Flood the zone with shit: How misinformation overwhelmed our democracy

header image: an antidote to the Shit Zone

by Sean Illing edited by O Society Jan 20, 2020

No matter how President Trump’s impeachment trial plays out in the Senate, one thing is certain: Despite the incontrovertible facts at the center of the story, the process will change very few minds.

Regardless of how clear a case Democrats make, it seems likely that a majority of voters willremain confused and unsure about the details of Trump’s transgressions. No single version of the truth will be accepted.

This is a serious problem for our democratic culture. No amount of evidence, on virtually any topic, is likely to move public opinion one way or the other. We can attribute some of this to rank partisanship — some people simply refuse to acknowledge inconvenient facts about their own side.

But there’s another, equally vexing problem. We live in a media ecosystem that overwhelms people with information. Some of that information is accurate, some of it is bogus, and much of it is intentionally misleading. The result is a polity that has increasingly given up on finding out the truth. As Sabrina Tavernise and Aidan Gardiner put it in a New York Times piece, “people are numb and disoriented, struggling to discern what is real in a sea of slant, fake, and fact.” This is partly why an earth-shattering historical event like a president’s impeachment has done very little to move public opinion.

The core challenge we’re facing today is information saturation and a hackable media system. If you follow politics at all, you know how exhausting the environment is. The sheer volume of content, the dizzying number of narratives and counternarratives, and the pace of the news cycle are too much for anyone to process.

One response to this situation is to walk away and tune everything out. After all, it takes real effort to comb through the bullshit, and most people have busy lives and limited bandwidth. Another reaction is to retreat into tribal allegiances. There’s Team Liberal and Team Conservative, and pretty much everyone knows which side they’re on. So you stick to the places that feed you the information you most want to hear.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reading totals of a vote approving articles of impeachment.Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Dave Roberts calls this an “epistemic crisis.” The foundation for shared truth, he argues, has collapsed. I don’t disagree with that, but I’d frame the problem a little differently.

We’re in an age of manufactured nihilism.

The issue for many people isn’t exactly a denial of truth as such. It’s more a growing weariness over the process of finding the truth at all. And that weariness leads more and more people to abandon the idea that the truth is knowable.

I call this “manufactured” because it’s the consequence of a deliberate strategy. It was distilled almost perfectly by Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News and chief strategist for Donald Trump. “The Democrats don’t matter,” Bannon reportedly said in 2018. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”

steve-Bannon

This idea isn’t new, but Bannon articulated it about as well as anyone can. The press ideally should sift fact from fiction and give the public the information it needs to make enlightened political choices. If you short-circuit that process by saturating the ecosystem with misinformation and overwhelm the media’s ability to mediate, then you can disrupt the democratic process.

What we’re facing is a new form of propaganda that wasn’t really possible until the digital age. And it works not by creating a consensus around any particular narrative but by muddying the waters so that consensus isn’t achievable.

Bannon’s political objective is clear. As he explained in a 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference talk, he sees Trump as a stick of dynamite with which to blow up the status quo. So “flooding the zone” is a means to that end. But more generally, creating widespread cynicism about the truth and the institutions charged with unearthing it erodes the very foundation of liberal democracy. And the strategy is working.

What flooding the zone actually means

For most of recent history, the goal of propaganda was to reinforce a consistent narrative. But zone-flooding takes a different approach: It seeks to disorient audiences with an avalanche of competing stories.

And it produces a certain nihilism in which people are so skeptical about the possibility of finding the truth that they give up the search. The fact that 60 percent of Americans say they encounter conflicting reports about the same event is an example of what I mean. In the face of such confusion, it’s not surprising that less than half the country trusts what they read in the press.

Bannon articulated the zone-flooding philosophy well, but he did not invent it. In our time, it was pioneered by Vladimir Putin in post-Soviet Russia. Putin uses the media to engineer a fog of disinformation, producing just enough distrust to ensure that the public can never mobilize around a coherent narrative.

Russian President Vladimir Putin appears onscreen during a press conference in Moscow on December 19, 2019.
Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

In October, I spoke to Peter Pomerantsev, a Soviet-born reality TV producer turned academic who wrote a book about Putin’s propaganda strategy. The goal, he told me, wasn’t to sell an ideology or a vision of the future; instead, it was to convince people that “the truth is unknowable” and that the only sensible choice is “to follow a strong leader.”

One major reason for the strategy’s success, both in the US and Russia, is that it coincided with a moment when the technological and political conditions were in place for it to thrive. Media fragmentation, the explosion of the internet, political polarization, curated timelines, and echo chambers — all of this allows a “flood the zone with shit” strategy to work.

