Democracy in America is in crisis. At the core of the crisis is an artifact of history known as “the First Amendment.” In modern US culture, amendments are considered sacred and violating them tantamount to sacrilege.
The text of the first amendment reads as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Most people assume that the First Amendment means very simply that people can say anything that’s on their mind. For the best part of two and a half centuries, most people carried on their lives with that idea in their mind. Alas, that is no longer the case. Censorship is in the air of the times (and “The Times” or NYT). Traditional book publishers have started censoring the already published writings of Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie, apparently to please vocal groups of citizen-censors.
But the focus is now on social media. In a powerful and lengthy piece for The Tablet, Jacob Siegel tells the story of how the control not just of speech but of “truth” has become an obsession and has become not only industrial but deeply ideological, potentially transforming the common understanding of democracy and the freedoms people associate with it.
Twenty years ago, President George W Bush launched the meme of a “global war on terror” as a pretext for physical war in the Middle East. That died a slow death. The US political establishment, spearheaded by Democrats, has now launched the meme of a global war on disinformation. Siegel calls it “one of the largest and most powerful censorship machines in existence under the guise of fighting disinformation.”
The national security framework some call “the deep state,” has long been practicing disinformation in the dark. Now the practice is out in the open. “Since 2016,” Siegel informs us, “the federal government has spent billions of dollars on turning the counter-disinformation complex into one of the most powerful forces in the modern world: a sprawling leviathan with tentacles reaching into both the public and private sector, which the government uses to direct a ‘whole of society’ effort that aims to seize total control over the internet and achieve nothing less than the eradication of human error.”
Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:
A recently launched extension of the historical post-World War II military-industrial complex designed to mobilize human, governmental and technological resources with the objective of replacing the capacity of natural human discourse to convey meaning and intention with a hyperreal linguistic and ideational construct made up of a small corpus of constantly repeated imaginary facts and artificially defined norms invented by members of the complex.
Human beings are the one animal species that has made both an art and a science of the will to power. They exercise power abusively as soon as they acquire it and strive to defend it whenever they feel it is threatened. Other animals use power to establish their individual place in a pecking order and maintain their access to resources available to all. For humans, power becomes an end in itself, one that sociologists and psychologists can analyze, attempt to understand and put labels on.
The power-wielding humans Siegel describes as members of the counter-disinformation complex have weaponized a technology potentially far more destructive than even nuclear bombs, which are merely capable of destroying people and property on a geographically limited scale. The powerful new stealth weapon, the invisible algorithm, aims at reducing an entire population to mindless obedience by imposing a conformity of language and thought that George Orwell could only envy.
Siegel explains how the deception known as Russiagate spawned a profound change in the spirit and practice of governance in the US. It became an object of obsession for many in the media during the Trump years. I wrote about the case of The New York Times back in 2019, when Executive editor, Dean Baquet privately admitted to the newspaper’s persistent error by explaining “that’s what happens when a story looks a certain way for two years.” Baquet thus revealed the level of hyperreality attained by NYT, an outfit more concerned by how a story “looks” than whether it bears any resemblance to truth. Significantly, the paper of record continued to push Russiagate for years after Baquet’s admission and never retracted or apologized for its error.
The heritage of Russiagate is, of course, still with us, both for the government and in the media. It promoted a Manichean perception of Russia as an inveterate evildoer. That perception became a belief that proved to be very useful to fuel the Biden administration’s commitment to feeding the war in Ukraine in order to weaken evil Russia, the nation that single-handedly deprived Hillary Clinton of the presidency in 2016.
Siegel recounts in detail how what began with Russiagate and Hamilton 68’s abusive “new tool to track Russian disinformation” ended up inventing and perfecting a new form of meta-disinformation. It successfully fostered an algorithmic culture that consolidated social media’s servile relationship with government.
“Twitter’s algorithms,” Siegel explains, “turned the Russian-influence-exposing ‘dashboard’ into a major news story. Behind the scenes, Twitter executives quickly figured out that it was a scam. When Twitter reverse-engineered the secret list, it found, according to the journalist Matt Taibbi, that ‘instead of tracking how Russia influenced American attitudes, Hamilton 68 simply collected a handful of mostly real, mostly American accounts and described their organic conversations as Russian scheming.’”
Siegel continues: “The discovery prompted Twitter’s head of trust and safety, Yoel Roth, to suggest… that the company take action to expose the hoax and ‘call this out on the bullshit it is.’” But “neither Roth nor anyone else said a word.”
The reason for their silence was simple. Too many people whose interests could be linked together were involved. The “war against disinformation,” according to Siegel, “became the great moral crusade of its time.” This new “complex” brought together “CIA officers at Langley… hip young journalists in Brooklyn, progressive nonprofits in D.C., George Soros-funded think tanks in Prague, racial equity consultants, private equity consultants, tech company staffers in Silicon Valley, Ivy League researchers, and failed British royals.” The motley crowd later included never Trump Republicans who “joined forces with the Democratic National Committee, which declared online disinformation ‘a whole-of-society problem that requires a whole-of-society response.’”
The history of free speech in the US has undergone radical change since the beginning of the century. The trauma of 9/11, amplified by the media, allowed George W Bush’s administration to declare an age of terror, justifying a series of wars on the ground in the oil-rich Middle East. The deeper but equally destructive response was the massive propagation of unrestricted, invisible surveillance.
Contemporary with President Bush’s “global war on terror” was the rise of social media. For the average citizen, social media meant speech would be freer than ever before. How naïve of them! The promoters of platforms and the national security establishment understood that it facilitated a different freedom: the freedom of pervasive surveillance. Private speech was now public and could be policed. Even individuals started playing the game by doing their own policing. This came to be called “cancel culture.” Speech was free but those who sought to punish speech, whether in the government or the citizenry, were even freer.
No sooner did the war on terror die down than Donald Trump, a businessman turned entertainer turned politician, entered stage right. He captured everyone’s attention by confounding his three vocations. He knew that the business of politics is entertainment. Or rather, politics (i.e. control of how people think) is the ultimate business of entertainment. Trump literally talked out of three sides of his mouth. He connected broadcast (cable news) and social media (especially Twitter) to become the ultimate hyperreal hero.
Thanks to Trump, free speech became a free-for-all that ennobled “alternative facts.” Propaganda has always existed, but in the past, propagandists were good at making its enormities unnoticeable. Trump turned the old strategy of propaganda on its head. He broadcast it. He shouted it to the heavens. The adepts of old, subtle propaganda quickly adapted to the new reality. Disinformation had become a way of life. In America’s competitive society, it was simply a contest to see whose disinformation could be more brazen.
The game then took another turn. Purveyors of disinformation vied to be the first to accuse others of disinformation. For something false to seem true all one had to do is proclaim that the opposite is false.
In a nutshell, that is the perverse logic of the world Siegel describes in his article. It’s a world we all now live in.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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