Weaponizing Social Media

The already ample commentary directed at our “Tweeter-in-Chief” grew more copious–and pointed–in the wake of Trump’s “Morning Joe” attacks and the bizarre visual of him “body slamming” CNN.

John Cassidy’s essay in the New Yorker was consistent with the general tenor of those reactions, especially his conclusion:

Where America, until recently, had at its helm a Commander-in-Chief whom other countries acknowledged as a global leader and a figure of stature even if they didn’t like his policies, it now has something very different: an oafish Troll-in-Chief who sullies his office daily.

Most of the Cassidy piece focused on Trump’s addiction to–and childish use of–Twitter, and it is hard to disagree with his observation that the content of these messages is “just not normal behavior.” Thoughtful people, those not given to hyperbole or ad hominem attacks, are increasingly questioning Trump’s mental health.

The paragraph that struck me, however, was this one, because it raises an issue larger than the disaster in the White House:

Trump’s online presence isn’t something incidental to his Presidency: it is central to it, and always has been. If the media world were still dominated by the major broadcast networks and a handful of big newspapers, Trump would most likely still be hawking expensive apartments, building golf courses, and playing himself in a reality-television series. It was the rise of social media, together with the proliferation of alternative right-wing news sites, that enabled Trump to build a movement of angry, alienated voters and, ultimately, go from carnival barker to President.

Unpack, for a moment, the observation that social media and alternative “news” made Trump possible.

John Oliver recently aired a worrisome segment about Sinclair Broadcasting, a “beneath the radar” behemoth which is on the verge of a $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media. That merger would significantly consolidate ownership of local television outlets, including one in Indianapolis. Oliver showed clips demonstrating Sinclair’s extreme right-wing bias–bias that, as Oliver pointed out– is in the same category as Fox News and Breitbart.

It’s damaging enough when radio talk shows, television networks and internet sites peddle falsehoods and conspiracy theories. What truly “weaponizes” disinformation and propaganda, however, is social media, where Facebook “friends” and twitter followers endlessly repeat even the most obvious fantasies; as research has shown, that repetition can make even people who are generally rational believe very irrational things.

When NASA has to issue an official denial that it is operating a child slave colony on Mars, we’re in unprecedented times.

I don’t have research to confirm or rebut my theory, but I believe that Americans’ loss of trust in our government–in our institutions and those elected and/or appointed to manage them–has made many people receptive to “alternative” explanations for decisions they may not like or understand. It couldn’t be that the people making that decision or crafting that legislation simply see the situation differently. It couldn’t be that public servant A is simply wrong; or that those making decision B had access to information we don’t have. No–they must be getting paid off. They must be working with other enemies of righteousness in a scheme to [fill in the blank].

No wonder it is so difficult to get good people to run for public office. In addition to good faith disagreements about their performance, they are likely to be accused of corrupt motives.

The other day, I struck up a discussion with a perfectly nice woman–a former schoolteacher. The talk turned to IPS, and she was complimentary about the schools with which she was familiar. She was less complimentary about the district’s charter schools–a position I understand. (It’s a mixed bag. Some are excellent, some aren’t, and they certainly aren’t a panacea for what ails education.)

All perfectly reasonable.

Then she confided to me that the Superintendent “gets a bonus” for every contract he signs with a Charter school. In other words, it’s all about the money. It couldn’t be that the school board and superintendent want the best for the children in the district and–right or wrong– simply see things differently.

Our daughter is on that school board, and I know for a fact that the Superintendent does NOT get bonuses for contracting with charter schools.  When I shared this exchange with our daughter, she regaled me with a number of other appalling, disheartening accusations that have grown and festered on social media.

I don’t have a remedy for our age of conspiracy. Censorship is clearly not an answer. (In the long run,  education can help.) But if we don’t devise a strategy for countering radio and television propaganda and the fever swamps of social media–the instruments that gave us Trump–we’ll be in an increasingly dangerous world of hurt.


  1. All good. It would also help if the R party dropped the position that our government IS the problem…. A basic position of the R’s since Reagan. When that is their starting point, it goes down hill quickly.