The role of “gatekeeping” institutions has also changed significantly. Before the internet and social media, most people got their news from a handful of newspapers and TV networks. These institutions functioned like referees, calling out lies, fact-checking claims, and so on. And they had the ability to control the flow of information and set the terms of the conversation.

Today, gatekeepers still matter in terms of setting a baseline for political knowledge, but there’s much more competition for clicks and audiences, and that alters the incentives for what’s declared newsworthy in the first place. At the same time, traditional media outlets remain committed to a set of norms that are ill adapted to the modern environment. The preference for objectivity in political coverage, in particular, is a problem.

As Joshua Green, who wrote a biography of Bannon, explained, Bannon’s lesson from the Clinton impeachment in the 1990s was that to shape the narrative, a story had to move beyond the right-wing echo chamber and into the mainstream media. That’s exactly what happened with the now-debunked Uranium One story that dogged Clinton from the beginning of her campaign — a story Bannon fed to the Times, knowing that the supposedly liberal paper would run with it because that’s what mainstream media news organizations do.

In this case, Bannon flooded the zone with a ridiculous story not necessarily to persuade the public that it was true (although surely plenty of people bought into it) but to create a cloud of corruption around Clinton. And the mainstream press, merely by reporting a story the way it always has, helped create that cloud.

You see this dynamic at work daily on cable news. Trump White House adviser Kellyanne Conway lies. She lies a lot. Yet CNN and MSNBC have shown zero hesitation in giving her a platform to lie because they see their job as giving government officials — even ones who lie — a platform.

Even if CNN or MSNBC debunk Conway’s lies, the damage will be done. Fox and right-wing media will amplify her and other falsehoods; armies on social media, bot and real, will, too (@realDonaldTrump will no doubt chime in). The mainstream press will be a step behind in debunking — and even the act of debunking will serve to amplify the lies.

UC Berkeley linguist George Lakoff calls this the “framing effect.” As Lakoff puts it, if you say “don’t think of an elephant,” you can’t help but think of an elephant. In other words, even if you reject an argument, merely repeating it cements the frame in people’s minds. Debunking it is still useful, of course, but there’s a cost to dignifying it in the first place.

There is some research that points to the utility of fact-checking. Political scientistsBrendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler have shown that repeated exposure to fact-checking does tend to increase the accuracy of beliefs. But the issue with zone-flooding is an overabundance of news, which diminishes the importance of any individual story, no matter how big or damning.

In this environment, there are often too many things happening at once; it’s a constant game of whack-a-mole for journalists. And we know that false claims, if they’re repeated enough, become more plausible the more often they’re shared, something psychologists have called the “illusory truth” effect. Our brains, it turns out, tend to associate repetition with truthfulness. Some interesting new research, moreover, found that the more people encounter information the more likely they are to feel justified in spreading it, whether it’s true or not.

Flooding the zone, polarization, and why many people still don’t know what Trump did

This all intersects with political polarization in troubling ways. One consequence of pervasive confusion about what’s happening is that people feel more comfortable siding with their political tribe. If everything’s up for grabs, and it’s hard to sift through the competing narratives to find the truth, then there’s nothing left but culture war politics. There’s “us” and “them,” and the possibility of persuasion is off the table.

It’s worth noting that this polarization is asymmetric. The left overwhelmingly receives its news from organizations like the New York Times, the Washington Post, or cable news networks like MSNBC or CNN. Some of the reporting is surely biased, and probably biased in favor of liberals, but it’s still (mostly) anchored to basic journalistic ethics.

As a recent book by three Harvard researchers explains, this just isn’t true of the right. American conservative media functions like a closed system, with Fox News at the center. Right-wing outlets are less tethered to conventional journalistic ethics and exist mostly to propagate the bullshit they produce.

All this has created an atmosphere that has helped Trump. The Trump administration has been remarkably successful at muddying the waters on Ukraine and impeachment, andRepublicans in Congress have helped by parroting the administration’s talking points.

Reps. Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA), Jim Jordan (R-OH), and Louie Gohmert (R-TX) look on as fellow Republicans speak to the press after the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment against President Trump on December 13, 2019.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The fact is, Trump did what Democrats have accused him of doing. We know, with absolute certainty, that the president tried to get a foreign government to investigate a family member of one of his political rivals. And we know this because of the witnesses who testifiedbefore the House Intelligence Committee and because Trump’s own White House released a record of the call proving it.

Yet all the polling data we have suggests that public opinion on Trump and Ukraine has basically held steady. Again, some of this is pure partisan recalcitrance. But there’s good reason to believe that the right’s muddying of the waters — making the story about Ukraine and Hunter Biden, pushing out conspiracy theories, repeatedly trumpeting Trump’s own version of events, etc. — has played a role.

