We have a lot to learn from the life of William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) today. Hearst developed and used a cutting-edge media empire to change the way Americans and their government behaved in the world. We should be thinking about what this means in this new media age of Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter.
Like Donald Trump, Hearst was a very wealthy oligarch who got his first “big break” in 1887, when his father handed him control of his first newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner. Hearst would go on to buy many more news outlets, creating a vast network of newspapers, broadcast stations, publishing houses, and film production/ distribution networks.
Hearst’s empire ultimately included 28 newspapers in thirteen major cities and the King Features syndication service. (Today, King still places comics and opinion columns in multiple daily papers.) Hearst also owned the International News (wire) Service, at least one news weekly, six magazines (Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Harper’s Bazaar, etc.) and International Newsreel, which made news films to run before and after movie features in the days before television. One in four Americans read Hearst publications in the 1920s.
Hearst attracted millions of American readers with his papers’ breathless reporting of sports, crime, sex, scandal, and human-interest stories. Hearst also used his own “new media” of that time — magazines, newsreels and radio broadcasts — to push his own political agenda. He successfully swayed Americans’ political thinking — sometimes seeding beliefs in the public that were not true.
– In1927 the Hearst newspapers printed forged documents, supporting the (fake) accusation that the Mexican government had bribed several U.S. senators to be sympathetic with a South American war against the United States;
– He used his papers to malign the British, oppose U.S. entry into World War I, and oppose creation of the League of Nations, precursor to the UN;
– Hearst papers stirred up emotions against President William McKinley, who was killed by a political fanatic. Many readers boycotted Hearst papers after McKinley’s assassination, believing Hearst publications had provoked the killer;
“The Trump campaign was a digital, private-sector ‘psychological operation’ on a huge scale. Increasingly, such techniques will seem obvious and relatively easy.”
– Hearst was accused of printing fabricated stories from his reporters in Cuba. The stories used emotional sensationalism over fact to push the McKinley administration into joining Cuba’s war against Spain. When illustrator Frederick Remington wrote to Hearst that there was little to report — no real war in Cuba — Hearst responded famously: “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”
It is more than a little ironic that Donald Trump currently criticizes mainstream news outlets for running “fake news,” when so many of his campaign’s own sensationalist stories did so much to sway voters against Hillary Clinton (and, before her, Barack Obama), helping him gain electoral victory in 2016.
A big future issue — also likely to be derided by Trump as “fake news” — is whether the Trump Team’s campaign on digital networks and social media were: 1) ethical; or 2) legal.
Like William Randolph Hearst, 100 years ago, Donald Trump and co. are using incredibly sophisticated data-gathering tools and 21st-century media not just to change US policy but to permanently alter one-time standards of our political- and social institutions. Trump continues to polarize his supporters’ views of traditional media outlets. In every appearance, he demands that viewers/ voters and media-makers side with his version of the truth (“good stories”). Any other reporting he routinely derides as “unfair” and “fake.”
Now it is clear, however, that Trump’s team has successfully seeded many voters with his own “alternative truth” during the 2016 campaign. A key “player” in this effort is Steve Bannon, whose “Breitbart News” site was generously funded by far-right activist billionaire Rebekah Mercer.
Trump & co clearly won the election by overcoming the very strong opposition to their candidate. Recall that there was a highly negative popular opinion of Trump, an opinion shared by large segments of the population (even many who voted for him), by high-profile personalities in Washington and Hollywood, and echoed by countless mainstream news outlets, large and small. How did Trump overcome so many voices, including many “pillars of society”? Largely by the effective and deep distribution of Team Trump’s often-repeated and simple message: “No matter what the Republican candidate says or does; Hillary Clinton is untrustworthy, and will always be worse.”
The election results did not prove the truth of this. What it did prove, however — and in a very big way — is this: Traditional (Hearst-era) media and its power to sway US audiences and voters has been usurped by the wildly engaging, customer-segregating algorithms of the kind used by Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter. Further, since the election, US Republicans’ polarizing digital insurgency, as one writer calls it, is clearly going global.*
Trump’s team won by its extremely savvy, ahead-of-the-curve — and rather insidious — use of digital media and social networks. Key to the effort was a relatively new player in the world of “Big Data” — a UK-based firm called Cambridge Analytica, where Steve Bannon and Rebekah Mercer (still?) have leadership positions.
In the same way that Amazon and others create customer profiles that are defined by their browsing and purchased books, Cambridge Analytica (CA) harvested information on users/voters from FB and Google, and purchased wholesale data as well. CA’s software then created psychological profiles of hundreds of millions of US voters, including accurate predictions of their anticipated behavior in the 2016 election. With this data, CA — which also worked for the Brexit campaign in the UK — was not only able to make fairly accurate predictions of how individuals (or psychological groups) would vote in the election — it could determine what might make them change that vote. In other words, CA was able to use people’s click- or buying choices to identify, among other things, their deepest fears and motivations — then, use those fears to create the most effective media to deliver the preferred meme. That meme, in essence was this: “Hillary Clinton is what you fear.”
Further, Team Trump was able to accurately identify and zero-in on key US states, important districts and even individual voters who could tip the election for them. Then CA used digital media and/or robocalls to send the army of “Hate Hillary” messages, remarkably well-tailored to fit its targeted voters’ psychological profiles. This was a digital, private-sector “psychological operation” on a huge scale. In retrospect — in the future — such techniques will seem obvious and, increasingly, relatively easy.
The Trump team’s ideological “fear bombs” defined Hillary in exactly the ways most feared by the system’s well-profiled and well-targeted voters. Under this new detailed digital demographic, black v. white Americans become less relevant. A person’s gender and sexual orientation matter less too — except as keys to develop tailorized, effective propaganda to change his/her behavior….
This story already has been told by various media outlets — but it still raises countless questions, especially in light of federal investigations into the Russian election tampering.
As the Washington Post has reported, citing independent researchers, pro-Trump election propaganda was spread by a sophisticated Russian digital campaign “that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy.”
“Russia’s increasingly sophisticated propaganda machinery — including thousands of botnets, teams of paid human ‘trolls,’ and networks of websites and social-media accounts — echoed and amplified right-wing sites across the Internet as they portrayed Clinton as a criminal, hiding potentially fatal health problems, and preparing to hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers. The effort also sought to heighten the appearance of international tensions and promote fear of looming hostilities with nuclear-armed Russia.”
The question now being asked is whether people working on the well-documented Russian effort — including the stealing of e-mails and other information hacked from the Democratic Party — were in knowing collaboration with the Trump election team, including staff/leadership at Cambridge Analytica, which appears to have been doing the exact same thing. (At this writing, the Russians are arresting hackers and throwing them in prison. It is possible, according to the article, that they were involved in the US election hack, which Trump openly supported.)
The fall of William Randolph Hearst forced the US public — and, especially, American news organizations — to rethink how they produced and consumed political content in the modern era. Similarly, it seems inevitable that the 2016 election will force us to review and revise — and perhaps regulate, as is now being done in Europe — the use of these still-largely-unknown data systems as a tool to change public thinking and behavior, both at the polls and on the street…..
* Aside from working for Brexit and the Trump campaign, the firm using these methods is reportedly being employed by the right-wing campaign of Marine Le Pen and others in Europe, with the goal of raising more voices for more member state break-offs, destroying the European Union.↩