USA: the “flood the zone with shit” media strategy

Vox): “Flood the zone with shit”: How misinformation overwhelmed our democracy

No matter how President Trump’s impeachment trial plays out in the Senate, one thing is certain: Despite the incontrovertible facts at the center of the story, the process will change very few minds.

Regardless of how clear a case Democrats make, it seems likely thata majority of voters will remain confused and unsure about the details of Trump’s transgressions. No single version of the truth will be accepted.

This is a serious problem for our democratic culture. No amount of evidence, on virtually any topic, is likely to move public opinion one way or the other. We can attribute some of this to rank partisanship — some people simply refuse to acknowledge inconvenient facts about their own side.

But there’s another, equally vexing problem. We live in a media ecosystem that overwhelms people with information. Some of that information is accurate, some of it is bogus, and much of it is intentionally misleading. The result is a polity that has increasingly given up on finding out the truth. As Sabrina Tavernise and Aidan Gardiner put it in a New York Times piece, “people are numb and disoriented, struggling to discern what is real in a sea of slant, fake, and fact.” This is partly why an earth-shattering historical event like a president’s impeachment has done very little to move public opinion.

The core challenge we’re facing today is information saturation and a hackable media system. If you follow politics at all, you know how exhausting the environment is. The sheer volume of content, the dizzying number of narratives and counternarratives, and the pace of the news cycle are too much for anyone to process.

One response to this situation is to walk away and tune everything out. After all, it takes real effort to comb through the bullshit, and most people have busy lives and limited bandwidth. Another reaction is to retreat into tribal allegiances.There’s Team Liberal and Team Conservative, and pretty much everyone knows which side they’re on. So you stick to the places that feed you the information you most want to hear.

The issue for many people isn’t exactly a denial of truth as such. It’s more a growing weariness over the process of finding the truth at all. And that weariness leads more and more people to abandon the idea that the truth is knowable.

I call this “manufactured” because it’s the consequence of a deliberate strategy. It was distilled almost perfectly by Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News and chief strategist for Donald Trump. “The Democrats don’t matter,” Bannon reportedly said in 2018. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”

What we’re facing is a new form of propaganda that wasn’t really possible until the digital age. And it works not by creating a consensus around any particular narrative but by muddying the waters so that consensus isn’t achievable.

Copying a Putin example, the  Muddier in Chief:

Trump can dictate an entire news cycle with a few unhinged tweets or an absurd press conference. The media cycle is easily commandeered by misinformation, innuendo, and outrageous content. These are problems because of the norms that govern journalism and because the political economy of media makes it very hard to ignore or dispel bullshit stories.This is at the root of our nihilism problem, and a solution is nowhere in sight.

The instinct of the mainstream press has always been to conquer lies by exposing them. But it’s just not that simple anymore (if it ever was). There are too many claims to debunk and too many conflicting narratives. And the decision to cover something is a decision to amplify it and, in some cases, normalize it.

Bullshit rules, and there are no obvious solutions.

We probably need a paradigm shift in how the press covers politics. Nearly all of the incentives driving media militate against this kind of rethinking, however. And so we’re likely stuck with this problem for a very long time.

It is not as bad here in New Zealand, but it’s bad enough.

We can join the shit fights, or tune out as many people mostly do (but still get impressions from the mire).

It happens here on small scales in social media, Kiwiblog being a prime example but also here (from cross the political spectrum).

Not usually a “flood the zone with shit”, but diversions from unwelcome news are common in politics here, with Winston Peters a practiced hand, and his apprentice was at it yesterday – Shane Jones diverts to copious meat eating as further questions raised about company links.

A difficult question that I often ponder is whether to challenge the shit (with a risk of amplifying it), or ignoring it and letting the shit flooders to muddy the zone unabated. There’s no obvious or easy answers.

In some ways Jacinda Ardern introduced a fresh breath of political air, but even that has been muddied somewhat with her and her Government too often failing to come close to one of their promises of more openness and transparency. Trying to sweep shit under the carpet is a related problem.

We could all do better – but is there a will, or does trying to win and trying to make losers out of opponents and people with different opinions rule?

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63 Comments

  1. Alan Wilkinson

     /  21st January 2020

    Ukraine was just a convenient hook to hang Trump hatreds on.

    That. Is the simple truth. Impeachment was driven by political and personal hatreds, not by a crime.

    Reply
    • It is not that simple.

      Sure it’s highly political. But impeachment doesn’t require a crime.

      US democracy was already in a dire state, but Trump and his agents (you sound a bit like a volunteer agent here) have made the mess much murkier. Driven by political and personal power and money.

