The United States may never recover from the warped use of propaganda by the Trump Administration. In many ways, Donald Trump is the modern equivalent of Nazi communications savant Joseph Goebbels, who used propaganda to trick Germans.
Eighty years later, Trump deployed a modern combination of reality TV and social media influencer tactics with reflexive control misinformation strategies to polarize the nation and seize power. His communications savvy consolidated power and literally built an alternative reality accepted by tens of millions of Americans.
Fortunately, Trump is pretty incompetent in every other way, causing him to lose the 2020 election and fail in his coup attempts.
Still, communications have become weaponized, from polarized mastheads in their many forms through government public affairs, sewing distrust on all sides. The resulting environment damaged institutions and international standing, injected hate into the country's moral fabric, and cost at least 100,000 additional American lives at the hands of the coronavirus.
Now we must clean up this mess.
Identifying Three Primary Problem Areas for Reform
Trump used media channels to create epic groundswells of support by destroying truth, provoking responses that polarized the nation, and exploiting perceived liberal policy weaknesses. Trump and his complicit sycophants achieved this by:
1. Perverting cable and print news with opinions and lies
2. Deploying viral deceptive social media advertising and communications campaigns across public and private channels
3. Gas-lighting the press corps and the American public with blatant propaganda, attacks, and misinformation
This is an oversimplification of problems. For example, the mainstream media continues to fail to connect with and understand rural Americans. A major gut check and evolution is needed here. Attempts to hire conservative media voices on left media channels and news outlets have been hit or miss (hello, Megyn Kelly).
To be clear, most media forms have homogenous polarized audiences due to the fracturing of mass media caused by social media communities. That makes them ripe for targeted propaganda campaigns.
However, I do have one big idea on how to fix each of the above three challenges. Instead of the usual media navel-gazing, I would like to see more of these types of reforms in the public discourse (I am talking to you, Brian Stelter). In my opinion, these reforms will help protect factual truth, the basic currency of relationships.
Let’s get into it.
1) Divorce Reporting and Opinion
The most critical problem with cable news and, to a slightly lesser extent, print media is blended news and opinion. Sensationalized opinionated talk shows that pretend to interpret news are really just opinions. But people watching on both sides of the political spectrum blindly accept these opinions to be the factual truth. Therein lies the problem.
Today, the Tucker Carlsons, Sean Hannitys, Rachel Maddows, and Morning Joes of the world dictate their niche publics. Certainly, this problem is worse on Fox News and its newly empowered competitors OANN and Newsmax. However, having photographed enough protests and knowing how Washington works, I feel comfortable saying MSNBC and CNN also weaponized opinions and corrupted the news.
The FCC needs to exert more control, and while the agency cannot prevent these shows (hello, First Amendment), it should regulate the networks. In particular, the FCC should force cable news and broadcast networks to clearly label these shows as opinion vehicles and not factual.
When Erin Burnett delivers partisan opines without a warning label, a fine should be levied. When a network runs a softball Maria Bartiromo interview with Donald J. Trump as news, major fines need to be deployed.
These measures may be hard to parse on the more finessed levels. But, mark my words, levy enough fines, and the networks will clearly label opinion programming and news and will go to painstaking levels to clearly delineate their programming.
Nate Silver noted on a recent 538 podcast that newspapers may be better served divorcing themselves from their opinion pages in that same vein. This would be tough, for like the cable networks, the opinions drive traffic. At a minimum, they should beef up their labeling of opinions and disassociate their news coverage from them.
It will be difficult for liberal and conservative news outlets to be anything other than partisan so long as they insist on running opinions. Opinions taint the news value.
2) Make Social Media Organic Again
Speaking of labels, let's talk about social network content. Last summer, I published an article on how social media algorithms are designed to 1) encourage sensationalism and 2) advertising.
The resulting algorithmic jacked-up sensory experience triggers clicks and viral sharing of stories on a level that makes the 18th century French Mob look tame. This is an ideal environment for a reflexive control disinformation campaign such as Trump’s current bogus “election fraud” effort.
