The War on Chronology

Donald Trump’s quote about George W. Bush was literally as simple as “The World Trade Center came down during his reign” — which is a statement of chronological fact, without even making a judgment upon its significance or lack thereof, yet establishment conservatives are furious about that.

This emblematic is what we’re up against on a major scale: People who don’t just have an alternate worldview but an alternate view of chronological reality.

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: So many points of “conventional wisdom” from the political and media establishment in Washington (including both sides of the aisle, but especially conservatives) fall apart when chronology is applied to cause-and-effect claims they make. It’s not just “correlation is not causation” — it’s that they get the order of historical events consistently wrong in drawing broad conclusions about them. Everything becomes of the fault of their opponents (whether on their own side or the other side) by presenting the reaction to something as its historical cause.

Russian troops crawling over Ukraine like Colorado potato beetle

An amusing report from Radio Free Europe, ongoing Cold War holdover arm of the U.S. counter-propaganda machine in Eastern Europe, asks “What’s Orange And Black And Bugging Ukraine?”

Apparently, many Russian separatist troops in Ukraine are wearing orange-and-black striped ribbons, which look a lot like the stripes of the invasive “Colorado potato beetle” brought over accidentally by U.S. troops during World War II. Since the Warsaw Pact communist governments were half-convinced this was a CIA plot, they produced extensive anti-American propaganda featuring the Koloradi. That plus their indestructibility to present day has kept the bugs in the zeitgeist in Ukraine. As a result, Ukrainian nationalists are now humorously producing retro propaganda against the Russian separatists comparing the mystery invasion troops with their St. George ribbons to the invasive beetles. 
Colorado-potato-beetle-usda

Egypt propagandists announce military has cured AIDS

egypt-coat-of-armsIn all the Ukraine crisis news, I missed this stellar example of increasingly implausible Egyptian military propaganda. They announced to their citizens last month that they had cured AIDS and Hepatitis C.

The so-called “Complete Cure Device” draws blood from a patient, breaks down the disease and returns the purified blood back to the body, according to Dr. Ihsan Hanfy Hussein, a member of Abdel-Atti’s research team.

She said it cures the ailments in as little as 16 hours.

“I will take the AIDS from the patient and I will nourish the patient on the AIDS treatment. I will give it to him like a skewer of Kofta to nourish him,” Abdel-Atti said, referring to a dish made of ground meat.

“I will take it away from him as a disease and give it back to him in the form of a cure,” he said. “This is the greatest form of scientific breakthrough.”

He paid tribute to the military chief and unofficial presidential hopeful, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who attended the unveiling of the “miracle” device registered under the armed forces and approved by the country’s Ministry of Health.

 
The wild fabrication, endorsed by the country’s incoming leader-for-life, General Sisi, immediately drew very harsh criticism from medical researchers both in Egypt and around the world. Because it’s flat-out crazy nonsense.

It is yet another attempt to convince the population of Egypt, via flat-out alternate reality creation, that the military is the one true source of all that is good and necessary in society.

Accordingly, despite the obvious fiction and the government’s own science adviser calling it junk, there was a full-court press by state media to praise the “breakthrough” and the glory of Egypt’s military in having “solved” a problem that has eluded the entire rest of the world.

“The interim president should fire the scientific adviser, Essam Heggy, after his offensive comments to Egypt and the army,” Mohammed Abu Hamed, an Egyptian politician and vice chairman of the Free Egyptians Party, tweeted Wednesday.

Pro-military journalists and media outlets urged Egyptians to rejoice after the army announced the invention will be available in June.

“Has the level of doubt reached such a high level on an international breakthrough? This will benefit all of humanity and solve a crisis that the medical community has not been able to fix for years. This is something we should celebrate,” Maha Salim, a state media reporter, said on private network Tahrir TV.

 
Such delusions have very dangerous consequences for both Egypt and the region. North Africa is currently experiencing a rising tide of new AIDS infections. Egypt is also one of the world’s most Hep C-prevalent countries; the CDC says 10% of the population has it. As we’ve seen in other countries where leaders claimed to have magically developed cures for AIDS and other infectious diseases, infection rates will almost certainly climb.

