Symmetrical Polarization or Asymmetrical Propaganda?

Boston Review has the best article about politics I’ve read in a long time: “Polarization or Propaganda?” It was written by C. Thi Nguyen, a philosophy professor at the University of Utah. Here’s the beginning:

I would like to stage a fight between two different accounts of the current political landscape—what’s been called the “post-truth” era, the infodemic, the end of democracy, or perhaps most accurately, the total shitshow of the now.

According to one oft-told story, what’s going on is systemic polarization. Our once-peaceful society has been riven into polarized camps. Extremism and political separation are the core problems, and the fix is something like reconnection, intermingling, and friendship across party lines. (The sound of this story is somebody issuing a plea for civility “in these divisive times.”)

According to a very different story, what’s going on is propaganda. Certain bad actors are generating false and misleading information for political purposes. To fix it, we need to fight those bad actors.

These are two different accounts of our current political landscape: polarization and propaganda. Which is the best explanation?

Systemic polarization, as it is usually told, is a basically symmetrical story. Polarization arises from a social dynamic that afflicts almost everybody. The social forces at play—social mobility, online media bubbles, algorithmic filtering—are pervasive, and their effect is nearly universal. Like-minded individuals naturally clump together and end up boosting each others’ confidence unreasonably. Conservatives and progressives are approximately as vulnerable and approximately as blameworthy.

On the other hand, the propaganda story is usually told asymmetrically: one side is stuck in the propaganda machine, the other side fighting against it. It is certainly possible to tell the propaganda story about both sides, but symmetry isn’t baked into its core.

Nguyen compares two books that present the opposing views. The first is Overdoing Democracy by Robert Talisse, a professor at Vanderbilt. He argues that “our current political rift . . . arises from the profound mutual disrespect between the two sides”:

The fix is to . . . find our way back to respecting the other side . . . We need to see our political opponents as holding their values sincerely. . . . And that involves realizing that group polarization, and other rationality-undermining effects, don’t just affect the other side. We, too, are the products of group polarization. Our own political confidence, too, is significantly irrational and unsupported. . . .

Once we have repaired our tendency to utterly dismiss the other side, we should engage in non-political cooperative projects with them: picking up litter together, teaching somebody to read at the library, joining a bowling league. We need to engage in parts of life where politics is simply not part of the picture . . .

The other book is Network Propaganda by three authors associated with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard (their book is available for free online). They tell a very different story:

. . . A host of factors went into creating the political landscape around the [2016 election], but the dominant factor was propaganda. For these authors, propaganda means the intentional spread of false or misleading information for the sake of political power. . . . The prime movers in [their] story are Fox News, Breitbart, and their funders and allies among the political elite.

A key element of this account is an effect the authors call the “propaganda feedback loop.” Inside the loop, media outlets stop trying to present truths and to fact-check their fellow outlets. Instead, these outlets are out to confirm their followers’ worldview. And the more time they spend in the loop, the more these followers get used to the experience of constant confirmation and grow intolerant of any challenges to their belief system. . . . Communication becomes more about reinforcing agreement and shared identity than about finding the truth. . . .

At the heart of the analysis is a careful, empirical study of . . . the media consumption environment around the 2016 election, including the network structure of Twitter and Facebook activity. The basic structure of the rightwing media ecosystem, the authors say, was completely different from that of the rest of the media ecosystem. The right-wing network—centered around Fox News and Breitbart—exhibited all the features of a propaganda loop. It excluded members that conformed to standard norms of objective journalism. False and misleading claims could (and did) circulate and get amplified, without criticism from anywhere else in the trusted network.

The rest of the media ecosystem exhibited a very different dynamic—what the authors call a “reality check dynamic.” In this setting, media outlets are incentivized to check up on each other . . . Outlets are thus encouraged to aim for factually accurate reporting and police failures in accuracy.

According to the authors, this subset of the media constituted a single, large, interconnected network, which included mainstream, centrist media outlets, traditional liberal outlets, and more radically left-leaning online-native sites, from ABC News, CNN, MSNBC, and the New York Times to the Huffington PostDaily KosMother Jones, and Occupy Democrats. Despite the relative political diversity of this network, its various members treated themselves as beholden to one another. That is, a fact check from a more left-leaning outlet like Mother Jones would be treated seriously by a politically centrist, mainstream outlet like ABC News, and vice versa. And the typical user of this network, no matter where they were on the political spectrum, treated the whole network as interconnected—reading across the network, and taking seriously fact checks from sources across it.

