The political theorist Hannah Arendt once wrote that the most successful totalitarian leaders of the 20th century instilled in their followers “a mixture of gullibility and cynicism.” When they were lied to, they chose to believe it. When a lie was debunked, they claimed they’d known all along—and would then “admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.” Over time, Arendt wrote, the onslaught of propaganda conditioned people to “believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.”
I read the article “The Billion-Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Reelect the President” in The Atlantic this morning (of which the above quote forms part of the conclusion) and it struck a chord. A campaign of uncertainty and lies, whispered into people’s ears. If the truth-checkers are themselves discredited, as the article points out, appeals to correctness won’t work. According to the article, some in the opposition think that using the same techniques is the answer, but to me that just opens them up to justified charges of dirty tricks which’ll be exploited by the administration and it’s representatives.
I’m not sure what the remedy is. Worth a read, and a think. One thing for sure, though: invalidating our tools for coming to grips with reality is a negative-sum game – reality will always bite you in the ass.