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Post-Fact Politics: Reviewing the History of Fake News and Propaganda

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Much has been made of the Washington Post’s recent “investigation,” published in late November by reporter Craig Timberg, that implicates countless U.S. media outlets in disseminating Russian government propaganda.  The Post’s attack on leftist alternative media included outlets such as Truthdig, Black Agenda Report, and CounterPunch, as well as conservative outlets like Drudge Report. The story, as CounterPunch readers may know, draws on “research” from several organizations, including one called “PropOrNot,” an anonymous group of “computer scientists, statisticians, national security professionals, journalists, and political activists, dedicated to identifying propaganda – particularly Russian propaganda targeting a U.S. audience.”  The group claims to have identified hundreds of websites that “qualify as Russian propaganda outlets,” reaching millions of Americans.

There are numerous legitimate criticisms of PropOrNot’s claims put forward by skeptics, as seen in recent reports by The Intercept and CounterPunch, among others. The Intercept’s piece focused on the lack of transparency of PropOrNot, considering the refusal of its members to be identified by name or present concrete evidence that various media are in secret collusion with the Ruskies. CounterPunch’s Joshua Frank spotlighted the amateurish, bush-league nature of PropOrNot, after pointing out to the group’s representative CounterPunch’s history of criticizing Russia, upon which it was promptly removed from PropOrNot’s list of propaganda pushers. Revealingly, PropOrNot indicated to Frank that they would also consider removing other progressive media sources from the list if representatives of those outlets contacted them to complain.  It’s nice to know PropOrNot has such impeccable investigative standards for identifying propaganda.

But my piece is not primarily about PropOrNot.  And it’s not about other mainstream or liberal media stories published by National Public Radio and The Intercept alleging that fake news is being disseminated by savvy American business elites, right-wing Trump-allied media organizations, and random Facebook users. No, my concern is far broader, because I fear that something very important is getting lost in this narrow fixation on fake news.  My point is simple: fake news is nothing new.  We have long lived in a post-truth society, with political propaganda dominating the “mainstream” news media, and contributing to disinformation campaigns aimed at manipulating public opinion.  Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky documented the propagandistic elements of the news media in detail in their seminal Manufacturing Consent (MC) nearly three decades ago.  Other works preceding MC – such as Herbert Schiller’s The Mind Managers – also emphasized the efforts of political, economic, and media elites to manipulate public preferences via propaganda.

I’ve devoted my academic career to spotlighting propaganda, writing numerous books on the subject.  So it’s more than a little disturbing when I see references to “propaganda” in the corporate press that completely obscure the broader role that manipulation plays in reinforcing domestic political-economic elites’ agendas and in padding the pocketbooks of corporate media conglomerates.  Empirical media studies have documented since the 1970s the overwhelming government dominance of the news. Government control of the news is uncontroversially labeled propaganda in dictatorships like North Korea and the old Soviet Union, but when journalists working for private media corporations willingly roll over for government interests, allowing them to monopolize newspapers and the airwaves in favor of their own agendas, we call it “objectivity.”  So it is in an effort to add some sanity to our modern discussion of propaganda that I draw CounterPunch readers’ attention to the longstanding existence of fake news propaganda in U.S. media.

In the modern era of “new media,” including the rise of cable news and online media, fake news propaganda consistently defines the information conveyed to the public.  One of the earliest examples was the blatant propaganda pedaled by George H. W. Bush during the first 1991 Gulf War, which depicted Saddam Hussein and Iraqi troops as stealing Kuwaiti hospital incubators, thereby creating a humanitarian crisis that necessitated military intervention. It’s now well known (among those who care to know) that the incubator story was manufactured, despite Bush citing it as a reason for war.  The story was fabricated by the Kuwaiti royal family, which sought to create a pretext for U.S. intervention, relying on a fake “account” of “events” in a Kuwaiti hospital, in which a 15-year-old girl, “Nayirah,” claimed in front of a U.S. Congressional human rights committee to have personally witnessed Iraqi premature babies thrown to the cold floor to die, as Iraqi troops stole incubators to use in Iraqi hospitals.  The story was repeatedly endlessly in U.S. media, with scarcely any effort to investigate it, despite the later revelation that Nayirah was daughter to the Kuwaiti ambassador, and was coached in delivering her lines by the U.S. public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, which was paid by the Kuwait royal family to gin up public support for war. Despite no evidence that the incubator “atrocity” even occurred, the campaign was successful in providing U.S. leaders the justification they needed to attack an oil-rich Middle Eastern nation that had invaded an oil-rich ally.