      ‘Draining the swamp’ is a typical contradiction of what the reality is.

      Reply
      • Alan Wilkinson

         /  21st January 2020

        High crimes and misdemeanors are not a crime?

        Reply
        • Here’s a crime for a start:

          “In the summer of 2019, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) withheld from
          obligation funds appropriated to the Department of Defense (DOD) for security
          assistance to Ukraine. In order to withhold the funds, OMB issued a series of nine
          apportionment schedules with footnotes that made all unobligated balances
          unavailable for obligation.

          Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own
          policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law. OMB withheld funds
          for a policy reason, which is not permitted under the Impoundment Control Act (ICA).
          The withholding was not a programmatic delay. Therefore, we conclude that OMB
          violated the ICA.”

          https://www.gao.gov/assets/710/703909.pdf

          But quite aside from Trump’s criminal conduct in illegally withholding aid to Ukraine (not to mention the subsequent cover-up and obstruction), at the time the US Constitution was written, there was no such thing as a federal criminal code, and there has never been any requirement that impeachment can only be used for violations of criminal law.

          Even Dershowitz agreed:

          and Dershowitz writing about kenneth Starr in 1998: “What kinds of offenses warrant the extraordinary remedy of legislative removal of a President? The answer must be an offense that poses a clear and present danger to our body politic—a high public violation of official duty.”

          Reply
          • Alan Wilkinson

             /  21st January 2020

            So impeach Trump instead of the OMB?

            Reply
            • Trump’s already impeached.

              Alan, you are writing as if Trump’s right to extort foreign leaders for political services were so beyond reasonable question, it is outrageous that anyone might object to it.

            • Alan Wilkinson

               /  21st January 2020

              Are you saying if the US believes a crime has been committed by a US citizen in a foreign country it should not pressure that country to investigate properly? Or only if it is a Democrat?

            • Are you saying that if a President commits high crimes and misdemeanours the whole US electorate is unable to investigate properly? Or only if it is Republican?

              See? works both ways.

            • Alan Wilkinson

               /  21st January 2020

              Of course the whole US electorate is unable to investigate properly. It doesn’t have the skills, information, resources or co-ordination needed to do so. What are you blabbering about?

          • David

             /  21st January 2020

            The legislation has a remedy Ishmael in the legislation and its not impeachment, Obama breached the same thing 7 times

            Reply
            • Why are you talking about Obama?

              He wasn’t impeached, despite operating as a lame-duck, target-pinned-to-his-back president under six years of a GOP-led Senate and House who were determined to stymie him at every opportunity.

            • Duker

               /  21st January 2020

              No Obama didnt ‘do it 7 times’
              Even Trump previously called the stuff Obama had approved as ‘pillows and blankets’
              “A Pentagon spokesman confirmed that the United States has provided $1.6 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since 2014.”

              As for saying the OMB, the White House office for spending/budget, should be charged for ‘withholding’ the money. They were acting under Trumps direct orders, in fact they even gave feed back that a resolution of congress was required to legally put a hold on. That wasnt done as being legal wasnt Trumps way. Trump wanted something in return for US Money , something that benefited him in a partisan way.

              Ukraine’s anti corruption aid had previously had their US funding cut.
              “Trump administration sought billions of dollars in cuts to programs aimed at fighting corruption in Ukraine and elsewhere”
              https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2019/10/23/trump-administration-sought-billions-dollars-cuts-programs-aimed-fighting-corruption-ukraine-abroad/

  2. Reply
  3. David

     /  21st January 2020

    Interesting someone from of all places VOX is having a cry about not being taken seriously, they were deep in on Russia collusion which never happened and have almost completely ignored the FBI misleading the Fisa court to obtain a warrant to spy on a political campaign.
    They ran hard on the Kavanagh theories and believe all women even when their stories were devoid of any facts and proved wrong on many levels.
    They backed Avenatti to have a run for the Democratic nomination and have barely covered his most recent arrest. They also thought Michael Cohen was a credible witness, Meuller was sound and Hunter Biden…nothing to see here.
    The impeachment is a political move by Pelosi who has seen the Democratic line up for 2020 and figured she had no choice, she had the other pressure from her members who are shitting themselves after catching a glimpse of AOCs war chest and ability to primary them out of their safe seats. Trumps phone call wasnt great but its hardly impeachable but VOX would never allow that type of an opinion.
    The media have a business model and its a 24 hour bash Trump model that is proving quite profitable, journo,s are whores collecting their cash after abandoning any form of balance and are having a cry about their credibility.

    Reply
    • The Ukraine/impeachment issue appears to involve a lot more than a phone call – but if you only listen to Trump you may not be aware of that.

