Are the two presidential monologues a precondition to the civil war?
How we involuntarily finished the information war started by Steve Bannon
What we are observing now in the US, that circus, incoherent arguments, distractions, babbling, absurd legal objections and a cacophony of monologues instead of dialogue, has been with us for some time. And we keep repeating the same mistake. We consider this style of political communication a flaw in the system, a fling. We still rely on words, meaning, content. Why does Trump say this or that? We judge words. We try to find out if they’re true. Logical. Coherent. We’re stuck on a content level because we’re part of the universe of words and letters. We still overestimate our ability to deal with the cognitive process and tend to think about the newly emerged epistemics of magic and emotions as a minor problem.
Every opinion maker is considering what Biden said better or what Trump seemed to be stronger at. But I see something completely different. The completed Cultural Revolution started by two people, two technologists of propaganda. Their names are Surkov and Bannon.
It is perhaps my curse that I was, in effect, as a former“propagandist,” intrigued by the creator of modern populism, a man of my own trade: Steve Bannon. He’s the subject of inspiration for my entire new book, Feed the Demons.
I’m getting the obsessive association back that we’re somewhere in Europe 1923. The thought of whether this is how the world of new violent solutions at Beer Hall began. Apprentices, jobless boys, aunts and uncles who had nothing but that endless rage. Hitler just watered that rage with gasoline.
So how did we get there? In the beginning, there was information technology and the rapid transformation of social relationships and customs into new, unsettling forms. Thanks to this “unease,” there was a deeply hidden desire in part of the West to return to the “golden sixties,” when the white middle working class and its culture, its relationship to work, family, and values, set the tone for the evolution of society and made everything seem safe. Everything was culturally understandable, and predictable. This desire, and the instinctive fear of the western white tribe of its own transformation, was carefully observed by two camps. Both for power reasons. And both had their own brilliant strategist in their midst. Russian Vladislav Surkov studied theatre science and noticed that politics is more spectacular than concrete legislative work. But let's put Russia aside for a while.
American Steve Bannon started his career in the NAVY and, in addition to a career as a producer in Hollywood, he had also a background in business and strategic computer games.
Both of them, Bannon and Surkov, laid the foundation for a new method of grasping power in the modern information era, that I would no longer hesitate to call the Cultural Revolution.
Steve Bannon has remained for a long time in the shadow of the media spotlight. Partly because, after his removal from the White House, he himself had not sought media attention that much, and his perpetually unshaven face and body stuffed into grubby T-shirts and oversized trousers was never an appropriate subject for a cover photo. Secondly, because the US president’s excesses created a geyser of media events that drew so much attention that there was no room left for anything else anyway.
It was no accident. It was Bannon’s plan from the very beginning. He called the tactic “Flood the zone”. What he meant was clogging the media with an unbearably scandalous agenda. “Flood the zone,” however, was just a small piece of Bannon’s long term strategic puzzle.
The whole transformation of the information space began to be prepared sometime around 2012. Bannon found himself in the midst of the Republican Party’s political wing, unhappy with the moderate power center. Behind Bannon were highly influential sponsors — Rebekah and Robert Mercer. They planned to seize power in the middle stream of the Republican Party and move it to the extreme fringe the Mercers supported — the Tea Party. An ambitious plan with a lot of money has found its strategist.
Steve Bannon came up with a revolutionary idea. To change the established distribution of power, one must first change the media landscape and perceptions of reality. It was based on military strategy textbooks. He founded and helped run dozens of alternative media and information channels, most famously Breitbart. He called his project The War. As a Harvard graduate and good mathematician, he fully understood the power and workings of social networks, search engines, meme-boards, and other platforms as amplification tools.
With ample input from technology experts whose know-how was concentrated at Cambridge Analytica, the issues chosen by Bannon began to dominate the American public discourse over several years. The fact that none of the 50+ Republicans at the time understood data technology made the entire information coup unbelievably easy. Bannon and his sponsors were able to conquer the American political narrative completely undisturbed.