The propagandists’ alternate history of the Egyptian revolution

egypt-coat-of-armsRegular readers will have noticed by now my informal chronicling of curious propaganda coming out of post-coup Egypt. Today I flag this passage in a New York Times op-ed, Egypt’s Despair, and Its Hope,” by Alaa Al Aswany:

a systematic media campaign carried out by state television and the private channels owned by businessmen who used to back the Mubarak regime. This public relations effort aims to convey the notion that the January 2011 revolution was a plot by American intelligence agencies to remove Mr. Mubarak. It accuses the young revolutionaries of being traitors and paid agents of the West.

 
You might wonder how this kind of Bizarro-World bald-faced lying could actually work. How could any Egyptian be persuaded that the January/February 2011 uprising, which was resisted for many weeks by American officials — who had long backed Hosni Mubarak and were hoping he would hold on to power — could also be orchestrated by American intelligence agents and their Egyptian youth recruits?

This gets to the same problem I raised in my first post on post-coup propaganda:

Obviously, given their easy access to outside media, most internet-using Egyptians are probably well aware of the distinction […] It’s worth remembering, however, that a lot of Egyptians still get their news from television media and, unlike their Twitter-savvy brethren, aren’t necessarily exposed to alternate sources of information.

 
Indeed, many young, urban Egyptians are well aware of the alternate reality being constructed around — and, in fact, against them. As Aswany notes, recently a Facebook post on the despair of the rolled-back revolution went viral. Two sentences stick out in the this context:

Yet we keep on stating that it was a real dream, no matter how much they try to falsify history. None of us who have lived that dream will ever forget, or regret it, for a moment.

 
The question now is whether they will hold on to those memories long enough to outlast the efforts of the alternate-reality propagandists who are trying to convince them they have misremembered what happened and were wrapped into a Western web of lies and insurrection. It’s hard to keep hold of what you know is true the longer you spend in an environment that tells you an alternative narrative, day in and day out, and gaslights your lived experience constantly.
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Egypt’s Sisi selflessly offers to be leader forever

fake-time-magazine-egypt-200In the least convincing denial yet that he is building a cult of personality and permanent personal dictatorship, Egypt’s General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi has told voters there that they should vote for his new constitution in this week’s referendum if they want him to run for president:

“If I run, then it must be at the request of the people and with a mandate from my army,” General Sisi said at a military seminar, according to the website of the state newspaper, Al Ahram. “I can’t turn my back on Egypt.”

 

Sisi added that it would be embarrassing for him if they didn’t vote for it, and you don’t want to disappoint the Dear Father.

“Don’t embarrass me in front of the world,” he said, “not me personally but the military, because in the military we are as united as one man’s heart, and we adhere to democracy.” He noted that the new charter authorizes the military to “protect the will of the people” and he vowed, “We will protect it in any circumstances.”

 

Fortunately for Sisi, campaigning against the proposed constitution is not allowed. Seems like a pretty fair way to check on public opinion before you run for something, right? And just to be sure, the state propaganda engines are grinding away toward victory:

The state news media and Egyptian private television networks, all supportive of the military takeover, are effusive in their endorsements of the new charter and contain scarcely a word of criticism. A group of Egyptian movie stars has recorded a television commercial singing a song in praise of the new charter, ending with a call for a thousand yeses to the new Constitution. And the military itself has produced a television advertisement in which a group of children sing their own endorsement to a martial theme.

“It’s to be or not to be,” the children sing, warning listeners that they will be judged by God for their vote and urging them not to “leave my country for destruction.”

 

So, to recap: If you vote against this, you’ll embarrass the national armed forces and its leader and then God will smite you. This seems compelling.

