This phenomenon was on display just recently when a number of prominent conservative commentators (and even a few GOP politicians) openly called for the criminal prosecution of reporters and editors at the New York Times. These outlandish statements were predictably condemned by other commentators and politicians--from across the political spectrum--as being wholly un-American and antithetical to the very concept of democratic government.
This response is entirely accurate, of course, but I fear that it reflects a failure to appreciate the real nature of the threat. There is no doubt that censorship and similar tools have been used effectively in the past to undermine democratic processes. But every major development in mass communication (from the printing press to television to the internet) has made this sort of top-down model less workable. In today's world of global telecommunications and the worldwide web, it is virtually impossible to embargo information. There are just too many sources of information at the public's disposal. Censorship is most effective when people don't know it is occurring. Otherwise it tends to backfire. But in the information age, the sort of monopolistic control of information necessary to utilize censorship effectively is just too difficult to achieve, particularly in a country like the United States.
But the proliferation of information sources has created another threat, one that is far more problematic than censorship, at least at this point in our history. I'll call that threat, for lack of a better term, "informational anarchy."
Until relatively recently, most Americans received their news from a handful of sources, primarily the major newspapers and television networks. This arrangement was far from ideal for a number of reasons, most notably because it put an awful lot of power in the hands of a select few. But it did have one important benefit: the major news outlets controlled enough of the information flow that everyone in America was more or less exposed to the same basic facts. In this way, whether they intended to or not, the news outlets served as the unofficial referees of our political discourse. They set the groundrules, called the fouls, and forced the political parties to engage each other on the same basic informational playing field.
But this is no longer the case. The advent of talk radio, cable tv, and the internet--coupled with the relentless GOP attack on the media's credibility and supposed biases--has greatly limited the capacity and willingness of the major news outlets to perform any sort of meaningful refereeing of political debate in this country. The result is informational anarchy, political white noise.
There are two ways of keeping the truth from people. You can either withhold it from them (the old model) or you can hide it in plain sight by burying it in a sea of disinformation. This latter strategy has become the new paradigm. Whereas the autocrats of past eras would try to keep the public in the dark by limiting the flow of information, their modern counterparts operate by overloading the public with conflicting information. Damaging facts are countered by flooding the airwaves with contrary assertions and, at the same time, actively working to discredit, vilify, or co-opt any institution that might possibly be viewed as a neutral arbiter of truth (the media, academia, the judiciary, etc.). Whereas the old model sought to control what information people were exposed to, the new model seeks to render people unable to identify the truth, even when it is right in front of their faces.
A good example of how this new model works was the recent breathless announcement by Sen. Rick Santorum and Rep. Pete Hoekstra that Saddam's elusive WMD stash had at long last been discovered in Iraq. This claim was, of course, complete rubbish. The degraded munitions at issue were actually leftovers from the Iran-Iraq war that were long ago buried in the desert and forgotten. The Bush administration itself immediately batted down the story, stating definitively that these were not the WMD discussed in the leadup to the invasion. David Kay, the man who scoured Iraq for WMD after the invasion, observed that most Americans had chemicals under their kitchen sinks that were more toxic than these degraded relics.
But none of that mattered. Santorum and Hoekstra's claim was repeated by enough sources (generally partisan outlets like Fox News, talk radio, and right wing blogs) that it seems to have had a significant effect on public opinion. A recent poll found that 50% of Americans still believe that Iraq possessed WMD (up from 36% last year). That's a rather stunning statistic. It indicates that we are no longer operating under a system where people's political opinions are based on the same facts. The facts themselves are now politicized. Moreover, as this episode illustrates, the major news outlets no longer have the power to definitively debunk even the most ludicrous of claims, at least with respect to a sizable percentage of the population.
When Republicans attack the New York Times, this is their goal. They don't really expect that their criticism will result in censorship or the prosecution of journalists, but by repeatedly attacking the paper as liberally-biased and even treasonous, they hope to discredit it and thereby diminish its ability to persuade people. Bertrand Russell once said:
If a man is offered a fact which goes against
his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and
unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will
refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he
is offered something which affords a reason for
acting in accordance to his instincts, he will
accept it even on the slightest evidence.
This observation is especially true in the area of politics, and it illustrates well the nature of threat posed by informational anarchy. What the Karl Roves of the world long ago realized is that with the proliferation of information sources, especially reliably partisan ones, it is almost impossible to get everyone on the same page. So long as a determined few insist that there really were WMD, those people who are instinctively inclined to believe such a claim will never be disabused of that belief.
Of course this strategy will never succeed in convincing the entire public that black is white and up is down, but it doesn't have to. The goal is to convince the party's political base and to sufficiently cloud the issue for enough of the rest of the country that shrewd political operatives can capitalize on the confusion. It's a recipe for winning bare majorities, not landslide victories.
And therein lies the key to fighting such a strategy. While the number of voters that get all of their information from partisan sources is increasing, it is by no means a majority. Fighting the spread of informational anarchy requires aggressive fact-checking and rapid response to bogus claims. This can help prevent disinformation from gaining currency in the mainstream media, and it is a task that blogs are well-suited for.
But ultimately, it is still the major media outlets who are in the best position to bring some order to the chaos. They can do so by being more assertive, by stepping in and calling at least the most obvious fouls. When truthful claims are presented alongside false ones in the interests of "balance," it is the public that loses. This sort of neutrality is easily manipulated by shrewd and unscrupulous partisans. Though the influence and reach of the major news outlets is nowhere near what it once was, it is still significant. But the relentless attacks on the media by the GOP over the last two decades have taken their toll. The press corps is now a feeble and emasculated version of its former self, and most journalists seem content to stand on the sidelines doing the play-by-play rather than engage in the thankless task of refereeing the game. But the bottomline is that there aren't any other institutions capable of doing the job. We need to encourage the press to take a more active role in guiding Americans through the sea of disinformation (and misinformation) they are bombarded with everyday. Only an assertive and energized press corps can counter the effects of informational anarchy.