Is the New Warfare Battleground on Social Media and the Internet?
So now it’s largely up to us. You and me. People who value democracy and want to see a world safe from tyrants and wannabee tyrants like Putin, Xi, MBS, and Trump…
Russia is not just at war with Ukraine; they’re also in a cold war with us. And last week Putin got a significant victory in that war, which is now being fought on the battleground of social media and the Internet.
Representative Matt Gaetz and Senator Rand Paul helped lead Putin’s victory this week in his cold war with America by stripping aid for Ukraine out of the continuing resolution to keep our government funded for the next 45 days.
It was a clear signal from Republicans in Congress to Putin that if he can just hang on long enough, his propaganda efforts will eventually lead America to drop out and hand Ukraine over to them.
It was also a signal to China, Japan, Australia, South and North Korea, and Taiwan that America can’t be trusted to defend allied democracies when they’re physically attacked by larger authoritarian states. By increasing the chances of an aggressors’ victory, the GOP’s continuing resolution encourages authoritarian states like Russia and China and, thus, made the world less safe.
As Professor Ralph D. Casey wrote in 1944:
“Today’s war is four-dimensional. It is a combination of military, economic, political, and propaganda pressure against the enemy. An appeal to force alone is not regarded as enough, in the twentieth century, to win final and lasting victory. War is fought on all four fronts at once—the military front, the economic front, the political front, and the propaganda front.”
World War I was the first “propaganda war,” according to historians, although I’d argue that propaganda has been a vital — and often deciding — factor in every war throughout history.
In the past, though, that propaganda has been directed inward to motivate young people to become soldiers and fight for their “just cause.”
During our American Revolution, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet The Crisis (“These are the times that try mens souls…”) was credited by General George Washington with helping win the war: he’d ordered it read aloud to the troops on Christmas Day 1776 (two days after its original publication in Philadelphia) and repeatedly thereafter.
Southern newspapers controlled by plantation owners similarly led the indoctrination of Confederate troops, convincing them they were fighting for the “true” American value of white supremacy.
There was even a hint of propaganda being used against America in WWII, sometimes — like today — coming from sources that are supposedly “on our side” of the conflict.
American soldiers were even the victims of propaganda in WWII in Australia, a story that gives us insights into rightwing media today. Over a million American GIs were stationed in that country at one time or another during the war, and at first they were warmly welcomed.
As historian John C. McManus writes in his definitive book Fire and Fortitude: The US Army in the Pacific War, 1941-1943:
“As American soldiers began arriving in numbers during the early months of 1942, they were greeted with tremendous enthusiasm by the Australians, many of whom couldn’t hide their immense relief at the soothing presence of the GIs. … Appreciative crowds gathered at piers and station platforms to greet incoming ships and troop trains. Waving and cheering, they studied the newcomers with great curiosity.”
But a major newspaper owner in that country thought he could make a pile of money by turning Australians against Americans. Inflaming nationalist and xenophobic sentiments would sell papers, goose advertising, and make the publisher rich.
Thus, as McManus documents:
“A chain of newspapers owned by Sir Keith Murdoch, father of latter-year media magnate Rupert Murdoch, earned a reputation among the yanks as relentlessly anti-American. Truth, a particularly brassy Melbourne tabloid, often published lurid tales of GI rapes of innocent Australian girls and seduction of married women.
“On occasion, Australian soldiers vented their frustration over such tales with violence. Small groups of Diggers roamed around some of the cities, beating up any American soldiers whom they saw dating local girls. … An American soldier was even shot and killed one morning as he emerged from the house of a married woman.”
Eventually, the hate against Americans that Murdoch had stirred up blossomed into full-fledged riots in multiple Australian cities, creating a real problem for the war effort but boosting Murdoch’s newspaper sales (and, presumably, profits) into the stratosphere.
The propaganda battlefield was, for centuries, fought like that in the newspapers and then, in the 20th century, over the airwaves. While those legacy media still have considerable influence (see: Fox “News,” The Wall Street Journal, rightwing hate radio, etc.) today’s propaganda battle is primarily being fought on the internet, principally on social media.
That’s where Russia’s now well-documented targeted efforts in six swing states (using secret, insider information from the 2016 Trump campaign given them by Paul Manafort) succeeded in pulling out a squeaker Electoral College victory for Donald Trump. It’s where they hope to repeat that in 2024.
Republican allies of Vladimir Putin have, as I documented on September 25th, succeeded in using our courts to forbid the Biden administration, the FBI, and other federal agencies from even speaking with social media companies to identify foreign propaganda operations running on their platforms in the US.
These American fifth columnists apparently led this campaign against fact-checkers because they believe — correctly, I believe — that Putin, Xi, and MBS are all aligned with Zuckerberg, Musk, and Murdoch in their collective desire to see Republicans control America instead of Democrats.
Republicans, after all, are fine with monopolies, and Republican billionaires know that when the GOP is in power it will do everything it can to cut their taxes.
They’re also fine with political bribery, even when it’s done by foreign governments like Russia laundering 2016 money through the NRA.
