How Online Propaganda Became Mainstream


After the 2016 election, Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian specializing in totalitarian regimes in eastern Europe, wrote a heralded pamphlet titled On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Snyder warned what a Trump presidency could bring and suggested how to resist authoritarians. His latest book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe and America, describes how propaganda is being deployed by authoritarians in the U.S. and abroad with anti-democratic results. AlterNet's Steven Rosenfeld talked with Snyder about how vast slices of society in the U.S. and Europe have been left feeling powerless, and as they turn to social media and the internet, they are easily targeted by provocateurs. This dystopian landspace is today's political stage.

Steven Rosenfeld: In your book, you talk about how politics in the United States, in Europe and Russia are bouncing between these poles of what you call the politics of inevitability and the politics of eternity. In both cases, the role of citizens is shrinking. What is this landscape you see unfolding now?

Timothy Snyder: Yes, underlying all of this is a concern for, well, at the very end of the book, I call it the politics of responsibility. It’s what you’re calling citizenship or civic engagement. Underlying all of this is a concern for how citizens should be seeing the world, and what we think we ought to be able to do, and what we think we’re responsible for; not everything, but some things.

By the politics of inevitability, what I mean are ideas of automatic progress where we don’t think they’re really alternatives [remaining] in history. We think capitalism is going to create democracy and there aren’t really any alternatives, and history’s basically over. A lot of us have been living with that spirit, unfortunately, in the last 25 years and we’ve educated a whole generation I’m afraid, largely in that spirit.

The problem with that, as you say, is that if you think you know the rules of history, if you think everything is at least in broad strokes foreordained, then you don’t really have to take responsibility for any particular part of what’s going on. More than that, you don’t have to remember what happened in the real past because those alternatives are dead. You think those things can’t possibly come back. Then when that goes wrong… All I’m trying to do with these ideas of inevitability and eternity, is I’m trying to give us some broader way of thinking, or some more stable place of standing when we think about where we are.

SR: That takes us to what you call the politics of eternity.

TS: What happens when inevitability goes wrong is that people then slip into something that I call the politics of eternity. Let’s say inevitability leads to economic inequality, which it does. Let’s say people stop seeing that there is a future, which they do. In many parts of the U.S. that’s already happened. It’s been happening since 2008; it’s been happening for a decade now. That means that people have been vulnerable to another idea, which says, ‘Well, all the good stuff was in the past and the reason why things aren’t good anymore is other people. It’s the immigrants. It’s blacks. It’s Muslims. It’s the outsiders.’

That style of thinking takes the future away entirely and just gets people trapped in these notions like ‘America First,’ or ‘Making America Great Again,’ where you just kind of go around in a cycle and it’s not all clear that the government’s promising you anything better. It’s just promising to remind you that things should be better for you, but maybe not for other people. Then you get caught in the drumbeat of the daily news cycle, and the daily propaganda, which reminds you that you deserve something and other people don’t deserve something.

SR: And that takes us to the present.

TS: In a broad way, I think what's happening in the U.S., and not just in the U.S., is we’re kind of shifting from one thing to the other thing; of expecting a future where things were automatically going to get better according to certain rules, to then shifting to a situation where we’re all kind of spinning around. Whether we’re on the right or the left now, we don’t really expect the government to be doing anything. We just expect it to give us our daily injection of feeling righteous, or feeling outraged.

SR: Right, and what you have done in not just this book, but in a lot of your writing, is talk about how we’ve seen versions of this before. It's not as if history repeats itself exactly, but there are dynamics that recur. If I correctly read the book, we’re sort of at that tipping point now. Maybe we have been for a while. How would you put it?

TS: You put it really well. History doesn’t repeat, of course, but history does offer you a reservoir of things that were possible. It gives you a sense of patterns, of what things tend to go together and what things don't go together. It also offers a source of examples for people who want things to go in a certain way, which I consider undesirable. There’s been a certain renaissance of thinkers from the 1920s, 1930s, and '40s in America, also in Europe, and maybe especially in Russia, and this is part of the politics of eternity that you go back to the ‘30s and you say, ‘Well, the ‘30s weren't so bad after all. Let's revive this fascist, or that fascist. Let’s imagine we can go back to there and that things will turn out well.’