Professor Nguyen’s article is 5,000 words long (all of which is worth reading). To make a long story short, he concludes that the evidence favors the right-wing propaganda explanation, not the “living separate lives” one:

Of course, you might think this whole discussion is quite self-serving. . . . I am a typical lefty—so maybe this is all just motivated reasoning. I’m giving just the kind of self-serving argument that people on the left would give to justify their beliefs. And perhaps I am drawn to such an argument precisely because I have already been brainwashed, my whole life spent in a like-minded enclave of lefty academics.

Talisse makes exactly such an accusation. He says that we tend to think group polarization affects the other side, but not us; we tend to “disregard our own vulnerability to the phenomenon.” But this disregard, he says, is itself the result of group polarization. If this view is right, all are guilty of irrational confidence, and we should all do a substantial amount of self-discrediting.

What Talisse misses is that this sort of argument applies equally to all comers. Motivated reasoning isn’t just for extremists and radicals: the worry applies just as well to those who might call for civility, preach for moderation, and disdain extremes. Group polarization can beset any enclave at any place on the political spectrum, and motivated reasoning can affect those who love civility and moderation just as well as it can affect the extremists. The temptation to accept a Talisse-style view of symmetrical group polarization could itself be a result of group polarization—one arising in a body of like-minded centrists who would love to believe that the real problem was in all those irrational, polarized extremists. In fact, [the authors of Network Propaganda] make such an accusation:

As we have repeatedly seen . . . the prominent outlets on the left and center simply do not exhibit a parallel structure, content, or vehement outrage that we observe on the right. These facts are as inconvenient to academics seeking a nonpartisan, neutral diagnosis of what is happening to us as they are to professional journalists who are institutionally committed to describe the game in a nonpartisan way. . . . But the facts we observe do not lend themselves to a natural, “both sides at fault” analysis.

This is not to dismiss either position out of hand. The point is that the position of advocating for moderation, civility, and civic friendship does not magically rise above the fray, rendering itself, by its peaceable face, immune to debunking arguments and accusations of motivated reasoning. We can point out that Network Propaganda is comforting to liberals and leftists, but we should also point out that Overdoing Democracy is comforting to centrists—to those wary of radical change, who long for the civility of a bygone era. Neutrality doesn’t give you a free pass from accusations of motivated reasoning.


The idea that polarization is the basic problem, not millions of our fellow citizens being under the influence of asymmetrical, right-wing propaganda, has always seemed like putting the cart before the horse. The propaganda explains the polarization, not the other way around. If living separate lives in separate environments was the key factor, the amount of propaganda on both sides would be comparable. But there is nothing on the left like the right-wing media bubble and its disregard for truth. Reactionaries respond by claiming that all other media outlets from Mother Jones to CBS News to the news pages of The Wall Street Journal, i.e. every purveyor of news and opinion that doesn’t support the Republican Party line, are the same. It’s nonsense.

As the Democratic Party has remained a standard, center-left party for decades, the Republican Party has morphed into a radical, right-wing outlier. That’s not because Americans don’t spend enough time together at PTA meetings or their local diners. It’s because one side has been riding a wave of bullshit for the past thirty years, and there’s no sign it’s slowing down.

By the way, Fox News celebrated its 19th anniversary this year with the following statement:

We are extremely proud that viewers have consistently tuned in to our slate of original programming for nearly two decades, choosing Fox News as their destination for not only breaking news coverage, but insightful analysis from a diversity of viewpoints.

Demonstrating the diversity on offer, the statement was followed by a picture of Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity.


That Time the Chinese Communists Used a Few Words to Make Themselves Look Good

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) doesn’t get as much publicity as it should. The people who run China’s government do horrible things. Prof. Perry Link is an expert on China and explains one way the party easily manipulated the rest of the world using the power of propaganda: 

Does the CCP’s Department of Propaganda (later renamed the Department of Publicity) lie? [Author and dissident] Su Xiaokang gently told me that the question is naïve. The CCP system, he explained, has an entirely different way of measuring the value of statements. Truth and falsity are incidental. A statement is valuable if its “social effects” are “good,” and the effects count as good if they support the power interests of the CCP. (For politically innocuous matters like weather reports or basketball scores, support of the party does not apply, but avoidance of harm to the party still does.) Hence a “good” statement might be true, half-true, or untrue—that is beside the point.

