How do you fight propaganda? Taking on information silos and engaging reaction
Old WWII propaganda poster | Wikimedia (CC)

Over the past few years the internet, and social media like Facebook and Twitter have become increasingly important means of expression and communication. Hundreds of millions of people use these outlets daily. In fact, many people now rely on social media as one of their primary sources of news.

Unfortunately, however, this increased ability to exchange ideas, opinions, and perspectives – to potentially democratize the news – has had an unwanted, inverse effect. It has enabled us to all share things with each other more easily, but in the process it has also created information silos.

Through a combination of corporate media consolidation, social media newsfeed algorithms that pick up on our click habits, and political polarization, many of us end up only seeing ‘news’ that confirms what we already believe.

The danger with the development of such information silos, of course, is that they have enable, bolster, and perpetuate the efforts of those whose deliberate aim is to spread misinformation, outright lies, and, in the words of Kellyanne Conway, “alternative facts.”

For example, we are now directly informed of the Trump administration’s perspective on immigration reform and border walls due through our Twitter feeds, the president’s social media platform of choice.

However, we seem less equipped to address misinformation, lies, and hate speech that get broadcast directly into our inboxes, Facebook walls, and Twitter accounts. Traditional media outlets appear increasingly incapable of counteracting social media-based information silos, which tend to reinforce preconceived beliefs. Therefore, we all get exposed to a smaller and smaller variety of analysis and opinions.

In short, the dramatic growth of news outlets, or more appropriately, news sources, due to technology does NOT necessarily equate to a better grasp of reality or to a more informed and educated populace free from racism or hate. In the era of Trump and ‘alt facts,’ growing numbers of people seem to be getting more of their information from less reputable sources, such as Steve Bannon’s Breitbart.com.

Complicating matters is the concomitant decline in the aforementioned traditional media outlets, like local newspapers, as these non-traditional media is increasingly playing an outsized role in information dissemination.

And as others have written, the more we attempt to dispel misinformation, lies, and ‘alt facts,’ the more entrenched information silos can become. Attempts to persuade, expose, educate, or debate get denounced as part of some larger conspiracy. Trying to argue with someone using facts – real ones – is often ineffective and serves only to confirm what the person already ‘feels’ and ‘believes’.

Furthermore, thanks directly the Trump administration, the perceived credibility of some of these alternative media outfits is increasing. Breitbart, for instance, can easily be seen as the unofficial propaganda arm of the White House. It is the platform for an emerging segment of the right-wing comfortable with white supremacy, war, and the abridgement of democratic norms. The growing influence of it and similar outlets could potentially serve to make ‘alt facts’ and reactionary information silos the norm rather than the exception – a truly terrifying thought, especially with a 600 percent increase in white nationalist sentiment just among Twitter users since 2012.

And in a further alarming sidenote, domestic white nationalist movements are now outpacing the growth of international terror networks like ISIS with the aid of social media. Though they seem to be loosely connected for the time being, they possess a horrific and deadly potential, as words can quickly turn into action.

Undoubtedly, information silos make it possible to now amplify racist, anti-government, anti-worker, anti-environment, and misogynist beliefs with renewed boldness. The fact that the White House is now on board with such sentiments of course pushes them along even further. The fact that Steve Bannon sits on the National Security Council should give all small-“d” democratic-minded people cause for alarm. With Trump teaming up with people like him in the Oval Office, we are engaging reaction and white supremacy from a point of relative weakness.

As there were during the Dark Ages, there will likely continue to be voices of reason, voices not unlike PeoplesWorld.org.

But we must be realistic: does the information dissemination capacity of progressive outlets have the power to break through and crack open reactionary information silos?

And, perhaps more importantly, the question arises as to whether we should even continue trying? Some have argued that we should give up on facts altogether and appeal primarily to emotions – a tactic that has proven successful for the right.

This isn’t just a rhetorical question, as many people justifiably feel overwhelmed by the ongoing barrage and are beginning to disengage.

Like a game of chess, our moves are limited by the pieces in play, by the resources on hand. Make no mistake about it, grassroots, advocacy journalists are in a weakened position. This reality should compel us to think strategically about our information dissemination, our own silos, and our willingness to continually engage reaction on their terms – terms that often border on the irrational and insane.

For example, is it our job to convince people that global warming is real. The overwhelming evidence is apparent. The discussion is largely settled. We’re already seeing massive global climate change. If some still believe it is not happening, it is due to willful ignorance. It’s irrational.

Additionally, humans did not tame the dinosaurs. Creationism and so-called “intelligent design” are not valid historical sciences. And so-called “school choice” will not lead to the “greater kingdom of God,” as our new Education Secretary has declared – and nothing will likely convince Betsy DeVos, or those like her, otherwise.

Unfortunately, the assault against equality – re-emerging with renewed vigor against women and people of color – is just one of many fronts in an ever-evolving battle of ideologies. In that battle, the other side is willing to sacrifice our children’s education as well as the planet they stand to inherit.

Many more examples, though unnecessary, could easily illustrate the point – could easily illustrate the depths to which our political discourse has shifted away from reason and towards reaction, irrationality, and even insanity.

However, while there is no guarantee that our resistance to the Trump agenda, white supremacy, and ‘alt facts’ will result in victory, one thing is certain: We are guaranteed to lose if we don’t mount a collective, broad-based response geared towards breaking down the silos too many of our brothers and sisters, father, mothers, aunts, uncles, and co-workers have embraced.


CONTRIBUTOR

Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the bureau chief of the Missouri / Kansas People's World. He serves as fundraising co-chair for St. Louis Jobs with Justice, is a member of the United Media Guild and delegate to the St. Louis Central Labor Council. He is also the president of the St. Louis Workers' Education Society. His work has been published in the St. Louis Labor Tribune, Alternet, Shelterforce, Political Affairs and Z-Magazine, among other publications.

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