Evaluating current information operations: The 2020 information environment is challenging, riddled with cascading disinformation campaigns that grow more targeted and complex over time, and which are increasingly tied to offline events and advanced via new techniques. It is vital that we have a clear perspective on events relating to the elections, coronavirus, and now protests and civil unrest, but we know that disinformation and malign influence campaigns seek to distort those perceptions. Now is when it’s most vital to be a better information citizen in a highly connected world, and to be vigilant about the new campaigns that seek to influence us.
On September 2, Attorney General Bill Barr — dogged Trump loyalist and deflector of norms — gave an interview to CNN. While there is a lot to be said about the overall substance of Barr’s comments, the conduct of the interview was such that Barr had an open field to do what he does best: seed narrative that will overshadow facts and details that later emerge, and set the talking points for Trump surrogates and defenders on these issues. As he did with the Mueller report, Barr knows if you get out first, your version of events sticks — even if there are 400 pages showing your summary to be disingenuous.
There are aspects of this latest narrative seeding that relate directly to how we are meant to view issues relating to the conduct of the upcoming elections and attempts to influence perceptions of them. And I think it’s important to call these out for what they are.
Barr didn’t deny that findings from the Durham investigation could impact the election or target former Vice President Biden directly — or that Biden might be charged. This has echoes of 2016.
The Durham investigation is tasked with re-examining the origins and substance of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. In piecemeal fashion, it has been used already to reinforce the belief held by the president and many of his supporters that the Mueller investigation was a “witch-hunt.” For the president, this means ignoring and denying the Kremlin’s attacks on America and on the American electorate, since he believes acknowledging that this attack occurred weakens his legitimacy.
It is worth reminding that the nearly 1000-page fifth volume of the bipartisan Senate intelligence committee report on Russian active measures in the election, which was released in August and is the most comprehensive assessment of 2016 to date, concludes: It is our conclusion, based on the facts detailed in the Committee’s report, that the Russian intelligence services’ assault on the integrity of the 2016 US electoral process and Trump and his associates’ participation in and enabling of this Russian activity, represents one of the single most grave counterintelligence threats to American national security in the modern era.
When Barr was asked whether he felt pressured by President Trump’s public comments calling for investigations of Obama and Biden, he did a lot of fancy footwork that amounted to:
- “I said neither President Obama nor Vice President Biden are under investigation.”
- But “well, I didn’t take that as launching an investigation. We’re reviewing the Russiagate thing, and [Trump’s] interested in the results of it.”
- Because “well, treason is a legal term, I think [the president] is using it colloquially… but I think he feels that they were involved in an injustice, and if he feels that, he can say it.”
- Would Barr abide by guidance not to do anything that might be seen as interference before the election? “The guidance is ‘people shouldn’t do things for political reasons.’” In his telling, this clearly does not exclude doing things for other reasons, such as acting on the findings of the Durham report.
- “I will handle these cases as appropriate, and I do not think that anything that we do in the Durham investigation… is going to be effecting the election.”
What all of this points to is that rumor and insinuation will remain powerful narrative tools for the Trump campaign — to motivate their voters and to suppress/deter Republicans who don’t want to vote for Trump from crossing over to vote for Biden. Ongoing investigations into alleged wrongdoing by then-candidate Clinton or people in her campaign (the emails, etc) were used the same way in 2016.
Trump’s “law and order” message is really about amplifying fear and perceptions of violence. There is no room in Trump’s “law and order” concept — at least, as his AG describes it — for dialogue on issues relating to race and significant police reform.
Again, I just want to emphasize that this is not about fact-checking Barr in his statements on Kenosha and Portland, but instead explaining how he is building narrative to set a reflexive argument for voters.
In Barr’s responses to questions about Wisconsin and the Jacob Blake case, he made it clear that the message from the administration is: the left is being hysterical on issues relating to racism and police violence; they have it all wrong; and their use of “mob violence” in protest shows their true colors and must be stopped.
Barr deflected questions asking him to weigh in on the human aspects of what is happening in Wisconsin (and again, the questioning was … not strong). Instead of offering a message to the Blake family, Barr said “there is a process to make that determination” in excessive force cases, but that “violence is not appropriate. Our justice system has to respond to reasoned analysis — not mob violence.” The violence of the left is the real issue, he offers.