  2. The MSNBC interview with David Ignacious (sp?) after his return from the Syrian battlefield in which he reported troops returning from days battling ISIS, sought news from home. Meaning actual news broadcasts from the United States of America. What they found were repeated reports of Trump’s Tweets insulting Mike and Joe on “Morning Joe” and repeated showing of the photoshopped Wrestlemania video of Trump wrestling CNN to the floor. This took me back to Robin Williams’ excellent portrayal of Adrian Conour (again, sp?) in “Good Morning, Viet Nam” when this government deliberately covered up all news, including know areas to be inhabited by Viet Cong near their locations which endangered all their lives.

    The finger-pointing needs to be aimed at the current Congress which allows this foolishness from Trump to continue and the media who repeatedly rebroadcast Trump’s idiocy. We have been inundated with this man’s mentally unbalanced antics in the media for more than two years – not counting the previous 35 years of his ongoing antics being reported because his name is Donald Trump and he is rich. The media helped elect him to the presidency because there was no escape from his face, his rants, his speeches, his rallies and his foolishness being considered “news”. This continues today, ad nauseaum. NOT repeatedly broadcasting his idiocy dozens of times daily is not censorship; it is intelligent journalism.

  3. It isn’t just the propaganda of radio and television, nor the fever swamps of social media that have destroyed trust in the government. Those entities simply package and sell distrust and conspiracy to an audience made skeptical and suspicious by decades of lies pouring out of every institution in the country. The lies that got us into Vietnam, the lies from Nixon’s White House about their crimes, the lies about Wall Street and part they really played in the recession. And let us not forget the lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that have cost over three thousand American lives and counting and the lies about the science of global warming . And finally there are the endless lies pouring out of businesses and industries about the safety of their products or their activities which are confirmed by the silence of government agencies that are suppose to enforce regulations.

    Once it is lost, trust cannot be regained. Sadly, this lesson seems to have been lost too.

  4. You’re right on with what you say today, Sheila. However, I am thinking more and more that, since when we read this stuff repeatedly and become paranoid, we had better STOP reading/listening after we’ve heard each outrageous remark once. That’s not easy, but I think it’s possible.

    ANOTHER POINT:we need to let pass ( so far as gossiping is concerned) things like the Morning Joe/CNN atrocity. I believe that the primary purpose there is DISTRACTION/entertainment. Secondary purpose, of course, is to make us distrust everything that doesn’t come out of the TRUMPet. It is urgent for us to be alert to what’s REALLY GOING ON under the smokescreen.

  5. Sheila, our problem is that we continually look to the past for our answers, like marches etc. The answers lie in the present, not the past. The past can only be a guide. We need to learn that before it’s too late. Quite possibly it is already too late.

  6. I’ve come to the realization that the news no longer tells us what we need to know but rather tells us what we want to know.

  7. Welcome back, Marv! I’ve missed your perspective on things as they stand at the moment.

  8. Your encounter with the schoolteacher is the embodiment of “small town” talk. I know. I grew up in such a small town in Indiana.

    I am curious if you shared your knowledge of the incorrect facts with that schoolteacher. In effect, that’s how the war is “won” against misinformation–with educated firsthand knowledge that wipes away the need for continuing such folly.

    That’s the attraction and danger of social media: no direct contact to expunge a fantastic story or outright lie. And today, there is no continuing education or training for deftly handling such hyperbole. And the less we interact with others who do NOT share our opinions, the less practiced we are at listening for, and responding to, those statements that sound false or exaggerated.

    For those who are of a certain generation, it is the reincarnation of the telephone party line. Or the well-known commercial for a shampoo. Fantastic stories win out over boring facts and “other side” truths nearly every time.

    This calls to mind the Eleanor Roosevelt quote: “”Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

  9. It would an interesting experiment if the press stopped publishing Trump’s tweets and only covered policy and legislative discussions to determine if the purpose of most of his behavior was to attract media attention. It might reveal an Achilles heel.

  10. Marv, great to hear from you again. Our history should inform us, but our vision of the future should drive us.

  11. Betty, for the past four months, I’ve exclusively tweeted and re-tweeted in Europe and particularly into Sweden. Our media no longer has any validity That’s exactly why The Guardian has been able to capture such a significant part of the market in the US.

