Echo chambers — a media phenomena in which information, ideas, or allegations are amplified and reinforced by repetition — have been with us as long as there’s been party politics.
Before radio, television and the Internet, when printed newspapers issued news, the editors and news syndicates had monopoly power to embrace allies and destroy opponents. As Aled Jones noted in Powers of the Press, newspapers then “had been securely implanted into the cultural landscape as an essential reference point in the daily lives of millions of people”.
That changed with social media and journalism’s democratization.
Enter Ben Rhodes
Fiction writer and President Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, Ben Rhodes planted the narrative that the Obama Administration had been working with Iranian moderates for two years to negotiate a comprehensive nuclear arms treaty with Iran. Not true, it was a fabrication.
For his Iran narrative, Ben Rhodes used a “well-cultivated network of officials, talking heads, columnists and newspaper reporters, web jockeys and outside advocates who can tweet at critics and tweak their stories backed up by quotations from senior White House officials and spokespeople.” (From New Times Magazine writer, David Samuels.) Further, in a questionable and highly criticized move, Rhodes used (duped) two respected inside the beltway journalists to fuel the false narrative.
Rhodes had revolutionized White House spin and the nature of echo chambers.
The Resistance Narrative: Collusion
The resistance borrowed tactics originated by Rhodes — specifically circular reporting.
It began with a ‘dossier” compiled by Christopher Steele, a prosperous retired British spy, who alleged collusion and other salacious accusations against then candidate Trump and his team. CNN reported on the unconfirmed report.
CNN followed up with a story that the F.B.I. had information that the Trump campaign “communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.” This began the circular reporting.
As other mainstream press reported on the CNN report and the dossier, media sources began repeating or reporting on each other’s reports and analysis.
In addition, the press was uncovering actual meetings between the trump team and Russian official and individuals. Finally, the F.B.I. acknowledged that it was investigating interference in the election.
The amplification of the original story had lifted the allegations to the level of news, though the original story remained unconfirmed.
The Trump Narrative: Operation Valiant
“Operation Valiant” was the name given to the counterattack strategy used by Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. When Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal and invaded the then Israeli-occupied Sinai Peninsula, the Israelis halted the Egyptian advance, then crossed the Suez Canal and occupied significant areas of eastern Egypt, threatening Cairo, the capital. This strategy forced the Egyptian president to press for a cease fire.
The Israeli strategy demonstrated that the best defense is often an aggressive offense. President Trump used this same strategy in response to the Resistance’s collusion story.
First, he insinuated in a series of March 3 tweets that he had been under surveillance by the Obama Administration.
The first amplification of Trump’s allegations came from Judge Napolitano, a regular Fox News guest who made an unsupported accusation: Citing three unnamed sources, he said that Britain’s top spy agency had wiretapped Trump on behalf of President Barack Obama during last year’s campaign.
The mainstream media was forced to report on Napolitano’s allegation, although initially dismissing it as a distracting tactic.
Then, CNN reported that British and other European intelligence agencies had indeed intercepted communications between associates of Donald Trump and Russian officials and individuals during the campaign, and had passed on those communications to their U.S. counterparts.
This was reinforced by the New York Times, which reported on March 1, that Obama’s aides sought to preserve intelligence on Russia’s influence and ties to Trump in the final days of his presidency. That included an effort to lower the security classification so it could be distributed more widely within the government and to allies in Congress.
Finally, Bloomberg News’ Eli Lake reported that White House lawyers learned that former national security adviser Susan Rice requested the identities, or unmasking, of U.S. persons referenced in the raw intelligence reports, individuals related to the Donald Trump transition and campaign teams.
Trump’s counterattack was now in full force. His allegations were also rising to the level of news, even though his original allegation remained unconfirmed.
So, we are left with competing narratives and dueling echo chambers.
Factual reporting on upcoming congressional hearings will replace “unconfirmed” allegations. Testimony will replace circumstantial evidence.
But, we may never know the real story — whether Donald Trump or his associates colluded with the Russians to win the 2016 election, or whether the Obama’s team illegally disseminated and disclosed FISA information in direct violation of the statute prohibiting such dissemination and disclosure.
Or, worse, both allegations may be true.
In that case, it would be an indictment of the entire U.S. political system, and an indictment no one can prosecute except the voters at the ballot box.