• on November 13, 2020

In the downward media spiral of Trump World, who is wagging who?

Lies and disinformation have tidal effects, and we need to understand that the president is being led by disinformation as much as he is driving it.


There’s a lot to talk about in the week since the election — but I feel it is particularly important to spend time on one aspect as we sort through this issue of manipulated media environments and their objectives and potential consequences. The dynamics of how this manipulation works — their network effects, if you will — are not as straightforward as they are often described. It isn’t really a flow chart of A —>B —>C, with information flowing in only one direction, top-down or outward from central nodes. The system is more porous than that, with movement in more directions. It’s more like a river with strong tidal influence: the moon swings around the earth, and water surges up the river, carrying a mass of different water from the sea, and then it is dragged back out, carrying mud and debris with it. In one direction, you see the rising waters in such stark contrast, churning, flooding, relentless, overwhelming in small waterways, buoying the flotsam; in the other, all the accumulated detritus moves in unison, swept outward to the sea, diluted perhaps, but there for more to see, there to be pushed in other directions and into some other river on the next tide. In each sweep, this movement in and out may seem inconsequential against the total volume — but over time, tides are a powerful force of change, evolution, and transmutation that is better captured in the impact on the rivers than the sea.

As with tidal rivers, so too with reinforced coercive information environments rife with disinformation and conspiracy. Decay can begin in one channel, a strange story or allegation that then finds its way out to a larger room, and sometimes it sinks and goes nowhere, and sometimes it seems to multiply and find its way into lots of new smaller networks. The power isn’t really when it is in the bigger space, where these stories float amongst many others in the big muddled sea, but in how those stories find their way to those smaller communities and channels where they overwhelm and seem quite dire or familiar or predictive. Omens and auguries arriving on the shores. It’s there that the behavioral effects are most notable — the erosion and transmutation are most measurable. Where these stories take on a life of their own. Where the energy to believe, to proselytize , to rise up persists. 

This is to say: it absolutely matters that Donald Trump manipulates an enormous sea of lies and untruths and disingenuous speculation and conspiracies and vitriol, a force of gravity that drives all that volume outward into different communities and channels where they have the most corrosive effects. But it also matters where these ideas come from. How they find him, already adrift in a sea of garbage. How the people who understand these dynamics and network effects are trying to manipulating him, or manipulate the environment he in turn seeks to manipulate — writing messages and putting them in bottles and throwing them in to the rivers as they rush back out to sea, knowing he may read them and he push them into some other community somewhere. 

It’s easy to see the tides. Hard to see the bottles. And weirdly, the bottles matter. 

* * * * * 

Let me give you an example. 

This weird thing happened right at the beginning of the administration, which of course — because of the 900 other weird things happening that week — didn’t get enough attention. In early April 2017, King Abdullah of Jordan made his second of three trips within six months to Washington to meet with the new US President. Just before each of these trips, he visited Moscow. None of this is meant to sound conspiratorial: it was pretty overt at this time — when it would have been awkward for the country accused of election interference to be engaged in dealmaking on critical issues with the beneficiaries of that interference — that Moscow had asked Jordan to carry messages on Syria and the region from the Kremlin to the White House. (A component of the message was the usual “cooperate with Moscow against terrorism” smoke and mirrors.) 

Jordan is not a rich nation and is under crushing pressure from the influx of Syrian refugees it is hosting (with around 650,000 Syrians taking refuge in Jordan since the Syrian conflict started in 2011, this is now 10 percent of Jordan’s total population — an incredible strain on the economy, security, and humanitarian systems). Moscow has helped to drive this flow of refugees by backing Assad. Jordan has long been a regional partner of the US, particularly on security and military issues, but after the Obama administration chose not to intervene to prevent this mass slaughter and displacement of Syrian civilians, countries like Jordan were forced to perform more frequent Moscow pilgrimages to find resolution to problems. It makes sense that Jordan would be tapped as emissary: it needs things from both the US and Moscow, and can explain events from that perspective. 

Just as Abdullah was arriving in Washington the night before his second meeting with Trump, Assad launched (from an airbase manned by Russian military advisers) another chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians in a rebel-held area. Hundreds were sick and a hundred dead, many of them children who had tried to hide from the gas and ended up in low-lying areas where it collected. Graphic photos of dead children — so impossibly small and fragile in death, but so impossibly brave as they tried to protect each other from the gas — flooded twitter overnight. It was impossible to escape them. There were waves of messages tagging these photos to @realDonaldTrump. When he spoke the next day with Abdullah, the president seemed unusually moved by what he had seen and what he had discussed with Abdullah. Less than 36 hours later, after warning the Russians of the pending attack via a deconfliction channel, Trump authorized a missile strike against the Syrian base where the chemical attack had been prepared. 

