26 Aug 2010 8:00 am   //   Filed under: Media, TV

The new disinformation

Last week a survey that found 18% of Americans, when asked to name Barack Obama’s religion, incorrectly said he is Muslim. That’s up from 11% in 2009.

How could a growing number of people get a basic fact so wrong? I don’t believe it’s because 18% of Americans are fools. I think it’s because we are just beginning to see the effects of a radically new way of communicating. The strategy involves a mix of broadcasting and the Internet. Here’s the formula:

  1. A mass media person (say, a radio talker or cable TV anchor) tells you something intriguing but also confusing. Then they move on without reaching any conclusion, sometimes with a comment like, “This is obviously a lot to think about!”
  2. Left feeling curious and unsatisfied, you spend a few minutes poking around on the Internet. There you find a clear and obvious trail of breadcrumbs reinforcing a dark narrative. You learned what the speaker couldn’t figure out—or was too scared to say on the air!
  3. Your hunch is confirmed. Obama is a closet Muslim! Eureka!

It’s immensely satisfying to follow clues and crack a mystery. It’s also a powerful way to learn something. I asked my friend Leslie, a teacher, if there’s a term for this in education theory. There is: Constructivist learning. It’s different from a traditional lecture.

Traditional orators teach facts by talking at you. The best example on TV right now is Keith Olbermann, who makes his case with logic, speaking forcefully into the camera:

On the flip side, the new breed of political commentators uses constructivist learning: Here are the pieces, you assemble the puzzle. The best example right now is Glenn Beck fidgeting with his chalkboard:

You can see why Beck (who leans close to the Obama-is-a-Muslim camp) is so much more effective the Olberman. Olberman is preaching to the choir, while Beck is building a mystery. If you’re in Beck’s audience, it’s up to you to solve the puzzle on your own time. It’s homework—and yes, you’re allowed to use the Internet.

The “broadcaster/mystery + Internet/clues” strategy has powerful advantages.

  • You can teach the audience false information, and because they learned it through a process of personal discovery, they will be skeptical of all evidence to the contrary.
  • The celebrity host attracts an audience craving hateful secrets, while keeping a safe distance from anything truly radioactive—helping ensure his or her survival on a mass media channel.

A key part of this strategy is dropping obscure, faux-intellectual phrases that audiences can use to find more information on Google. These politically loaded phrases come to life organically online. Once one makes it into wide enough usage on blogs, broadcasters start to use it too. The phrase becomes part of a political brand. To see what I mean, search Google for the word “Obama” with one of these terms: “stealth jihad,” “liberation theology,” “statism,” or “backdoor amnesty.”

Start following links like those and you too might be convinced Obama is part of a secret conspiracy to destroy America. Do this now and you’ll probably conclude it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. However, if you follow those links after listening to Glenn Beck for an hour, you’d be primed to believe conspiracy theories, and you might not snap out of it.

As a political communication strategy, constructivist learning is awesomely effective. You can just plant a seed of a sinister idea, and crowdsource the ugly stuff to a bench of bloggers willing to sacrifice all shame in exchange for the delicious reward of influence. Nobody does this as well as Fox News and the conservative/anti-tax/Tea Party movement. The Democrats don’t appear to have even the slightest clue how this works.

As for the 1990s-era dream that the Internet would produce a more enlightened society by shining light on facts, giving the public access to primary source documents, and opening up a wider marketplace of ideas? Keep dreaming. It’s not about how good your ideas are. It’s about how fun your mystery is.