Because the president broadcasted his attempt to take the election by fiat and legal action, social media networks acted to prevent their own algorithms from destroying the country’s government. They blocked and labeled incendiary political posts deemed to be falsehoods or gaslighting in nature. All political advertising is temporarily suspended, and the networks have throttled their algorithms on related posts.
In essence, Facebook/Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube deployed measures to tamper down their own engagement mechanisms. These were broad measures that used their own algorithms to label, block, and/or slow down tangentially related content.
Well, that’s nice, but these actions were a severe overreach necessitated by over-jacked-up “social engagement” algorithms. This isn’t a conservative complaint. Rather, consider it a complaint from someone trying to market a photo book about protests with factual photojournalism.
None of these actions would be necessary if social networks did not deploy overly aggressive algorithms designed to trick people into engaging.
Social networks don’t even police their own policies. Frankly, if social networks enforced their own policies against hate and dangerous content, most of Donald Trump’s content would no longer be online. His accounts would be suspended, much like Alex Jones.
I suppose what is good for traditional media is good for social media when it comes to labeling. But labels alone won’t correct enhanced social networks. Algorithms that serve content to trick people into engaging with content should be regulated or outlawed. Dangerous content filled with lies and propaganda should be removed as soon as it is flagged.
Social networks should return to opt-in linear streams or a hybrid version where the stream serves in opted in content, and recommendations are clearly delineated. This means:
- If you opt-in and follow a person or topic, you receive the latest posts from that person or topic.
- Any other content would be clearly labeled as a recommendation or an ad and not simply served to you on a priority basis because many people clicked on it.
Groundswells will generally be slower and generally less outlandish, but they will be more natural and reflective of reality. Make social media organic again. If social networks fail because of it, then so be it.
3) Put Some Teeth into the Hatch Act
Let’s talk about gas-lighting the public through official government press-conferences, websites, and media interviews. For those unfamiliar with the Hatch Act, its primary purpose is to ensure federal employees act in a non-partisan way when they are acting on behalf of the government.
Historically, many federal employees decline to admit their political affiliation to uphold this law. Trump and his appointees basically blew this up with their partisan public statements to the media and their overt demands for total loyalty.
When broken by a sitting president, the Hatch Act has no effective independent enforcement mechanism.
Trump and his Administration officials have been called out for violating the Hatch Act. Whether called out for trolling photos with the President holding up Spam cans or blatant partisan attacks — the Trump Administration just ignored the negative feedback. When Inspector Generals and watchdog agencies addressed the violations, the White House did not respond or smeared the efforts as Deep State attacks. In some cases, investigators were dismissed and replaced with cronies to do the President’s bidding.
We can no longer expect a level of decorum from our elected officials. The Hatch Act must be reformed with enforcement mechanisms added to it. Some suggested sharpened measures include, but are not limited to:
a) Independent enforcement of Hatch Act violations by a completely autonomous branch of the Justice Department or other law enforcement agency(perhaps reporting to Congress or even the Supreme Court).
b) New, harder laws with felony-level offenses and punishments for intentionally lying to and/or misleading the public.
c) Hold elected officials responsible for deploying partisan attacks and gaslighting conspiracies while acting in their official capacity. Elected officials must provide evidence of claims, particularly when they involve criminal activities or accusations of wrongdoing.
These reforms should also eliminate the backchannel, for example, between the President and Sean Hannity. If it is illegal for lesser government officials to leak, it must also be illegal for elected officials to provide partisan spun leaks to inform future programming.
In essence, it cannot be said to be a fact or occurrence unless the official can say it publicly and back it up. If not, we are dealing with conjecture and feelings, and they should clearly be stated as personal opinions. Hatch Act reforms must have teeth! Felony and jail time, please.
These are just some ideas, but imagine how much different our media landscape would be with them. We need stronger communication protections to protect the truth and the integrity of our government.