      “The media have a business model and its a 24 hour bash Trump model that is proving quite profitable”

      The Fox business model seems to be doing well financially out of being a Trump promoter (mostly).

      Reply
    • And your comment is a good example of what the article is talking about.

      Reply
  4. Blazer

     /  21st January 2020

    National have adopted the ‘shit flood’ technique here.

    Commonly called barking at every passing car, it also encompasses outright falsehoods-like Joyces fiscal hole and dozens of other already dead cats,seeking…attention.

    Reply
  5. Alan Wilkinson

     /  21st January 2020

    Actually the whole Vox article is based on the false premise that media hyped stories matter.

    They don’t. What matters are policies and actions. If the media got back to those they would be doing their job. Ironically those are what maintain Trump’s support while his opponents distract themselves with supposed scandals and outrage.

    Reply
    • “based on the false premise that media hyped stories matter”

      Then why re media campaigns being waged on the impeachment (by both sides)?

      Reply
      • Alan Wilkinson

         /  21st January 2020

        Trump does them to distract the Dems. The Dems do them to comfort themselves. Trump voters ignore them all.

        Reply
    • duperez

       /  21st January 2020

      ‘If the media got back to those they would be doing their job?’ Their job is to make money. That supersedes dispensables like ethics and morals and higher ideals.

      Cynical I know but surely that’s how it is. I know granny is precious, I know I’m only here because of granny but if I can get money from selling her I will.

      Reply
  6. duperez

     /  21st January 2020

    At the impeachment hearings Devin Nunes was one who repeatedly tried to minimise the seriousness of what was going on and claim there had been nothing wrong happening because people were switching off their TVs or going to other channels.

    I think there are some, if they had someone like Donald Trump acting as he often does, working for their company, would try to get rid of him. The ridiculous things he says, he off-the cuff actions and reactions and the aversion to accepting anything contrary to his opinions unless it somehow could advantage him personally would make him a pain in the posterior.

    They don’t have to put up with him. He does something stupid, someone says that, and they apparently suffer from ‘Trump syndrome.’ No-one is to say anything, he is to have free reign? Or is lampooning, cartooning the emperor with no clothes the way to go? And in a fit of pique and petulance he decides to ‘terminate’ someone, sorry, kill someone, without regard to any consequences.

    The biggest mistake Trump made is marrying some immigrant instead of a Kardashian. (Maybe he can make a move on the American ex-Royal who just moved to Canada.)
    Either of those would really flood the markets like 73 Boxing Day sales arriving in one morning. Trump and Bannon were made for each other. Trump is a President for the age.

    Reply
  7. Patzcuaro

     /  21st January 2020

    Trump supporters rallying for gun rights on Martin Luther King Day.

    Reply
  8. Trump’s supporters insist that the president has done nothing wrong, committed no crimes, his intentions were as pure as the driven snow, et-rambling-cetera.

    If the witnesses could exonerate Trump, let them testify.

    If the documents could exonerate Trump, release them.

    If Trump’s senior administration could speak to Trump’s intentions, let them speak. And let Congress and the public hear them speak. Under oath.

    The lack of testimony, the refusal to release documents, and the unwillingness of Trump’s senior administration to speak out all create holes in the Trumpian version of events.

    If men like Pompeo, Bolton, Mulvaney, Giuliani, or Parnas had exculpatory testimony to give, Trump and his legal team would have them in front of Congress in a New York second, out of concern for protecting the prerogatives of the office of POTUS.

    But no.

    All we see is Trump’s obstruction of anything that could possibly exonerate him. And a Government Accountability Office report that shows his action in withholding military aid to Ukraine was a criminal act.

    Reply
    • McSally might just become one of the rarest senators of all: unelected to office and served only two years.

      Reply
      • Patzcuaro

         /  21st January 2020

        Plus she would be beaten in back to back elections for both of Arizona’s Senate seats. Kelly maybe benefiting from the sympathy vote as the husband of Gabby Giffords who was shot in an assassination attempt while representing Arizona’s 8th congressional district.

        Reply
    • Trump’s support is also under water in Michigan (-10), Pennsylvania (-6), Wisconsin (-6), Florida (-4), Georgia (-4), Iowa (-3) and North Carolina (-1). They’re all must-win states for Trump this year.

      Data from Civiqs survey released January 18, 2020
      https://civiqs.com/results/approve_president_trump?annotations=true&uncertainty=true&zoomIn=true&map=true

      Reply
      • Alan Wilkinson

         /  21st January 2020

        Disapproval of one candidate doesn’t mean you will vote for the other – as Clinton found.

