propaganda in the age of Trump.
author’s note: this essay was originally written in March 2018 for a different, now-defunct platform — the text had been edited slightly from the original to reflect developments since then, and at the point of my moving all my writing to Medium in January 2019.
As of April 2020, I have further split this essay into two segments, Part I and Part II. This split was always a natural one and should probably have happened at the start, as a little over half the essay is theory, with the remainder application, but, as it was my first ever Medium post, I did not want to alienate readers, of whom I probably had none, by forcing them to read two pieces instead of one.
However, I believe I now have a large enough profile for this not to be a problem. The essay is in the form it should have been all along and ought to make for a better, more structured read.
Readers can also rest assured I have not edited the essay in any way since the republication in January 2019. In April 2020, I only restructured it, as described.
Different Technologies, Different Memetic Systems, Different Outcomes
I have repeatedly claimed that technology in particular created the environment for centralized and strongly one-to-many memetics. We need to dig deeper into what the technology in question actually achieves and how it achieves it. Or, in our lingo, what the dynamics of different memetic systems are, and how these are affected or even created by different technologies.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw a dramatic turning point in the history of memetics. Whilst systems of ideas certainly travelled by art, architecture, and religion, industrialised memetics had flourished ever since the printing press and had played a supporting role in every movement with any intellectual component since. But the late nineteenth century and early twentieth saw the emergence of three technologies that would centralize memetics after four hundred years of its relatively distributed evolution. Print media, radio, and television.
Unlike previous methods of memetics, these were strongly one-to-many, and were orders of magnitude more powerful than what came before. I have made the vague claim of ‘power’ throughout but am now in a position to define it: they sent a stronger and more encapsulating signal to more people, more often. The ideas propagated by television, for example, the strongest of the three, would reach a vast audience in a more arresting and sensually enveloping way than any competing system. This took the place of radio, which had been dominant for weaker versions of the same reasons and had taken the place of print media, which had been dominant for weaker versions of the same reasons still. The broadcast would also be completely coherent across millions of people who would all receive exactly the same message at the same time. It would more than likely reach the audience in isolation, and repeatedly; over and over again, every single day for a person’s entire life. This combination of factors meant that the message to be adhered to (being told what it is acceptable to think) would therefore generate exactly identical personal and interpersonal reinforcement far faster than any many-to-many system could possibly hope to overcome.
What happened over the past 150 years or so was the replacement of one centralized and strongly one-to-many memetic dynamic with another which was even stronger and even more centralized. But the next technological development to set its sights on media was the Internet. It has already proven far more powerful than these three ‘broadcast’ media, despite barely getting started. But crucially, its memetic dynamic is fundamentally different. It is strongly many-to-many, and has hence provided a way to overcome the personal and interpersonal resistance to competing propaganda that legacy media has simply never had to compete against before.
What I claim as the ‘power’ of the Internet has all sorts of instantiations: we can access the Internet whenever we want on smartphones, whereas TV and radio is scheduled. We can engage with others consuming the media simultaneously and at vast scale, be it on messaging services, comment boards, or sometimes as an intrinsic part of the medium itself, such as reactions on Facebook and retweets on Twitter. We can also engage directly with the creators and distributors of the media; launching a tweetstorm is a far more effective method of expressing your disgust than yelling at the TV. This is the essence of many-to-many: ideas are no longer only being broadcast, nor only commented on by other broadcast sources. Anybody can spread or critique any idea over a variety of media, can respond directly to disseminated ideas, and can form networks to distil and evolve ideas organically and without any central source.
Centralised propaganda has no hope of competing against this. It can’t instil personal resistance anywhere near fast enough to tackle what is constantly emerging from the network, and it can’t instil interpersonal resistance really at all, because it turns out people like having a platform to express their own ideas, and they don’t even need to use their real names. This Medium page is a perfect example. I like writing it. And in the previous place I posted this essay I pretended to be French. Go me. The success of the Internet is intertwined with the process by which memetics is being decentralized. We are returning to an era of distributed memetics.