They’re even fine with democracies — including America — being taken over by authoritarians, so long as those authoritarians keep the money flowing to the corrupt GOP politicians and Supreme Court justices.
The last time we saw the GOP resort to using propaganda against Americans to achieve a goal of their oligarchs was in 2003, when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney convinced us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was willing to use them in collaboration with Al Qaeda.
The premise was absurd from the start: Hussein hated Al Qaeda and killed every operative he found in Iraq, and his country had been so badly crippled by years of American sanctions that a half-million Iraqi children had died from dysentery because we denied them the chemicals necessary to chlorinate their drinking water.
But Bush had told his biographer, Mickey Herskowitz, way back in 1999 that if he became president in 2000 he was going to attack Iraq to have a “successful presidency” and assure his re-election in 2004 as a “wartime president.”
And Dick Cheney’s company Haliburton was nearly bankrupt from a stupid merger decision Cheney had made with asbestos-laden Dresser Industries, but a war could (and did) turn it around with tens of billions in no-bid contracts, in all probability making Cheney a millionaire dozens of times over.
Bush and Cheney were so successful at manipulating America media that Al Jazeera proclaimed they’d won the “propaganda war” against Iraq. It was a victory that Vladimir Putin took careful note of.
Just as drones are transforming the physical battlefields of modern warfare, social media is transforming the information battlefield in a way that today is skewing toward authoritarianism. In part, this is structural.
Back in June of 2017, Facebook and Google stopped indexing multiple progressive publications, leading to the financial collapse of the then-largest online progressive news site, AlterNet.org. As then-publisher Don Hazen wrote at the time:
“We have had consistent search traffic averaging 2.7 million unique visitors a month, over the past two and a half years. (Search traffic makes up 30-40 percent of AlterNet's overall traffic.) But since the June Google announcement, AlterNet’s search traffic has plummeted by 40 percent—a loss of an average of 1.2 million people every month who are no longer reading AlterNet stories.”
As Hazen noted at the time, this was very much a story about monopoly and how giant monopolistic corporations tend not to like progressive ideas (like breaking up big monopolies or taxing their billionaire owners):
“AlterNet is not alone. Dozens of progressive and radical websites have reported marked declines in their traffic. … So the reality we face is that two companies, Google and Facebook — which are not media companies, do not have editors or fact-checkers, and do no investigative reporting — are deciding what people should read…”
In the six years since then, rightwing publications have exploded in their influence and readership across the internet, in large part because of promotion on Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
At the same time, Russia and China have jumped into the propaganda game, using these same sites to promote anti-American, anti-Taiwan, and anti-Ukraine messages that are now being repeated by Republican politicians eager to court a base as heavily indoctrinated today as were Australians by Sir Keith Murdoch back in 1943.
First, Republicans followed Putin’s boy Trump. Then they used our courts to shut down and intimidate American fact-checking organizations. Next, the GOP began parroting Trump’s and Putin’s anti-Ukraine propaganda that’s rife across American social media. And now they’ve succeeded in blocking US aid to Ukraine for the next 45 days.
Last week, before all the “shut the government down” votes, the Biden administration asked Congress if they could give a closed-door presentation about the importance of US support for Ukraine at this critical moment. Kevin McCarthy and House Republicans, bowing to demands from Trump, turned them down and refused to allow them to visit the Capitol. They also refused to let Ukrainian President Zelenskyy speak to a joint session of Congress.
Make no mistake: Putin’s own generals have said that if he’s successful in taking Ukraine that Poland and the Baltic states are next. That would pull the NATO tripwire and draw America into a direct military confrontation with Russia, all because we failed to continue defending Ukraine against Russia’s terrorist invasion.
And, most likely, China’s invasion of Taiwan would take place at the same time the west was preoccupied with Russia attacking Poland or Latvia.
The propaganda war is real, and turncoat Republicans have forced the administration to fight it with one hand tied behind their backs.
The Putin Republicans are being aided in this by social media companies owned by rightwing billionaire oligarchs — and their fossil fuel oligarch buddies funding the GOP in every state and federally — who are each richer than any king or pharaoh in history.
Given the media power these oligarchs and their monopolies have, it’s hard to offer any easy solutions to this threat now facing our democracy.
The Biden administration is awake to the threat: President Biden’s speech in Arizona last week explicitly called out the MAGA extremists in the GOP, and Democrats in Congress and in regulatory agencies are going after their monopolies.
Those efforts, though, will take years to reach fruition; after all, it was exactly 40 years ago this year that Reagan instructed his SEC, FTC, and DOJ to functionally stop enforcing our nation’s anti-trust laws, so they’ve had four decades to reach astronomical levels of consolidation and wealth.
And any effort to take on the media giants is complicated by five corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court having legalized political bribery in 2010 with their Citizens United decision.
So now it’s largely up to us to carry the message forward. You and me. People who value democracy and want to see a world safe from tyrants and wannabee tyrants like Putin, Xi, MBS, and Trump.
And, given the stakes, G-d help us all if we fail.