How should people of color explain situations like the George Floyd and Jacob Blake cases to their children? Who cares, apparently. “Well I’m not going to talk about the Blake case, because I think that it’s different than the Floyd case… Floyd was already subdued, incapacitated, in handcuffs, and was not armed. In the Jacob case, he was in the midst of committing a felony and he was armed.” The answer is: there are rare instances of bad things, but violence begets a harsh response, be it by an individual or “the mob.” These statements by the AG are way out ahead of anything offered yet by those reviewing what happened when Blake was shot by police. But here the narrative is set: he was an armed criminal.
The adjectives “armed” and “unarmed” are important for how Barr deflects belief that race and injustice play any role here. “I think the narrative that the police are on some epidemic of shooting unarmed black men is simply a false narrative — and also the narrative that that’s based on race. The fact of the matter is that it’s very rare for an unarmed African American to be shot by a white police officer.” He references only 10 cases last year, saying in 6 of them, the person who was shot was attacking police at the time. These are “rare things compared to 7000-8000 young black men who are killed every year.” The implication is: police are just trying to stop the terrible crime this group is a part of.
Barr takes issue with both the use of “systemic” and “racism” — arguments that are popular in conservative circles. “To me the word ‘systemic’ means that it’s built into the institution, and I don’t think that’s true.” Barr says institutions have been strengthened significantly over the past 60 years and “if anything it’s a bias toward non-discrimination, and safeguards against that.” I think it’s important to listen to this, because I think that conservatives and the progressives use this term in very different ways, and it’s part of the conflict between them on what to do next.
On racism: “Racism usually means that I believe that because of your race, you’re a lesser human being than me. And I think there are people in the United States who feel that way, but I don’t think that it’s as common as people suggest… And I think we have safeguards to ensure that it doesn’t really have an effect to someone’s future… To listen to the American left nowadays you’d think we’ve gotten nowhere [after the last 60 years].” In this casual construction, Barr dismisses the core motivation of the demonstrations off hand — in argument about disrupted futures and lessened opportunities. And this is why the president and his campaign can’t engage with anyone hoping for productive dialogue on issues relating to police reform and perception of unequal justice: because they are just going to keep saying this inequality doesn’t exist.
Barr posits that the real issue is one of perception and feelings that must be better managed: “Now I did say that I do think there appears to be a phenomenon in the country where African Americans feel that they’re treated, when they’re stopped by police, frequently, as suspects before they are treated as citizens. I don’t think that necessarily reflects some deep seeded racism in police departments or in most police officers. I think the same kind of behavior is done by African American police officers. I think there are stereotypes, I think that people operate very frequently according to stereotypes, and I think it takes extra precaution on the part of law enforcement to make sure that we don’t reduce people to stereotypes, that we treat them as individuals.” While minimizing negative stereotypes that may result in the unequal application of justice, Barr goes out of his way to remind that “the demonization of the police and the idea that this is so widespread that it’s an epidemic, it’s just wrong.”
A “phenomenon.” This reminds me so much of how the Russians call every accusation of their covert measures and other activities hysterical.
Barr pushes narratives of “dysfunctional Democrat-run cities” and “antifa” lawlessness.
The part of Barr’s interview that waded into the protests was pretty painful, because the interviewer let him rail on about rumors about “antifa” without ever once raising a question about right-wing groups and counter-protesters that have been organizing to confront demonstrators and in many cases aim to provoke conflict. At one point, Barr, annoyed, says: “we’re not an Indian reservation where [the federal government] can only defend federal buildings. Every square foot of this country is within the jurisdiction of federal law enforcement.” Yikes.
More problematic are his vague constructions relating to antifa. He claims there have been 300 arrests across the country, and says you can’t really know who is antifa or not because protestors are hiding their identities. “I’ve talked to every police chief in every city where there’s been major violence, and they all have identified antifa as the ramrod for the violence. They are flying around the country. We know there are people flying around the country. We know where they’re going. We see some of the purchases they’re making before the riots of weapons to use in those riots. So we’re following them… Crossing state lines to engage in rioting is [illegal]. It’s a federal offense.” There’s a lot to unpack in that — particularly since many new surveillance techniques being used by federal law enforcement against the protestors have already raised concerns — but in this Barr is pushing rumors and conspiracies that support the president’s constant talk of the antifa bogeyman while offering no support in evidence for any of the rumors. He says they are getting “lots of reports” about people on planes, flying for “riots.” No specifics. Just fuel for conspiracies. This is incredibly irresponsible, one-sided rhetoric.
