“A New Postmodern Condition”: Why Disinformation Has Become So Effective
Why are conspiracies so prevalent? Why are facts and truth so elusive to so many today? Why are people so susceptible to disinformation? Why is the current political climate so peculiar, turbulent, and divided? It is clear that there is a relationship between the disinformation that people ingest and the vitriol that some seem to spit out. These puzzling circumstances may be the result of a growing trend of postmodern thought in the United States and the world.[i] Unsurprisingly, recent reports indicate that Russia is currently interfering in the 2020 election. Though difficult to estimate, and since the country has done virtually nothing to combat it, the Russians consider their past interferences highly successful, if at nothing more than just sowing the seeds of discontent and chaos in US domestic politics. That said, the questions still remains: why is disinformation so effective on the US population? The rise in effectiveness of Russian disinformation is directly related to the increase in postmodern thinkers amongst the US population, because postmodern thinkers are easy to manipulate. To be clear, Postmodernism is not some form of trendy, divergent thinking, but rather a serious intellectual, conceptual, cultural, psychological and philosophical engagement which challenges humanity’s engagement with itself and the world.[ii] Just as the enlightenment brought us modern thought, reason and science, postmodern thought attempts to obliterate it. It is in the national interest, for strategists to pay close attention because they will be responsible for developing strategies to survive in a postmodern strategic context. What follows is an attempted explanation of what may be the cause of many issues and phenomena in our political climate today.
The term ‘postmodernism’ often provokes strong resistance, including deep suspicion and outright hostility, especially by those who champion modern thought and reason as the primary way to obtain truth and knowledge.[iii] Modern thought brought civilization the scientific and industrial revolutions, healthcare and medicine, computers and satellite technology – the world would not be the same were it not for the result of modern thought. However, Postmodernism directly challenges this, seeking not to judge modernity by its own criteria but rather to deconstruct it entirely.[iv] In the past, postmodern thought was thought to emerge exclusively from academic institutions, because those institutions offered alternative and “informed” views of the world. However, technology’s advancements have created endless space for postmodern thought to luxuriate.[v] As well, while the political left’s postmodern inclination often originates from the academic institutions, the political right’s postmodern inclination originates from the internet, where a multitude of divergent perspectives thrive freely. Frustratingly, there are probably as many forms of postmodernism as there are postmodernists.[vi]
Not everyone who exercises postmodern thought is a postmodernist, and many that do so, do it unconsciously. Like an unsuspecting beach-goer, this rip-tide of thought can sweep you away before you even realize you’ve gone anywhere. Making sense of it all can be difficult, because postmodernism is resistant to attempts at a grand unifying theory that explains itself, with postmodernists decrying causation as a “myth” and logic as useless. Postmodernism can be stimulating and fascinating, and simultaneously, it is always on the brink of collapsing into confusion and senselessness.[vii] Postmodernists are cognizant of the trenchant contradictions, and revel in the frustration it causes.[viii] Postmodernism operates by its own logic for its own purposes, and rarely, if ever, will it make sense to people who reject it as nonsense. Thriving in an atmosphere of irony and satire, it doesn’t even take itself seriously at times – the as of late comment “irony is dead,” is more appropriate than many realize. Postmodern thought affects different groups differently, which contributes to its elusive nature. Purposely generating confusion and ambiguity, Postmodernism rejects epistemological assumptions, refutes methodological conventions, resists knowledge claims, and dismisses policy recommendations based on modern conceptions of evidence.[ix] Below are some examples of the general phenomena.
Have you noticed the prominence of storytelling and narrative as a representation of reality? Metanarratives are modern and assume the validity of their own truth claims, while mini-narratives, micro-narratives, and local narratives are just stories that make no truth claims.[x] Challenging metanarratives, postmodernists have a tendency to emphasize smaller narratives – stories of the forgotten, subordinated and marginalized, in an effort to displace power in society.[xi] This approach is practiced through pluralism, in which even the arguments of science and history become another set of narratives in competition for acceptance, having themselves no privileged correspondence to reality.[xii] In this context, science and history are just another form of fiction.[xiii] The recent onslaught of disinformation is effective because postmodern thinkers are easy to manipulate, will deny they have been manipulated, and will then resentfully take pride in living the manipulation.