When old-school propaganda meets the internet age

The irony of the internet age and the rise of social media under autocratic states is that it not only hasn’t brought an end to traditional replacement-of-reality-with-alternate-reality propaganda (à la the Soviet Union’s totalitarian media) and toppled all the dictators, but it has actually provided new opportunities for some of the propagandists. Propaganda is not just co-existing but flourishing, at the moment, even in places with ample internet access.

Person of the Year

Case in point: Egyptian government propagandists on state-run and pro-coup television were so eager to promote their new dictator, General Sisi, that they convinced everyone that Egyptians could control the outcome of TIME magazine’s person of the year selection and ordered them all to vote for him in the magazine’s online reader poll — which has no affect on the final choice for the magazine (which the editors pick). More Egyptians voted in the global internet poll, open to anyone, than the number of Americans or Indians who voted. Then when General Sisi won that reader poll, Egyptian media produced a fake cover of TIME and reported (falsely of course) that he had been officially chosen by the magazine as Person of the Year.

fake-time-magazine-egypt

Obviously, given their easy access to outside media, most internet-using Egyptians are probably well aware of the distinction, whether or not they voted for him in the poll. It’s worth remembering, however, that a lot of Egyptians still get their news from television media and, unlike their Twitter-savvy brethren, aren’t necessarily exposed to alternate sources of information. So if the TV says TIME magazine picked their nation’s leader as the global Person of the Year, and shows a cover to prove it, then they might not know otherwise.

American TV News

Television is by nature an authoritative, one-way medium that many viewers can’t contradict or fact-check easily (and tend not to, even if they can). Thus, propagandists can exert a heavy influence without much to challenge them. And in the modern era, they can couple it with the power of the internet rather than being undermined by it.

The Egypt story might seem provincial and irrelevant to us in the United States, but let’s not forget that a majority of Americans — particularly from the older generations — still get their news from television each day. The influence of TV news producers, while substantially more open to challenge in the United States than in Egyptian state media, is still a powerful force with a rigid narrative.

Viewers receive a narrow (partly by nature of the time-restricted format) and often repetitive message and are strongly encouraged to put their trust in the networks — local, national, or cable — that they are being told The Truth. Network brands are marketed like other products through heavy promotion. The promos urge people to maintain high brand loyalty to a particular delivery service of what is (theoretically) open information that should — if it’s really The Truth, as advertised — be more or less the same across brands.

The Fox Delusion

Fox News Channel, of course has taken this philosophy much further. They brag that they are the highest-rated cable news network … after years of convincing viewers — who skew older and count on television to be factually accurate — that the news world outside (except for right-wing talk radio, of course) is filled with lies and treachery, and that only Fox News Channel and its hosts’ radio shows are able to bring you The Truth. So everyone on the conservative end of the spectrum jumped on the bandwagon long ago and stayed put, resulting in its rise to the number one spot (while liberals split over a range of sources). For a regular viewer, adjusting that dial away from Fox News means being exposed to the “liberal media” conspiracy beyond.

Fox News Channel broadcasts are riddled with demonstrable errors — not just in analysis, but in basic statements of empirical, encyclopedic facts — as many a media fact-checking website has shown every day. Its viewers know better by now than to check outside the channel or its partners for the facts, though, so there is little danger they will be exposed to reality. When they go to vote in U.S. elections, they are doing so based on information received almost entirely if not solely from one news universe that has built all its analysis upon totally fabricated underlying facts. It’s not just skewed interpretations being delivered to viewers, but even foundational “facts” lacking in truth.

All this holds true even in an age of easy access to a literal world of factual information, via the internet. The internet, for a Fox viewer, instead of a source of contradicting reality, becomes a network of websites affiliated with Fox News or run by other devotees and like-minded ideologues.

Thus, as I have discussed extensively before, Fox News, right-wing talk radio, and the conservative blogosphere have established an entire unchallenged, closed-loop parallel universe of news “reality,” much in the way a totalitarian government’s state media would. And just as with Egyptian TV’s fake TIME magazine Person of the Year cover, Fox News Channel is able to propagate its elaborate fiction through traditional means, with help from the internet, rather than being genuinely subverted and exposed by the internet, as we might have expected.