The issue is that the coverage of the trials, in both the mainstream press and right-wing outlets, ensures that these counternarratives are part of the public conversation. It adds to the general atmosphere of doubt and confusion. And that’s why zone flooding presents a near-insoluble problem for the press.

The old model is broken

The way impeachment has played out underscores just how the new media ecosystem is a problem for our democracy.

It helps to think of zone-flooding less as a strategy deployed by a person or group and more as a natural consequence of the way media works.

We don’t need a master puppeteer pulling the media’s strings. The race for content, the need for clicks, is more than enough. Bannon or Conway can shake things up by feeding nonsense into the system.

Fox & Friends hosts Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, and Pete Hegseth interview former US Army Lt. Clint Lorance on November 18, 2019.
John Lamparski/Getty Images

Trump can dictate an entire news cycle with a few unhinged tweets or an absurd press conference. The media cycle is easily commandeered by misinformation, innuendo, and outrageous content. These are problems because of the norms that govern journalism and because the political economy of media makes it very hard to ignore or dispel bullshit stories.This is at the root of our nihilism problem, and a solution is nowhere in sight.

The instinct of the mainstream press has always been to conquer lies by exposing them. But it’s just not that simple anymore (if it ever was). There are too many claims to debunk and too many conflicting narratives. And the decision to cover something is a decision to amplify it and, in some cases, normalize it.

We probably need a paradigm shift in how the press covers politics. Nearly all of the incentives driving media militate against this kind of rethinking, however. And so we’re likely stuck with this problem for a very long time.

As is often the case, the diagnosis is much easier than the cure. But liberal democracy cannot function without a shared understanding of reality. As long as the zone is flooded with shit, that shared understanding is impossible.

16 thoughts on “Flood the zone with shit: How misinformation overwhelmed our democracy

  1. It is often said that democracy requires an informed citizenry. The moveable type printing press definitely expanded the availability of info. But nothing accomplished that end quite like modern technology, the internet most of all. Like many others, I was taught to believe in the power of knowledge. That faith has been shaken over time.

    Early on when I was spending time online, I regularly visited the local newspaper’s website where I’d comment. It is an above average town as most people are somehow associated with the university. One might expect the comments section to likewise be above average and maybe it was, the problem being the average is so low and it’s not hard to be above it.

    Many intelligent people commented there. Most of them probably were college-educated professionals, largely consisting of liberal and progressive Democrats. I assumed a shared respect for knowledge. But I had my first real shock in realizing that even among the liberal class making an evidence-based argument didn’t necessarily carry much weight. Even when I pointed to some info, it seemed like no one was particularly interested to look at it.

    Yes, I was naive. I’m a naturally curious person. If someone offers info, even when contradicting my beliefs or assumptions, I can’t help myself in resisting the lure of seeing what it is. Curiosity always gets the better of me, even if what is presented isn’t worth my time. Still, I have to go look for myself. It’s not in me to simply ignore something and blow someone off.

    So, there is that. It seems related to this other problem. It’s not only that people lack info or lack curiosity to consider info even when available. Curiosity alone might not be enough, since we get flooded by bullshit. Disinfo is highly effective in maintaining a disoriented and divided public. It’s not that cutting through the bullshit is impossible. Yet few are motivated to do so.

    The worst possible interpretation isn’t merely that people are deceived but that they want to be deceived. Too many people want to be told comforting lies or entertaining stories, want conflict and melodrama and spectacle. And there are always those who are willing to offer it. In fact, disinfo is a highly profitable model of corporate media.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had a similar experience on social media. One of the highlights was a philosophy professor who writes books you may have heard of yelling at me, “Hillary says all 17 intelligence agencies agree Russians rigged the election for Trump! Who are you who knows more than 17 intelligence agencies!?! Hubris”

      Then I pointed out to the professor the actual document itself clearly states “This is the opinion of 3 intelligence agencies with these levels of confidence.”

      Cut’n’pasted it word for word with a link to the source document.

      Philosophy professor, know what he did? He pretended not to see my reply. So did all his academic friends. The thread just ended abruptly.

      Needless to say, he continued on with his Hillary intelligence community story elsewhere and ignored me thereafter. Acting as if an obvious glaring contradiction wasn’t handed to him on a silver platter like a Thanksgiving day turkey.