Have you noticed the increase in and volatility of political movements? The growth of marginalized voices on the peripheries of society, such as white nationalism, Black Lives Matter, Women’s March, march for science, #metoo, environmentalists, anti-vaxers, flat-earthers, QAnon, ‘woke culture,’ etc., represents an attempt by the repressed, disillusioned and border-lined communities to level the playing field – to find the individuals and energies on the margins of society: the alienated, the subaltern, the outcast, the divergent and then, through political activism, shock and destabilize the established power structures that are perceived responsible for their alienation. Subsequently, this instability is intended to leave the door open for a renewal of humanity through socialism.[xiv] Socialism and postmodernism are related: people who are inclined to believe in the former, are likely to indulge in the latter. Practically, though, the failure of socialism necessitated postmodernism and it is through an ostensibly innocuous egalitarianism that “postmodernism seeks not to find the foundation and the conditions of truth, but to exercise power for the purpose of social change.”[xv] This is how some imagined, virtual communities converge around shared grievances to transform into actual protests on the street.
Have you noticed the fundamental transformation of some political parties? In the long term, postmodern thought affects political behavior by encouraging the decline, radical transformation, and reorientation of political parties, encouraging as well the growth of new social and political movements, and ambivalence toward previously existing ones.[xvi] Put simply, postmodern thought demands cultural and societal transformation for the sake of transformation. It is a radically different cultural movement coalesced around a broadly gauged reconceptualization of how people experience and explain the world around them.[xvii] Since, postmodernists are relentlessly constructing and reconstructing their identities and realities, the postmodern self remains an unfinished project, with identity becoming a role and a performance in the making, temporarily selecting the one which becomes best for public consumption and recognition.[xviii] There is a reason why the adage that, “this isn’t your father’s republican/democratic party,” rings true for so many.
Have you noticed many people, when faced with irrefutable scientific evidence, state that “the science is still out on that”? Postmodernism “unmasks” structures, stating that all eras have embedded within them power relations which structure people’s outlook on reality and relations between themselves.[xix] Its goal is not to formulate an alternative set of assumptions but to declare the impossibility of establishing any such underpinning for knowledge.[xx] Postmodernism decries the privileged position that science has in determining what is good for community and humanity. Postmodern arguments use the wars of the 20th century, culminating with the atomic bomb, as evidence that science has not ushered in progress like it purports to do, but conversely inflicts massive harm on society. Postmodern arguments also interpret the gross disparity of wealth and the abundance of famine and suffering in the world as the fault of modern thought, posing the question thusly: if modern thought and science indeed solve these problems, then why do they still exist? Postmodernism’s own response to this question is that, in fact, science has its own narrative to legitimate its own enterprise, claiming that “science cannot know and make known that it is the true knowledge without resorting to the other, narrative, kind of knowledge, which from its point of view is no knowledge at all.”[xxi] The answer to its own questions are satirical. Irony is the standard, not the exception.
Have you noticed the increase in people declaring their sexuality? Modern thought suggests there is no choice: you are what you are born. Postmodernists see this idea as an imposition of power: from the language to describe sexuality, including pronouns, to the various clothes that are placed in the men and women’s section of a department store – everything is made to make people behave a certain way, in line with their sexuality. Postmodernists do not see it this way and refuse to have a static or permanent identity. They consider identity and being as an endless enterprise in self-rediscovery, constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing their identity by either necessity or choice. The modern maxim, “I think, therefore I am,” bears no relevance in a postmodern world. Simple and basic logic is meaningless, and therefore mathematics and the rules within it might well be nonsense too. By extension, postmodernism directly refutes the mathematic approach to personal identity and existence, challenging the first and second principles of logic: the law of identity and non-contradiction, which state that every object bears to itself and to nothing else.[xxii] In the postmodern world, two plus two can equal whatever you want and you can chose who and what sexuality you are.
