January 6, 2009
The Left's Net Feedback StrategyBy J.R. Dunn
We often hear that the Left owns the Net. Like much of what you hear, this is not strictly true. There are no lack of right-of-center websites of all types ranging from personal blogs to influential portals and webzines. (You're reading one of those.) If the total sites of both right and left were comprehensively counted and compared -- probably an impossibility at this point -- the number of sites on our end would likely equal or even surpass those of the left.
It would be more accurate to say that the Left uses the Net better. As the late election clearly revealed, they have yet to be matched in their online organizational and fundraising capabilities. That won't last -- the situation is being confronted by both GOP and independent conservative organizations, who will catch up in short order.
But there is one other major and thus far overlooked example of online left-wing superiority. That is in using the Web as a means of manipulating the national media. The American left -- not to make too great a point of it, the most irresponsible, unbalanced, and uncontrolled faction of the American left -- has contrived a methods of leveraging the particular strengths of Internet communications, its swiftness, ubiquity, and universality, to shape the information reaching public over traditional media outlets.
Fantastic rumors, distortions, exaggerations, and flat-out lies appear on the Web, either on established sites such as Kos or DU, or one-off blogs out of a basement in the back of beyond. These factoids are then reported in the legacy media as "news", exactly as if they were events taking place in the real, three-dimensional world, with witnesses, leaving physical evidence, and having a measurable effect on their surroundings. At the same time, they begin another run through cyberspace, this time appearing on more "serious" sites, having been "legitimized" though their exposure by the mass media. This establishes a kind of feedback loop, the effect and impact of these items being amplified during each round. This recycling continues until the story reaches a saturation point and is dropped, usually to make way for another. Alternately, the story can begin with legacy media sources before being picked up on the Net, suffering limitless distortion and elaboration through comment pages, blogs, and other means.
Eventually these stories, despite their veracity or lack of it, become established as irrefutable fact, to be discussed in editorials, mentioned in commentaries, eventually to find their way into the history books, in much the same way as Hitler's jig and the Polish lancers charging German tanks. Though utterly bogus (Hitler stomped his foot once on being told of the French surrender, the film being looped by British propagandists to make him look as if he was dancing a mad, one-legged jig, while a film of ambushed Polish dragoons -- mounted infantry armed with grenades and rifles -- was relabeled "lancers" by Josef Goebbels in an effort to make the Poles appear stupid and backward.), these incidents are to this day retailed as fact. Thanks to the Net, we don't have to wait quite so long anymore. Propaganda has been universalized, every man his own Ministry of Truth.
(Anyone who doubts that the Net influences the legacy media is invited to read this piece from The Register, the UK's wild-eyed but usually accurate IT gazette. It's in the section dealing with the Telegraph titled, "Old Media is Hooked on the Drug that Kills It". No, this ain't Granddaddy's media.)
Examples of the process over the past few years are myriad. There are few stories with political content that were not subject to this feedback treatment to some extent or another. The Bush administration's transformation into a neverending horror serial can be credited almost solely to this process. Richard Cheney, a hands-on administrator with a clear idea of his duties during wartime, became Darth Vader, the dark presence behind every conspiracy. Karl Rove, a talented if limited political operative, became a lurid Bond villain, manipulating the country through secret and unfathomable means. Bush himself was turned into a combination of a backwoods feeb and Attila the Hun.
Guantanamo Bay, site of one of the best-administered military prisons in the historical record, became Dachau. Abu Ghraib, admittedly nowhere near as well administered, became a torture chamber. A method of harsh interrogation used against only three terrorist kingpins under emergency conditions -- they were believed to know of imminent plans to target American cities -- was expanded into a vast program of torture of innocents. Programs to monitor terrorist financing and communications became weapons of oppression aimed at Americans. The Iraq War as a whole was transformed from a slow, dirty but necessary effort to break the seamless wall of Middle-Eastern anti-Western tyrannies into a war of annihilation carried out on behalf of the oil industry.
None of these examples was more distorted than the incident that brought them about. You'd think that the 9/11 attack, one of the most thoroughly documented incidents of the millennial era (it took place, after all, in one of the largest cities in the world), would leave very little room to allow for paranoid conspiracy theories, but you'd be wrong. An entire Internet-based movement, the 9/11 Truthers, succeeded in befouling the incident so thoroughly that today a near-majority of Americans are "certain" that some form of domestic conspiracy was responsible. It doesn't matter that virtually every last moment of activity involving the Al-Queda strike teams from the time they entered the country has been accounted for. The Truthers, through error, distortion, and flat-out lies, have constructed an enormous and recomplicated edifice of virtual confusion, one regularly reflected in the mass media. Those familiar with my debate with James Fetzer, dean of the Truthers (if "debate" is the proper term - it doesn't seem right for the process of listing one error after another for pages on end) are aware that not a single factoid produced by the Truthers merits serious attention. But somehow, this revelation has never made it into the legacy media stories. The 9/11 Truther effort could have acted as a model for the creation of the virtual feedback loop. It's possible that's exactly what happened.
