No better than tsarist Russia

In 1682, the year of Peter the Great’s accession to the Russian throne at the age of 10, there was a coup fomented through a misinformation campaign from one of the warring factions. At issue was the legitimacy of Peter as the heir to the throne. While one influential faction of lords backed Peter, the opposition wanted his half-brother Ivan to rule the kingdom. The campaign of misinformation that climaxed with a revolt of the Streltzy, the palace guard, used well-known propaganda tactics to incite violence among masses. How did they do it? By spreading a lie that Ivan had been executed. And since this happened in the absence of the free press or any kind of checks and balances to verify the story, the fearful pawns, pre-primed into anger, their preconceived notions confirmed, did their job. The bloodshed was ghastly and occurred before the eyes of the child tsar, scarring him forever and informing his ruthlessly pragmatic ruling style. Ivan, very much alive, stood next to Peter on the stairs of the palace while the unleashed mob, unable to stop even in the face of seeing Ivan alive, bludgeoned members of the royal household.

The sleazy manipulation tactics of misinformation campaigns have come a long way. Fox, Drudge, Bannon and the like, are keen psychologists first, and purveyors of misinformation second, aided by the technological advances of the 21st century. The trick with misinformation is that in order to make it credible, it has to be at least somewhat true. Misinformation is just the composted cow manure that helps grow the seeds of emotional volatility among the mob. This emotional volatility, once watered by peer validation (just look at the comments on Breitbart), is not subject to rational examination or logical argument. This is the agitprop of dictatorships, so successful at steering people to go against their own interests. They turn off higher cognitive functions in favor of the autopilot of the reptilian brain. That’s the danger, this locomotive of unrestrained and unexamined toxic emotionality.

This is what the new President-elect has willfully unleashed and legitimized. Yesterday’s “meeting” in his Rapunzel tower with the leaders of the main stream press was a chilling and direct threat to our Democracy, which cannot exist without the freedom of the press. The report of this meeting on Breitbart was met with cheers for the dictator to destroy the mainstream media and put them all in jail. This is what abject fear looks like when it owns you. This is the addictive drug of righteous anger, the only relief they can get from that fear. Breitbart and the like are the drug dealers that will take their addicted followers’ last dime to further their own agendas. And the masses are willingly bringing themselves to be slaughtered.

This ugly blob of toothpaste will take some time to wrestle back into the tube.

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How propaganda works

Earlier today I came across a report that Steve Bannon, our President-Elect’s newly appointed chief strategist, suggested that Silicon Valley had too many Asian CEOs. This was a year ago in November. (You have to wonder why the HuffPo is resurrecting this story now, and knowing how Bannon operates, also wonder if he planted it.) To this our populist anti-elites President-Elect responded, “When someone is going to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Stanford, all the greats… we throw them out of the country, and they can’t get back in… I think that’s terrible.”

Dissent among the ranks? Don’t be fooled. This is a strategy, or will be used as such even if a priori it was just a conversation. There are two thoughts I have about how this will go down.

1. Bannon stays in the position given him and continues to lob lunatic fringe ideas into the ether, just so that our President-Elect can counter them and thereby increase his sanity quotient in the public’s eye.

2. The job offer to Bannon is rescinded, which makes our President-Elect look even more sane and even willing to strike a compromise.

Either way, Bannon is a multipurpose tool, on the one hand allowing our President-Elect to appear at least somewhat sane, and on the other winking to the neo-nazi base that their atrocious agenda is represented. And either way, it will make all of us liberals pant with admiration, and we will settle back and watch the rest of the inferno that will be his presidency through the lens of this single push-pull dynamic. This will obscure all the other atrocities going on underneath.

Given Bannon’s cunning, I think he must prefer the first scenario. So we need to push really hard for the second. And stay vigilant and not give our President-Elect a pass on anything that remotely resembles like a dismantling of the ramparts of our Democracy.

This is how professional propaganda machine works.