Depending on whom you believe, Joseph Goebbels never said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself.” But it doesn’t really matter, for it has been attributed to him often enough that people believe he did say it. And even if he didn’t, like all successful propagandists, he put the principle into practice.
But the 21st century is very different from the Nazi era. Not only have belief systems changed drastically, the mechanisms for creating and maintaining them would be unrecognizable to Goebbels. No longer is propaganda spread by dropping pamphlets out of airplanes, or by screeching hatred in beer halls – and less and less even by newspapers.
Now we have the Internet.
The World Wide Web has been with us for nearly three decades, and yet in remarkable ways it is still in its infancy. An entire generation has never known a time when it did not exist, while many of their predecessors remain, in equal measure, fascinated and frustrated by it. Also in equal measure, it has liberated us in ways unimagined even half a century ago, and simultaneously imprisoned us. It has made the previously impossible dream of total freedom of speech a reality, while also making it largely meaningless.
With a few exceptions like the dictatorships of China and North Korea, rulers have until very recently had the wisdom to see that far from being a threat to their power, an uncontrolled Internet was a more sophisticated development of the principle attributed to Goebbels. It quickly became obvious that an unrestricted flow of information would inevitably evolve into an opaque torrent of unvarnished truth, doctored and manipulated truth, and sheer fantasy in proportions impossible to measure – and, more important, difficult to differentiate.
With a few exceptions like the dictatorships of China and North Korea, rulers have until very recently had the wisdom to see that far from being a threat to their power, an uncontrolled Internet was a more sophisticated development of the principle attributed to Goebbels
For decades, this information overload successfully obscured a global campaign to exploit workers and enrich an increasingly exclusive elite. But it was a dangerous game; amid the din, a few obscure voices of protest kept crying out in the wilderness. And in recent years, it became possible to believe that the worst exploiters had done themselves in with their own greed.
More and more people were noticing that while their betters were getting fatter, their own wages had stagnated, the cost of educating their kids so they could free themselves from the neoliberal morass had become impossibly high, and, worse, their children kept getting sent off to foreign lands to fight and die to maintain the status quo.
Populist voices, a few honest and some not, began to be heard. Some blamed the woeful state of affairs on the defenseless, such as war refugees and the poor. But others targeted the real culprits, and they too gained a following large enough to make much of the elite suspect they had made a mistake allowing them unrestrained access to the power of the Internet.
The reaction of the reactionaries has been varied. One of their powerful tools, prevalent in the US and the UK, is Russiagate and its evil twin neo-McCarthyism. Another, more tried and true, is “Look! A squirrel!” distraction campaigns, employing the reliable groupthink of corporate media.
But like too much ice cream, relentless reportage even of legitimate malfeasance such as sexual exploitation is turning off the consuming public. We have seen too much hysteria, too much ballyhoo, too much exaggeration and click-bait hype, to take anything seriously any more – even when we should. We are numb to warnings even of potentially life-destroying crises such as climate change or nuclear proliferation.
And so Goebbels, or his alter-ego who really coined that famous quote, was right, but he was also wrong. Both lies and truths, if repeated often enough, become muck in the same swamp.