It was a significant but symbolic show of force. And for all intents and purposes, it seemed to originate with an online information campaign targeting the President of the United States — one that worked because he wakes up with his face in the twitter machine. 

The president did not then and does not now care about Syrians in any real sense. In the weeks leading up to the missile strike, Trump had been under intense pressure from right wing media, his usual media diet/influence, to pull US troops out of Syria completely. And yet here he was, overwhelmed by photos, launching a missile strike against a country he previously said he didn’t want to be engaged in at all.

The media attention remained on the show of force — but I couldn’t get over how we got to the boom. In every real sense, it seemed that twitter plus a well-timed meeting had gotten the president to launch a strike in Syria. Which is, you know, not actually very reassuring. 

And if I saw this, and couldn’t stop thinking about it, you can be sure foreign intelligence services did too, as well as malign actors looking to exploit the president’s information disabilities. 

* * * * *

It’s well known that the president is easily persuaded by whatever was in front of him last, but the primary assumption, especially from the media, has always been that this mostly means he hears thing on Fox & Friends and Fox News prime time, and then starts tweeting about them, and then he often hires the people he sees on these shows to run his legal strategies or our government because he, as a person with no relevant knowledge to his current job, assumes relevant knowledge isn’t necessary in any real measure. He hires people to say back to him what he already believes, and then acts on these impulses through his megaphone or via policy. 

But over time, as he promiscuously watches and reposts unhinged conspiracy theories and animated videos portraying him as a mass murderer, the assumption of the A —>B —>C, FoxNews/right wing media—>Trump—>action flow of information really breaks down. The president is both hoovering up the garbage floating in his information environment and spraying it back out to his followers in greater volumes. The garbage challenges and erodes other narratives he has relied on. The more desperate he gets, the more online detritus he sucks into his maw. 

The point is, there is no assumed directionality in the president’s media environment anymore. Upstream influences downstream, but downstream pushes information back upstream, ebbing and surging tides of unreality and delusion about the election not being lost. It really raises questions about whether the dog is wagging the tail or the tail is wagging the dog. Who, exactly, is wagging who here? Increasingly, it’s a disinformation horde manipulating a mass of elected officials. 

This constantly calls to mind an interview I remember from a ‘90s-era MTV documentary, about whether heavy metal and death metal were a bad influence on kids. The interview was with two members of the Insane Clown Posse, who sat for the taping in full show regalia — scary face paint and costumes and wigs, a scary clown nightmare. And the interviewer asked them something like: “Do you believe that bands like yours are having a negative influence on children, particularly young men, or that they act out in response to what you say in your music.” 

And the Posse lead singer looks at him, dumbfounded, and says: “Seriously? Look at us. No really, look at us. We’re sitting here in clown make-up and wigs and leather pants. I mean what, do you think Marilyn Manson, with his face paint and three-dollar contact lens, or us in this get-up are the people that you want to take advice from? Really? Anybody who’s listening to us and taking us seriously is f***ed up already.”

This interview has gone round and round in my head for years — particularly in the context of thinking about disinformation. These days, it so often seems that the Insane Clown Posse is putting on a show and then being taken seriously as a source of information, like we’ve all just normalized the wigs and the makeup and become comfortable saying “well you can’t prove they are wrong, I guess.” 

* * * * * 

Just to be clear here: masses of dead people did not vote in the election. “Out of state voters” voting in the “wrong” jurisdictions seem primarily to have been members of the military and military families, plus students. “Burned ballots” weren’t official ballots. “Mysteriously arriving votes” were a human error, not a “software glitch” built into the system by the NSA or maybe the Clinton foundation to swing the election for democrats. The Cubans had nothing to do with anything. There are too many completely debunked claims to list them all. These are just a small representation. 

All 50 states reported no serious irregularities. Local election officials — and even state-level elected Republicans — have spoken out against the misinformation that is flooding the internet, and pushing its way up to Trump, and then being pushed out again and churned around, and then being written into lawsuits by utterly incompetent lawyers and thrown virtually immediately out of court for having no merit

This tide of falsehoods is drowning Republicans. And yet too many Republican lawmakers remain silent. This process has occurred over time, each tide eroding a bit more of the values that were assumed to be unmovable. Under Trump, this willingness to give up power has occurred slowly and perhaps without them noticing, every time they chose not to respond to something bonkers that he did, some slight that he issued, some lie that he told, one more bit of their ability to ever say anything again being taken away. Now there are no guardrails left — no eminent right wing personalities or calming, influential voices that the masses will listen to. Now, it will require all of them to stand up and speak out and shout down the party — the party of which they have allowed and exploited the radicalization — in order to salvage the republic. 

The time to speak is now. If your congressman or senator or governor is one of these, call them, write them. Ask them to speak out. To stand against the tide of lies that threatens to subsume the peaceful transfer of power to a new US president.

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