What does the future hold?

The internet, social media, and freer access to information around the world will undoubtedly play a major role in opening societies and exposing fictions presented as news — and certainly the U.S. internet community has already been ripping apart fraudulent news stories in the traditional media for many years and forcing corrections (from outlets that aren’t trying to create a parallel reality).

But for the moment, at least, the rise of the internet is not the cure-all for propaganda, whether on U.S. cable or on authoritarian governments’ TV stations. The meeting of the internet and propaganda isn’t like throwing water on the Wicked Witch of the West. The narratives and fictional worlds of propagandists don’t dissolve instantly in the presence of access to information. But eventually, they will crumble.

The interim period will not be without consequences. How do people, including Egyptians or Fox News fans, react when confronted by the harsh light outside the cave? Ultimately this confrontation will inevitably occur, as it always has, despite the propagandists’ efforts to steer people to favorable sources. Whether the clash with reality occurs in the form of the loss of U.S. election if you were under the false impression that everyone agreed with the worldview Fox News nurtured in you, or in the form of realizing at newsstands in a few weeks that TIME magazine hasn’t put Dear Leader on the cover after all, people seem react in two ways.

The first reaction is turning in anger to wild conspiracy theories that explain the disjunction — i.e. that inscrutable minority forces must be controlling outcomes — and encourage extreme responses to “correct” the conspiracy — i.e. that the opposing faction must be destroyed. The second reaction is accepting that the propagandists have misled their audience about The Truth outside.

Sadly, many people find discovering themselves massively wrong or realizing they have been to duped to be extremely embarrassing or humiliating. (Being manipulated is something that happens to other people.) And so these people generally resist accepting they have been conned at all costs, even if it means embracing the extreme conspiracy theories and doubling down on their misguided beliefs. And that’s when the politics in a country get really scary.

The Right-Wing Alternate Universe

I’m working on a longer post on the specific news story in question here, but I wanted to point out this segment by Jon Stewart that shows the alternate universe FOX News creates for its viewers:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Glenn Beck Airs Israeli Raid Footage
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

Actually, it’s really true of all the right-wing media. They get people to watch/listen to their news exclusively because they create whole alternate universes that tell you can only get that news from them. Now, other networks will tell you CNN=Politics or whatever or that they’re the best source of coverage, and sometimes they’ll claim to have a story exclusively… but few non-conservative media outlets go to such lengths to tell you can literally not find the news anywhere else because of pervasive bias and conspiratorial propaganda flooding the other airwaves.

People who only listen to right-wing radio and only watch FOX News to get their information often seem to live in their own shared world. I’m betting this is probably strongly a function of the alternate universe presented by right-wing media that constantly reminds them that not only will they miss critical news by checking elsewhere but that they will hear only propaganda by listening to or watching anybody else.

What are the consequences? First, the audience begins to think the vast majority of Americans share their political views and policy aims, when that’s not the case, and then they begin to turn to deeply-rooted conspiracy theories to explain how forces of evil are keeping their (minority) agenda at bay for so long, and the right-wing media feeds it. It’s the only possible explanation when you get your politics from a source espousing the same view and never showing that others might disagree or why.

But there’s another bigger consequence, regarding the content itself, not just the frame constraining that content. Intellectual critics, including those on the right, accuse the right-wing media of feeding a closed information loop, which sometimes even feeds itself so directly that it’s hard to tell when the media personalities (Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, etc.) eventually believe their own lies or still lie consciously. A recent example of a rigidly closed information loop is how the right-wing media, which loves to demonize the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and has made it quite the boogeyman over the years, willfully ignored what the ACLU was actually doing so it could create an alternate reality where it was doing what their preconceived expectations said the mythical-demon ACLU would do…

Conservative blogger (and critic of the closed information loop) Conor Friedersdorf wrote up the details on Trueslant last week:

On May 5, aka Cinco de Mayo, five students at a high school in Morgan Hill, California wore American flag attire to class. “The vice principal asked two of the boys to remove American flag bandannas that they wearing on their heads and for the others to turn their American flag T-shirts inside out,” the local NBC affiliate reported. “When they refused, the boys were ordered to go to the principal’s office.” The story got picked up in the national media, bloggers debated whether the boys were being patriotic or deliberately insensitive, and almost everyone at least agreed that in this country they were well within their rights to wear the American flag.

