The United States is one of the most highly propagandized societies in the world. Through a combination of cultural insularity, strategic internal messaging, almost constant warfare and overwhelming monetary support for particular political ideologies, the United States presents a case study in autocratic control of dominant institutions that service centers of ideology and power. While the press has historically formed a strong force for accountability in internal politics it remains to this day, with some notable exceptions, largely uncritical of external policy, relying on the same government and institutional sources that form the larger narrative context. The idea that the United States is a force for good, that strategic challenges to its hegemony are necessarily in the wrong and that its values are almost always universal and unassailable remain the core of both the popular and news media environment. It is a fact that most Americans do not see themselves in this context, a necessary function of the narrative itself, and many do not notice the elements of propaganda that surround them.
In this environment, the rise of Donald Trump is not so much an anomaly as an ill-fated inevitability. In 2016, Trump’s style of showmanship and political grandstanding took America’s media and political culture by storm. By using simple, controversial political statements, Trump electrified segments of the American voting public previously untapped in an organized manner and commands their complete loyalty, despite scandals that would have deprived other politicians of any political or popular support.
However, while it initially seemed like an anomaly in American politics Trump’s success is deeply rooted in two significant factors. First, a longstanding narrative of exceptionalism that creates fear of strategic challenges to U.S. hegemony as irrational enemies, a fear that Trump exploited with his statements. Second is the development of a consumer culture that has made marketing and the creation of wants a comprehensive science.
This paper attempts to argue that the increasing focus of political campaigns on collecting digital data on users and Trump’s use of new media to communicate his message worked within this culture to create the conditions for his victory.
Consumer culture in the United States is a documented sociological and economic phenomenon with roots in the development of public relations and advertising alongside mass manufacturing in the early part of the twentieth century. According to the Journal of Consumer Research, consumer culture “denotes a social arrangement in which the relations between lived culture and social resources, and between meaningful ways of life and the symbolic and material resources on which they depend, are mediated through markets.”
In competitive economies, advancing a financial goal means segmenting markets and producing innovative goods. Advertisers and public relations specialists recognized years ago “consumption of market-made commodities and desire-inducing marketing symbols is central to consumer culture.”
After the Second World War, the United States became a country of demand driven economies of scale. Advertising became a process of not only informing the public of new products and services, but of creating the symbols of status and wants in which those goods and services became desirable.
The consumer model grew to encompass the popular press and mass media outlets early in this process. Financial considerations have always driven commercial news providers. The dangers of powerful media owners driving news content were evident as early as the late 1800’s, evidenced by the rise and fall of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, but common adherence to the principles of press freedom and a market large enough to accommodate local and national papers allowed news writers to retain a large degree of editorial independence even while they competed for audiences.
Even seen through the lens of the Chomsky-Herman ‘propaganda model’, advanced by the social scientists Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, the prevalence of local news media, primarily newspapers, was a potent factor in creating public awareness and engagement with politics, preventing powerful conglomerates from completely controlling the news agenda.
The mass media changed forever after introduction of the 24-hour television news cycle and the decline since then of local media. Newspapers fell to second as agenda setters and providers in terms of reach. This decline steepened with the widespread popularity of the internet.
According to the Brookings Institution, in 1945 there were 1,749 American newspapers but by the end of 2014, the number had shrunk to 1,331 papers serving a larger audience. In per capita terms, today 400 newspapers serve every 100 million people compared to almost 1,800 per 100 million in 1945. Readership has declined by over 50 percent in this period. Fewer than 15 percent of Americans now read a daily newspaper.
Today, newspapers and even broadcast media face the monumental challenge of internet news media – referred to as ‘new media’ – and social media, which have emerged as popular ways to share information and also as powerful tools for misinformation and propaganda.
Developing the political consumer
The rise of the internet and social media have done more than change the fate of newspapers. Increasing numbers of people rely on the internet and social media to receive their news. According to Pew Research, in 2017, 67 percent of Americans received at least part of their news from social media.
