The Rise of Weaponized Flak in the New Media Era

Beyond the Propaganda Model

by Brian Michael Goss (Author)
©2019 Textbook X, 212 Pages


The Rise of Weaponized Flak in the New Media Era presents the first book-length examination of flak as a form of political harassment, authored by a seasoned researcher on political discourse and mass media. Flak against news media was a component of the Edward Herman-Noam Chomsky seminal "Propaganda Model." However, in the thirty years since the model was introduced, flak has become an increasingly significant and prevalent sociopolitical force in its own right, in large part for the proliferation of new media platforms. Flak is not simply good faith or tough criticism. Rather, flak discourses and actions go on attack for the purpose of delegitimizing, disabling, and even criminalizing political foes, however tendentiously. The book presents cross-disciplinary appeal for students and scholars of mass media, new media, political science, and sociology—as well as for anyone concerned with today’s sociopolitical environment.
Given the book’s seminal examination of the topic, the introductory chapters in Part I extensively map out flak’s current forms and delineate similarities and distinctions from scandal and activism. Newly-minted terminology is introduced to flesh-out contemporary flak (for example, flak-in-discourse, boutique flak, phantom flak).
The balance of the book is organized around case studies of flak mills (Part II) and flak issues (Part III). In particular, Part II drills down into the flak discourses and techniques of dedicated flak mills that characterize themselves as, respectively, journalistic and think tank organizations. Part III of the book features case studies of flak around elections and universities in the United States.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Tables
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part I Introducing Flak
  • 1 1988/2016: from pac and flak to hack and flak
  • 2 “bow the knee to this new dictatorship”: the many faces of flak
  • Part II flak mills
  • 3 “we are those experts”: heartland institute and the think tank as flak mill
  • 4 “transcendent truth” in disguise: project veritas’ flak traps
  • Part III flak issues and conclusions
  • 5 voters as “thieves and fraudsters”: flak against elections
  • 6 “indoctrination,” “persecution,” “control”: flak goes to college
  • 7 conclusion: play to win
  • Index


As concerns the genesis of this volume, I will acknowledge that one title that I floated for it was Political Ebola. Instead, The Rise of Weaponized Flak finally won out over the perhaps more colorful if morbid and commercially suspect title.

As for people who have helped summon the book into being, I will name names. I thank the members of the Professional Development Advisory Committee at Saint Louis University-Madrid and its chair, Dave Howden, for granting me a teaching release in Spring 2019. The release enabled locked-on focus and completion of the book in a timely fashion.

While the book was in progress, I had the chance to rehearse and refine evidence and arguments through a series of presentations at different moments in the two-and-a-half-year sojourn through flak. I thank my colleagues Simona Elena Rentea and Joan Pedro Carañana for scheduling me three times (2016–2018) to deliver presentations for the Humanities and Social Sciences Division Research Seminars as I prepared the book proposal and while writing was in progress. Mulțumiri to Emilia Parpala-Afana and her colleagues at University of Craiova, Romania for giving me hospitality and the opportunity to address the Comparativism, Identity and Communication Conference as a plenary speaker. In Spring 2019, Tony Ozuna enabled the chance to present ←ix | x→findings at Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic—with further support from Rob Warren and Andrew Giarelli who brought their students en masse. Arne Saeys was hands-on in arranging a Faculty of Social Sciences lecture later in Spring 2019 at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, in a room that memorably overlooked the final resting place of P.P Rubens in Saint Jacob’s Church.

Prior to crisscrossing Europe with the message on flak, I benefitted from the generosity that Intersections in Communication and Culture Series Editor Cameron McCarthy has afforded me, as well as countless other scholars, during his dazzling career. Cameron has been an encourager in first asking me to consider a book proposal more than ten years ago; the volume in your hands now is our fourth collaboration with Peter Lang. Speaking of Lang, although she is relatively new to the firm, Acquisitions Editor Erika Hendrix inspired total confidence as she shepherded the book to endgame and nailed even obscure questions with good cheer.

More thanks: a hand to Paul A. Vita, Director of the Saint Louis University-Madrid campus for his consistent support over many years, after bringing me to my first academic post coming out of University of Illinois. Anne Dewey and Cary Barney were among the first people I met on arrival at SLU’s distinctive and ahead-of-its-time international campus; their encouragement, wisdom, and example have been vital to my career trajectory. Daniel Chornet’s arrival on our campus in 2006 propelled our department forward and heralded a rigorous and positive culture within it. As noted, many people have now heard me present this book’s content at different moments of progress toward completion, but my colleague Dale Fuchs was brave enough to read an advanced draft. Students in my Political Communication course have also sharpened my concept of flak over the years; shout outs are in order for Ema Debeljak, Luis Garanzo Asensio, Paula Otero Santos, Bracey Parr, Nada Tahiri and Jennyfer D. Zuili.

El gran amigo John Kayan has listened to soliloquies on the emergent theory of flak across untold trajectories through zonas de marcha while Cristina Domingo Zaragoza has been similarly regaled at her kitchen table.

Finally, I hope the contents of the book on the written page are equal to the lofty artistic accomplishment of the cover artists: Paul Francis Goss (cover painting) and Lua Fischer (author photograph).

Brian Michael Goss

May 2019

Madrid, Spain

· 1 ·

1988/2016: from pac and flak to hack and flak

Introduction: Remembering 1988

The year 1988 witnessed two events of considerable interest to the study of flak as a sociopolitical force.

The first event was the publication of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent in which the authors introduced their propaganda model. In presenting their structuralist account of the behavior of news media in the contemporaneous United States, Herman and Chomsky’s objective was to illuminate “a propaganda system at work where the media are private and formal censorship is absent” (1988, p. 1); a system far more supple and decentered than the then-terminally ill Soviet system. Herman and Chomsky were interested in how a force that steers the conduct of news workers is exerted without evident force for having been embedded within a framework of robust formal freedoms.

