Consider this your Godwin warning: This article is going to mention Donald Trump. And it’s going to mention Adolf Hitler. If that’s all you need to know, check out now.
On Thursday, Donald Trump is proclaiming the victory of social media over traditional media, and using that opportunity not just to continue his assault on the press, but to launch a whole new attack on the basic nature of democracy and the judiciary branch of the government. Trump charging into the Rose Garden to declare that his name on a placard means the Supreme Court can pack up its robes may seem worthy of stop-the-presses, all-hands-on-deck, full-on emergency coverage. Because it is. But so is Trump bellowing an entire series of lies to justify a new generation of nuclear brinkmanship in the Middle East. So is Trump issuing a series of misogynistic and racist statements about a presidential candidate. So is Trump declaring his support for hate speech, violent rhetoric, and autocratic white nationalism. And all of that came in just a few hours of what has come to be an all-too-typical morning.
It’s a moment that can’t pass without us referencing this description of Hitler’s psychological profile as developed by the United States Office of Strategic Services during the 1940s.
His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.
This is not to say that Trump is Hitler. Trump is not Hitler. Only Hitler was Hitler.
But this is to say that in the 76 years since that evaluation was made, democracy has done a piss-poor job of eliminating the basic weakness that allowed Hitler to exploit a generally well-educated, peaceful population and insert a cancerous mix of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and militant nationalism that created the defining disaster of the 20th century.
And where we’re headed now will make things worse than they have been in terms of that kind of exploitation. Because Donald Trump is right about this much: Social media is much, much better at spreading a lie.
It’s not as if the post-World War II world did not recognize the damage done by propaganda and take steps to address the issue. The regulations that dominated broadcast television and radio through the next decades didn’t come from some “Gee, let’s clean out the old barn and put on a show!” idea of American virtues and fairness. They came from people’s recognition that newspapers, television, and radio are weapons. The pen is mightier than the sword. Don’t get into a fight with a man who buys his ink by the barrel. Etc.
Everything from equal time rules on television to the limits of the Comics Code Authority may seem painfully crude in retrospect. But they were generated by people who were f***ing terrified, because they had just witnessed a world set on fire as much by words as by bombs.
Those rules were far from universally effective. You don’t have to look any further than McCarthy, Joe, to see how quickly those rules were subverted, or exploited, in the service of creating exactly the kind of scare they were intended to stop. And, of course, some of those rules actively impeded social progress, or were at best useless in defending the rights of those not in control of the mechanisms of power.
But the biggest lie the devil ever told was … nope, starting over. The best thing for propaganda was the idea that we needed no rules at all. There is no such thing as an unrestricted right. There are limits on religious rights. There are limits on assembly rights. There are even limits on gun rights. I haven’t thought of a good reason why soldiers should be boarded in my home, but someone probably can.
And there are limits on speech rights. We call some of what we limit libel, or slander, or hate speech. Limits are created because people recognize that it is possible to use words to harm individuals, to deprive individuals of their own rights, and to incite violence against both individuals and groups.
Democratic societies—and America in particular—apply these limits with a very light touch, and a hard eye toward the First Amendment in almost every situation. We may say things like, “Twitter is a private company, it can make its own rules,” but if it was actively promoting, say, anti-Semitism, or diligently removing comments in favor of human rights, it seems likely that action would be taken.
The problem is that Twitter doesn’t have to actively promote hate. If newspapers such as The New York Times are the Sears, Roebuck of spreading information, and Fox News is Walmart, then Twitter is Amazon. It’s enormously efficient. Astoundingly efficient. Not accurate. Accuracy is a different thing. But in the sense of moving emotion and ideas from one head to another, Trump is absolutely right: Social media is orders of magnitude better at that than traditional media.
That’s why Trump, and Putin, and autocratic dictators everywhere recognize and adore the capabilities of social media. The old saying used to be that a lie was halfway around the world before the truth could get on its shoes. Now the lie is in every home in the world, and every mind in those homes, before the truth even realizes there’s a problem. An article in the Times debunking Trump’s latest tweet is about as effective as Sears mailing out a paper catalogue to describe a clothing sale it’s holding on Prime Day.
The Internet is many things, but above all else it is an information engine. That engine has enabled a level of commerce and retail efficiency that’s not just creating fortunes, but is also massively accelerating the concentration of wealth. That engine is also creating an acceleration of influence. A concentration of power. And a de facto monopoly on the ability to share ideas and generate emotional response.
Eight decades after Hitler, the lies are bigger, faster, and more powerful than ever. If an effective way can’t be found to fight them where they live, that fight will come—as it already has begun to do—to where we all live.