Have you noticed the increase in frequency and severity of hypocrisy? In the modern era, hypocrisy is an insult because, the ‘say-do gap’ and being a ‘person of one’s word’ matters. People being true to their word means they are reliable, if not otherwise, honorable. Postmodernists do not abide by a foundational or ideological symmetry: their previous beliefs, thoughts and behaviors do not define their identity and they do not have to remain consistent with what they have done or said in the past. As a result, they do not see hypocrisy as a character indictment, but rather quite the opposite for change is not only good, but great. Combine this attitude with the fact that YouTube and social media ensure that people’s words and actions of the past remain fresh and present, and it makes making sense, in modern sense, senseless. A Youtube video of someone stating their position two years earlier might as well have been recorded two days earlier – to a postmodern thinker there is little if any distinction, because to them, time is not linear, either. Playing an old clip of their own words will not bother them, because they know they have “changed” since then.
Have you noticed how people use semantics to avoid responsibility and accountability? Postmodernism places a special emphasis on language, claiming that its ability to communicate the nature of reality is an illusion. Subsequently, the relationship between language and reality is unreliable because language is a subjectively constructed phenomenon that does not transcend time; a person can communicate utterances that are only true within the context in which they are spoken.[xxiii] Remove the subject from the context and the words that were spoken become meaningless. This is how and why many have come to deny the very words they just said. From a postmodern perspective, meaning changes over time, and therefore attribution of meaning is deferred forever. Counterintuitively, in a postmodern context, words are never intended to be literal. Language and rhetoric are used elliptically, metaphorically and deliberately falsely, textured with layers of circumstantial meaning, designed to help the speaker evade answering a question or taking a permanent position.[xxiv] Discourse, that is debate, becomes a duel where words are the primary weapons, and each person is trying solely to win. The theory of victory for a postmodernist is to either change the nature of the established power structure altogether, or to increase and maintain discord. In postmodern discourse, there is often a contrarian approach: people will not have a position other than that they disagree with their opponent’s position. There’s no debate, there’s no answering questions, and there’s no contributing to a greater truth or understanding – there’s just arguments. Does, “That’s what I said, but not what I said,” sound familiar?
Have you noticed the prevalence of Wikipedia; the subsequent misuse of Wikipedia, and the lack of historical awareness in society? In the postmodern view, all of history is an attempted narrative, specifically aimed at reinforcing the legitimation of the current paradigm. For a postmodern thinker, there is no final account of historical truth. History becomes intertextual or an endless conversation between competing texts. Consequently, all histories are stories and all stories are narratives and narratives can be undone, often paradoxically, so that truth is more like a fiction, with all reading becoming a misreading, all understanding becoming a misunderstanding.[xxv] Postmodern thought does not necessarily see a distinction between truth and fiction, and if all of history is an artificially manipulated narrative, then novels, literature and television are as much a reality as the reality in which modern man clams to live. Living in a postmodern society is like inhabiting a film-like world, where truth and fiction merge.[xxvi] If you have not noticed by now, we live in a hyperreal panopticon: people are modeling their behavior on reality television, which models its behavior on them. Unlike Fukuyama’s and others’ explanation, this is the actual end of history. Strategists will have to pay as much attention to the history of war as they do to “wars of history”. Who started the Second World War again?
Have you noticed governmental institutions not functioning as they have in the past? Postmodern thinkers jeopardize the integrity of the US constitutional system because they are naturally anti-institutionalists. Institutions persist only when they are legitimated by the people who inhabit them. When the people who occupy structures intended for the exercise of modern thought do not, in fact, exercise modern thought, then the structures will cease to behave as designed. At its inception, the US government was structurally designed to be occupied by modern, enlightened thinkers. The diffuse checks and balances between three co-equal branches of government, the criminal justice system, and the rule of law were designed by modern thinkers and were intended to remain guided by modern thinkers. Though they clearly had their flaws, the founding fathers considered reason and enlightened thought as the apogee of human achievement, and that any future progress would be guided by human reason. Obscuring the founding fathers’ foresight, postmodernism will catastrophically disrupt and jeopardize the functionality of governmental institutions. There’s no reasoned deliberation, there’s no self-restraint guided by unwritten social norms for why should they bother to follow anything other than what suits their interests or is entertaining, which coincidentally, is an interest of theirs.
