For as long as I’ve been a journalist, whether it’s covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the science of near-death experiences, I’ve been obsessed with the question of how people form beliefs—and in particular, how they can come to totally opposite conclusions over what appears to be the same set of facts.
Today that question seems more urgent than ever. As I’ve outlined in 21st-century propaganda: A guide to interpreting, confronting, and surviving it, we are going through a transformation in both our understanding of how to manipulate public opinion and our power to do so. The greatest power will, of course, go to those with the most resources—large countries, big companies, powerful political movements. Ordinary citizens and many journalistic outlets will be outgunned.
I believe that most citizens have only a hazy grasp of how the information they see is being filtered and distorted by the forces I describe in that article—the algorithms in their social media feeds, targeted advertising, fake or slanted news generated by both private and state actors, disinformation spread by swarms of both humans and bots. Yes, much of that filtering is the result of people’s own choices about which media to look at; but some of those choices are not even conscious, and some are conscious but heavily influenced by those same forces.
In order to approach information with a critical eye, people need to be more aware of where it comes from and how it’s crafted.
I also believe that most journalists are operating with an outdated toolbox. Today’s mainstream media matured in the post-totalitarian second half of the 20th century, when what Aldous Huxley called “rational propaganda”—arguments rooted in the language of reason, fact, and enlightened self-interest—was the dominant mode of political discourse in Western democracies. The media’s role was to report the actions of the powerful, fact-checking their statements, tracking their promises, and calling out their failures and inconsistencies. They learned to deal with evasion, spin and subterfuge, but they have no playbook for shameless lying, blithe self-contradiction, and denial of the undeniable.
In order to develop one, they need to study the new methods of persuasion, and learn both how to counteract them and how to employ them in the service of truth.
That is why we are launching a Quartz obsession with propaganda. Our obsessions are issues we think define the current moment in the global economy. Most are multi-disciplinary efforts involving several writers, and this one will be no exception. We’ll look at everything from the way technology is being used to shape and deliver information to the latest scientific research on cognition and persuasion; from how states use censorship and misinformation to how political language is evolving in its never-ending quest to obfuscate reality; from how conspiracy theories are born, live, and die to how the tech giants’ policies on fake news and political bias are shifting. You can see everything we publish on this topic at our obsession page, to which there’ll be a link at the top of every story on it. We hope you’ll follow along.