What on earth does any of this mean? Readers with mental alarms for calling the ‘mainstream media’ sources of propaganda and not defenders of freedom and justice may have sensed this coming for a while now, but the clearest thing it has meant so far is the election of Donald Trump.
It’s not even the fact that Trump won the election that is interesting here; it is the technological mechanisms that allowed this to happen, and the role legacy media played. In short, legacy media had no clue what was happening and still mostly doesn’t. One might say that Trump pwned them and continues to pwn them day after day. To be clearer, Trump utilized the strongly many-to-many memetic dynamic of the Internet to brilliant effect, whereas Clinton relied on the twentieth century paradigm of one-to-many propaganda broadcast. The result, when understood properly, was frankly hilarious. Regardless of the merits of the candidates as candidates, Clinton’s campaign was probably the worst ever, and Trump’s the best (‘best’ as in ‘effective’, not ‘righteous’).
Why was Clinton’s campaign so ineffective and Trump’s so effective? That Clinton’s was ineffective is straightforward: it was built around broadcasting platitudinous propaganda, which wasn’t even good platitudinous propaganda. It had no central message other than: vote for me, I’m qualified or, occasionally, don’t vote for him, he’s crazy. With a powerful many-to-many memetic competitor around, this is almost certain to be a disaster because the audience no longer has insurmountable personal and interpersonal resistance. They can instantly go on the attack against terrible propaganda. To reinforce the point that this is not essentially linked to political outlook, consider that this is exactly what Pepsi discovered a while back with its Kendall Jenner debacle. In the television age, no matter the personal ambivalence or even anger towards this message, the lack of sufficiently powerful many-to-many memetic competitor to challenge it would have led to this ad being accepted — whatever it was embarrassingly trying to tap into beyond ‘please continue to buy Pespi, k thnx’. In the Internet era, many-to-many memetics rapidly outflanked and destroyed the source of the propaganda. It is bad enough when you don’t understand the memetic environment you inhabit, but when you have an opponent who does understand it, things can easily hilarious. This is basically what happened in the election: the Clinton campaign was Pepsi, and the Trump campaign was Black Lives Matter. Clearly, politics are almost completely irrelevant. What is relevant is the appreciation of the medium, and an embracing of its memetic dynamic.
Trump is the first ever social media candidate. It is easy to dismiss the ‘social media’ prefix as indicative of divisive tweets, fake news, and so-called data breaches, but it is difficult to understand the deeper cultural and technological shift that is really implied: the Trump campaign had an extraordinarily mobile and reactive feedback loop for the production of effective propaganda. The Clinton campaign was based around the assumption of the effective memetic dynamic of legacy media, meaning that its propaganda was centrally crafted and centrally distributed. And then that was it. That was the end of the process. Moreover, this took months to plan and execute. There were professionals, committees, budgets, and apathy. Trump mostly outsourced the production and distribution of propaganda to a kind of decentralized collective intelligence. He could A/B test material in real time, and could tap into and amplify whatever rose to the top of his enormous network of meme production. Hence Pepe the Frog, which started as nothing but a joke, ends up being retweeted by Trump himself, and fawned over by legacy media or, in other words, amplified. The frothing up of jokes on /r/politics about Clinton’s health following the pneumonia non-story made it into Trump’s prepared debate remarks.
That this strategy was working was in some sense perfectly measurable, and hence the election result predictable and not surprising at all. Consider this analysis of the Twitter exchange following the third debate. Readers are encouraged to explore for themselves, but the graphic I have pulled out below is a visualization of the strength of engagement between and amongst the most influential Twitter accounts following the final presidential debate. The bigger the name the greater the influence and the thicker the line the greater the engagement.
What we see here is that all the biggest names are on the Clinton side, but that there are vastly more connections across a greater range of sizes and more engagement on the Trump side. This is exactly what you would expect in a contest between incumbent centralized and challenger distributed memetics. Propaganda emerges from broadcast by authorities: big names, few of them, broadcasting to vast amounts of small names with no engagement. Propaganda emerges from a network: names of all sizes except the very largest engage frenetically. However, if you only consider the legacy media’s coverage, it is totally unaware of this novel phenomenon — memetics existing outwith itself — and considers Clinton the overwhelming favourite.
