Roundtable: The Fabulous Electric Right Wing Disinformation Machine

The Roundtable is a discussion of news and events among Torchlight staff. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity, and links may have been added after the fact. This conversation happened on November 4. 

Josh Kyu Saiewitz, Sr. Managing Editor

Welcome to the Roundtable, Torchlight’s discussions of news and events. In this week’s Roundtable, we’ll be discussing propaganda in all its forms—and the way the machine seems to be running at top speed to try and counter these very real recent indictments by the Mueller team.

Let’s start specifically with Uranium One. Can anyone lay out the facts/theory here?

 

Christopher Dahlin, Politics Editor

Basically, a Russian energy company bought majority shares in a Canadian energy company that owned several uranium mines in the U.S. (approximately 20% of the extraction capacity of the United States),  The sale had to be approved by the Committee on Foreign Investments, which includes the Secretary of State, who was Hillary Clinton. The chair of that Committee is the Secretary of Treasury, Tim Geithner. The sale was approved unanimously, because it was just another transnational energy deal.

The uranium is not allowed to leave the country, and I feel like we should point out that Russia has plenty of uranium reserves elsewhere. Production has gone from 11% of America’s uranium in 2014, to about 5.9%.

 

Josh

Also, this type of uranium is used for nuclear power, not nuclear weapons. Also, Russia already has nuclear weapons.

 

Dave Spitzley, Contributor

The other piece is that a FORMER shareholder of the Canadian company gave money to the Clinton Foundation, which is being spun as a quid pro who bribe.

 

Josh

So, a couple of Congresspeople called this week for Mueller to recuse himself because he was head of the FBI when this deal happened. Is there any connection beyond that coincidence?

 

Christo

Well, the FBI is not part of the CFIUS, so no. Although DHS is represented.

Basically, the accusation is that Hillary Clinton sold Nuclear Weapons to Russia, which. Just why? Why is that necessary?

 

Dave

For money, and because everybody has dirty deals with Russia, right?

 

Josh

Right, let’s get to that.

 

Dave

Can I raise a point of definitions here before that?

 

Josh

Yes.

 

Dave

Propaganda is technically reporting or other information skewed towards one point of view. Much of what is coming out of the right wing media ecosystem is more properly termed disinformation:  it is designed not just to influence, but to mislead.

So are we talking about one, the other, or both?

 

Josh

I think propaganda can incorporate disinformation.

I would say we are generally discussing the political and right wing media campaign to discredit Hillary and Mueller and muddy the waters for Trump.

But let’s focus on another piece of this.

Fox News in recent weeks keeps saying things like “President Clinton” and “the Clinton administration,” referring to Hillary. Why, even after the election is over, does the machine continue to focus their efforts on Hillary Clinton, who is now a private citizen with (we assume) no further political ambitions? What benefits do they get from tarring her with baseless accusations like Uranium One?

 

David Schmitz, Jr. Managing Editor

It feels like a deliberate attempt to focus on anything other than the real, accelerating investigations.

If you can distract then you do that. If you can derail, you definitely do that.

 

Christo

They deflect from what is happening in the Trump administration. They can’t admit anything, because then they would have to admit everything. Like, Carter Page just started talking (sorry, but I really want to talk about him. He is amazingly hilarious), and is basically unravelling everything.

They also can’t talk about the President’s victories, because he doesn’t have any.

Like, even if they wanted to talk about immigration, someone is going to mention them treating a 10 year old with cerebral palsy whom they snatched while leaving a hospital after surgery as a national security threat, or trying to prevent a girl from getting an abortion (if we talk about those I will just get angry. Astoundingly monstrous).

 

Dave

There’s also a ratings element: FOX may be looking for another hit like Benghazi to feed off of for a year or two.

 

Josh

What makes Hillary the chosen distraction, though, as opposed to anyone else?

 

Christo

Hillary is the easy default.

 

David

She’s been that target for 35 years, why reinvent the wheel when this has been working so well in the past?

 

Dave

Obama is probably still more popular with their viewers than Clinton, too.

 

Josh

What do we think the chances are of this having an impact? Are people really getting distracted, or both-sidesing Russian collusion?

And does it matter what people think so long as Mueller can keep doing his thing?

 

David

I think they run the risk of Hillary exhaustion. I am a Clinton supporter and I’m sick of hearing about her and the campaign. I imagine her detractors just get bored now since she’s not actively running for anything. But I might be underestimating the power of hatred.

 

Christo

They can only hold reality off so much. Fox News is not seen by a majority of people (Sinclair is a different, more troubling story). Mueller literally does not give a crap about whatever idiot conspiracy theory they’re spouting that day. They can change the tune slightly, but Trump’s numbers are in the toilet, and this isn’t going to convince anyone not on board.

Basically, at the end of the day, they can give Trump some good fee-fees, but that’s about it.

 

Josh

I was gonna ask, what role do you guys think Trump plays in all this disinformation? Is he just the loudest sucker-slash-email forwarder they have? Is he in some sense directing the machine, or accelerating it?