Browsing habits inform increasingly complicated algorithms to detect interests and drive content onto social media feeds. Information collected by service providers is sold to advertising networks, insurance companies and most lately political campaigns.
The Obama campaign in 2008 was the first to effectively use detailed data on voter activities, personal habits, interests and political views, analyzing and segmenting voting groups and targeting them using social media.
According to MIT, the campaign’s team of coders and engineers mined data from supporters’ social media networks to find neighbors, friends and community members they could persuade to vote; built mobile applications that allowed political workers to download canvassing documents without entering a campaign office; and developed a website that ranked volunteers by the strength of their support as seen through social media activity and funnelled canvassing activities to those individuals.
A new method of thinking recognized and leveraged technological change. The campaign began to analyse voter data not by looking at segments of populations or communities, essentially quarantining and examining voter groups, but by aggregating individual data collected through social media and internet search histories into networks of individuals across geographic locations who could be targeted by specific political workers and volunteers. This approach both recognised the complexity of voting patterns and drew upon a history of developments in targeted marketing.
Voter data is now a valuable political commodity. In 2016, NPR reported that Hillary Clinton’s campaign accused members of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign staff of illicitly obtaining voter data collected by the Democratic Party. Sanders responded by arguing that Democratic party data was handing data to Clinton before her official nomination, putting his campaign at a disadvantage.
Later, when Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination, he would fire most of his data staff and relied almost solely on the data resources of the Republican Party, compiled over several years by the data analysis firm, Deep Root Analytics. According to Brad Parscale, digital director for the Trump campaign, in an interview with AdAge: “The RNC had built a data and voter contact program that was really plug-and-play ready for the next candidate.”
Targeted marketing as a science
In 1996, computer scientist B.J. Fogg developed a thesis of behaviour design based on how computers could motivate individual behaviours and predict them. In the internet age, this theory of behavioural science became fundamental to marketing strategies and analysis, particularly for smaller businesses looking to develop markets. Fogg’s model identified three core methods to elicit desired behaviours in consumers: motivation, or the desire to act; the ability to act; and lastly, a trigger to act immediately.
At the heart of this model was the idea that in order to get consumers – who because of freely available information from the internet were now averse to traditional hard sells – to act, the messages had to be simple, precise, play on existing goals and motivations and be relatively easy to act on.
Fogg’s model drew on existing theories of behavioral science and marketing that were used for decades on larger groups but could now, because of the internet and social media, micro-target individuals. The internet, said Fogg, was precisely the right tool to deliver these simple messages. The focus of Fogg’s model was motivation, an area segmented into three core elements: sensation, anticipation and social cohesion. Rather than creating motivations among a mass audience like previous marketing strategies, the model focused on triggering actions based on existing motivations in a small group and allowing the idea to go viral.
The most difficult and crucial element was identifying the highest potential market and finding a message that worked on both the individual and group levels that would stimulate the desired action.
Is Donald Trump a cyborg?
When Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination in June 2016, his campaign lacked Clinton’s in-depth voter profiles. The Trump primary run had relied on Trump’s personality driven style of politics to draw attention and gain free media attention. On average, between January and July of 2016, Trump posted between 10 and 12 Twitter statements a day, many referring to upcoming events, poll numbers and direct rebuttals to negative press. The media became obsessed. By March 15 of 2016, the New York Times reported that the Trump campaign had earned almost $2 billion in free media on television and radio. Through February of 2016 the Trump campaign had only spent $10 million in direct advertising, compared to $82 million spent by Jeb Bush, the leading Republican spender. By this time, Trump was polling twice as high as his closest rivals, with 39 percent support among Republican primary voters.
In January of 2016, the Trump campaign’s data operations manager, Matt Braynard, wrote to campaign chairman Corey Lewandowski that, “Our candidate commands unheard amounts of earned media coverage; the message is getting out. A recent focus group…found that attacks on our candidate pushed unsure voters to us and hardened the commitment of our existing supporters, and our candidate can launch powerful attacks at any time on social media.”
