Coppins: Yeah, exactly. That’s what’s actually interesting about this particular playbook, because if you talk to scholars who study propaganda and disinformation, what they’ll say is that up until pretty recently, most autocratic regimes or even just kind of illiberal political leaders would try to censor dissenting voices and inconvenient information. They would shut down opposition newspapers and throw journalists and political dissidents in jail. That’s how they kind of maintained control and power.
What you’ve seen in the last 10 or 20 years is that a lot of the illiberal regimes around the world have realized that in this era of what’s called “information abundance,” where everybody has the internet, everyone has social media, everyone has TV and radio and books, it’s very hard to fully contain the spread of information. It’s much more effective to flood the zone with lots and lots and lots of content and propaganda and disinformation and noise. And what this is called is censorship through noise. Basically, you’re drowning out the dissenting voices rather than throwing them in jail.
Wells: I remember one time I had a conversation with someone who grew up in China, and we were talking about the misinformation in Chinese media and state-controlled media and things like that. And I was like, “Oh, that seems so disorienting.” And I remember she said, “Well, in China, we just know not to trust it. But in the U.S., you still actually believe the things you hear.”
Coppins: Yeah. That’s such a good insight and an important point. I do think that that is a major problem in our society, and it’s born out of something good, which is that, compared to a lot of other parts of the world, we’re actually not used to our own government waging coordinated disinformation campaigns against us.
If you compare us as a people to, for example, people in Eastern Europe or the Baltic countries, who have spent generations dealing with Russian disinformation and Russian propaganda, you’ll find that they are a lot more savvy about it, and frankly a lot more cynical. We also have this fundamental belief, which I think is generally good, in free speech. We really believe that dissenting voices and opinions shouldn’t be censored. And we kind of instinctively push back against any effort to censor speech.
Wells: But that is, like, a sort of ethic that comes from a time when the tool of control was censorship rather than flooding.
Coppins: Exactly. And you read like all the famous novels that are about future dystopia—they’re all very concerned with censorship, like the state coming in and burning books or sticking old newspaper articles down the memory hole. That idea colors so much of the literature about authoritarianism. But in this modern era, that’s really not how it works, at least not in most democratic or ostensibly democratic countries.