Red vs. Blue. Rural vs. Urban. Black vs. White. Millennial vs. Boomer. Our political system was under attack long before COVID-19 took the life of its first victim. For almost a decade, decentralized armies of propagandists, bots, and sock-puppets have been disseminating disinformation on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, carefully leveraging user behavioral data to identify ideal targets for their messaging. These malicious communicators pit communities against one another, deliberately driving painful wedges through cultural fault lines.
These efforts have been successful because we have failed to nurture vital antibodies which protect democracies from drifting into authoritarianism and fascism: media literacy, critical thinking, and historical awareness. What’s more, our civic immune system has been deeply compromised by a secondary infection; large segments of the population are unable to agree on even the most basic truths. We are increasingly isolated by the algorithms that power our social networks, and we are distanced from those who hold opposing worldviews.
As a propaganda researcher for more than three decades, I once believed that a decentralized internet could be used to neutralize propaganda’s pernicious effects. However, shortly after the 2012 election, I began encountering deceptive messages which defied conventional understandings of propaganda strategy, upending everything we once thought we knew.
Old-fashioned propaganda was concerned with consistent, reinforced variations of a single core message; the new propaganda is haphazard, scattered, contradictory, and ubiquitous. Old-fashioned propagandists cared about credibility, carefully maintaining the perception of truthfulness; new propagandists cultivate multiple identities, abandoning a mouthpiece if caught in a lie.
The new propagandists understand what decades of communication research have been trying to tell us: Persuading individuals to believe in something is quite difficult. There are too many intervening variables and too many contested readings.
On the other hand, persuading people to believe in nothing is remarkably easy.