I am very interested in one aspect of the discussion that followed this story. The conservative blog Stop the ACLU is a natural place to begin. “Cinco De Mayo Means Suspension of Free Speech and Patriotism,” their post began. “At least in Morgan Hill, California where they live by the rules of political correctness gone crazy.” The ultimate reaction: “Absolutely ridiculous! Where is the ACLU?”

From there, Friedersdorf next almost exhaustively examines (and you should read the post), big-name to small-name right-wing media personalities/op-ed writers/bloggers to their random commenters — all of whom access the same information loop — and finds the right wing uniformly echoed this view: Limbaugh, News Real Blog, Ralph Wenzinger, Speak Now America, Elijah Friedman, Pirate’s Cove, The Old Jarhead, etc. etc… They all demanded to know where the ACLU was on this or claimed the ACLU was defending the school. And as he conclusively showed further, the ACLU was not only already on the case and defending the boys’ right to wear the shirts, but they have historically already served as legal counsel in four separate cases on the exact same issue.

It being extremely rare for authorities to crackdown on American flag wearing in the United States, it says something that the ACLU has invested resources in four separate instances of this behavior.

It’s almost as if the conservative media complex is systematically misleading its audience about the nature of the ACLU, so much so that right-of-center commentators across the Internet spontaneously mocked the organization for failing to intervene on the right side of this case, despite it being precisely the kind of case where the ACLU reliably does exactly what the critics themselves would want.

Perhaps the confusion comes from listening to talk radio hosts and reading blogs that cast all of American politics as a grand struggle between the left and the right, liberals and conservatives, tyranny and liberty. The rank and file, rightly judging that the ACLU operates on the left, automatically concludes that they are the enemy in any case worth caring about.

His conclusion? When a blog called Stop the ACLU is leading the charge in creating an alternate reality of a specific incident and lying about or being unaware of what the real ACLU was actually doing, the information loop (or as I call it, an alternate universe) not only exists but exists as an imperviously closed system. And he sounds like he pities the people who are closed inside the system:

The right cannot adeptly navigate a political environment that it is systematically misled about.

As much as the adherents of Beck, Limbaugh, et al. make me want to tear my hair out most of the time, I do almost feel sorry for them. It’s so delusional.

Some people, of course, try to create false equivalences and say that this happens on the left as well. That’s simply not true. There’s a reason why FOX News is the “highest-rated” cable news network: the left fragments to multiple competing sources or goes to a variety of media for news. Yes, most of us could broaden our horizons, but our frame of reference is nowhere near as constrained, unified, or repetitive. (Even on this blog, with a bunch of writers from basically similar backgrounds, we often sharply disagree with each other and read different sources with different views on the same events or policies.) The American right sticks to a narrow range of sources that all feed on each other in a continuous loop of opinions and alternate realities of events, and that loop tells the audience not to go elsewhere so as not to corrupt their minds with propaganda. Thus that’s where the average listener and viewer is getting virtually 100% of his or her political information. Rush Limbaugh doesn’t call his loyal listeners “dittoheads” for nothing.

And, sadly, they’re busy trying to run all the rational/intellectual conservatives out of town, thereby purging their ranks of people who aren’t engulfed in the system, people who might moderate their excesses and find ways to compromise and still get conservative agenda items passed. They accuse these intellectual conservatives of being elitists or brainwashed by the mainstream “liberal” media. What’s left isn’t pretty.

It’s a struggle to have a rational conversation with a person who lives and breathes that information system because they walk into the discussion with a completely different set of “facts.” Why is there no common ground these days in both family political arguments and the broader American political scene? Because a large chunk of the participants working from a different planet altogether. If not a separate right-wing alternate universe.