A tendency toward including truth does become relevant when someone judges that a statement will influence people more effectively if a bit of verisimilitude is supplied. But truth is never the first criterion, and in that sense neither is lying. American democracy’s headache with a president who lies is a fundamentally different problem from China’s living under the CCP’s propaganda apparatus, whose roots date from the 1940s and whose experts by now are very good at what they do.

Readers of the Western press, whether aware of it or not, have seen examples of that expertise. In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the international wing of the Xinhua News Agency instituted frequent use of the phrase “lifted from poverty.” This was what “China” (meaning the CCP) had done for hundreds of millions of Chinese people. The world’s media—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Al Jazeera, Kyodo News, the BBC, and many others—picked up the phrase, as did Western politicians on both the left and the right. The World Bank used it in official reports. Those words were, in short, highly successful in achieving the intended effect: the world came to believe that the CCP was doing great good.

A more transparent account of what it had done, beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, is that it released its controls on the Chinese people so that, for the first time in decades, they could make money for themselves; hundreds of millions responded by working long hours at low wages without the protection of labor unions, workers’ compensation insurance, a free press, or independent courts; and, yes, they made great amounts of money, escaping poverty for themselves and simultaneously catapulting the CCP elite, who still rode high above them, to truly spectacular wealth.

In short, the word “lifted” [requires] analysis of who lifted whom. That question did not normally occur to people around the world who read the words “China lifted.” The grammar of such sentences, combined with the formula China = CCP, left no need for a question. Was this word-engineering deliberate? Anyone who doubts that it was should note that CCP media used the “China lifted” phrase in publications in English, French, German, and other foreign languages but not in Chinese-language media at home. That made good sense. What would happen if the CCP started telling the Chinese people that “we lifted you”? The people would know better. Both sides know better. To make such an assertion might generate unfortunate “social effects,” such as a greater number of demonstrations, strikes, sit-ins, roadblocks, and other examples of what the Ministry of Public Security labels “masses incidents” and counts in the tens of thousands per year.

The Late Molly Ivins on Limbaugh

Talk radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh (1951-2021) is no longer taking calls from his devoted listeners. Texas writer Molly Ivins summed up Limbaugh for Mother Jones in 1995:

One of the things that concerns a lot of Americans lately is the increase in plain old nastiness in our political discussion. It comes from a number of sources, but Rush Limbaugh is a major carrier.

I should explain that I am not without bias in this matter. I have been attacked by Rush Limbaugh on the air, an experience somewhat akin to being gummed by a newt. It doesn’t actually hurt, but it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle.

I have a correspondent named Irwin Wingo in Weatherford, Texas. Irwin and some of the leading men of the town are in the habit of meeting about 10 every morning at the Chat’n’Chew Cafe to drink coffee and discuss the state of the world. One of their number is a dittohead, a Limbaugh listener. He came in one day, plopped himself down, and said, “I think Rush is right: Racism in this country is dead. I don’t know what the n____s will find to gripe about now.”

I wouldn’t say that dittoheads, as a group, lack the ability to reason. It’s just that whenever I run across one, he seems to be at a low ebb in reasoning skills. Poor ol’ Bill Sarpalius, one of our dimmer Panhandle congressmen, was once trying to explain to a town hall meeting of his constituents that Limbaugh was wrong when he convinced his listeners that Bill Clinton’s tax package contained a tax increase on the middle class. (It increased taxes only on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.) A dittohead in the crowd rose to protest: “We don’t send you to Washington to make responsible decisions. We send you there to represent us.”

[Note: If this sounds quite familiar, a Republican official from Pennsylvania was discussing Sen. Pat Toomey, one of the Republicans who voted to convict last week, and said: “We did not send him there to vote his conscience. We did not send him there to ‘do the right thing’ or whatever”. Now back to Molly Ivins.]

The kind of humor Limbaugh uses troubles me deeply, because I have spent much of my professional life making fun of politicians. I believe it is a great American tradition and should be encouraged. . . . So what right do I have to object because Limbaugh makes fun of different pols than I do?

I object because he consistently targets dead people, little girls, and the homeless—none of whom are in a particularly good position to answer back. Satire is a weapon, and it can be quite cruel. It has historically been the weapon of powerless people aimed at the powerful. When you use satire against powerless people, as Limbaugh does, it is not only cruel, it’s profoundly vulgar. It is like kicking a cripple.