Braynard and his staff had noticed an important fact. According to Lawrence Rosenthal of the Berkley Centre for Right Wing Studies, after 2008 extreme right-wing groups that had hitherto in the U.S. existed on the political fringes, found a tool to organize and find each other i.e. social media. “These kinds of corners of ethnic nationalism of Nazism and KKK like thinking – which were isolated in various places – now could emerge in a kind of networked way,” said Rosenthal.
While the Obama campaign had painstakingly built a network of supporters and connections, the Trump campaign could leverage existing affinity groups with the correct messaging, by identifying areas of dissatisfaction and prejudice and providing external loci for grievances.
It was these groups, often ridiculed and politically marginalised, that would form the core of Trump’s support and in Twitter the campaign had the ideal method to reach them, eschewing established voters who were the targets of other Republican candidates. The core would spread the message and Twitter provided the ideal bite-sized method to articulate views of American greatness, military prowess, and exceptionalism that his audience longed for. These included blistering attacks on Muslims and Mexican immigrants; not only perennial targets of right-wing rage, but represented for decades in popular media as the ‘other’.
Trump’s message was clear and simple: America was the greatest country on earth, it had mostly been built by white, Christian communities and it was now under attack from all sides because of the cowardice and stupidity of its leaders. He was emotional and sensational: resentment, said Trump, was a rational response to the depravity of a world where America was being challenged. He questioned norms of social acceptance and rejection, framing his arguments in terms of patriotic adherence to free expression. And most importantly, he was easy to see; 140 characters on a smartphone.
At the time Trump was tweeting, more Americans than ever were getting their news from social media. According to Pew Research, in August 2016, 78% of Americans between 18 and 49 regularly received their news from social media, primarily Facebook. Within the algorithmic roundabout of social media, the reinforcement of views Trump espoused became a staple.
According to the Columbia Journalism Review, while “mainstream media coverage was often critical, it nonetheless revolved around the agenda that the right-wing media sphere set: immigration. Right-wing media, in turn, framed immigration in terms of terror, crime, and Islam, as a review of Breitbart and other right-wing media stories about immigration most widely shared on social media exhibits.” The development of an insular right-wing media ecosystem was critical to Trump’s success, as established outlets like Fox News substantiated the news from former outliers like Breitbart.
Yet, the Review also notes that the “primary explanation of such asymmetric polarisation (in news consumption) is more likely politics and culture than technology.” In other words, the people who believed Trump were already primed for his messaging. Exceptionalism and a Manichean view of the world, staples of the media environment, had met the culture of immediate and easy consumption.
The @realDonaldTrump Twitter account grew from 5.5 million followers in January 2016 at an average of 13,000 followers a day, to 12.8 million at an average of 20,000 a day by the beginning of November. The day after the first presidential debate on September 26, over 79,200 Twitter users followed the account. Twitter analytics recorded a 70 percent attentiveness score – calculated by retweets – for the account. Trump’s statements and their distribution had found an audience.
Trump’s emotional appeal was predicated on providing something these groups had not found in American life for decades; a public outlet for their resentment. Trump himself was the product they were investing in, representing the desirable qualities of freedom from social ostracism and respect.
Similar critiques allowed Trump to verbally denounce countries like China and Iran. It is notable that these two countries, which have both figured largely in the minds of U.S. military and strategic planners for so many years, were both used as examples of challenges to U.S. power that Trump’s rivals and predecessors had failed to deal with. The groundwork laid by years of denunciations and warnings in the mainstream press and popular media now worked to Trump’s advantage as he positioned himself as both a triumphal champion of American values and a stringent critic of established political opposition. Ironically, the same news media that Trump criticised as ‘fake news’ had created the conditions under which a willing audience was ready to receive the wisdom of his position that powerful and evil enemies existed. His only innovation was to argue that they were winning.
