Journalists sound alarm over the dangers of propaganda, calling it ‘one of the worst crises for American democracy this century’

Journalists sound alarm over the dangers of propaganda, calling it ‘one of the worst crises for American democracy this century’

Anne Applebaum is sounding the alarm.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian published an 8,000-word piece in The Atlantic this week, warning of a “new propaganda war” and the dangers that disinformation poses to the free world. Cover section – excerpted from his upcoming book, “Autocracy Inc.” — highlights how autocratic powers around the world, including Donald Trump in the U.S., are waging a sophisticated information war “to discredit liberalism and freedom.”

That effort, Applebaum asserts, has its intended corrosive effect on public discourse, distorting the way people view democratic governments and the principles they stand for. In Applebaum’s eyes, the spread of propaganda by authoritarians — and authoritarians like Trump — is one of the most profound issues of our time.

“I think it’s in the middle of one of the worst crises for American democracy this century, certainly in the last few decades,” Applebaum told me by phone Tuesday. “If we can’t agree on what happened yesterday, then how do we write a law about it? If we don’t share the same reality in democracy, then how do we debate how we should organize our world?”

“It seriously undermines democracy,” he added. “Democracy depends on people having a common perception of the world.”

That’s why, Applebaum says, the power-hungry seek to destroy the notion of truth. Applebaum explained that Vladimir Putin’s Russia “pioneered” the “firehose of falsehood”, a tactic used by Trump in the US. and others have been used around the world to seize and maintain power.

“The idea that if you lie constantly and over and over again all the time, you make people feel like they don’t know what’s true,” Applebaum told me. “They don’t trust journalists. They do not believe in an independent ombudsman. They don’t trust institutions or science. And it’s a very useful thing for a dictator.”

Indeed, it is easy to see how Russia’s propaganda war has benefited the Putin-led country enormously as it simultaneously waged its kinetic war on Ukraine. Notably, the narrative planted by Russia into the public discourse has been echoed by popular American commentators which has influenced the public and made it very difficult for Congress to pass legislation providing the necessary assistance to Ukraine.

However, what makes the situation in the U.S. different from other countries is that the misinformation does not flow from government controlled media. No RT, Sputnik or Xinhua. Instead, Trump uses an army of free and willing collaborators – people and institutions who lie on his behalf, choosing to serve as propaganda vessels.

Rather than being coerced into action, these outlets and pundits have been incentivized by a broken information economy that algorithmically rewards them for spreading dishonest ideas, outright falsehoods and dangerous conspiracy theories. The peddling of lies has enriched and empowered the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Steve Bannon, and a whole platoon of right-wing media figures.

“It’s a voluntary network,” Applebaum admits. “And it shares Trump’s goals. It makes people distrust and dislike traditional sources of information. Presumably, it was done with the idea that they would be the recipients. If people no longer trust doctors and newspapers and universities, then what will they turn to? They will turn to other sources of information. Maybe it’s Steve Bannon’s podcast — and that’s good for Steve Bannon.”

Others, of course, bear the cost.

Strangely, though, despite the obvious toll that the lies promoted by Trump and his propaganda minions are taking over American society, the legacy news media continues to turn a blind eye to the story. You won’t find nightly news anchors like David Muir, Lester Holt and Norah O’Donnell regularly covering the damaging lies that MAGA Media is spreading to the public. Outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post refuse to identify networks like Fox News as “right wing” in their news reports.

However, it is impossible to truly understand the biggest issues of our time without a good understanding of the propaganda channels that poison the information. It’s impossible to understand why Congress is struggling to approve Ukraine funding without knowing how figures like Carlson help spread Russian propaganda to the public. It is impossible to understand why a large part of the country does not trust the election results without understanding the role MAGA Media played in undermining the electoral system. It is impossible to understand why Trump continues to have such a strong grip on the Republican Party without understanding the propaganda machine at his disposal.

When I asked him why the establishment press wasn’t more aggressive in covering the stories of our time, Applebaum, however, seemed stumped.

“I don’t know why it’s not covered more,” the famous writer told me. “It seems to me to be one of the main issues of modern society.”

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