The result? Well, as those data scientists rather presciently wrote: “There is a common perception that Hillary Clinton is winning the election comfortably. The assertion that there are a large number of bots ‘supporting’ Donald Trump plays to this perception by suggesting that the noisy support for Trump is not real. Based on what we observed in the Brexit election where there is a larger ‘hidden’ support for one side over the other, we would advise some caution over thinking the election is already won by Hillary Clinton.”
That the legacy media was dead set against Trump ended up playing perfectly to his hands, as did Clinton’s second line of attack: don’t vote for him, he’s crazy, precisely because neither really understood what was going on, whereas Trump did. A military metaphor is apposite: with their experience and resources, Clinton and the media would have dominated any traditional conflict, but they didn’t even begin to understand the enemy’s weapons and strategy in this conflict, given how technology had recently advanced. Dominating the legacy broadcast bandwidth could translate to something like immensely powerful artillery. But when the enemy invents Blitzkrieg, the Maginot Line is immediately useless. Two examples:
Firstly, the media endlessly reported on Trump’s tweets. The intention was to show him up to be an idiot, because many (probably most) of the tweets were and continue to be stupid. This was a deadly strategic error because the purpose of the tweets was not to put forward a political argument for critique, but to A/B test propaganda. All that is required to execute this strategy and enhance the potency of the feedback loop is exposure. Thank you very much, legacy media. Notice also the distinctly twentieth-century attitude on display here, evidently wedded to the memetic dynamic of legacy media: this approach would have made sense in 1980 had Trump penned a controversial op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. But it makes no sense at all on the Internet. Nobody seems to have told Clinton or the legacy media this, but nobody cares about the actual content of a tweet for more than 30 seconds. They are ephemeral, tongue-in-cheek, and decidedly unserious. The etiquette is to playfully rebut with a witty but equally unserious comeback. It is basically geographically remote hyper-scale bar room banter. If you go beyond 140 characters and to try to debate political science, you lose. Brevity is the soul of wit, not self-righteous fact-checking.
This also demonstrates pretty dramatically where the memetic power really lies at the intersection of the Internet and legacy media: legacy media, which has total top-down control over what it broadcasts in a strongly-one-to-many memetic dynamic, was manipulated into reporting on the memetics of the Internet.
Secondly, the ‘basket of deplorables’ comment. In any prior campaign, this would have simply been considered foolish, apologized for, and forgotten. Four years prior, Romney had a moment much like this which was embarrassing, but effectively a non-event in the long run. However, in the hands of the Trump campaign this was immediately turned into a meme — which still exists to this day. This could never happen in a centralized propaganda machine. I’m With Her took years to pull together. Deplorables took hours. And yet the average person probably would not understand the reference to I’m With Her today, whereas this discussion is arguably inextricably bound up with the very meaning of the word ‘deplorable’ in contemporary English. This is the difference in propagandistic capacity between the two systems, regardless of funding or institutional support. The phrase has its own Wikipedia page. Notice that the subsections listed are: Clinton’s Campaign, Trump’s Campaign, Trump’s Supporters. But no Clinton’s Supporters. Clinton’s supporters did not operate a many-to-many network of distributed memetics. Trump’s did.
I will mention an example which came in 2017, long after the election, but is perfectly indicative of the features of manipulating legacy media reporting and rapid and mobile decentralized feedback and reorganization. High off the hilarity of tricking the Clinton campaign into lecturing Americans about the dangers of racist frogs, there followed a period of time after the election during which roughly the same group pwned the legacy media so badly that it was manipulated into believing and that the OK sign and milk were secret symbols of a Nazi insurgency in the United States. The network did not do this to win an election or even to purposefully achieve anything at all; they did it because they thought it would be funny, and they were right. Just let that sink in: distributed memetics in the Internet age is now so much more powerful than any existing system of centralized memetics that it can co-opt the entire centralized apparatus just to get it to unwittingly broadcast jokes about itself.