Trump’s ability to frame debates is predicated largely on his understanding of the consumer model. Whether this is rational and intelligent or a purely instinctive process is debatable. What is clear is that the groundwork for his victory lay in existing mechanisms that control public discourse, mechanisms that he was able to hijack for his own purposes precisely because their structure is predicated on commercial considerations.
In relation to other Republican candidates, Trump, funded personally and never having held political office, was an insurgent. His position was of a small fish attempting to break into the larger political pond, where Fogg’s model of targeted marketing to develop markets provides an insight into the campaign’s method. Twitter provided the tool for Trump to target and reach elements of American society that were not only numerous, but also the products of decades of received internal messaging that was never addressed in a critical light. In Trump’s nativist statements, they found a candidate willing to provide them with political justification and legitimacy.
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Websites and links:
 One of the first writers to make this argument was Professor Harwood Childs in his book An Introduction to Public Opinion, where he noted that the, “United States has the greatest propaganda density of any country in the world. By propaganda density I mean the ratio of the volume of propaganda to size of population; the quantity of ideas projected by means of various kinds of symbols divided by the census figures for population.” (Childs 1940:119)
 While this is not a new idea, one of its latest proponents was the sociologist Alex Carey who observed that, “Contrary to common assumptions, propaganda plays an important role – and certainly a more covert and sophisticated role – in technologically advanced democratic societies, where the maintenance of the existing power and privileges are vulnerable to popular opinion. In contrast, under authoritarian regimes power and privilege are not open and vulnerable to dissenting public opinion. This was the point made by Robert Brady after an extensive study of business and corporate public relations – a term he uses to cover domestic propaganda.” (Carey 1997:12)
 This has long been a contention of political scientists such as Thomas Bailey who argued in The Man in the Street: The Impact of American Public Opinion on Foreign Policy that, “If the ordinary American citizen can only work himself up to a point where he is as deeply interested in the outer world – in the fate of his country, his civilization, and his planet – as he is in the doings of his next-door neighbour and his favourite comic-strip character, then we shall make greater progress toward a successful democratic foreign policy.” (Bailey 1948:129)
 This was suggested by Carey: “The most cursory acquaintance with American political propaganda will suggest that the psychological power of almost all such propaganda derives from a calculated exacerbation of American national sentiments. Notions like the American Way of Life, the Meaning of America, the Spirit of America, become symbols with the irrational power of the Sacred.” (Carey, 1997: 16)
 Professor Harold Lasswell defined propaganda in The Theory of Political Propaganda as: “Propaganda is the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols.”
 The power of affirmation was noted by Lasswell in The Theory of Political Propaganda: “Collective attitudes are amenable to many modes of alteration. They may be shattered before an onslaught of violent intimidation or disintegrated by economic coercion. They may be reaffirmed in the muscular regimentation of drill.”
 Childs was both critical and accepting of this arrangement: “To lament the increasing centralisation of control within industry, to decry the advent of bigness and monopoly, is to plead for cruder commodities and less refined services.” But his comment highlights the increasing monopoly powers within certain industries. (Childs 1940: 11)
 This was pointed out by Larry Weber, chairman of marketing firm Racepoint Global, in an examination of behavioural marketing: “Marketers have traditionally spent the lion’s share of our efforts trying to influence our prospects’ and customers’ motivation.”