In explaining the paradox, Herman and Chomsky (1988) posit five systemic filters that condition the performance of news workers and the resultant news narratives. In their account, the filters behave in concert to palpably but un-coercively bring news into alignment with powerful (capitalist, nationalist) interests. Herman and Chomsky characterize news as filtered from the ←3 | 4→start through oligopolistic ownership patterns. Thereafter, news is conditioned by commercial imperatives (transacting the delivery of an audience to advertisers in exchange for revenue), sourcing patterns (massively tilted toward elite information brokers) and unswerving ideological opposition to the communist Other (recall that this was 1988!). These constraints play out within a news milieu structured by professional procedures that shunt reporting toward prevailing consensus and its circumscribed controversies. With the filters deeply insinuated into the news media industry and internalized by news workers, journalism is generally, if imperfectly, textured by the status quo.

Alongside these four filters, Herman and Chomsky also propose one more filter that limits the autonomy of news organizations: flak. In contrast with the first four filters, Herman and Chomsky’s “classic” version of flak construes it as a set of disciplinary mechanisms exerted from outside news organizations. In their characterization, flak consists of “negative responses to a media statement or program” (1988, p. 16). Flak goes into motion when the other filters, in effect, slip-up and ideologically wayward reporting is broadcast or published. Vintage 1988 flak could be mobilized through “letters, telegrams, phone calls, petitions, lawsuits, speeches and bills before Congress, and other modes of complaint, threat, and punitive action” (1988, p. 16). Herman and Chomsky stress the gravity of flak: if “produced on a large scale, or by individuals or groups with substantial resources, it can be both uncomfortable and costly,” with the professional and personal implications that follow. Efforts to discipline news media with flak may—or may not—be immediately successful, but news organizations need to be mindful of the costs of disapprobation or harassment. That said, at least in their “Introduction,” Herman and Chomsky (1988) devote relatively little attention to flak.

Today, as in 1988, flak can be understood as ideologically purposeful, enacted with the objective of delegitimizing, disabling or dismantling the careers and activities of its targets. In this volume, I will further posit flak as having slipped the propaganda model leash to become a significant force in its own right. In this view, the practices of flak have claimed a more central place in contemporary sociopolitical processes, far beyond disciplinary mechanisms directed against news media. Contemporary flak arguably works through media far more massively than against it.

Since the publication of Manufacturing Consent in 1988, the advent of new media platforms has altered news in ways that are being debated even as they unfold (Curran, Fenton & Freedman, 2016; Fenton, 2010; Morozov, 2011; Peters & Broersma, 2013). On one hand, the new media era has facilitated ←4 | 5→notable improvements in the news environment. The new media order has loosened the demands of the simplistic objectivity doctrine and, for many platforms, enabled a measure of independence from media conglomerates. At the same time, the seemingly filter-less new media environment has been conducive to the growth of flak campaigns. New media has smoothed the way toward proliferation of flak-dedicated channels, specialized in the production of ideologically-driven harassment against individuals, organizations, and political causes.

Accuracy in Media (AIM, founded 1969) presented Herman and Chomsky’s lead example of flak when they introduced the propaganda model. In AIM’s appraisal, then and now, mainstream news media channels are not sufficiently monochrome, self-censorious and Pravda-like in enforcing a right-wing line. While AIM continues its dreary brand of antagonism (Goss, 2009), it is now more of a relic in what has become a crowded flak industry. To take a couple of examples of newer flak players, the Heartland Institute (founded 1984) and Project Veritas (founded 2009) are themselves media presences through their products and (niche as well as mainstream) media appearances. The remit of the flak new-wavers extends beyond ostensible media critique to produce ideologically radioactive flak against the usual litany of targets: “liberals,” universities, climate science, marginal populations, and effective State regulatory intervention in the economy.

In the effort to thoroughly characterize flak and draw attention to its techniques and impact, I am not positing flak as “the clue that solves all crimes.” As I have previously argued (Goss, 2013), the propaganda model’s amalgam of concentrated ownership patterns, rampant commercialism, elite sourcing and dichotomized narrative forms (Us/Them) continue to shape the news. I also acknowledge that flak presents a relatively limited—but influential and growing—place within the sociopolitical arena. However, flak’s impact is likely misunderstood in large part because flak campaigns are rarely identified as such. Flak’s impact can be observed, even as flak itself remains largely unmentioned and shrouded in shadows. To my knowledge, there are no previous book-length treatments of flak as political harassment. To begin to remedy this previous lack of scrutiny, I will now drill down further into defining the contours of flak.

Beyond Bullshit: Defining the Term

As Terry Eagleton (1991) points out, ideology can be considered in at least some situations as a normatively neutral term, as everyone carries ideologies ←5 | 6→just as everyone hosts bacteria. To characterize something as flak is, as I am defining it, never neutral and always a criticism in the first instance. Flak is (pick one or more) weaponized, instrumentalized, contrived, spoofed, counterfeit, simulated—or, in Harry Frankfort’s terms, encrusted with bullshit that even the cynical flak merchant may not even believe (2005).


X, 212
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. X, 212 pp., 2 tables

Biographical notes

Brian Michael Goss (Author)

Brian Michael Goss earned a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois’ Institute of Communications Research in 2000. A specialist in mass media and its sociopolitical concomitants, he has authored three books, co-edited two more, penned dozens of journal articles, and is a zealously dedicated teacher.


Title: The Rise of Weaponized Flak in the New Media Era
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