There's nothing new about this. American communists possessed an entire cadre of individuals -- Scott Nearing, Edgar Snow, Walter Duranty, and Herbert Matthews among them -- who could be depended on to echo the Communist Party line in the media of the day. The term for these figures, some of them Marxists, some not, was "transmission belts". The sole novel element is the Net, which lends the process a swiftness and universality not available during the 30s and 40s. Today anyone with a modem and a chip on his shoulder can become a conduit of disinformation. Rumor has become not only a major source of news, but perhaps the major source.
The impetus behind this is straightforward: information is power. If you wish to wield political power on any level in the Millennial era, you must to some extent control information. The Net has long since become the major information source for most adults in the Western world, in large part supplanting the mass media. Anyone attempting to manipulate media must control the Net. Politicians ignore this fact at their peril. (This was one of the major errors of the Bush Administration. Neither Rove, Cheney, nor Bush himself revealed any awareness of the new role of the Internet. It can be presumed that future GOP politicians will not repeat the error.) Using rumor, innuendo, and falsehood, the customary tools of the propagandist amplified by the Net, political operatives can discredit, confuse, and demoralize the opposition with little effort or expense, if not going so far as to distort reality itself. In this schema, the role of the "major media" -- perhaps its final role -- is that of a bullhorn, amplifying and repeating information drawn from another source.
This process reached its apotheosis with the 2008 campaign, and nowhere more than in the treatment of Sarah Palin. The vast media/Internet juggernaut was turned against Palin almost as soon as her candidacy was announced. Neither the McCain campaign, the GOP, or conservative commentators as a whole revealed any sign that they understood what had hit them, much less to come up with any kind of effective response.
The most egregious of the stories was a conflation of pregnancy of one of Palin's daughters with the birth of her disabled infant son, Trig. Leftist websites claimed that the baby was actually the child of Bristol Palin, a yarn that might make sense on daytime TV but not in the real world. But even though the story was transparent nonsense, it was seriously reported in the national media.
The "Troopergate" story was based on the premise that a state governor does not possess the power to dismiss an appointee for cause. The accusation that Palin hunted wolves from helicopters was conjured from thin air -- though Alaska operates such a culling program, the governor does not carry it out personally, any more than David Patterson examines all tax returns filed by New Yorkers. An offhand joke about Russia being visible from Alaska was taken as a bizarre, even demented assertion regarding foreign policy. (How many decades must pass before it dawns on politicians that neither leftists nor reporters possess a sense of humor?) The clothes scandal, a typical misjudgment by GOP political operatives, was laid directly at Palin's door, though there is no evidence she was even aware of it.
All these scandalettes either had their source or were grossly distorted through the Net. The anti-Palin campaign comprises a fairly complete picture of how such efforts will unfold in the future. So does the reaction of the candidate, the McCain campaign, and everyone else involved, which was to stand there in a daze while being hit by one sandbag after another.
Nor has the campaign ended. Scarcely a story concerning Palin appears without the "comments" section immediately filling up with virtually identical attacks against "Caribou Barbie". Compare this to the response given the arson of Palin's church before Christmas, which was effectively zero. In the Net age, utterly false accusations have begun to crowd out shocking real-word events. (Imagine what the media would have done with a similar attack on Jeremiah Wright's church.)
Sarah Palin, in particular, needs to hire someone familiar with media tactics. Admirable as Alaskans are in most ways, they are deplorably unsophisticated in media dealings, as this November's turkey incident revealed anew. Few Lower 48 politicians would have been so naive as to allow such a setup to be filmed, certain in the knowledge as to what any media type would do with it.
Many of Palin's conservative critics believed that another candidate -- any other candidate -- would have fared better with the media, a new version of the sweet GOP conviction that it's possible to find a candidate "acceptable" to "moderates". In truth, the same treatment lies in store for any GOP candidate or nominee from here on in. As a convinced Mormon, Mitt Romney, the favorite of many urban conservatives, would have been characterized as carrying out the Mountain Meadows Massacre in person while his eight wives cheered him on. There will be no exceptions to this rule. The new Net feedback mechanism is a very effective weapon, and the Left will use it indiscriminately until it wears out.
Use of this weapon is not, of course, limited to either side of the aisle. Obama recently learned this to his dismay when his nominee for director of intelligence, John Brennan, was painted as one of the torturers of innocents thrown up by the Bush Administration. Eager as ever to avoid trouble, Obama dropped the nomination effort. The opposition came almost exclusively from sources on the Net.
But turnabout, however satisfying, will not be enough, if only due to the fact that conservatives lack easy access to national media. We require serious study of the Net and its effects, with the aim of discovering and honing new tactics before the opposition can come up with them. This effort will not originate with the Northeastern enclave conservatives, to whom computers are complicated and confusing machines that should never have been allowed out of the lab. The effort will have to come from elsewhere. One solution worth considering might involve turning the Net against the media itself. A method of doing this might be feeding deliberately false information with the intention of later exposure -- though of course I'd never think of doing that personally, would you?
A major point made by Marshal McLuhan (a much deeper thinker than he's often given credit for) as long ago as the 60s is that new technology does not merely increase the effects of media but changes their very nature. This is what has occurred with the Internet. While the Left stumbled over it first, it does not have to remain their sole possession. The Net is huge and still in its infancy, it has much to teach us. It's time we started learning.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.