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Are America’s B.S. Detectors Finally Getting an Upgrade?

 

Can a person acquire an immunity to propaganda? I’ve been wondering.

It was Julia Ioffe who got me started. She wrote last week of the dwindling effectiveness of the Russian disinformation industry.

She reports that the bot-farms that caused all the mischief in 2016 are now a shadow of their former selves. Ever since their founder and leader, Evgeny Prigozhin, was blown out of the sky last year, they’ve come under the control of Putin’s office, which means poor performance is now institutionalized.

This can be seen in the messaging being disseminated by these so-called influence campaigns, which is almost comically inept. The content is focused exclusively on undermining support for Ukraine, a subject that couldn’t be less relevant to most Americans. Anyone who actually cares about Ukraine will just laugh at the fumbling English and feeble logic of the posts they’re seeing.

But what really got me thinking was Ioffe’s assertion that these campaigns are old news. Nobody is surprised by them anymore. Entire industries have sprung up to fight them off. Disinformation is now front and center as a global issue, and both governments and companies are fully engaged in countering it.

But more than that, everyday people have grown attuned to it, and they’re learning to separate the signal from the noise. Ioffe writes:

People now know to look out for fakes and bots. When they smell inauthenticity, they quickly connect it to the malign influence campaigns they’ve heard so much about over the last eight years. 

While it would be naïve to think Russia isn’t doing all it can to disrupt democratic systems wherever possible, the West surely has the high-tech firepower to put the 2024 election on high alert for cyber treachery. Knock wood.

But this ability to “smell inauthenticity” fits with other things I’ve been noticing — or think I’m noticing — which is a subtle but discernible media-proofing of the electorate.

Yes, my evidence is largely anecdotal. But I’m seeing signs that large segments of the population have been at least partially inoculated against various forms of media manipulation. Maybe our bullshit detectors have finally gotten an upgrade.

Ever since the fall of Roe, millions of people have gotten the message that they need to pay attention, if not for their own sake, then for their childrens.’ They understand the significance of the Dobbs decision. They understand that basic rights are being yanked away. They understand that women are at risk of dying from willful stupidity. And they understand that every Republican wants to change the subject.

They’ve responded at the ballot box, in elections and referendums all over the country, for the last two years. In Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, Wisconsin, and Ohio, the disinformation was fierce. Republican legislatures did everything they could to obfuscate, confuse, and tilt the playing field. But the voters themselves were neither fooled nor deterred.

In this sense, this mirrors the experience of Poland, just last year, when the electorate — a third of whom were young, first-time voters — soundly thrashed the authoritarian regime that had taken control of all levers of power. There, as here, abortion was the tipping point, the standout issue that cut through the firehose of bullshit being spewed over the entire media landscape.

As that issue boiled over, Polish airwaves were blanketed with propaganda aimed at confusing, obstructing, and scaring voters. Imagine if Fox were your only news source and you'll get the idea.

Yet somehow, despite all the disinformation, misinformation, distortion, slander, fear-mongering, and intimidation, the truth got through. The fascist ruling party was overwhelmed at the ballot box. People had “smelled the inauthenticity,” and rejected it.

No, the job isn’t done in Poland, and there are reactionary forces that may yet push back on this nascent pro-democracy movement. But the electoral accomplishments were formidable, and they’re a fair analogy for what we face here in November.

Because what they also found in Poland was that abortion rights don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re related to other rights, and not just those of women.

What we’ve seen with Dobbs is just how fragile basic human rights are, and how easily they can be taken away. That message is now coming through loud and clear, and people seem to be hearing it.

So what’s going on? Does there come a point in our post-truth society where our brains learn to filter out the noise?

The first round of opinion polling following Trump’s conviction seems to show  that even the chronically uninformed are aware of it. They get that Trump is a convicted criminal, a serial sex offender, and a business fraud. They’ll be hearing about it, even in their own bubbles, for the next four months. If they’re even minimally engaged in the next election, they won’t be able to not hear it.

Think of all those lifelong Republicans who never liked Trump to begin with, and then grew to detest him. Think of all those Nikki Haley primary voters who were really voting for anyone but Trump. These are people who know about Trump’s rap sheet, and we can assume it will affect their vote. Even if they just stay home.

But even among the more engaged, people seem to be growing more savvy about their media consumption, and about the conclusions they draw from it.

They’ve had to learn that the media is not their friend. They’ve had to look past the dishonest horserace coverage and the “both sides” stories that now dominate the mainstream press. They’ve had to compensate for the media’s clear refusal to sound the alarm about a Republican party lurching toward a fascist coup.

No wonder people are finding ways to interpret events on their own, to look for alternatives to the mainstream, and to view all glib punditry with a skeptical eye.

Maybe a backlash was inevitable. Maybe we’ve been so bombarded by so many lies, from so many directions, for so many years, that we’ve reached a saturation point. Maybe we’ve indeed developed antibodies that fight off incoming lies before they can land. It would be nice to think so.

For the next four months, our bullshit detectors will be working overtime. I’m getting mine tuned up.

Comments

  1. Maybe we no longer have access to the "truth." The propaganda machines are too powerful. They are shaping our individual realities. And we all know how hard it is to change that.

    ReplyDelete

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