What I think is that we’ve reached the turning point where basically none of us, I hope, are convinced anymore by these automatic ideas of progress. But many of us are already convinced that we’re stuck in some kind of a loop and there’s no way out of the loop. That has something to do with the past. Fascist ideas and other far right ideas are being revived. White supremacy is more important unfortunately in America than it was until very recently. But, there’s also something new about it, which are the techniques, the internet techniques, the various psychological techniques of persuading us that there’s nothing that we can really do besides leaving the couch.

The other thing that is new is the kind of lack of a final goal. In the 20th century, there were big ideas about where you might take the nation, or where you might take the class. Those don’t exist anymore. What’s going on now is more of an attempt to just kind of beat out of you head any notion that things might get better, and to get you on a different track where instead of thinking that other things might be better for all of us, we just get used to imagining every day, every minute, every second, that there’s somebody on the other side who’s trying to make things worse.

SR: This is really interesting. I've recently interviewed people running for office. There’s a new line, which is, ‘I can’t fix this, but together we can, so elect me and we will all do our part.’ That’s kind of appealing in a certain way, but it acknowledges that downward spiral. I’ve also talked to publishers who say, ‘I don’t even know what's real anymore.’ They look at tips and wonder who got this information in the first place. Both feel like there’s no solid ground.

TS: But there is though. One of the methods that I follow in Road to Unfreedom, in the new book, is that I paid a huge amount of attention to investigative journalists. I write about things which are very confused at the time, and are still pretty confusing like the Maidan [protests] in Ukraine, or like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, things which were just propaganda drenched, things which were kind of testing grounds for the new unreality in the new forms of cyber war that we now deal with all the time. It turns out that if you just pay attention to the actual investigative reporters who actually wear out the soles of their shoes and go places and talk to people, you can kind of figure out what's going on if you pay attention to them.

It’s a tiny percentage of the bandwidth of what’s out there in the so-called media. It’s a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage, but for a lot of these events it’s really enough. These are important examples to me. Like what happened in Russia in 2012 with their election, what happened to the Ukraine in ‘13 and ’14. These are all really important to me. They take something that concerns all of us, economic inequality, we know about economic inequality because of the reporters. Those who broke the story of Panama papers [international money laundering by financial and political elites], who broke the story of the Paradise papers [more overseas financial shelters]. We have the numbers and we have the examples from people who are actually doing this work.

SR: As you’ve said before, in an era deluged with fake news, real reporting matters.

TS: We can start from them, and the more investigation we have, the better we feel. In terms of our own habits, we do make choices about how we consume the internet. But what I did in Road to Unfreedom was I paid a lot of attention to human investigators, and then I treated the Internet very critically. I treated the internet as kind of a subject rather than a source. I tried to figure out the patterns of how it’s used to influence people. There are things that we can do, but I agree with your basic concern. Without factuality, we’re not going anywhere. Without factuality, we can’t speak to each other, let alone begin to solve problems.

SR: I’ve been to forums at Stanford with top people at Google, Facebook and other platforms. Google says, ‘You are saying the problem is there’s too much information and people are making too many decisions? Isn’t that an outbreak of democracy and independent thinking?’ They say they're giving journalism tools so their reports can be seen as more authoritative. Facebook does this too. That helps their brands because it elevates their content. Meanwhile, the way these sites are designed to trigger reactions, for advertisers, including politicians, hasn’t changed. People are going to social media for news more than ever and it’s impulsive. It’s almost as if human nature wants to react before it thinks. And that’s the propaganda model that’s been used. Am I saying it correctly?