    I’m slowly regaining my sanity.

  12. The media is propaganda in the United States and most of the Western World. It has been since the 1950’s.

    From the 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent by Herman and Chomsky:

    “The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.”

    This is why we have alternative media today. This is also why the mass media wants to silence what they label #FakeNews. Google is actually working on a filter using the New York Times as the bar of real news. Anything deviating from The Times will be scrubbed. Censorship, but they’ll sell it as being good for Americans. LOL

    As for politicians and both political parties – they are just another corrupted institution. You need lots of money to run a campaign and the Democratic Party is hurting badly. The GOP is controlled by Koch brothers who have a very specific agenda of shrinking the government as much as possible.

    The primary problem is the predatory nature of capitalism. It’s feeding the corruption of all our institutions. Again, Albert Einstein pointed this out in the 40’s.

    Charter schools are just the beginning stages of privatizing public schools. Period. They want to eliminate ALL unions. Even Milton Friedman admitted to this in the 80’s. Arthur Laffer is one of Koch’s leading economic strategists, so “trickle-down” is running the White House.

    We are basically in the final stages of capitalism…it isn’t sustainable.

  13. Todd, you’re absolutely right. The New York Times is the real problem. They’ve been SECRETLY self-censoring the “deep” news for a long time. It’s been that way since, at least, as far back as 1967.

    One good thing, they’re keeping The Guardian “afloat.” Unfortunately, they’ve recently announced the termination of around 250 employees.

  14. Carrie @ 8:15–I did indeed “share” my information. She smiled pitying at me and refused to believe it. She “knew” she was right.

  15. @Todd Smekens, I appreciate your mentioning charter schools when you wrote “Charter schools are just the beginning stages of privatizing public schools. Period. They want to eliminate ALL unions. Even Milton Friedman admitted to this in the 80’s. ”

    I’m especially attuned to the happenings in public school education as I’ve devoted approximately 30 years of my professional career to public school education in grades K-12. Looking back to the recent past as it connects to the present, I’m reminded of Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and its school choice emphasis, to Obama’s Race to the Top (RTTP) where large sums of Federal monies were promised to public schools contingent upon their increasing the number of their charter schools among other things, and now to Betsy DeVos’s all out championing school choice and the charter school movement with its outgrowth of vouchers for private schools. Once the charter school movement got its foot in the door of public school education via school choice, it was only a matter of time until school choice was expanded to include vouchers for private schools.

    As Sheila noted, the efficacy of charter schools is a mixed bag of results; however, it cannot be denied that nonprofit and for-profit charter school operators are earning a rather nice living largely on the backs of poor inner city school students. How many charter schools are operating in Hamilton County, IN, a relatively wealthy county just north of Indianapolis, as opposed to the number of charter schools operating in Indianapolis and in Marion County, Indiana? In short, there’s a huge amount of money to be earned from school choice and its offspring – charter schools and private school vouchers.

  16. Did you happen to catch the commander in chief walk right past his limo at Andrews AFB and wander down the runway. Someone finally got him turned around and pointed to his chariot. This is what passes as a competent wingnut pol? We are truly in trouble.

  17. It’s baffling, bothering and bewildering. What’s the fascination the media have for Fake President Donald Trump? It’s not that they’re saying good things about him. They’re not. But they’re highlighting a different element of stupidity every day.

    Late night comedians are devoting at least a third of their standup time to Trump’s latest boneheaded actions or opinions. News networks are adding more panels to analyze why Trump has said or done what he has said or done.

    Dear comedians … dear news networks. Give it a rest. Mention Trump’s name only once a month, and only if it has something to do with Russia. That’s the only meaningful news story anybody has going.

  18. @Paul Raikes, the media does not have a fascination with Trump other than he’s click bait for their media outlets. Remember, a dog who bites a man is not news, but a man who bites a dog is always news. Today’s media outlets, whether print media, television media, or online media, are far more interested in gathering instant followers measured by clicks than measured by the accuracy of their publications.