        Reply
        • Duker

           /  21st January 2020

          Hilary Clinton wasnt a sitting President..
          prolonged negative ratings mean voters have made up their minds, plus you realise how close Trump won a small number of states to make him President, 1% change in those states means he gone.
          More people loving him Texas or Utah or Georgia doesnt help him

          Reply
  9. When they say that Trump committed no crimes therefore he is unimpeachable, some of the commenters here seem to misunderstand the character and purpose of impeachment. So here’s an explainer (and apologies to the constitutional experts among us for attempting to ‘lawsplain’).

    Justice Joseph Story, in his 1833 Commentaries on the Constitution, explained the essential character of American impeachment thusly:

    “[A]n impeachment is a proceeding purely of a political nature. It is not so much designed to punish an offender, as to secure the state against gross official misdemeanors. It touches neither his person, nor his property; but simply divests him of his political capacity.”

    And that’s the whole point.

    The framers expressly, and by design, stripped American impeachment of all the characteristically criminal punishments that the British Parliament had the power to impose upon conviction in British impeachments.

    The framers did that because they recognized British impeachments had long been criticized for imposing punishments for conduct not previously deemed criminal.

    And they did it precisely because they intended impeachment to be a mechanism separate from the criminal courts, but available to address political wrongdoing that was dangerous to the Republic, but that had never previously been defined as criminal by statute or common law.

    Removal upon impeachment was never thought by the framers to be criminal punishment, and the simple fact of removal from public office has never been categorically deemed a criminal punishment. Crime is not a prerequisite for impeachment.

    “High crimes and misdemeanors” is a term of art employed virtually exclusively in impeachment and it embraces a wide array of misconduct by government officials that is not criminal. Moreover, it is indisputable that the framers were aware of the phrase’s origins and that it included non-criminal conduct.

    For more, see Frank Bowman’s article: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/10/what-does-high-crimes-and-misdemeanors-actually-mean/600343/

    Reply
    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  21st January 2020

      It was never intended to be used by a political party simply to remove a President from the opposing party.

      How ironic that the Democrats are abusing their powers for their own advantage by accusing the President of abusing his powers for his own advantage.

      Reply
      • Alan Wilkinson

         /  21st January 2020

        P.s. It’s pretty clear which is the greater threat to the Republic.

        Reply
      • Duker

         /  21st January 2020

        “It was never intended to be used by a political party simply to remove a President from the opposing party.”
        As Bill Clinton about that one. Guess what 1 article was obstruction of justice, the other was perjury. Trump made sure he didnt directly testify to Muellers questions, but replied in writing to avoid a perjury charge.
        Guess what Andrew Johnson was also impeached for political purposes
        1. Removed Secretary of War Stanton before the Senate confirmed his successor, a violation of the Tenure of Office Act;
        2. Sent “a letter of authority” to Lorenzo Thomas regarding his appointment to be acting Secretary of War when there was no legal vacancy
        3. Appointed Lorenzo Thomas to be acting Secretary of War when there was no legal vacancy, because Secretary Stanton had been removed in violation of the Tenure of Office Act;
        .
        .
        .10. On numerous occasions, made “with a loud voice, certain intemperate, inflammatory, and scandalous harangues, and did therein utter loud threats and bitter menaces
        11. Unlawfully, and unconstitutionally, challenged the authority of the 39th Congress to legislate, because southern states had not been readmitted to the Union
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impeachment_of_Andrew_Johnson
        They were 1 vote short of the 2/3 for conviction and removal for the 3 articles they accepted, 2,3 and 11

        Just repeating Trumps lines will just confirm you are just as big a buffoon as he is.

        Reply
        • Alan Wilkinson

           /  21st January 2020

          Are you trying to argue that because it has been used simply to remove a President from the opposing party that the Constitution intended that usage? Or are you just trying to argue?

          Reply
          • Duker

             /  21st January 2020

            Just saying your claim ‘not intended to remove a president’ on similar grounds of obstruction etc
            Of course its going to be an opposite party as the House isnt going to move against its own.
            Just proof that your claim is just bunkum.
            Did the House not go after Hilary Clinton because she was from the opposing party

            Reply
            • Alan Wilkinson

               /  21st January 2020

              Um, the House didn’t move against Hilary, possibly because she was never President.

              If the Constitution had intended the President would be selected from the ruling party in Congress it would have said so. Everything says the opposite, that the Executive, Congress and Judiciary were to be independent with checks and balances to maintain that. Likewise a balance between the state and federal governments. You are the one indulging in bunkum.

