Following a Russian operation to fuel political divisions in the United States during the presidential elections in 2016, Facebook vowed to do more to stop fake news and propaganda. Whether the company can make good on its founder’s promise, remains to be seen during the lead-up to this Year’s November elections. Under fire for his company’s role as a platform for political propaganda as well as suppressing competition, co-founder Mark Zuckerberg defended himself and Facebook in front of members of congress by saying his mission is above partisanship. “We hope to give all people a voice and create a platform for all ideas,” Zuckerberg wrote in September 2017 after President Trump accused Facebook of bias.
At its core, propaganda refers to any technique or action that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, or behavior of a group, in order to benefit the sponsor. It is usually, but not exclusively, concerned with public opinion and mass attitudes through application of manipulative techniques. This does not necessarily mean that propaganda has to be untruthful, but rather that it is based on half-truths or out of context information. Depending on how it is utilized, propaganda can provoke fear, anxiety, and hate but also solidarity, compassion, and empathy. It is important to understand that it is not a method of manipulation that was exclusive to a certain time in modern history, but is still being used today.
The Russian Federation has a long track record of utilizing propaganda and information of a biased or misleading nature, in order to promote their political aims and points of view. Following WW2, these oftentimes referred to as active measures became part of Soviet Cold War strategy and endured even the collapse of the U.S.S.R in 1991. One of the many tools in the KGB Service A’s arsenal were forged letters as described in the Mitrokhin files: “Early 1960s… KGB officers in New York, wearing gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints on their forged letters, simultaneously bombarded African diplomats at the UN with racially insulting correspondence purporting to come from US white supremacists. Oleg Kalugin, who was stationed at the New York residency in the early 1960s, recalls that, ‘I lost no sleep over such dirty tricks, figuring they were just another weapon in the Cold War.’” Its continued use became more apparent during the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, when misleading or plainly false narratives were utilized to justify Russia’s actions in the Ukraine. While most likely with only little success, propaganda measures were also employed during the U.S. Presidential election in 2016.
None of these measures by themselves were or are meant to turn the tide in a larger conflict. Rather, they serve a more subtle but politically powerful purpose: to sow doubt. Doubt is a mental state in which a person is suspended between two or more contradictory propositions, unable to be certain of any of them. On an emotional level it is an indecision between belief and disbelief, leading to uncertainty or distrust in certain facts, actions or motives. Unquestionably, doubt can be a valuable tool for managers to stimulate innovation within their organization, but on the political and diplomatic stage it can be devastating. What happens to alliances where the members doubt each other’s ability or willingness to respond appropriately when crisis arises? Or when the people have doubt about their government’s competence in handling a public health crisis, such as the one the world is experiencing right now? Doubt goes beyond political affiliations or party dogmas, putting in question the viability of democracy. Doubt can lead to mistrust in the fairness of government institutions, which in turn can lead to protests and violent unrest.
Countering doubt and creating trust in the very institutions the U.S. have promoted as the beacons of modern democracy, prosperity and personal freedom appears to have become a challenge on a grandiose scale. The American Empire is on the decline, nothing but smoke and mirrors and attempts at changing that fact are an exercise in futility, a Sisyphean task. At this point, society does not seem to be able to decide whether America can be kept great, or if it ever was great to begin with. Doubt has been created over the word “great”, an ambiguous term without defined value except for maybe the person using it. It does not stop there, doubt can be found everywhere about almost anything. The challenge is to move beyond the negative perception of the word, to accept doubt. It has to be understood that with more than 275 million Americans connected to the internet, the flow of information cannot and should not be controlled. Rather, this society should accept that different opinions and ideas, just as Mark Zuckerberg stated, those can coexist. Listening to more than one’s favorite news outlet or political commentator on whichever platform one chooses can actually be beneficial. Feelings of doubt are good, but should not be the guiding principle in life, thus making it impossible to overcome doubt and establish certainty and trust.