Have you noticed that the truth doesn’t carry the same weight as it used to? “Truth isn’t truth or there is no truth,” has been expressed more often as of late – why is this? To a postmodernist, truth changes constantly and is irrelevant – not just in reference to one thing, but to all things. In fact, in their view, truth changes so much that it holds no special value. Modernists see the truth as useful. Whereas, postmodernists see what’s useful as true, and just as they change their identity to serve their interests, they are equally happy to contort the truth to achieve their purpose, and when falsehoods can masquerade as truth, it seems that evil can appear as virtue. This unprincipled pragmatism is anathema to so much in our society, among them is the rule of law, but most of all are those precious ideas that our founders found to be so self-evident. Consequently, when people’s beliefs cease being disciplined by the truth, then their beliefs can be swayed by mere prejudice, persuasion, or power.[xxvii] A condition such as this exposes the masses to both domestic and foreign disinformation and manipulation, for any monopoly on truth is a monopoly on power. This should concern us all and this is worth fighting for. Make no mistake: our greatest adversaries are aware of all of this and will design strategies to exploit it.
Can all of this really be the cause of so much confusion and turmoil in the world? Can all of these thoughts, ideas, and phenomena – storytelling as reality, volatility and ambivalence toward established political parties and ideologies, science and reason becoming unimportant, identity being in permanent deferral, hypocrisy becoming the norm, language becoming meaningless, reality being a movie, history becoming useless, institutions unbecoming themselves, and truth becoming worthless – can all of these thoughts really matter? Yes, because the history of the world is indeed a history of thoughts, shaped by ideas before it is shaped by events.[xxviii] The thoughts that motivated our founders are the thoughts that manufactured this great country, and with this in mind, strategists must be vigilant of the thoughts that can similarly bring destruction to it. These thoughts and attitudes are increasingly becoming adopted by the growing population of postmodern thinkers in the US. Disinformation works likes supply and demand. The more postmodernists consume it, the more our adversaries will produce it. The disinformation may appear random, but shotguns have killed more people than sniper rifles, and strategists should become mindful of all of these dynamics of the information environment, because they will be responsible for developing strategies to defend against it. To quote a founding father, “these are the times that try men’s souls.” This is all so perplexing, and it makes so many just want to close their eyes and wait until it’s over. Strategists cannot and this ambivalence must be avoided at all costs. As a congressman recently remarked, “In the United States, the truth matters. If not, no Constitution can protect us. If not, we are lost.” My biggest fear is that while we may not yet be lost, we surely are in the processing of losing.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the 1st Infantry Division, the United States Army, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
[i] Pauline Marie Rosenau, Postmodernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992),
[ii] Michael Drolet, The Postmodern Reader, 2.
[iii] Ibid., 1.
[iv] Pauline Marie Rosenau, Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions, 5.
[v] Stephen R. C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, 171.
[vi] Ibid., 115.
[vii] Ibid., 14.
[viii] Stephen R. C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, 184.
[ix] Pauline Marie Rosenau, Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions, 1.
[x] Pauline Marie Rosenau, xii-xiii.
[xi] Christopher Butler, Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 13.
[xii] Christopher Butler, Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction, 15.
[xiv] Stephen R. C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, 166.
[xv] Frank Lentriccia, Criticism and Social Change (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 12.
[xvi] John R. Gibbons & Bo Reimer, The Impact of Values (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 309.
[xvii] Pauline Marie Rosenau, Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions, 4.
[xviii] Ibid., 309.
[xix] Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, 19.
[xx] Pauline Marie Rosenau, Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions, 6.
[xxi] Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1979), 29.
[xxii] Graham Priest, Logic: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 64.
[xxiii] Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism, 114.
[xxiv] Stephen R. C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, 175.
[xxv] Christopher Butler, Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction, 21.
[xxvi] Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism, 33.
[xxvii] Richard van de Lagemaat, Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma, 2nd Edition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 579.
[xxviii] Yuval Levin, Tyranny of Reason: The Origins and Consequences of the Social Scientific Outlook (Maryland: University Press of America, Inc., 2001), 215.