The article I just linked about photographer Boris Eldagsen contains an interesting, and much wider point about propaganda that jibes perfectly with a prophetic statement by former Trump strategist Steve Bannon:
Mick Gordon, studying for a PhD in AI at Queen Mary’s in Belfast, explains: “Rudimentary AI is specific pattern recognition. It’s really tricky, and it still has hallucinations, or struggles to recognise the difference between a dog and a cat. The panic is, ultimately, you’re going to have truth, and you’re going to have reality, and reality’s going to be a mixture of truth, hallucinations — that’s what they call it when the machine does something weird — and deliberate non-truth. Propaganda used to deliver a singular message to the exclusion of other messaging. Now propaganda will just deluge you with everything.”
From an article by Sean Illing in Vox, written on the eve of Trump’s acquittal in his second impeachment trial:
We’re in an age of manufactured nihilism.
The issue for many people isn’t exactly a denial of truth as such. It’s more a growing weariness over the process of finding the truth at all. And that weariness leads more and more people to abandon the idea that the truth is knowable.
I call this “manufactured” because it’s the consequence of a deliberate strategy. It was distilled almost perfectly by Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News and chief strategist for Donald Trump. “The Democrats don’t matter,” Bannon reportedly said in 2018. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”
Bannon’s statement, of course, is remarkable because he admits to the spin, acknowledges the bullshit, and knows that winning a culture war isn’t so much about content but about volume. You can’t fact check your way out of an avalanche.
If what we’re worried about is the survival of truth, then the worry shouldn’t be about how fakes are made and whether or not they need to be reigned in—it’s about how any human being can proceed to live in this oversaturated and heavily mediated society without either tuning out or becoming radicalized.
In October, I spoke to Peter Pomerantsev, a Soviet-born reality TV producer turned academic who wrote a book about Putin’s propaganda strategy. The goal, he told me, wasn’t to sell an ideology or a vision of the future; instead, it was to convince people that “the truth is unknowable” and that the only sensible choice is “to follow a strong leader.”
Update, 07 Aug 2023: This week’s episode of This American Life is all about debates between families that share Russian and Ukrainian heritage. Writer Masha Gessen, who narrates the story, tells makes a very similar point about propaganda:
By suggesting that maybe things aren’t so clear, so black and white, so knowable, Alex was, in fact, doing what Russian propaganda does. Its main message is that no one really knows what happened. If you weren’t there you can’t know, can’t judge. Everyone has a vested interest in everything. No one is a reliable source. It provides people with a myriad of ways to avoid the truth and no way to know it.