To rule by distraction is a time-tested tool of autocratic and authoritarian regimes. It is a go-to move for non-democratic regimes when faced with a challenge, domestic or international. As the name suggests, this approach is simple but effective. The idea is to create enough chaos and distraction that all eyes remain on that. The key is to make “normal” a moving target (i.e. change what it means to be normal on a regular basis). Doing so allows for drastic steps to take place behind the smoke screen and distractions.
A simpler way to understand this is to consider how bot net attacks work. Essentially when hackers bring down a website or a cyber system, what they do is simply overload the system with bot net queries. If a system is built to handle a million queries a minute, the system crashes when it is hit with 2 million queries. And while everyone focuses on the system crashing, no one notices the data stolen or traffic diverted.
Now let’s employ this to what happens every day in Washington these last few days. The morning starts with denials of Russian involvement, Rep. Nunez’s collusion with the White House, intelligence community up in arms and the latest Executive Order on immigration and visas being put on hold by courts in Hawaii. The average viewer/consumer of current affairs knowledge is already overloaded to take in all of this. Their focus moves beyond the fact that the proposed American Health Care Act (aka Trumpcare) failed miserably in Congress even though the GOP controls both houses. The average viewer has also forgotten that the President tweeted a baseless claim about wiretapping a couple of weeks ago. He was widely-assailed for that at the time, but the story did not stick. By overloading the attention span of the average person, the administration can push past any governance disasters. Because the news cycle is so small and there is so much “news” nothing sticks long enough to make an impact.
Why This is Dangerous for Democracy
A democracy relies on checks and balances in the system. Transparency through checks and balances allows people to continue trusting the governance institutions. Unless the people trust the governance institutions, they will not trust the democracy.
In a “rule by distraction” situation, the survival of the administration depends on people not being able to process the complete information. By creating multiple simultaneous distractions, the administration overloads the attention of its citizens. In essence, then, they are not lying to the people, they are just creating enough alternative explanations that “truth” becomes debatable. Add political polarization to this and consistent bashing of the “other” side and you have a loyalist following locked up that will disregard anything that questions the government.
To have some context on this – consider the example of Turkey in the recent weeks and months. Turkey will have a referendum in mid-April to determine whether it will effectively crown President Erdogan, the king by giving him sweeping powers but not the title. In run up to the referendum, the Turkish government has successfully changed the major news story every day. They picked a fight with Netherlands and Germany that escalated in to a fight with the EU all within a space of three days while they were losing soldiers in the Syrian incursion. Government ministers were slamming the US and its refusal to turn over Gulen while the U.S. Secretary of State was visiting Turkey this week.
Through perpetually distracting the viewers, AKP has successfully taken the focus away from the question of whether it was Gulenists who were behind the coup attempt or if it was some other group. The distraction has also helped take away focus from the fact that thousands of academics and journalists are languishing in jails under exaggerated charges while more than one hundred thousand people have lost their jobs. Because the distraction of a showdown with the European Union is more newsworthy, these smaller news stories have gone under the radar. Plus, through polarization, there are two groups of people in Turkey now, those who will vote yes and those who will vote no on the referendum. The only loser in this process is democratic norms of checks and balances through transparency.
Act Not Distract
The reason rule by distraction has worked so well in the U.S. so far is because the media is struggling to disaggregate news and distraction when the same authority is creating both. In this scenario, it is our responsibility as scientists, academics, and intellectuals to keep the focus on facts. We cannot fact check everything; what we can do is fact check our domain. What we can do is explain to our students, friends, and family how this cycle works. The news cycle needs to be slowed down, and we need to be a party to that.
We often discuss standing up for science; we hardly go in to details of how to do that. One way to do that is slowing down the news cycle by unpacking stories and issues. More crucially, we need to teach the society how to do that. Unless we focus on specifically doing this, we can expect the malicious cuts to arts and sciences that we have witnessed in the last few months. If the public does not know the value of our work i.e. proving and disproving ideas as facts through evidence, they will see no need to support it. Rule by distraction puts democracy at risk, as political scientists we have a duty to push back and reclaim space for facts.
About the Author: Adnan Rasool is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science, Georgia State University. He is also a Student Innovation Fellow at Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning (CETL) at GSU and Taiwan Fellow 2017 at National Sun Yat Sen University, Kaohsiung (Taiwan). His research focuses on role of bureaucracies in democratization and populist clientalistic appeal in new democracies. You can also find Rasool on Twitter and his website.