The fabrication of the incubator atrocity takes on added historical significant as of late, with American audiences largely being spared the reality of real premature babies being removed from incubators in Syrian hospitalities that are being bombed out by the Syrian and Russian governments. The dismantlement of Syria is a tragedy of horrific proportions, in which the U.S., Syria, and Russia are guilty. U.S. attempts to destabilize the Assad regime empowered radical Islamist groups and other rebels, in the latter’s destructive and largely futile effort to violently overthrow Assad. Most Americans scarcely notice this tragedy, due to the long-standing parochial nature of the mass public and its nativist obsession with all things American, at the expense of understanding what’s happening in the rest of the world.

Countless other examples of media-disseminated fake news exist outside the first Gulf war. I summarize some of the highlights below:

-The Bush administration’s “embedding” of “mainstream” media journalists with U.S. military units in the 2003 Iraq war, which required that these reporters sign agreements conceding power to the military to screen and potentially censor news reports and information in advance of them being published or broadcast. No self-respecting independent journalist would go to bed with military planners, but that’s precisely what happened in the invasion of Iraq.

-The Bush administration’s successful efforts to pay numerous media pundits to blatantly pedal administration views in American media op-eds, as seen in the writings of shameless propagandists, including Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher, and Michael McManus. This scandal revealed the utter contempt the Bush administration had for the press, viewing it as a passive medium to be manipulated at will.

-The age-old fixation of American consumers on celebrity tabloid stories and publications, and the rise of tabloid news in recent years.  In past decades, there was a more clearly delineated separation between tabloid “news” content and hard news content. This has now changed, with mass media increasingly pedaling dubious “news” stories with no political value, and minimal social value, including the deaths of Michael Jackson and Anna Nicole Smith, the British royal wedding, the Drew Peterson murder trial, and regular updates on public entertainment figures such as Paris Hilton, the Kardashians, Lindsay Lohan, and other dregs of the western world. The growing fixation on these stories in daytime “news” programs and on cable siphons attention away from important national and international news stories that Americans need to know about. Tabloid “news” is a junk-food filler with no educational value, but its propaganda value lies in its ability to depoliticize the mass public.

-The blatantly propagandistic pre-war coverage of the 2003 Iraq war, which repeated ad nausea fraudulent Bush administration claims that Iraq retained ties to al Qaeda terrorists, possessed large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, was near to developing nuclear weapons, and could effectively attack U.S. targets within 45 minutes after an order were given.  None of these claims were remotely true, as is now universally recognized. Perhaps most disturbing of all were the numerous records and statements of weapons-proliferation and intelligence experts at the United Nations, International Atomic Energy Agency, and U.S. intelligence agencies, which disputed Bush’s claims, but were consistently ignored in the run-up to war, in favor of administration propaganda. The Bush administration, as has been shown in numerous reports, knowingly manipulated information to make the case for war, ignoring the evidence contradicting claims of a threat, and despite the reality that the administration was uncertain about the extent to which Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

-The obsession of U.S. officials and media with demonizing Iran, falsely claiming that irrefutable evidence exists of an Iranian nuclear “threat.”  U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Iran stopped development in its nuclear weapons program in the early 2000s, and no evidence was ever presented during the IAEA’s investigations in the 2000s and 2010s that Iran was enriching uranium to use in developing nuclear weapons. Still, the Bush and Obama administrations routinely stressed this false narrative.  U.S. media outlets, learning nothing from the Iraq fiasco, uncritically repeated official propaganda claims, in contradiction to available intelligence.

-The rightwing fabrication that “Obamacare” should be opposed because it represented a fascist effort to murder Granny, via the “death panels” conspiracy theory.  This conspiracy was popularized by American rightwing propaganda agents like Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin, the former of which pushed this propaganda story on the floor of the House of Representatives, and the latter of which nearly derailed the entire health care reform after a Facebook post claiming Obama was set on murdering Down Syndrome children and the elderly. There were no death panels in the Affordable Care Act, but that didn’t stop reactionary media like Fox News and rightwing talk radio from repeating the “death panels” fiction endlessly.  Sadly, U.S. commentary on health care reform was dominated by absurdist propaganda about secret (read non-existent) government efforts to murder citizens.  Instead, discussions could have focused on the actual shortcomings of the law, such as its failure to regulate insurance premiums and other health care costs, and the empowerment of corporate influence peddlers in Washington, in opposition to more efficient, non-profit alternatives to providing health care such as the “public option” and universal health care.

-The horrid “coverage” of global warming and climate change in the U.S. media, which has consistently embraced the false claims of fossil-fuel funded think tanks and pundits claiming that the planet is not warming, and if it is, that it is due merely to natural fluctuations in temperature over time.  This position, if one could even call it that, is rejected by virtually every climatologist on the planet, and is nothing more than blatant propaganda in service of the fossil fuel industry and their useful idiots in Congress (and now the White House), who are dead set on dramatically escalating the threat of global warming.  As more societal attention has been directed as of late to the scientific consensus that global warming is real, almost entirely caused by humans, and a serious threat to ecosystems, species, and possibly even human survival, corporate media have sought to obscure this reality at every turn. Media outlets like Media Matters for America should be commended for documenting the journalistic efforts to downplay climate change, as seen in the overwhelming majority of media weather reports on forest fires, coastal flooding, and heat waves which simply refuse to situate these extreme weather events within the broader context of climate change, despite numerous scientific studies concluding that extreme weather becomes more probable with global warming.