TS: I think you’re seeing it completely correctly. Look, fundamentally what we have to see with the internet is that it’s a kind of space just like the real world is a space. We’ve known the real world is a space for millions of years. We’ve been kind of thinking about how you reconcile the real world space with democracy, or rule by the people, or law for at least 5,000 years. Maybe we’ve gotten a little bit better at it, but it’s always hard. The internet survives because the internet is treated as a place of exception. It’s this magical place where the normal rules don’t apply, and you don’t have to pay taxes, and yadda, yadda. Anything’s possible.

But that’s all nonsense. It’s just another space. Like the space that we live in when we’re not on the Internet, it has to have some rules. Those rules can’t just be like the things which are at the top of the mind of the people who happen to be the CEOs of these companies. We all have to think about this seriously, and think about what the rules are going to be, and think about how we’re contributing to those rules. Secondly, I agree with you about the psychology. One of the things which has gone wrong is that we’re not defeating the robots. The robots are defeating us.

SR: That’s a critical point.

TS: The robots have figured it out. The way that all of this stuff works from Facebook, from Cambridge Analytica, to the Russian interventions, is that rather than us using computers to think, computers are using our nervous systems to move us around. The computers are getting around our frontal lobes where we make decisions, and down to the simpler more business like parts of our brains where we feel, where we have impulses, where we decide who’s us and who’s them. That’s what's happened, this combination of psychology and machine learning. That’s what’s pushing us around.

When people in Silicon Valley use the kind of language of rationality and choice, and say, “Oh, we're just giving you more choices,’ they know that’s not what they’re doing. They’re actually teaching us how not to choose... A choice is something that you consider. You use a certain part of your mind for that. It’s not the same thing as, ‘I like this. I like this. I like this. There's the enemy, I don’t like him.’ That’s something that’s a different part of our minds. There has to be a more humanistic conversation about this. For my part, I’ve been trying to have it with some of them.

SR: Right, right. The reason I asked about this is because you go into great detail about how the internet fueled misinformation and disinformation in Ukraine, Russia and in 2016’s campaign. In many respects, people who throw the first punches in politics always gain an advantage. Then those left reeling end up copying the tactics just used against them. I’m not sure the technology sector really understands what they have unleashed. What bigger patterns do you see?

TS: Yeah. Well, one of the patterns I see is the relationship between wealth inequality and communication. The further you let wealth inequality go, the harder it is to communicate because the people who have all the money just don’t live the same kinds of lives the people who don’t. That’s actually one element that the Silicon Valley and rest of us communication problem. It’s kind of hard to get through to them because they’re not really living the same kinds of lives as everyone else is. They may have this kind of notion that everyone can make it [financially] the way they did, but that’s just not going to happen.

Another thing which I observe is that [device-driven] psychology hasn’t made us happy, but psychology has found ways to break us down; break us down in terms of analytically, but also break us down psychically, like actually make us feel worse. Those are unfortunately the things that are easiest to deploy. It’s much easier on the Internet to make someone stupider and less happy than it is to make them wiser. The internet has good purposes if people use it very wisely, but in terms of what’s simplest, it’s much easier to break somebody down than it is to build them up. That’s a major thing.

Then in terms of the machine learning, as seen by what’s on Twitter [faked profiles, robot-driven shares] I think that more and more the internet is a realm where humans are in the minority and they’re getting overwhelmed. There was this old idea in science fiction about ... not just in science fiction, the Turing Test in computer science. When are computers going to actually be artificially intelligent? The test was, ‘will they be able to persuade us that they’re human?’ What’s actually happened is it’s not that the computers are competing with us to be more human, it’s that the computers are making us less human. That’s how they're winning. They’re breaking us down into little pieces so that we’re less human and more tribal, and more angry and more emotional. That’s the way this competition is actually shaking down.