A final indication of how all this related to the election, which is so visually vivid that it almost constitutes a meme in and of itself, is that Clinton would often appear with celebrities on stage, whereas Trump always appeared alone. In the era of strongly one-to-many legacy media, Clinton would have won this exchange. This is what I think she and the Democrats thought they were saying at the memetic level: All the cool and influential people like Clinton, so you should like Clinton too! But in this era, celebrities of this kind are redundant. They tell you what to think (i.e. they broadcast propaganda) and they do not engage. They are puppets of the centralized machine who may have exaggerated personal influence, but are puppets nonetheless. When they wander out of bounds they are quickly destroyed and replaced. Trump on the other hand engaged in a vigorous and frenetic fashion. On Twitter, at the rallies, and in interactions with legacy media. With that backdrop in mind, this is what Clinton’s choice actually said at the memetic level: Clinton needs unqualified celebrities in order to even fake engagement; Trump is the celebrity and he is engaging. Clinton lost this memetic battle because she didn’t even know she was in it.
Where Do We Go Now?
As with my insistence on political outlook being largely irrelevant to the past development of memetics, I think it will be largely irrelevant to its future development also; technology has no ideological affinity. The only sense in which political ideology is relevant, I think, was Clinton’s positioning within the Democratic Party, but I think that the personalities of the two candidates were far more important than the ideas they supposedly represented. The Democrats are far more closely aligned with the memetic dynamic of the twentieth century media complex; Republicans have some influence at the fringe, and also have their own conflicting outlets on outlying but stable cultural terrain, but on the whole I do not think this is a controversial proposition. Within the Democrats, Clinton could not have been more emblematic of ‘the establishment’, and so of course would rely on and be supported by the establishment mechanism of running a political campaign. Trump, on the other hand, is a maverick media personality who had no real ties to the mainstream political infrastructure and who, to some extent, certainly understood all of this to an almost infinitely greater degree than Clinton. This too, I do not think is controversial: Trump has one of the best intuitive grasps of the media of any political candidate in history, for better or worse, and Clinton has none at all. The arithmetic holds up.
But there is nothing essentially ideological here. It was a question of background and affinity to technique. Clinton could have embraced the strongly many-to-many memetic dynamic of the Internet and abandoned the dying strongly one-to-many legacy media complex. She just didn’t. I suspect Sanders probably would have done so to far greater (infinitely greater?) effect had he been the candidate. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez arguably did precisely this just two years later. But of course, in the Democratic primaries in 2016, the dying one-to-many legacy media complex had far greater sway than in the general election and Clinton relied on this to defeat Sanders, who was certainly a far better candidate. Maybe that rush of power gave her false hope for the general election. Who knows? The legacy media certainly does not know. They have absolutely no clue and moreover are still, two years later, spasming in outraged denial whenever they aren’t denouncing satirical Nazi symbolism or elucidating Facebook’s business model.
I noticed something very odd and, on reflection, alarming, following the election. I wonder if the reader did too; it became popular amongst a decent proportion of intelligent and well-educated people to signal their total incomprehension of events as a virtue. The more you couldn’t explain anything, the more righteous you must be, like a kind of piety to the prior memetic dynamic. I found this to be true particularly amongst pundits who never considered themselves part of the legacy media and took delight in dancing around the edges of allowed opinion so as to demonstrate their intellectual curiosity and originality. But they had still relied on the legacy media both to grant them a platform to access an audience, and to define the facts and the boundaries of acceptable interpretations of these facts in order to then have fun dancing around them.
This is all very, very strange. An important quality (perhaps the only important quality) of being educated and intelligent is to stress-test belief and seek out new knowledge. You only have real knowledge if you can both predict and explain things. If you cannot, especially if your existing toolkit has dramatically failed, then you need to pipe down and find better tools. And yet here were people holding up their broken tools to prove their inherent goodness. Of course I can’t explain this! I’m not a racist sexist homophobe!
I believe that what was really happening here is that a decent proportion of these tools had previously reliably come from legacy media, and since legacy media had abjectly failed in its fake role of reporting facts, these people were simply confused. The holding up of the tools was perhaps a demonstration less of righteousness and more of victimhood. Legacy media still did a fantastic job in its real role of broadcasting propaganda, but what happened in the election is that the distinction between the facts and the propaganda was so dramatic that, for the first time ever, the façade became simply untenable and the audience was left wondering what had been done to their default explanatory tools.