  19. As per daleb, “It would an interesting experiment if the press stopped publishing Trump’s tweets and only covered policy and legislative discussions to determine if the purpose of most of his behavior was to attract media attention. It might reveal an Achilles heel.”
    I agree, however, I believe this will not happen, at least not in the near future because as a nation, we have developed a ridiculous addiction to “reality tv.” Yeah, I know, no one I ask will admit they watch it…but someone is driving this mess.
    Trump and his shenanigans fall right in the middle of the definitive (in my view)example of this phenomenon. Maury Povich, etc. are still running strong and making oodles of money.
    With 24 hours a day to cover “news” (fill time) these cable news channels are hurting themselves and this country by doing what they’ve always done, which is obsess about all things sensational. Having said that, (and what I’m about to say may be naive), but I also believe that the Trump phenomenon is so unusual that news organizations do not really have a firm grip on how to manage it. So, they choose to simply create a larger monster..if that’s even possible.
    Now the only thing I have come up with to maintain my sanity is to focus on voices of reason such as, and including Charlie Rose, comics such as John Oliver, and others of that ilk: And, as i’ve said before, this forum and others like it.
    Now, one more thing before I go, someone aside from me had to watch (another brain cell bites the dust) I believe CNN special on Nixon recently that almost eerily pointed out the parallels between Nixon’s and Trump’s time in office. I will stress the term ‘eerie.” It’s beginning to look like this president is repeating history whether or not it’s deliberate, only time will tell.

  20. All in all, there’s been a blurring among the roles of journalism, entertainment and advertising. All clear distinction has been given away as we want all of them all of the time and so does business and politics. Truly the opium of the masses. Reduced thinking, increased pleasure, with just the right amount of the spice of always wanting more.

    And, with the help of technology we all can live in a custom made world of our own choosing wherein everybody agrees that we are smart and informed and on the right side of every issue.

    Is this the Matrix?

  21. In my opinion, Professor Kennedy’s 9:11 a.m. response to Carrie demonstrates the heart and essence of the problem.

    Once people “believe” all the rumors, innuendos, and downright fabrications, no matter what the original source of that “information” might have been, they will not abandon them easily. Let alone even rationally or thoughtfully consider or question the possibility that what they “believe” could possibly be wrong, when confronted by contrary “facts” from reliable, knowledgeable sources.

    Perhaps it’s an element of basic human nature: “I can’t be wrong about what I believe to be true!” Admitting that something we believe and just know in our guts is “true,” also brings into question all the other things we have decided to believe and know are true. Along the lines of that silly pasta sauce commercial on TV, where in a supposedly blind tasting test, a women chooses a different brand’s pasta sauce than the one she has bought for years, which then causes her to question other decisions she has made in her life.

    Moreover, there is a long history in this Country — and perhaps elsewhere in the world too — of attributing decisions and policies made by government officials that we disagree with or oppose to the person(s) making the decisions we don’t like being corrupt or being bought off. Otherwise, we like to “reason,” those officials would have surely made the decision or adopted the policy we believe in or know is right because what we believe can be the only “right,” or correct decision or policy to choose. This would seem to be what is going on with the woman Professor Kennedy spoke with. Unfortunately, there are always plenty of examples available to prove that is all too frequently true. What we’re seeing today is the adroit use of this trait to sabotage and undermine voters trust in government institutions by social media and fake news.

    The much harder question is what, if anything, can be done to get people to at least consider that what they “believe” about government and all politicians might not be correct. I’m, unfortunately, still of the opinion that it’s going to take a large number of these people getting actually adversely impacted by what’s going on in D.C. and the state capitols — unfortunately dragging the rest of us along with them in many cases — in a draconian way that will hopefully smack them up the side of the head and open their eyes to what’s really being done to them and the rest of us. And then hope that they don’t swallow the excuse from Trump and the Republicans that it’s all Hillary’s, Pelosi’s, Obama’s, Bernie’s, the Democrats, or anybody but their fault.