There’s simple things to do like just spend less time on the internet and more time in the real world. There are things we can do as individuals to shake free of that. But yeah, basically it allows nasty forms of politics, which people did not anticipate. And to just deny or spin your wheels as Facebook has spent the last couple of years doing, and others the last couple of years doing, is really, really harmful. One has to think expansively and creatively about the negative possibilities and see what’s happened, what has really happened. What happened is that Donald Trump is the payload of a Russian, and not only a Russian, but mainly a Russian cyber weapon [propaganda strategy]. That's what happened. One has to see that as part of a larger palette of possibilities of things that can happen and think seriously about it.

SR: Do you see any evidence that people are thinking seriously about it, or are they just trying to copy Trump digital director Brad Parscale because he figured out how to use Facebook's advertising platform on a scale that others hadn't gotten to first?

TS: There are certainly people who are thinking seriously about it. There are people who are running media literacy projects. There are people like Tristan Harris who are trying to be cyber ethicists. There are people like Peter Pomerantsev who are trying to explain how this works in Russia, and therefore what the signs are that you need to look out for. That’s a minority. There aren’t that many people, but yeah there are people who are thinking seriously about it. What one has to worry about is the possibility that we all just get in the same game and we’ll all think, ‘Okay well, life is just a matter of fooling the other person better.’ If they use cyber weapons on us, we use cyber weapons on them. We’ll all just make each other stupid in the methods that we prefer.

We’re never going to have a democracy that way. We’re never going to have the rule of law that way. We’re not going to have happy populations that way. When people end up voting because they’re motivated by messages that are false, that means that they’re basically unhappy because A) their vote cannot lead to a productive result because they’re voting in unreality; and B) they then have to come up with human reasons to explain why they did this thing, even if the reason why they did it, the cause wasn’t human. Then they use their human intelligence to rationalize what they did before. That also makes them unhappy, and it makes other people unhappy as well.

This weird uncanny feeling that one has in America now is partly the effect of a lot of humans using their human intelligence to try to rationalize things that they got manipulated into doing. It’s an unhealthy emotional smell almost in the atmosphere, which is the result of all this.

SR: Do you see this changing, or do you just see small pockets of resistance by a minority of people who, like 20 years ago, would say, ‘I’ll turn off my television.’ I see so many ways the role of being a citizen is shrinking. Gerrymandering. Voter suppression. Cyber tools of negative campaigning. It just goes on and on.

TS: I’m glad to talk to somebody who sounds more negative than me because I don’t usually get to be in that position. Look, the three-dimensional world is still out there. As you know very well, you can still have campaigns in the three-dimensional world that make a difference. Precisely because the internet, in many ways, is dark, that means that doing little things like marching make us feel better than they would have otherwise. It is possible to run campaigns with humans. Especially when I talk to young people, one of the things that I feel like we have to work through is the hesitation that we have with talking to or engaging other individual human beings in the real world. That’s become a kind of political problem. We think everything has to start with cyber. But not everything has to start with cyber. Things can start in the real world as well.

There are plenty of examples of that. I don’t think it’s irreversible. I think the cyber thing has to be conceptualized and it has to be contained. But then in addition to that, there has to be activity out in the three-dimensional world, out in the real world where human beings are talking to other human beings. I agree with you, we can’t have citizenship without that. That’s one of the things that the Greeks had right. They thought that democracy was public. Democracy is public. If we all end up sitting in our basements liking and unliking [things online], we’re definitely not going to have democracy.

SR: I’m not trying to be unduly negative for its own sake. I'm trying to push back a little bit because you can actually talk about this with a level of clarity that I appreciate.

TS: There's one more thing that I'm hopeful about, too—if I can just?

SR: Sure.

TS: That is people who are young are internet literate. We may be at the cusp of a generational change where there are people who take all these wonders for granted and they’re no longer quite so stunned by them, or drawn in by them, and are maybe looking for something fresh. What I'm hoping for, and in a way counting on from the generation to come, is the ennobling of activity in the real world, and making facts sexy, making the real world be the attractive countercultural thing that people find interesting again, making knowing things cool. I think there are some stirrings, not just here, but also a little bit in Russia that this is going on. That’s another reason I have to be a little bit hopeful.

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