My favourite example from the public sphere was this Recode Decode interview. The whole episode is worth listening to, but at around 7 minutes, we hear Marc Andreessen, professional baller, silencing a shocked and horrified audience of inherently wonderful and righteous Californians, thinkers of the approved thoughts to a tee, by pointing out the obvious truth that the only media outlet that covered the election by reporting facts rather than broadcasting propaganda was Breitbart. Which is not to say that Breitbart is not propagandistic — of course it is — but it was the only major outlet whose propaganda corresponded reasonably well to the facts. If you read Breitbart you had an accurate idea of what was happening. If you read pretty much anything else, you did not.
There was and still is a great deal of chortling clustered around the Breitbart crowd over the false confidence the Democrats had entering the election and felt safe and free to broadcast. It is not hard to find YouTube montages of leftist pundits and politicians saying that Trump will never, in a bajillion years, be President, and compilations of major media outlets’ predictions on the day of the election: usually in the 90–95% range of a Clinton victory. But I think this faction misses the point too. They won a political victory, yes, but the victory was not fundamentally political. It was a better riding of a monumental technological and cultural wave of change. Next time they might lose. If Cruz had run against Sanders, they probably would have, and they have in fact since lost the House due to Democratic mobilisation with a far more decentralised approach than usual.
The shade of politics that is relevant is, again, not sourced in ideology, but in cultural dynamics. The Democratic Party has the potential to suffer more from this shift because it is more closely aligned with the dying regime. It faces a kind of political innovator’s dilemma; the change required will be painful and costly in the short term, but is necessary in the long term and will become more painful the longer it is put off. One might think of Wal-Mart only taking ecommerce and Amazon seriously after it was too late to do anything about it. Bizarrely, at the same time, there are a variety of less institutionalized movements, which are clearly largely ideologically aligned with the Democratic Party and which seem to understand all of this almost perfectly. I have already praised Black Lives Matter on exactly this account. It’s a strange situation; it’s as if Amazon had been borne among the junior ranks of Wal-Mart executives.
But what the Democrats, their followers, and their memetic apparatus need to do right away is stop blaming absolutely everything on racism or fake news, or at least stop expecting that these complaints will be taken seriously. Strongly many-to-many memetics means that they no longer have to be taken seriously. There is greatly minimised interpersonal resistance to laughing at these claims. But the dilemma still exists because it is hard to let go of techniques that have worked for so long, especially if there is some truth to the claims. Of course racism exists and is more prevalent amongst those who voted for Trump than those who did not, and of course the Russians bought a vast array of targeted Facebook ads in an attempt to influence the election. But this is like trying to interpret the fall of Communism solely through the lens of dialectical materialism. But capitalism exploits the working class! Great. That something is true does not mean that it is relevant. Angrily repeating surface level truisms is futile when the problem at hand lies in the broken foundations of the entire explanatory system.
The explanatory system for politics of centralized memetics is broken. The break is irreversible because it is powered by, and is an inevitable consequence of, the Internet. Memetics is becoming distributed and the equally exciting and terrifying potential of the Internet is in wondering what other centralized organizations can become distributed next; terrifying if you are part of the dying centralized power structure, exciting if you are part of the distributed network replacing it. If distributed memetics in its infancy can outwit the entire centralized legacy media complex and win the Presidency, what can it achieve as it grows? Is there a system to check its power? Ought there to be? Can there be? And what other power structures can be targeted?
I don’t really know, and at this point I don’t believe that anybody really knows. But we are all about to find out. Buckle up.
With thanks and credit also to Situational Assessment 2017, by Jordan Greenhall, and Collective Intelligence and Swarms in the Red Insurgency, by Gustavo Montes De Oca. This essay was originally written in March 2018 for a different, now-defunct platform — the text has been edited slightly from the original to reflect developments since.
follow me on Twitter @allenf32