These are merely a few of the highest profile examples of fake news propaganda that have been embraced among “respectable” U.S. media reporters.  Certainly, other aspects of how the U.S. media propagandize the public should also be stressed.  For example, the shameless partisan politicking of liberal and conservative media outlets like MSNBC, Fox News, and talk radio, which intentionally limit the range of views expressed to those deemed acceptable by government elites of one party or the other. To this propaganda culture we should add the long history of gullibility on the part of the American public, large portions of which prefer infantilizing memes (which are now used in place of making arguments with actual evidence), the legions of chain emails of dubious veracity that are sent interpersonally every day, thereby contributing to the dumbing down of the public at large, and now the effort of various political and business elites to manipulate online social media via the creation of fake news.

Perhaps most important as of late are the numerous frauds perpetrated on the mass public by officials themselves, who make use of the media to pedal what should be recognized as obvious propaganda. One could include on this list the entirety of Donald Trump’s electoral campaign, which was a shameless fraud and a cruel hoax exacted on an increasingly politically illiterate and gullible mass public.  Non-partisan fact checkers at Politifact concluded that, after examining hundreds of Trump’s statements, just 15 percent could be classified as “mostly true” or “true.”  Hillary Clinton’s campaign was also allergic to the truth, as Politifact concluded that just half of the Democratic candidate’s statements could be classified as true.

The rotten core of U.S. mass media untruths has an obvious foundation in the chronic deceptions of the American political class.  Bush administration Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove was fond of denigrating Americans who were part of the “reality based community,” which believes that “solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality…that’s not the way the world really works anymore.  We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.  And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.  We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you [referring to Americans and journalists] will be left to just study what we do.”

Tragically, the Bush administration’s blatant contempt for concepts like truth, its aversion to facts, and its hatred of a democratically informed public, is not restricted to one presidency.  Trump’s entire campaign was based on a willful contempt for facts and evidence, and his supporters – for example the reactionary pundit Scottie Nell Hughes – gain infamy for claiming that “there’s no such thing” as “facts.” Hughes’ cynical nihilism shouldn’t be surprising in light of the staggering and embarrassing failure of the mass public to hold Trump accountable for his countless lies and his contempt for any facts that contradict his pre-existing beliefs and agenda.  In the post truth political world, electoral campaigns are centered around larger than life “personalities” who hold little interest in inconvenient truths, evidence, or facts.

And for those who wish to hold up the Obama administration as a shining example of officials committed to facts – don’t.  Obama and his foot soldiers in liberal media outlets have long shown an aversion to evidence or facts that run counter to their preferred worldviews.  Aside from the example of misinformation on Iran that was discussed above, the administration displays a shameless commitment to Orwellian doublespeak on many other fronts.  One need look no further than Obama’s manipulative 2008 campaign rhetoric promising that he would be the “anti-war” candidate, which is juxtaposed with his militaristic behavior, initiating or escalating wars in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, and his countless illegal bombings and assassinations of other sovereign nations in the name of “fighting terrorism.” Or one could look at his campaign promises to promote universal health care and re-unionization (via the Employee Free Choice Act), which were framed as vital to aiding main street America. The administration promptly abandoned these proposals once in office, embracing a center-right neoliberal agenda. Revealing the administration’s deception, the president never even tried to sell these proposals.

Most recently, Obama’s Attorney General Loretta Lynch reconfirmed the president’s commitment to Orwellian propaganda when she announced that the administration supports both the local police and Native American protesters (and their supporters) in the dispute over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The repression against non-violent DAPL protesters was swift and violent, as is to be expected in an era of hyper-militarized local police forces.  But to cynically claim as Lynch did that Obama opposes the use of violence, while also supporting local police engaging in violence against peaceful protesters, is an Orwellian feat indeed.  It displays an obvious contempt for those committed to environmental conservation, sustainable development, and who are concerned with averting the worst consequences of climate change.

Spotlighting propaganda is an important goal in any society that cares about democracy. But we do little to understand how manipulation and indoctrination work if we engage in false narratives that unfairly demonize progressive media, while ignoring the actual propaganda that’s perpetrated in the “mainstream” media. In an era of record mass distrust of the media, efforts to identify propaganda as merely the work of “others” are hopelessly out of touch with growing public anger at officialdom and the officially-allied media propaganda we euphemistically call “news.”

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Anthony DiMaggio is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He holds a PhD in political communication, and is the author of the newly released: Selling War, Selling Hope: Presidential Rhetoric, the News Media, and U.S. Foreign Policy After 9/11 (Paperback: 2015). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com

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