The hope of the Arab Spring has been realized: Now that anyone can publish anything from anywhere, it is impossible for even the most determined despot to jail every journalist and critic. But even as the most ruthless dictators are realizing the world has changed, they are quickly learning a new method for dismissing dissent and turning the guerrilla media techniques back on the guerrillas. Their instructor: Donald J. Trump, president of the United States.
He was trained by his mentor, the McCarthy hearings lawyer Roy Cohn, to relentlessly discredit his enemies, by NBC in the reality television art of manipulating the truth into a lie and reselling it as the truth, and by the New York Post and Twitter in coining a viral phrase. In 2016 he emerged as the perfect pioneer for not just discrediting inconvenient voices, but leaving them paralyzed with rage and confusion.
Authoritarians are paying attention: Just days before Trump’s inauguration, after Trump responded to a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta about Russian interference in the American election with “Your organization is terrible . . . You are fake news,” Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan praised the president-elect for putting the reporter “in his place.”
By February, the governments of Cambodia and Venezuela had threatened crackdowns on the media. “President Donald Trump thinks that the news reported by these organizations did not reflect the truth, which is the responsibility of the professional reporters,” a spokesman for Cambodia’s Ministry of Information posted on Facebook that month. “This means that freedom of expression must respect the law and the authority of the state.”
In the same month, Syria’s brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad dismissed reports, backed with significant evidence, that he had killed 13,000 at a military prison as fake news.
In May, an ally of Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, labeled reports of a wave of death squad killings in the state’s war on drugs as “alternative facts,” a phrase originally coined by Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway to justify press secretary Sean Spicer’s plainly false claim that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the largest ever.
Last November, a Libyan media outlet used a tweet by Trump seeking to discredit CNN to call into question critical reporting the network had done on Libya’s slave trade. Reports of a genocide targeting the Rohingya, a group of Muslims persecuted by Myanmar, were met thus by a state security official in December: “There is no such thing as Rohingya. It is fake news.”
It is unlikely he is aware of it, but the rhetorical style Trump has perfected for undermining the media—and any other would-be arbiter of the truth—is rooted in Russian propaganda techniques and the mores of the darkest corners of the Web.
An authoritarian seeks to reduce the life of a nation to one aspect: the political. There are no honest opponents, only heretics. Which makes the news media, with its blend of baffling principle and infuriating imperfection, an irresistible target.
In 2006, Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin public relations mastermind who many credit with quietly inventing Putinism, made a speech in which he coined the term “sovereign democracy.” That oxymoron means, in practice, giving the veneer of democracy to an authoritarian government.
It’s a phrase that perfectly encapsulates Surkov’s strategy, outlined in 2011 by Peter Pomerantsev in the London Review of Books, of “power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.” It is, he added, a “fusion of despotism and postmodernism, in which no truth is certain.”
It is unlikely he is aware of it, but the rhetorical style Trump has perfected for undermining the media is rooted in Russian propaganda techniques.
These techniques were ruthlessly applied inside Russia. But the February 2013 issue of the Russian publication Military-Industrial Kurier contained an essay by the Russian general Valery Gerasimov which notably suggested spreading it abroad.
He theorized that the descent of the social media–driven Arab Spring into widespread regional conflict had changed warfare forever. “Wars are no longer declared and, having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template,” he wrote. “In a matter of months and even days,” he added, a thriving state can “be transformed into an arena of fierce armed conflict, become a victim of foreign intervention, and sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war.” Non-military measures would likely outnumber military measures by four to one in future wars, he predicted.
Those non-military methods have included seeding news stories and social media posts that fuel partisan discord, and attempting to interfere in at least one election. If the subterfuge remains undiscovered, the techniques work well. But if they are revealed, they can be said to work even better—by casting doubt on the veracity of everything. (Julian Assange and the online white supremacist movement have proclaimed themselves victims of grand conspiracies for a similar purpose.)
Enter Donald Trump, who has spread Putinism in ways that Vladimir Putin himself could only have dreamed. As the elected leader of the free world, Trump has given “sovereign democracy” an opulent layer of legitimacy.
To his supporters, they nominated a truth-teller to storm the highest citadel, and, now on the inside, he has reported back confirmation of their worst fears of Western liberalism—that it is a fraud and a sham.
Thus, a natural check on the fantasies of dictators has been removed: How can an American diplomat in Myanmar call for the truth, when his leader in Washington is busy dismissing the importance of facts in the name of American patriotism?
Putin himself often responds to criticism from the West with whataboutism—we may be accused of X, but what about your doing Y—another deceptively simple technique that begins to chip away at the sense of moral wrongs and moral rights, building the idea that everyone is equally venal. Or as Trump once asked Bill O’Reilly, “You think our country is so innocent?”
The rhetorical maneuver serves the same purpose as a network devoted to partisan news declaring itself “fair and balanced.” Or a journalistic endeavor devoted to ideologically driven dishonesty calling itself “Project Veritas.” Or a radio show devoted to conspiracy theories called “InfoWars.”
Of course, like much Trump does, this is rooted in an emotional, if not actual, truth. There are now simply too few journalists, writing too much and too fast, for too many outlets, for too little money. Unpacking the new propaganda at high speed means making mistakes—particularly the insidious ones of mis-framing or perpetuating a lazy narrative to catch the attention of an increasingly fragmented audience. Fake real news has created the potential for real fake news.
A recent Poynter Institute survey found that 44 percent of Americans believe the media invents stories about Donald Trump. This gives a man whose aim is never to be held accountable a nearly unprecedented position of power. His techniques are working.
It also might explain why he felt confident in floating the idea that, despite video, a previous admission, and witnesses, it was not his voice boasting about sexually harassing and assaulting women on a clip from Access Hollywood. At the end of 2017, his claim still seemed a little laughable. But Adobe, the company behind Photoshop, has demonstrated a technology that can take a voice sample and turn it into a voice keyboard—type what you want anyone to say, and it will sound like they are saying it.
The real info wars have only just begun.