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Selling the Story of Disinformation

n the beginning, there were ABC, NBC, and CBS, and they were good. Midcentury American man could come home after eight hours of work and turn on his television and know where he stood in relation to his wife, and his children, and his neighbors, and his town, and his country, and his world. And that was good. Or he could open the local paper in the morning in the ritual fashion, taking his civic communion with his coffee, and know that identical scenes were unfolding in households across the country.

Over frequencies our American never tuned in to, red-baiting, ultra-right-wing radio preachers hyperventilated to millions. In magazines and books he didn’t read, elites fretted at great length about the dislocating effects of television. And for people who didn’t look like him, the media had hardly anything to say at all. But our man lived in an Eden, not because it was unspoiled, but because he hadn’t considered any other state of affairs. For him, information was in its right—that is to say, unquestioned—place. And that was good, too.

Today, we are lapsed. We understand the media through a metaphor—“the information ecosystem”—which suggests to the American subject that she occupies a hopelessly denatured habitat. Every time she logs on to Facebook or YouTube or Twitter, she encounters the toxic byproducts of modernity as fast as her fingers can scroll. Here is hate speech, foreign interference, and trolling; there are lies about the sizes of inauguration crowds, the origins of pandemics, and the outcomes of elections.

She looks out at her fellow citizens and sees them as contaminated, like tufted coastal animals after an oil spill, with “disinformation” and “misinformation.” She can’t quite define these terms, but she feels that they define the world, online and, increasingly, off.

Everyone scrounges this wasteland for tainted morsels of content, and it’s impossible to know exactly what anyone else has found, in what condition, and in what order. Nevertheless, our American is sure that what her fellow citizens are reading and watching is bad. According to a 2019 Pew survey, half of Americans think that “made-up news/info” is “a very big problem in the country today,” about on par with the “U.S. political system,” the “gap between rich and poor,” and “violent crime.” But she is most worried about disinformation, because it seems so new, and because so new, so isolable, and because so isolable, so fixable. It has something to do, she knows, with the algorithm.


In the run-up to the 1952 presidential election, a group of Republican donors were concerned about Dwight Eisenhower’s wooden public image. They turned to a Madison Avenue ad firm, Ted Bates, to create commercials for the exciting new device that was suddenly in millions of households. In Eisenhower Answers America, the first series of political spots in television history, a strenuously grinning Ike gave pithy answers to questions about the IRS, the Korean War, and the national debt. The ads marked the beginning of mass marketing in American politics. They also introduced ad-industry logic into the American political imagination: the idea that the right combination of images and words, presented in the right format, can predictably persuade people to act, or not act.

This mechanistic view of humanity was not without its skeptics. “The psychological premise of human manipulability,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “has become one of the chief wares that are sold on the market of common and learned opinion.” To her point, Eisenhower, who carried 442 electoral votes in 1952, would have likely won even if he hadn’t spent a dime on TV.

What was needed to quell doubts about the efficacy of advertising among people who buy ads was empirical proof, or at least the appearance thereof. Modern political persuasion, the sociologist Jacques Ellul wrote in his landmark 1962 study of propaganda, is defined by its aspirations to scientific rigor, “the increasing attempt to control its use, measure its results, define its effects.” Customers seek persuasion that audiences have been persuaded.

Luckily for the aspiring Cold War propagandist, the American ad industry had polished up a pitch. It had spent the first half of the century trying to substantiate its worth through association with the burgeoning fields of scientific management and laboratory psychology. Cultivating behavioral scientists and appropriating their jargon, writes the economist Zoe Sherman, allowed ad sellers to offer “a veneer of scientific certainty” to the art of persuasion:

They asserted that audiences, like the workers in a Taylorized workplace, need not be persuaded through reason, but could be trained through repetition to adopt the new consumption habits desired by the sellers.

The profitable relationship between the ad industry and the soft sciences took on a dark cast in 1957, when the journalist Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders, his exposé of “motivation research”—then the bleeding edge of collaboration between Madison Avenue and research psychology. The alarming public image Packard’s bestseller created—ad men wielding some unholy concoction of Pavlov and Freud to manipulate the American public into buying toothpaste—is still with us today. And the idea of the manipulability of the public is, as Arendt noted, an indispensable part of the product. Advertising is targeted at consumers, but sold to businesses.

Read entire article at Harper's