      This is when it dawned on me people believe what they want to believe. Logic and science and evidence be damned. Even the ivory tower famous ones trained to know better who are supposed to question things for a living.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There is another interesting phenomenon. It’s where people simultaneously know and don’t know something. We see it all the time in ordinary life. An obvious example is someone with conviction pretending that there is no racism in the US. They know this belief is bullshit, but it is bullshit they want to believe. They have a particular worldview that requires racism not to be real and that worldview is what they know in their own mind. It’s irrelevant that it’s a fiction. In fact, fiction can be more compelling than almost anything else.

        There were two studies that demonstrated this. One was more indirect. There were two groups. Something was placed in a room before they entered, something that was acceptable to one group but not to the other. When the test subjects were in the room, they tracked their eyes. The first group would notice it and look directly at it. But the second group had a consistent pattern of looking all around it, indicating they saw it in their periphery and were on some level choosing not to see it.

        The second was far more direct. They asked people’s opinion on issues around which the evidence was compelling and expert consensus was strong. People predictably fell along party lines. Whatever their party elites told them to believe they would assert as if it were their own belief. This is what is called symbolic belief. But do people actually believe it or is it simply a way of expressing group identity, like a gang member wearing a particular color.

        To test this, they made the individual have skin in the game by putting money at stake. If they answered the question correctly according to what was known, they got the money. And if they got it wrong, they went home empty handed. Almost everyone answered correctly, which could be interpreted as their being able to distinguish between belief and knowledge. But none of this likely operated in their consciousness.

        https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2017/10/05/a-compelling-story/

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you Ben. Give me a minute to read the primary literature on this and allow it to simmer in my mind a bit. Then will give you a response. This is an important subject for us all to reflect in like a mirror.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. It’s a particular expression of what is called dissociation or splintering. I may have first learned of this from Derrick Jensen who looks at it in terms of the larger society, the complicity of silence. There is the issue of why so many remain silent in speaking out to others, but there is also why they remain silent in their own mind, in refusing to acknowledge.

        I argue that addiction (drugs, sugar, etc) is how we silence certain voices in order to build the rigid egoic boundaries and hence maintain a hegemony of authorization within egoic consciousness. Johann Hari, in Chasing the Scream, argues that addicts are the ultimate individuals since addiction appears to be a replacement behavior for lost relationships.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Martin Luther King said it was not the cross burning KKK rasist who presents the biggest problem. Rather it is the average moderate Christian. As long as this average “normal” person does not speak out or do anything to help the cause, all is lost. Unfortunately the average person tends to not rock the boat and instead conforms to societal norms, however oppressive these may be.

        This is the heart of the problem, according to King. Not the radicals on the fringe but rather the inertia of the apathetic frightened self-righteous conformist center.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. There are two ways of looking at it. Both are meaningful. You present the most common one, as an issue of morality: courage vs cowardice, sacrifice vs selfishness, compassion vs cruelty. I often emphasize this.

        But the other perspective has preoccupied my mind the most in recent years. It’s the question of why people do what they do. For this reason, I study thinkers like Jaynes, in that they shine light into the human psyche.

        We know the problem in the basic sense. The complicity, cynicism, and apathy are too common. That makes me equal parts sad and angry because the consequences in the world are real. I’ve never understood how people can somehow not see what is going on, not feel the suffering of others.

        The more I studied it the more I realized there was something strange going on, such as how people can know and not know something simultaneously. It might not even be dishonesty and insincerity, as dissociaton is a powerful force. Consciousness is a thin veneer, a narratizing mechanism to rationalize our actions and create a superficially coherent identity.

        The modern mind is so at odds with itself. I severely doubt the average person possesses enough awareness to understand why they do much of anything. That might be the saddest part. The seeming indifference is truly mindless. As Jesus said, they know not what they do.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. I’m sure I’ve previously mentioned Julian Jaynes to you, likely on more than one occasion. A key idea he had was of authorization that related closely the voices we hear, ‘external’ voice-hearing with archaic authorization and the voices in our head with self-authorization.

        Authorization is simply what compels a sense of reality. To hear is to be hailed and so respond accordingly. That is the tricky part about what we believe we know. It’s not only that we simply follow the voices we hear but specifically the voices we identify with. We have no psychological defense against what is included within our sense of self.

        Disinfo does splinter authority. But it then leaves it open for those who want to claim authority. Experts are attacked not merely to eliminate them but to replace them by co-opting their authority. Who controls the voices of authorization controls society. Notice how Trump attacks “fake news” and immediately replaces it with a narrative.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. On the thrills and chills of impeachment, what did you think the long Mueller investigation/Russia-gate were all about? Russia-gate to Ukraine-gate to WTF, Democrats are flinging everything at the wall in hopes that something sticks.Clearly, not with the goal of representing the masses, but of getting their crowns back. This ongoing charade has not only highlighted the split between liberals and the left, but showed just how clueless today’s media people, when it comes to grasping what conditions are like, out here on the real world. They just want to install a Democrat who will assure the middle class that everything will be OK.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Uranium One is Bullshit ?
    Why are the Podesta emails shot through with it ?
    How do you explain this ?

    https://wikileaks.org/podesta-emails/press-release

    Next you’ll be telling me Julian Assange is working for the neocons , why are they torturing him in a supermax then ?