 

Christo

Oh, he isn’t directing anything.

He is just almost literally personification of their base and audience.

 

Josh

I think there’s something to be said for the way his prominence and lies degrade the truth value of facts, which may overall be enabling this bizarre subjectivity, where you can’t convince people that a deal is innocuous or that a pizza place with no basement also has no secret basement pedophile ring.

But then I wonder how many people actually believe this stuff versus seizing on it because they need reasons to say, “Even if he colluded, all 2016 major candidates do that.” Like, how many people are just choosing the information they want to hear?

 

Dave

We know at the very least that the right-wing media outlets are ideologically far more to the right than the center-left mainstream media is left. A study out of Harvard earlier this year shows that the right wing media outlets have largely seceded from the rest of the media ecosystem.

That means that not only will apostasy likely put you into a very narrow job market if you are a right wing commentator, but very few signals from outside are likely to reach people watching those outlets.

 

Josh

Unless you’re Megyn Kelly and can just switch sides while pretending your right wing career never happened.

 

David

She’s not really being successful as of yet though. It’s just NBC dumped a bunch of money and can’t cut her loose yet.

What I’ve noticed is when a voice on the right deviates whatsoever they risk the wrath of the idealogues and therefore their jobs so we hear less and less challenge from within their media bubble. Whereas on the opposite side of the spectrum, the audience craves challenge of their authorities almost to a fault.

 

Josh

That’s really interesting, David, I never thought about it like that.

 

Christo

Fortunately, reality doesn’t care about their propaganda. They can’t do anything to Mueller, and since people are now being indicted, the acceptable list of topics of what’s actually happening is going to get thinner and thinner.

 

Josh

We have about 10 minutes left; let’s switch from detailing the problem to spitballing solutions. What can individuals do to deal with the disinformation onslaught? What can our public and private institutions do to stem the propaganda tide, from Twitter and Facebook to mainstream media sources?

Or is this just going to get worse forever?

 

Dave

Ya got me.

 

Christo

I think that a problem right wing media has is that they’ve invested in Donald Trump so much. Previously, it’s never been about one person, as much as certain ideologies. But now the identity is completely tied into the president, and that president is not stable, not competent, and also actually corrupt. So they have now made their foundational worldview extremely shaky. The reaction when it comes tumbling down (knock on wood) is going to be vicious, but I don’t see how it doesn’t transform, and probably fracture.

 

David

This is going to come down to personal responsibilities. Does the CEO and Board of Directors of Giant Conglomerate Media Corp care if they are making profits in a fair representative republic free from outside state influence? Or does it not matter what the political climate is so long as they can reap ever more profit selling ads and consumer information between each other even as the system descends into autocratic rule? It feels like there is a breaking point happening now or very near where those at the top don’t want it to get worse but it might be too late to stem the tide.

 

Josh

“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Let’s wrap up with final thoughts.

 

Dave

I think it’s easy to kind of lose the big picture here. In many ways the story of America has been the repeated domestication and redomestication of our plutocratic elites.

The Revolutionary War was largely initiated by a group that had kind of self-domesticated through a combination of bad ruler ship and good philosophy. We had the Civil War a few generations later when a bunch of rich guys seceded, and then we had the Trust-busting era, then the union movement, and finally the temporary purging of fascist tendencies after WWII.

Treating the folks backing FOX, the Koch brothers, Mercer who was backing Breitbart, reading them as just cash-loving businessmen misreads the story: they’re really playing for plutocracy, which is why they’re all in on Trumpism. If it crashes, maybe we get a break of a decade or two.

 

David

So going back to the threat against Bob Mueller’s investigation, I want to point out that even if there is another special prosecutor (or whatever they want to call it) that investigates the Uranium One deal, that would not force Mueller to recuse himself or cease his operation. They would, in fact, be separate and unique investigations. A prosecutor can be investigated while investigating, it’s not exclusionary or even extraordinary. The fact that one would be bullshit and the current one is actively getting guilty pleas and indictments wouldn’t change.

 

Christo

It’s probably been said before, but whatever the media machine is, I feel like it’s coming to a head. Whereas before it offered its own skewed version of reality, it now seems to be denying reality and substituting its own. That can’t last, I think. Eventually, reality will come out on top, if for no other reason than more people at least somewhat recognize it. Their market is shrinking, and so is their audience, which is one of the reasons they are going more and more extreme. At some point, there is a profitability breakpoint, if nothing else. When Trump has to face reality, we’ll see where all of this infrastructure goes.

 

Josh

My biggest worry with this stuff goes back to Nixon, who didn’t go down until a political consensus emerged over his crimes. The one thing the machine seems designed to do over all else is defeat the possibility of political consensus, by building an alternate reality for a significant portion of the population. What if Mueller announces Trump is guilty but not enough people believe him to actually impeach? When do we cross the boundary into having a country full of people who can’t check their government? This problem may not outlive Trump, but it may also extend his political lifespan for far too long.

And on that grim note, that’s it for this week’s Roundtable. Thanks for a lively discussion, everyone!

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