The Washington Post briefly encapsulates the gist of the New York Times Magazine account here:
Paul Farhi. Obama official says he pushed a ‘narrative’ to media to sell the Iran nuclear deal, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/obama-official-says-he-pushed-a-narrative-to-media-to-sell-the-iran-nuclear-deal/2016/05/06/5b90d984-13a1-11e6-8967-7ac733c56f12_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_headlines
One of President Obama’s top national security advisers led journalists to believe a misleading timeline of U.S. negotiations with Iran over a nuclear agreement and relied on inexperienced reporters to create an “echo chamber” that helped sway public opinion to seal the deal, according to a lengthy magazine profile.
Accordingly, strategic communication officials such as Rhodes articulate and disseminate fictionalized narratives that build public support for government or corporate agendas.
The New York Times Magazine account argues that strategic communication specialists have unprecedented influence as a result of changes in the news industry, especially the massive cuts in experienced and overseas journalists:
David Samuels. The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign Policy Guru. The New York Times Magazine, May 5, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/magazine/the-aspiring-novelist-who-became-obamas-foreign-policy-guru.html?_r=2The decline in the quality of mainstream news production, especially in foreign affairs matters, offers an expanded opportunity space for deliberate propaganda. (Please see my post here for a recent example: http://majiasblog.blogspot.com/2016/04/framing-civilian-airstrikes.html).
It is hard for many to absorb the true magnitude of the change in the news business — 40 percent of newspaper-industry professionals have lost their jobs over the past decade — in part because readers can absorb all the news they want from social-media platforms like Facebook, which are valued in the tens and hundreds of billions of dollars and pay nothing for the “content” they provide to their readers. You have to have skin in the game — to be in the news business, or depend in a life-or-death way on its products — to understand the radical and qualitative ways in which words that appear in familiar typefaces have changed.
Rhodes singled out a key example to me one day, laced with the brutal contempt that is a hallmark of his private utterances. “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
Of course, deliberate propaganda is hardly new. For example, I've documented Edward Bernays' efforts to spin truth across the twentieth century at this blog:
Propaganda is not new, but the capacity for strategists such as Rhodes to create an "echo chamber" reveals the fundamental contradiction of the Information Age:
Information appears to circulate freely and democratically, yet there are powerful sources (including government agencies and corporations) that propagate fictional memes that replicate globally across the Internet, strategically colonizing and homogenizing interpretations of events and trends in accord with preferred readings that promote sectional interests and policy agendas.Propagandistic narratives seeded by key actors are supplemented with a variety of technological strategies aimed to combat the circulation and perceived legitimacy of alternative narratives that would challenge preferred ones, especially on the Internet.
For example, certain webpages can be blocked from view or can be manipulated to rank lower in search results. I actually had one of my posts blocked early in the Fukushima disaster. This is the post: http://majiasblog.blogspot.com/2012/09/compromised-oceans-mean-compromised.html
For a period, there was no way to get to this post unless one had the URL because it would not show on search results and was not visible in my blog index. It is visible now so its been unblocked.
Another propaganda strategy is to call into question the legitimacy of alternative narratives by attacking the credibility of the source.
Trolls can be hired to assault the credibility of individuals spinning alternative narratives, but that labor intensive (and expensive) option is increasingly being replaced by an automated solution.
Today, AI programs can be deployed to post comments that challenge the veracity of materials or the integrity of their sources. AI is the latest propaganda tool.
The Wall Street Journal ran an article describing deployment of AI "teaching assistants," demonstrating the sophistication of AI programs that are now generally available. One can imagine that the AI deployed by government and large corporations are even more sophisticated than the automated TA at Georgia Tech:
Melissa Corn. Imagine Discovering That Your Teaching Assistant Really Is a Robot. The Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/if-your-teacher-sounds-like-a-robot-you-might-be-on-to-something-1462546621AI programs circulate the web and post comments on sites that feature narratives that conflict with those promoted by powerful corporate and governmental sources.
At the Georgia Institute of Technology, a computer-science professor fooled his students with ‘Jill Watson’; “Yep!”... Since January, “Jill,” as she was known to the artificial-intelligence class, had been helping graduate students design programs that allow computers to solve certain problems, like choosing an image to complete a logical sequence.
“She was the person—well, the teaching assistant—who would remind us of due dates and post questions in the middle of the week to spark conversations,” said student Jennifer Gavin.
Ms. Watson—so named because she’s powered by International Business Machines Corp. ’s Watson analytics system—wrote things like “Yep!” and “we’d love to,” speaking on behalf of her fellow TAs, in the online forum where students discussed coursework and submitted projects. “It seemed very much like a normal conversation with a human being,” Ms. Gavin said.
The average person seeking to understand the pattern uniting disparate events and trends must navigate carefully through the cluttered media landscape in order to avoid capture within a sophistic echo chamber that seeks to engineer consensus through propaganda rather than promote rational assessments and deliberative understandings.