    This piece, while interesting in terms of your description of Russian information strategies, seems to indicate you are still locked into the false left/right dichotomy contained within the ailing neoliberal paradigm.

    These days i tend to see the world in terms of the emerging PRICK empire versus the crumbling Anglo Zionist one, while India has a bet each way. The PRICK’s have replaced the BRIICs , consisting of Pakistan Russia Iran China Korea (north).

    I wouldnt be waiting for no faux left neoliberal fairy godmother to be rescuing you mate. War is next, War is here.

    Like

  4. Dear Nihilist Eminem:

    If you are looking for someone to defend HillBillary Clinton, you are in the wrong place. I’m not biting. Both Hillary and Bill can get thrown out of the helicopter blindfolded for all I care. Chelsea too.

    That said, gazillionaire right-wing extremist freaks Robert and Rebekah Mercer paid a guy called Peter Schweizer at the GAI millions of dollars to write this book called Clinton Cash. Then Bannon did indeed pitch the book to the NYTimes and they bit on it, starting the whole “Uranium One” thing.

    I have no idea whether or not this Uranium One deal is real or bullshit. I have no idea because I don’t claim any special knowledge or God’s Eye view of the world’s events. I simply don’t know.

    However, just as HillBillary Clinton paid lawyers who paid the Christopher Steele spy guy to write this dossier about Trump peeing on hookers in a bed Obama slept in at Moscow and so on, sounds sketchy precisely because someone paid Steele lots of loot to write this “oppo” as they call it, I wouldn’t believe a single thing this Schwiezer guy says either, precisely because Mercer’s hand is up his ass making his mouth move like Kermit the Frog.

    Bottom line, I have no idea what’s real and what is not because I was not there. However, until some real evidence shows up not paid for by people trying to fuck us all and run like Robert Mercer, it’s all bullshit until proven otherwise. I don’t believe a single thing coming out of HillBillary Clinton AND Donald Trump’s mouths. If you ask me, they are all in league with the devil, including Mercer and Bannon and Steele and Schweizer.

    https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/03/27/the-reclusive-hedge-fund-tycoon-behind-the-trump-presidency

    Rebekah Mercer joined the board of the Government Accountability Institute, a nonprofit group, based in Tallahassee, which Bannon had recently founded. In 2013, the Mercer Family Foundation contributed a million dollars to the institute, and in 2014 it contributed another million. In 2015, it donated $1.7 million, which exceeded the group’s entire budget the previous year. The G.A.I., meanwhile, paid Bannon three hundred and seventy-six thousand dollars during its first four years; it told the I.R.S. that Bannon was working for it thirty hours a week, ostensibly on top of his full-time job running Breitbart News.

    The G.A.I. billed itself as a nonpartisan research institute, but in 2015 Bannon told Bloomberg Businessweek that its mission was to dig up dirt on politicians and feed it to the mainstream media. (A G.A.I. staffer called this “weaponizing” information.) The group reportedly hired an expert to comb the Deep Web—sites that don’t show up in standard searches—for incriminating information about its targets. The plan was to exploit the mainstream media’s growing inability to finance investigative reporting by doing it for them. The strategy paid off spectacularly in April, 2015, when the Times ran a front-page article based on the book “Clinton Cash,” a compendium of corruption allegations against the Clintons, which was written by the G.A.I.’s president, the conservative writer Peter Schweizer. (The G.A.I. had given the paper an advance copy.) The book triggered one story after another about Hillary Clinton’s supposed criminality, and became a best-seller. In 2016, a film version, co-produced by Bannon and Rebekah Mercer, débuted at the Cannes Film Festival, as the Mercers’ yacht bobbed offshore.

    The G.A.I. also undermined Jeb Bush, the candidate favored by the Republican establishment, with another Schweizer book, “Bush Bucks.” As Bannon put it in a 2015 interview, it depicted Bush as a figure of “grimy, low-energy crony capitalism.”

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  5. What you are describing sounds consistent with powerful interests subverting both remnant sides of a destroyed democracy to suit its own purpose. Depressing but highly likely. Sorry if i mistook the tenor of your post re the Dems
    I really am a fan.
    We are all just along for the ride now, wherever these crazies are taking us.

    Liked by 1 person

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