And again, he is not asked any questions about the right wing militias and pro-Trump groups that have shown up armed to confront protesters. In his narrative, the only unrest comes from black-clad antifa supporters who are hiding in the shadows with powerful organization and financial backing. This is simply a misrepresentation of events meant to skew perceptions in support of the messaging from the president.
Barr adds rumors as “logic” into the narrative that the results of the election could be skewed by fraud relating to mail-in ballots.
Barr used the interview to say repeatedly that “mail-in voting is fraught with risk of fraud and coercion.” He referenced studies and concerns and prosecutions that may or may not be underway relating to voter fraud. His formulation was a simple one: you could see “widespread fraud” this time because of the “widespread use of mail-in ballots” being offered because of COVID. “Everyone knows it” is his primary evidence. People are coercing voters to vote, voters lists are inaccurate, people who should get their ballots don’t, but the wrong people get many ballots at once. “Everyone knows it.”
This is storytelling. Even he knows it. Pressed for evidence, he gets huffy: “This is playing with fire. We are a very closely divided country here, and people have to have confidence in the results to the elections and the legitimacy of the government.” Of course, he himself used this interview to undermine confidence in the elections.
On foreign interference, Barr continues to dismiss evidence of past and ongoing Russian intervention while elevating concerns about China. This could anticipate narratives about Chinese interference.
Barr weighed that “logic” tells him a foreign country could print counterfeit ballot papers to skew the election. He is very focused on giving silly examples about the printing of ballots, while of course ignoring all of the other measures that are in place to ensure verified registered voters are the only ones who can use these ballots. In doing so, he is playing up the idea that foreign nations want to interfere in our election based on shadows and “reason.”
He then immediately pivots back to his primary role of suggesting that what Russia did in 2016 — and is still doing — is basically nothing. There is “some preliminary activity to suggest that they might try again,” says Mr. Downplay-the-verified-adversary. Pressed for specifics, he refers to “the same general genre as before,” meaning “hack-and-dump” operations like the DNC hack/Wikileaks, or social media influence operations. On 2016: “I accept that Russia made some efforts to influence the election,” he says, then immediately disputes the findings of the bipartisan Senate report.
But then, he has to. Because again, what the report says is: It is our conclusion, based on the facts detailed in the Committee’s report, that the Russian intelligence services’ assault on the integrity of the 2016 US electoral process and Trump and his associates’ participation in and enabling of this Russian activity, represents one of the single most grave counterintelligence threats to American national security in the modern era.
Barr cannot and will not acknowledge the scale of any of this as he works to undo the Mueller investigations and the ensuing prosecutions. Instead, he asserts that his assessment is China is the most assertive and aggressive in influence. Here he purposefully conflates overall influence efforts toward America with direct interference in the election, which is completely disingenuous, even based on the DNI’s current reporting. Barr is, of course, not pressed at all about how US Senators and others are openly collaborating with people conducting known and identified Kremlin interference attempts targeting Biden.
I believe all of this anticipates a coming effort from the president and his supporters to push a narrative that “China is backing Biden” both to dissuade crossover Trump voters and to downplay what the Kremlin is doing and will do.
Finally, Barr says the media is unreliable.
Barr concludes by saying “the media was a lot different” the last time he was AG, and says that just because they don’t like President Trump “doesn’t give the media license to lie like a lot of the media is.” Blah blah.
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It is important to evaluate interviews like this one not just in the context of fact-checking or as truth or not. These interviews construct narrative that will guide how we view, perceive, and interpret events between now and the election. They influence the media, and they influence individuals. We must understand how such narratives are used to shape and sometimes manipulate these perceptions to remain clear-eyed in the real challenges and the threats.
Molly McKew (@MollyMcKew) is a senior adviser to the Stand Up Republic Foundation. She is a writer and lecturer on Russian influence and information warfare. She advised the Georgian president and national security council from 2009 to 2013, and former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat in 2014 and 2015.