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.
Last week, I was talking to the filmmakers of After Truth, a documentary about the impact of disinformation on America, when one of them said something about a specific event that has stuck with me: “There is this weird moment where it crosses over outside of the computer screen.”
We were talking about Jade Helm 2015, a military exercise held in the southeastern United States in summer 2015. Jade Helm, in a short period of time, sparked a complex conspiracy theory that the military exercise was preparation for mass arrests or the declaration of martial law. Pushed and seeded by Kremlin information operations and amplified by InfoWars and other online conspiracy sites, the Jade Helm conspiracy caught fire on social media and gained coverage in local media outlets. Very quickly, vocal Texans were calling on their local governments to intervene to stop the exercise. So fervid did this energy become — so deep the local belief that the US military might actually be up to no good during the exercise — the Governor of Texas eventually called up the Texas state guard to observe the exercise.
From the time the conspiracy appeared until the moment the governor responded was about six weeks total. Six weeks from a random online document to angry locals calling a US Army officer a liar at a packed townhall meeting. Needless to say, the summer went on, and the exercise happened, and the mass arrests never came. I don’t think most Americans living outside the area (or living outside the InfoWars terrarium) were even aware of it at the time, and then the weirdness of it was subsumed beneath the crushing wave of “unprecedented” crazy that defined most of 2016.
But I think it’s safe to say the US military didn’t forget about it, since the conspiracy created a serious operational problem for them within the United States. They studied it, and analyzed it, and looked at the research that others were doing about it. I was working outside the United States at the time, and I first heard about Jade Helm from Ukrainians that I was working with. They were tracking it because it was amplified by some of the same Kremlin information machinery they watched related to Ukraine. Finally, in 2018, former CIA and NSA Director Gen. Michael Hayden said that Kremlin information operations fueled the Jade Helm conspiracy — it was a test for the type of information warfare Russia would use in the 2016 elections. A test that encouraged the Kremlin, because we flunked it with flying colors. Six weeks — six! — for the population of a “patriotic” state to turn on the US military.
The After Truth documentary opens with Jade Helm — and includes the incredible footage from the angry townhall meeting. It was to that footage that filmmaker Adam McGill’s quote referred:
What always strikes me about that townhall is that these aren’t just people behind the computer screen — you know, the relegation of QAnon or people railing about antifa as something that’s just happening online. There is this weird moment where it crosses over outside of the computer screen. I had sort of déjà vu when I saw all the anti-mask people showing up at townhalls all across the country [during COVID]. Some of [these conspiracies] get ignored and not dealt with, but they are still living online, and it’s a pretty big problem.
This stuck with me because what made the Jade a Helm case so powerful wasn’t just that it came out of the screen. It was that it was a tangible example, from point A to point B, of how disinformation changed government and governance.
And as Adam points out, we have also seen this happening in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, in particular in the context of the “open” anti-lockdown protests and the anti-mask demonstrations. For example, just last week, “open” demonstrators stormed the Idaho state legislature, ignoring all safety and security measures in place requiring masking and social distancing, to try to force lawmakers to open the state more quickly despite the fact that some counties in Idaho have some of the highest rates of new COVID cases in the country. Every piece of legislation being discussed during the special session related to re-opening measures.
But this has taken on a new sense of urgency as lawmakers echo and sometimes champion the dis- and misinformation they are consuming about COVID-19, and as that disinformation merges into a broader and more powerful conspiracy universe.
Responding to a question about COVID death tolls at a public meeting in her home state, Iowa Senator Joni Ernst said she is “so skeptical” of the 185,000+ death toll, saying she had heard from healthcare workers or on the news that there were less than 10,000 deaths maybe, and that the inflated numbers are part of a vast insurance scam being run by hospitals and doctors because of they “reimburse higher amounts” for COVID deaths. (More below, but no, and also, this is such an insult to all frontline healthcare workers who are risking their lives without the necessary support from their government that it’s just absurd.) “I’d like to know the same thing,” ponders Ernst to the questioner.
Since the beginning of the COVID lockdowns, membership in QAnon Facebook groups has skyrocketed, in some cases tripling and quadrupling in size, even as the QAnon narratives have merged with COVID conspiracies to expand their reach. Facebook has moved to remove or down-rank some of these groups — even as the president has retweeted QAnon accounts on Twitter more than 200 times. Some of these tweets are now being labeled or removed for their harmful COVID disinformation — including a false theory that COVID death tolls are actually drastically lower than reported by the CDC. (This complete misinterpretation of the data has been debunked by Dr. Fauci.) But as the tentacles of QAnon grow, they touch more people who don’t understand what QAnon’s purpose is.
Just like that, you have a seated US Senator repeating a COVID conspiracy promoted by QAnon. She likely doesn’t realize what else is part of the package here — but nonetheless lives in the information environment where “the news” is telling her that actually there is no crisis, just a bunch of lying, whining Americans and their thieving doctors ruining it for the rest of us. It honestly boggles the mind.
Senate Republicans offered a drastically scaled-back version of the next (stalled) COVID relief package — was their decision-making on this bill being informed by the disinformation underlying the conspiracies? Do others in fact believe that the extent of the crisis isn’t what has been catalogued by our public health experts, so eh — let ‘em wait? Ernst says it’s “unfortunate” that the relief bill hasn’t passed — but does she really mean low-priority? Everything about her decision-making on the bill is called into question after her public embrace of conspiracy.
So, what can you do about it?
I think we can all agree that there are a lot of pretty stupid things that politicians say and pretty stupid theories that politicians repeat that we can mostly just ignore because it isn’t hurting anything — other than our heads. But this is not that.
When toxic conspiracies are pushing false information that can undermine decisions of governance that impact our lives and the well-being of our communities and the functioning of the cities we live in, we have a duty to engage the politicians spreading these conspiracies or repeating false information or misinformation to put pressure on them and force them to represent us and the truth and reality as well.
Conspiracy believers are very loud. They harass and they bully — in particular politicians like Senator Ernst who are vulnerable in their seats. But we cannot let the bullies have the loudest say in this period of time when lives literally depend on it, and after we get past this public health crisis we still face crises in the economy, in education, and in about a thousand other things. Conspiracists and promoters of misinformation cannot be at the helm as we make these decisions and try to rebuild our nation. They simply don’t have the tools to cope.
- Call out politicians promoting conspiracies and disinformation that can impact serious decision-making, and explain why their engagement with malign narratives can impact governance and the community. Social media, letters to the editor, call-in radio shows — litter the earth with your chosen form of protest.
- Call and write the offices of politicians who are engaging with malign and conspiracy narrative. Volume matters. Numbers matter. Challenge them. Present the facts.
- Vote accordingly in November. We will only get out of this if the people in charge of us don’t inhabit an information domain where conspiracy seems plausible, even if it means ignoring dead Americans. Enough of these people. Enough.
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.