As we entered the 21st Century the dissemination of digital information was growing at a tremendous pace. It is fair to say that today, only twenty years after the year 2000 we rely upon digital information more than ever and the various methods of digital distribution are out-pacing the last century’s great inventions of radio and television broadcast media.
However news, fiction and all forms of communication still begin with someone writing or drawing. It makes little practical difference if the implement used is a pencil or a pen or a crayon and makes substantially no more difference if that implement is a computer or a smart phone. There is a tendency for us to always believe that whatever we are doing now is somehow truly unique and worthy of new language to describe it. Sometimes that is true but often it is simply hubris and ignorance that refuses to allow us to see the forrest for the trees. We also have a painfully bad understanding of history which contributes to our need to rename and glamorize everything we do.
The term “Propaganda” originated with the Catholic Church who in 1622 established a formal entity to “propagate” the Catholic faith. Essentially to spread the word, as they saw it, to people in non-Catholic countries. Clearly they saw this early “propaganda” as being a good thing though others no doubt thought otherwise. Over time the term has acquired a negative connotation though the practice of preparing and spreading propaganda continued with ever greater sophistication. Notable high points in what was to become a specialty craft were seen during both Word Wars and The Cold War years.
Now we have a “new” term that has miraculously displaced “propaganda”, “FAKE NEWS”! The news media loves it and Donald Trump loves it because it implies something additionally sinister about one’s adversaries that “propaganda” no longer does.
We know propaganda is something that is designed to sway our point of view and we don’t necessarily assume the perpetrator to be especially evil for doing so. Substantially we know to just ignore what we believe to be propaganda. But the perpetrators of “fake news” are villains trying to alter truth. And the truth they are trying to alter is the truth being offered by the “fake news” accuser. Such nonsense goes back and forth like kids on the playground running out of nasty put downs and offering up “OH YEH”! It is concerning that we are forgetting to be critical thinkers and don’t seek the actual truth until after being sidetracked with so many spurious accusations.
At the heart of those items that are being declared as “fake news” is, quite simply, plain old propaganda. There is nothing new besides perhaps, and only in some cases, the manner of distribution.
Let us go straight to one of the biggest fake news topics that survives to this writing, the Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election. But first I will state my fundamental premise.
Don’t blame the Russians for trying to influence us. Blame us for being so easily influenced.
However, any American candidate or organization that knowingly seeks to profit from such propaganda or contribute to the dissemination of same is clearly violating the public trust at the very least.
To me this is an appropriate American viewpoint. If we believe in free speech then we need to let them say what they want and know when to ignore the baloney. However, it is getting a more complicated due to the ways that sources can hide while spreading sophisticated propaganda. The way things are spread around using social media requires an added degree of skepticism that is apparently lacking from too many consumers of social media. The “pizza parlor sex ring” nonsense is a good example of something so outlandish it should never have received any traction. Yet some guy got in his car — with a loaded weapon — and traveled a considerable distance to “investigate” for himself! It was propaganda that led to that incident.
It is also clear that a wide range of advocacy groups, think tanks and political organizations hide behind names that appear to be well-meaning or “hard to oppose” in order to spread their own propaganda, Russians not withstanding. I could easily spread information as “The Happy Puppy Foundation” — who doesn’t want puppies to be happy — whose real purpose is to promote the sale of dogs from some puppy mill that I get kickbacks from. If I was clever enough, the real motivation behind my propaganda would never be known.
I propose that much of the dialog from all sides in this Russian fake news and hacking topic has been missing the point from the beginning. Nobody has been very helpful at educating us to what exactly they were producing that would allow us to better make informed judgements on what we see. I have seen very few examples of specific ads and/or posts that were made from Russian sources. More importantly, we should be working towards a method of being able to clearly identify all organizations that are taking out ads on Facebook and other social media outlets. So if I open a Facebook account in the name of “The Happy Puppy Foundation” and submit ads and post boosting to Facebook, I would have to identify the organization and Facebook would need to validate my claims in a manner that would help the general public to better understand that this “foundation” could represent an opinion or profit motive and is not an official charitable organization.
A simple “who paid for this” button associated with EVERY ad could provide the information to a viewer on click or rollover. If the ad’s sponsor cannot be substantiated then Facebook could simply say “Organization not verified” which would tell us a lot.