 2017) https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/26/robert-mercer-breitbart-war-on-media-steve-bannon-donald-trump-nigel-farage