  10. Tom Hunter

     /  21st January 2020

    One joke with Johnson’s impeachment was that the Tenure of Office Act itself was unconstitutional and was found to be so by the Supreme Court, being an attempt by Congress to bind the President’s constitutional authority to select his own Cabinet.

    So Johnson was right to challenge Congress on these matters. The other articles were just the usual throw shit at the walls and hope it works. Much like now.

    Reply
  11. Tom Hunter

     /  21st January 2020

    Also, since I can’t be bothered by the increasing narrowness of the “reply” columns I will start this here, based on yet another “Ishmael” Far Left talking point:

    Here’s a crime for a start:
    “In the summer of 2019, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) withheld from….

    Followed by the recent garbage about the GAO’s (Government Accountability Office) report which has it’s own take on the Ukrainian aid delays.

    Well, for a start, even breaching the Impoundment Control Act (ICA) is a tort, is not a crime, which means it gets dealt with via a civil remedy.

    And of course their conclusion that the hold on congressionally appropriated military aid violated the Impoundment Control Act somehow misses the fact that it got sent in the same budget year. The Administration is not under any legal obligation to spend the money on any given date. All that they’re required to do – IF they determine that the money is not to be spent within the FY – is send a report within 15 days to that effect to Congress, who can then fight about whether the money should be spent in the next budget year.

    And the legislation specifically allows the President to do so “fiscal policy or other reasons,” – meaning any reason he likes. Moreover, if Congress is determined to get the money spent they can also sue the administration to force it to spend the funds – but that’s also not a criminal remedy.

    All this is why Obama was never impeached about it, despite breaching the law seven times. This shit happens all the time with funding. The GOP shrugged their shoulders and moved on. To be fair, so have the Democrats on this one. Tellingly it’s only the MSM that jumped all over it, which is exactly the sort of “flood the zone with shit” approach they’re supposedly whining about.

    Two final points:

    Under the agreement of both the executive and legislative branches in 1974, this is a civil matter, not a “high crime or misdemeanor.” It’s an absurdly picayune basis for removing an elected president, the head of a co-equal branch of government. And it’s worth pointing out that this act got signed in the same year that Congress was working to remove a duly-elected president over actual crimes, one who resigned ahead of impeachment and removal.

    And…

    Several administrations have been slapped by the GAO, including that of George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In general, the administrations were cited for freeing funds for spending, making lawsuits unnecessary. Most recently, in December 2018, the GAO said the Department of Homeland Security illegally withheld $95 million appropriated for the Coast Guard to support national security efforts. The funds were eventually released.

    And the information I got about this was from a non-MSM reporter at Hotair.com, which is exactly the sort of media source that is sneered at by the MSM. Except that this reporter actually took the time to read the legislation and the GAO report – which was more than the MSM did – which is why the rebuttal is so solid, with a final point relevant to all aspects of the fight:

    It’s an ongoing issue, barely even worth mentioning, especially when the funds ended up getting released anyway. It’s hardly surprising, given the thin case made by the House, that the media and Trump’s opponents are rushing to turn this civil molehill into a criminal mountain.

    Reply
  12. Tom Hunter

     /  21st January 2020

    Oh – and WRT to the second article of impeachment, about “Obstruction of Congress” the following comment from a current GOP senator is appropriate:

    “In Fast and Furious, he [Obama] did exactly this. He withheld evidence from the House of Representatives, and the Republicans decided that it was not obstruction of Congress. The Democrats agreed, and we did not pursue it. Nancy Pelosi, Nadler, all said that that was not obstruction. And yet, in this case, when the President decides to use executive privilege, they now — all of a sudden — say, ‘Oh, no. That is obstruction of Congress.’”

    That quote came from an interview on one of the big US Sunday morning talk shows, Meet The Press, but aside from the original video and possibly some coverage in Internet world of The Hill and Politico I wonder if it will see the light of day in the legacy media world, including here in NZ?

    Reply
    • Duke

       /  21st January 2020

      The question is did Trump put a hold on the Ukraine aid for his own partisan purposes…You’ll notice Trumps people are completely ignoring that question …to point look over there
      Remember the Whitehouse people who said …”We did it …what does it matter”, they can be witnesses for Trump at the Senate hearings

      Reply
      • Alan Wilkinson

         /  21st January 2020

        I haven’t ignored it, I have refuted it. Do you think Democrats should be allowed to run a corrupt candidate for President without knowing it or should the government ensure that alleged corruption be properly investigated? That was what Trump was pushing for.

        If he was doing it for his own advantage he would have kept it under wraps until the election campaign and then produced it to destroy Biden. There was no advantage to him in destroying Biden before the Dems nominated him.

        Reply
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