On his TV show, early in the Clinton administration, Limbaugh put up a picture of Socks, the White House cat, and asked, “Did you know there’s a White House dog?” Then he put up a picture of Chelsea Clinton, who was 13 years old at the time and as far as I know had never done any harm to anyone.

When viewers objected, he claimed, in typical Limbaugh fashion, that the gag was an accident and that without his permission some technician had put up the picture of Chelsea—which I found as disgusting as his original attempt at humor. . . .

The reason I take Rush Limbaugh seriously is not because he’s offensive or right-wing, but because he is one of the few people addressing a large group of disaffected people in this country. And despite his frequent denials, Limbaugh does indeed have a somewhat cultlike effect on his dittoheads. They can listen to him for three and a half hours a day, five days a week, on radio and television. I can assure you that [cult leader] David Koresh did not harangue the Branch Davidians so long nor so often. But that is precisely what most cult leaders do—talk to their followers hour after hour after hour.

A large segment of Limbaugh’s audience consists of white males, 18 to 34 years old, without college education. Basically, a guy I know and grew up with named Bubba.

Bubba listens to Limbaugh because Limbaugh gives him someone to blame for the fact that Bubba is getting screwed. He’s working harder, getting paid less in constant dollars and falling further and further behind. Not only is Bubba never gonna be able to buy a house, he can barely afford a trailer. Hell, he can barely afford the payments on the pickup.

And because Bubba understands he’s being shafted, even if he doesn’t know why or how or by whom, he listens to Limbaugh. Limbaugh offers him scapegoats. It’s the “feminazis.” It’s the minorities. It’s the limousine liberals. It’s all these people with all these wacky social programs to help some silly, self-proclaimed bunch of victims. Bubba feels like a victim himself—and he is—but he never got any sympathy from liberals.

Psychologists often tell us there is a great deal of displaced anger in our emotional lives—your dad wallops you, but he’s too big to hit back, so you go clobber your little brother. Displaced anger is also common in our political life. We see it in this generation of young white men without much education and very little future. . . . Unfortunately, it is Limbaugh and the Republicans who are addressing the resentments of these folks, and aiming their anger in the wrong direction.

In my state, I have not seen so much hatred in politics since the heyday of the John Birch Society in the early 1960s. Used to be you couldn’t talk politics with a conservative without his getting all red in the face, arteries standing out in his neck, wattles aquiver with indignation—just like a pissed-off turkey gobbler. And now we’re seeing the same kind of anger again.

Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting [FAIR] . . . has a sweet, gentle faith that truth will triumph in the end, and thinks it is sufficient to point out that Limbaugh is wrong. I say it’s important to point out that he’s not just wrong but that he’s ridiculous, one of the silliest people in America. . . .

It’s important to show people that there is much more wrong with Limbaugh’s thinking than just his facts. Limbaugh specializes in ad hominem arguments, which are themselves ridiculously easy to expose. Ted Kennedy says, “America needs health care reform.” Limbaugh replies, “Ted Kennedy is fat.”

Rush Limbaugh’s pathetic abuse of logic, his absurd pomposity, his relentless self-promotion, his ridiculous ego—now those, friends, are appropriate targets for satire.

Hoping for the Best & Getting the Worst

David Roberts is a writer for Vox who I don’t follow on Twitter anymore (he’s @drvox, but not a doctor). I don’t follow him because he’s so good at pointing out how bad things are. But somebody linked to what he posted today:


Among the many reasons this is horseshit, this whole genre of liberal-scolding rests on the premise that the offended heartlanders are responding to what Democrats actually say — the intramural debates in which people like (NY Times columnist Maureen) Dowd are involved. They’re not! 

By & large, Txxxx’s base has no idea what Dems actually say or do. They are responding to a ludicrous caricature they see on (Right Wing) media & RW social media. They are responding to lies & conspiracy theories. Dems changing how they talk *won’t change any of that*. 

It’s very weird how America’s elite journalists/pundits/etc. wring their hands over “post-truth politics” & the problem of misinformation, but then turn around & treat the things voters do as a direct response to Dem “messaging.” Voters rarely HEAR Dem messaging. Because — stop me if you’ve heard me say this a trillion times — the RW has a giant propaganda machine that carries their messages directly to the ears (& id) of their voters. Dems lob messages out into the (Main Stream Media) & hope for the best.


He could have added “& often get the worst”.