Bannon´s famous fight against political correctness was nothing more than a targeted campaign to expand the so-called Overton window. The Overton Window is a term from communications science. It represents a kind of focal point for publicly acceptable discussion narratives in the information ecosystem. The expansion had to be done far beyond the decent and conceivable, some people from Cambridge Analytica called it “freeing the demons.” Decent language, respect, respect for fellow Americans, rooted in the American media, hampered the expansion of the Overton window, and so a viral online campaign against political correctness had to be devised. That’s when the BIG DATA method, later identified by Harvard scientist Joan Donovan as Source Hacking, first came into play.
This second step of the strategy was that the online social networking space was suddenly awash with both, fake and real events that would otherwise escape audiences as “marginal issues.” Those were suddenly rolling in from all corners of the internet, the awareness of their importance shifted, and the target conservative public began to react with fear and anger. The reports deliberately selected true or falsely fabricated actions of liberals that deeply hurt the respect for old values and natural respect for America’s white culture of the 1960s. Republicans, as the target public, succumbed to the fallacy of Source Hacking’s strategy and came to regard these “liberal, neo-Marxist, or progressive excesses” as mainstream in society. In this light, the fanatical rhetoric of the fringe Tea Party suddenly seemed like a reasonable response to “the progressive American madness”. Neither Americans nor Republicans ever learned that the madness was actually induced by amplification on a network of media, that simulated the real life.
Incidentally, Russians have used this tactic extensively in meddling in the 2016 US election, feigning or amplifying radical voices within the Black Lives Matter movement to incite anger and support the election of Trump.
The next, third phase of Bannon’s plan was to create rival camps, radicalize them, and slowly separate their entire information universes. Both camps needed to be sealed inside their communication circuits, with managed social media narratives in both ecosystems. Here came Donald Trump, who fatally polarized American society, at play. The media completely misunderstood Bannon’s strategy and became an involuntary player in the game of media coverage of Trump’s misdeeds and blatant lies. Bannon understood very well the nature of the modern media world, and he knew that all these scandals added irresistibly to the reach and ratings and that the media simply could not escape something “so egregious.” In doing so, he could deliver Trump’s absolute media coverage and the planned two-way split of the American public. The more the two camps become radicalized, the more their normal civic communication skills, their willingness to cooperate, their search for compromise, was getting lost. This strategy is aimed against everything that makes a society resilient and defensible. In this state of cognitive chaos, you can manipulate the decision-making process deliberately.
The grand finale could come as the first duel of candidates and the following refusal to continue together. The world in which Trump’s supporters live has become, since 2013, thanks to the strenuous work of Steve Bannon and his sponsors, the world of a closed media cycle, a universe that produces the information itself, consumes it itself, and feeds on its own explosiveness. Nothing enters that world from the outside without its creators decision. This is handled by Google, Youtube, Facebook and the nature of the information algorithms. And also with the huge help of a new media that produce content suitable for this universe. Whether it’s Breitbart, Fox News or the thousands of anonymous sites we can’t remember the names, which bring us our daily dose of anger. The rage against those vile liberals in the cities who want to destroy the world of our hardworking mums and dads and to mess up all this beauty with the weird habits of other cultures. But it also works surprisingly the other way around. It’s quite common in my information bubble these days to feel anger at those dull, herd-loving, violent country nincompoops who can barely sign their names and all they’ve learned in life is to hold a pitchfork (a gun) and vote for fearmongers who yell that they’ll close the borders. The problem is that this communication is still being assessed at its level of content — who has the better arguments — and not at the level of metacommunication: What does this do to our capacity for cohesion and common defence.
If you’re wondering where this isolation of communication universes strategy is headed, check out the U.N. report and the U.S. Senate investigation into the role of social networks in unleashing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Scary? That’s good. Now you understand.