Last week, Pope Francis became the first pope in history to do a Google Hangout. He did so, the Vatican explained, because so much of young people’s time is now online that virtual reality becomes their reality.
And it’s not just kids anymore. Man has always been the symbolic animal. We live by and through symbolic representations of reality that create communal identities, direct communal action, and provide communal meaning. No other animal creates a flag, or dies for it. But the newly cheap but profound visual power of video, magnified by the availability of the Internet for mass transmission of cultural productions, is changing power dynamics.
If cultural power is the power to “name reality,” as James Davison Hunter pointed out, bad men are busily learning ways to manipulate our realities. That process, once called “propaganda,” has been amped up into infowars, at a whole new level.
Take Vladimir Putin, just for example. NATO’s chief military commander, General Philip Breedlove, just announced that Russia is waging “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare.”
I learned about this declaration from Peter Pomerantsev’s fascinating must-read Atlantic essay (September 9), “Russia and the Menace of Unreality”:
The new Russia doesn’t just deal in the petty disinformation, forgeries, lies, leaks, and cyber-sabotage usually associated with information warfare. It reinvents reality, creating mass hallucinations that then translate into political action. Take Novorossiya, the name Vladimir Putin has given to the huge wedge of southeastern Ukraine he might, or might not, consider annexing. The term is plucked from tsarist history, when it represented a different geographical space. Nobody who lives in that part of the world today ever thought of themselves as living in Novorossiya and bearing allegiance to it — at least until several months ago. Now, Novorossiya is being imagined into being: Russian media are showing maps of its ‘geography,’ while Kremlin-backed politicians are writing its ‘history’ into school textbooks. There’s a flag and even a news agency (in English and Russian). There are several Twitterfeeds. It’s like something out of a Borges story — except for the very real casualties of the war conducted in its name.
“The menace of unreality” was Daniel Boorstin’s phrase for the way mass media changes political reality, for how the image dominates the word, and for the temptation to retreat from the idea that truth matters at all. Or even exists.
The old Marxists in the Soviet Unions were masters of propaganda, but they were old-school enough to care when others proved they lied. Russia’s new infowar machine, by contrast, is a volume business continuously crafting stories that appeal to the gut, to the communal instincts of the Russian people, while serving Putin’s power. And not just the Russians. In Bulgaria, Pomerantsev says, newspapers and TV stations are picking up and relaying Russia’s version of events in Ukraine, not primarily because of ideological commitment, but because they are cheap and free and well crafted and boost sales.
Putin’s new infowarriors are curiously unconcerned when someone discovers they have been making stuff up. Pomerantsev relates how, when the politbureaucrat in charge of Russian TV was confronted with the reality that a news broadcast story of a child crucified by Ukrainian nationalists was a complete fabrication, this Kremlin official was unashamed and indeed proud to point how much the ratings boost showed that the Russian public approved.
We in the West (how old-fashioned a word!) are caught, he says, in our own “crisis of truth.” Too often any semblance of commitment to the idea of truth is subordinated to the will to power, which primes those primal drives that both give click bait its kick and turn out voters. We are constrained still in ways that the ex–KGB agent Putin is not, thank God. We still hate each other and slander each other and make up the truth that transforms people we meet in the grocery store into members of an evil other team, primarily in the service of winning elections, thank God. Thank God for now.
But consider this, as well, when it comes to the new infowars:
With two Internet videos of two evil deeds in a world of evil deeds, the Islamic State has succeeded in getting inside the heads of the vast majority of American people, creating dramatic new fears among Walmart moms who are among the swing voters in the next election. With two murders and two obscene Internet videos, terrorists prompted a prime-time address by a president who clearly prefers publicly to downplay and downgrade the threat that jihadist terror poses to American national security. (Unlike most of my readers, I am not sure he is entirely wrong about that, even though I think the president was wrong to withdraw from Iraq, and to conduct foreign policy by poll, but that’s a topic for another day). In a different era, there is no way that killing two American journalists, however gruesomely, could potentially affect an American election and change American foreign policy.
Today, millions of American moms are nervous and afraid. A few hundred more twisted men here and abroad feel that little testosterone jolt that comes from the idea that you have the power to hurt, however briefly. The president is forced not just to act, but to react.
One would have to say, from the Islamic State’s point of view, “Mission accomplished.” May the evildoers live to regret capturing America’s attention in this way.
— Maggie Gallagher is a senior fellow at the American Principles Project. She blogs at MaggieGallagher.com.