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Trump, Putin, and the Paradox of Propaganda

When you set out to brainwash others, you end up brainwashing yourself.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: JORGE SILVA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

“At a time when President Joe Biden’s own weaknesses make him an easy political target, Trump and his political apparatus instead seem to be unable to move past the abyss of election-fraud lies,” reports Politico. This is a now-familiar feature of Trump’s cramped thinking. He has been trapped by the lies of his own media ecosystem to the point where it inhibits his own power. Trump invents lies, his favored media sources repeat those lies, and Trump believes them. Trump devised the stolen-election lie to hold onto office, but his inability to relinquish his fixation on it is making Republicans abandon him. Had he not fooled himself into believing the coronavirus pandemic would disappear, he probably would have won reelection.

I don’t think this dynamic is unique to Trump. I have a theory about propaganda: When you set out to brainwash others, you end up brainwashing yourself.

The intent of propaganda, of course, is to contain the effect to the audience, who will be steered toward beliefs you find useful, and away from beliefs you find dangerous, regardless of whether either is true. But ultimately, the task of keeping mental double books becomes too difficult. The false world you create drives out the real one.

Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine is a vivid example of this dynamic. Putin, of course, was trained by the KGB and places enormous value on information as warfare: You hoard the truth for yourself by gathering secrets, and weaken your enemies with lies. But ultimately the lies escaped and infected their creator.

Putin sought to convince his people Ukraine was weak, corrupt, and lacking in any popular legitimacy. He wound up believing his own lies, launching a ruinous war premised on his expectation that Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government would collapse immediately and that Ukrainians would welcome Russians as liberators.

Indeed, even as the military campaign has been a ruinous fiasco, the propaganda campaign has continued to work. The Russian public still supports the war. Putin’s problem is that they have been so convinced by his lies that they are unprepared to handle the defeat he is going to deliver. As Julia Ioffe reports:

As Stanovaya and others have pointed out, the news of compromise from the Russian delegation to Istanbul triggered a massive outcry from Putin loyalists and the extreme nationalist wing in Russian society that has been encouraged to flourish in the last decade. Russian social media networks lit up with rage that Vladimir Medinsky, one of the Russian negotiators, was selling out Russia and its dreams of empire by acceding to anything in these talks. Even Ramzan Kadyrov, the theatrically cruel and deranged leader of Chechnya, who rarely disagrees with Putin in public, asked the Russian president “to let us finish what we started.” “We warriors do not consent to these negotiations and to these agreements,” he said in a video address.

Putin’s long campaign to suppress independent media and foment nationalist aggression against Ukraine is a catastrophic success. Externally, all his foreign-policy objectives are being undermined — Russia is facing economic and diplomatic isolation, has cemented Ukrainian nationalism, and is enlarging NATO. Domestically, the main threat he faces comes not from Russians seeing through his lies, but from Russians who believe them all too fervently.

Because it is difficult to measure, the power of propaganda is often discounted. After all, the audience for propaganda in free countries is generally drawn from people who agree with it in the first place, so how can we tell if the propaganda is changing their beliefs, as opposed to merely reinforcing them? Even in authoritarian countries, there’s no way to detect what people would believe in an alternate world where they had free access to information. We can see they often embrace the lies fed to them very eagerly.

Political scientists David Broockman and Joshua Kalla conducted a fascinating experiment on the effect of Fox News, recruiting its devoted watchers, nearly all of whom identify as conservative Republicans, to spend seven hours a week watching CNN. The effect on the subjects was massive. The experiment revealed the Fox News effect in reverse, by measuring the change in beliefs produced by exposing an audience of people who had largely been brainwashed by Fox to news from CNN.

Watching CNN opened their eyes to news that had been fully concealed to them by Fox. Fox-watchers exposed to CNN became more likely to believe things that were true (such as other countries having more success containing COVID than the United States) and less likely to believe things that are false (such as the claim Joe Biden was happy when police officers get shot).

Most interestingly, the treatment group became less likely to agree with the statement “If Donald Trump did something bad, Fox News would discuss it.” That is to say, a group of Fox News watchers, after being exposed to CNN, came around to the conclusion that Fox News is concealing coverage of Trump’s transgressions.

Broockman and Kalla refer to this dynamic as “partisan coverage filtering” — that is, it works not only by reinforcing preexisting beliefs, but also by blinding its audience to facts that may discomfit them. Broockman notes, chillingly, that we should think of organs like Fox News “more like state media,” possessing the power to shield leaders from any accountability by making their supporters ignorant of their misconduct.

Obviously, because Americans have the choice to switch channels any time they want, Fox News does not work exactly like state media. But in a polarized world, propaganda sources serve a similar function. Partisans will simply internalize a ban on forbidden news sources, making repressive Putin-esque steps like arresting editors and closing down newspapers unnecessary.

Many of the problems in American politics are a result of the fact Republicans control a propaganda apparatus and Democrats don’t. Now, the question of mainstream-media bias is a complex one, and I don’t deny places like CNN and the New York Times have at least some liberal biases, and that these are growing. I maintain, however, that they are not functionally similar to Fox News. Whatever social liberal biases may tilt their coverage, they report bad news for Democrats regularly.

Democratic presidents will never enjoy the kind of supportive coverage that Republican presidents get from conservative media. Conservative media gives its audience a picture of Republican presidents not terribly different than the coverage of Putin in Russian state media. Democratic presidents have no such benefit. Their voters will routinely read or watch critical news stories about high inflation or a botched Afghanistan withdrawal (or the failed Obamacare website, or Whitewater, or …)

Republicans have the external protection of a media that insulates their own voters from news of their failure. But this same dynamic makes failure itself far more likely. Republicans cannot identify and correct errors, because their internal communications norms render heresies unspeakable. Joe Biden and Barack Obama both were elected in the first place because incumbent Republicans presidents failed so spectacularly. The paradox of propaganda is that the advantage it creates for Republicans also sows the seeds of their own demise.

Trump, Putin, and the Paradox of Propaganda