 Laswell in his book Propaganda Technique of World War 1 specifically noted: “All the apparatus of diffused erudition popularises the symbols and forms of pseudo-rational appeal; the wolf of propaganda does not hesitate to masquerade in the sheepskin. All the voluble men of the day – writer, reporters, editors, preachers, lecturers, teachers, politicians – are drawn into the service of propaganda to amplify a master voice.” (Laswell 1971:221)
 The second filter of the Chomsky-Herman model argues that “successful media today are fully attuned to the crucial importance of audience ‘quality’.” That is media outlets work to create and capture affluent audiences for advertisers, to ensure continued financial viability and are themselves profit making enterprises
 Pew research also indicated that for the first time, over 50 percent of people over the age 50 were receiving their news through social media. http://www.journalism.org/2017/09/07/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2017/
 Some explanation is required here for the losses sustained by the Democratic Party in the 2010 midterm elections. In 2009, the Democratic National Committee hired Dan Weber, a financial and statistical analyst, as its new targeting manager. Weber was a key part of Obama’s 2008 campaign and a strong proponent of the data driven methods that allowed Obama to mobilise support. Weber predicted with accuracy the results of the 2010 midterm elections where Democrats lost a number of seats, arguing that data driven methods were showing significant losses based on low voter turnout and negative economic indicators. According to Ethan Roeder, who directed data operations for Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, the DNC failure stemmed from a lack of will in maintaining the digital infrastructure necessary to seeing how voter attitudes were continually changing. Roeder argued that the impetus for a continual tech presence needed to be felt from the top and that between 2009 and 2011, “next to nothing” was spent on maintaining a technology presence. Much of the talented staff from Obama’s 2008 campaign was only interested in working from one presidential election cycle to another, often moving to lucrative private ventures in between. Wagner himself left in 2011 to found the data research firm, Civis Analysis, whose clients include government departments and political campaigns. Another source for this is journalist Kevin Drum who mathematically charted Democratic losses in late October 2010, just before the elections, for the website Mother Jones: http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2010/10/chart-day-democratic-losses-2010/#
 This was noted by marketing expert Kenneth Freeman: “When a company is relatively small or starting out with limited resources and yet wants to make a major impact against much bigger players with greater resources the best approach may well be one of intensive focus against highest potential market segments.”
 Larry Weber again provides us with an assessment: “In many cases, attempting to augment our prospects’ and customers’ motivation may not be necessary. If they are already using search engines and social networks to seek out solutions when they discover us, the requisite motivation may already be present. In those cases, focusing on increasing their ability to act, or creating a well-timed trigger to encourage them to act now, may be a more effective use of our time and resources.”
 Fogg later went on to found the Persuasive Technologies Lab at Stanford University, to examine how machines can be used to elicit positive behavioural changes in individuals.
 Braynard continued by noting that the campaign should focus on messages to groups of Republican voters who traditionally didn’t vote in campaigns but had a high propensity of support for Trump. Implicit in this was recognition that in “the media and in certain social circles, our…supporters have been called ‘stupid’ ‘racists’, and ‘bigots’. The elites’ look down on them, and there is evidence they deny their support for our candidate because they fear being ostracised.”
 Carey provides some explanation of the historic mainstreaming of right-wing views and the use of external enemies to control social discourse: “The manipulation of patriotic and nationalist sentiments has, above all else, given American anti-communism its remarkable psychological force as a means of social control. Peacetime ‘patriotic’ hysteria such as characterized the McCarthy period is a phenomenon largely peculiar to the United States among Western countries which have any extended experience with democratic forms of government. Fear of communism as Satanic is largely derived from hypersensitive nationalism. In popular consciousness it comes largely from the representation of communism as threatening the cherished, the secular-sacred idealized ‘American Way’: threatening, in a word, ‘national security’.” (Carey 1997: 16)
 An example of the kind of truism Trump fed audiences was that manufacturing jobs had been lost to China and outsourcing in general. What most of his audience do not know is that while manufacturing jobs in the U.S. have fallen, output has grown, a result of increasing mechanisation and efficiency. According to Pew Research, 81 percent of Americans know that the total number of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. has decreased over the past three decades, but just 35 percent know that the nation’s manufacturing output has risen over the same period.
Pressuncuffed.org seeks to encourage and promote rigorous student reporting, scholarly research and debate on the role of, and obstacles to, independent journalism in the United States and abroad. Our website features reporting by University of Maryland students about press freedom in the United States and abroad. It also offers resources to instructors elsewhere who may want to teach classes or hold workshops on this theme. In the near future, this site will become a place for student work from around the country and abroad.
Dana Priest, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner at The Washington Post and Knight Chair in Public Affairs Journalism at the University of Maryland.