    That’s why I regrettably think, for example, that for the long term, the best thing that could happen would be for Trump and the Republicans to just do — what they want to do anyway — and repeal the ACA without replacing it. And it would be better if they did it this year before the 2018 Congressional elections. I think it’s our best hope of changing at least a few minds. Then the Democrats, if they want to have a chance to govern going forward, must stop pussy footing around, and flat out champion and advocate for a single payer health system — without apologizing or whimpering like they did about the ACA.

  22. Marv – Where have you been? Welcome back; we have missed your pungent insights. . . . . For those of you have access, there is an excellent article that touches on today’s topic in the July edition of Harper’s Magazine by Masha Gessen entitled the Reichstag, the next time. I, like Sheila, don’t have an answer for how to contain conspiracy theories run amok and whose incessant repetition in responsibly unedited social media can be harnassed in view of the First Amendment. All I know to do is to confront these people with facts and hope for the best. Once implanted, especially in the minds of those who have not been exposed to history, it is indeed difficult to get them to see the light, but it appears we just have to keep trying. As an old judge used to tell me: Gerald, you can’t get a quart of water out of a pint jar. He has a point, but perhaps we can ultimately come up with two pint jars. Trump preys on our divisions in his lust for power; he can be successfully resisted if there are few to no divisions among us, a problem I will leave to the sociologists.

  23. Todd Smekens:” Google is actually working on a filter using the New York Times as the bar of real news.”

    Well,if the Times are going to be the example/bar to which all should follow…..We are in trouble. Just in the last few days, they’ve had to retract their phony RussiaGate story written by Maggie Haberman. And,don’t forget the role of Judy Miller (and the Times) shaking the pom poms for the rush to war 16 years ago.

    I do find it amusing we have a post warning us to avoid partisan and phony articles when this very site/forum has propagated both.

    As far as Charter schools,someone is making coin on the idea and as another contributor has posted,there seems to be a dearth of them in affluent areas. Charter schools are just another method of making money on the backs of/from the less fortunate.

    Everyone is a mark in America.

  24. Again, reinstating the Fairness Doctrine will enable a more balanced and accountable media environment. You have the extremes simply because there isn’t a mechanism to require the other side’s story be presented.

  25. Gerald-Marv, where have you been? As I mentioned earlier, I have been tweeting and re-tweeting every day for the past 4 months, 99% of the time in Sweden with an old E-mail contact of mine, the former Ambassador to the Vatican and at one time the top intelligence representative in N.A.T.O. for Sweden.

    Sweden’s democracy is much more in tack than ours. They also have a very conservative oligarchy, however, unlike ours, it hasn’t moved toward fascism like our deviant elite has been doing for the past 50 years.

  26. Sheila, Tribune Media owns two stations in Indianapolis. They are Fox59 and CBS4 (WTTV).

  27. RE: Charter Schools in Hamilton County.

    Perhaps the reason that there are no Charter Schools in Hamilton County is that it is the wealthiest county in the state, and they pour their tax money into the public school system there. Proving that with enough tax money your public schools do not fail, in fact they thrive.

  28. Gerald, What I’m trying to convey is the fact that nothing consequential can be attained politically in the US at this point in time from the INSIDE without the help from the OUTSIDE. The US media is totally compromised and anyone or any NGO that deals exclusively with it is doomed to failure.

  29. Then, again, there could be under-the-table payments. I’d not rule this out, and if payments were being made, it wouldn’t likely be a publicly known fact, because it’s illegal. How did charter schools, which clearly do not deliver what they promised, take over so quickly? Why hasn’t the Superintendent fought against them, citing clear evidence that all they mostly do is divert money from IPS?

  30. Wouldn’t it be an interesting experiment to give TV viewers and newspaper readers a choice: They could read or watch a news program that included Trumps latest ridiculous Tweets and off the wall antics, or they could choose to watch or read news without the Trump Show. Wonder which most people would choose.

  31. @BSH … You said that “dog biting man” is not news, but “man biting dog” is news. It may or may not interest you to know that my wife and I went to Dairy Queen yesterday and consumed two hot dogs. Nobody from the news media showed up to cover the event, and we were very disappointed … especially considering it was National Hot Dog Day. We called a couple of TV stations and gave them your initials (in absence of having your full name). Thanks for the input.

Comments are closed.