It’s time to unhack our perceptions of our nation and limit the power of disinfo to shape reality
So, here we are, a few weeks out from Election Day 2020, early voting already well underway — and pretty much everything that every disinformation watcher warned you was going to happen is happening. All the disinfo predictions are coming true in a sigh-inducing way, 2016 rolling right on into 2020. The primary difference is that it’s much more out in the open, because the actors relying on disinfo campaigns seem to believe there won’t be any consequences for what they do.
A quick survey of the cratered mess of the information landscape that lies before us:
- Malign foreign actors are still targeting the US. But attribution is harder as trolling is outsourced and learns to exploit commercial info architecture better. This evolution was predicted years ago, and we’ve steadily had evidence that Russia and others are using the practice effectively. But Russian intelligence is also running many of the same-old plays.
- The president in particular is still pushing his 2016 “the election is rigged” narrative, now focusing on the idea that some made-up distinction between “mail-in ballots” and “absentee ballots” is proof that mass fraud is underway. While this misses the facts and totally misunderstands American electoral practices, the narrative has gained traction with plenty of Americans.
- To “combat” the “fraud” that the president speaks of constantly — but really to inflate the perception that this is a real thing, and probably also intimidate voters — he and his campaign have started a “poll-watcher” “Army for Trump” initiative. They are training volunteers to inundate social media with claims of voting irregularities and election problems. This will be such a mess. And unfortunately, this has sown doubt about the integrity of the vote on the left as well, and counter-poll-watching initiatives, which will likely amplify instead of quell the perception of chaos on Election Day.
- We are inundated with stories and fears that violence and unrest are coming on Election Day (fears we should not help make a self-fulfilling fantasy), driven by the president and his supporters, including his attorney general, amplifying a perception of left-wing/“Antifa” violence that doesn’t track with events on the ground. The plot by a fringe militia to kidnap the Governor of Michigan has shown that support for the idea that the use of violence to achieve political objectives is acceptable is gaining ground. Protests and counter-protests are increasingly armed and seeking direct confrontations (in 2016, Kremlin trolls arranged such dueling protests).
- As in 2016, when both Kremlin trolls and the Trump campaign pushed rumors about Hillary Clinton’s health, Trump supporters (again backed by Russian information operations) have leaned heavily on narratives that Biden is, old, frail, hiding, and senile — all of which have proven to be a bad bet versus reality, but still influence perceptions. If you google “hold your nose and vote for Biden,” a remarkable array of opinions spanning moderate conservatives who will not vote for Trump in 2020 to Sanders supporters who won’t waste their vote as a protest this time will appear, many of which echo some of these health concerns (though some are ideological, to be sure).
- The propaganda is now coming from inside the white house: Russia and other adversarial powers that are working toward specific objectives vis-à-vis America using the information domain can now spend a lot less time creating content themselves, and mostly just amplify narratives Americans are using against each other. They can also rely on both willing and unwitting American proxies to generate content for them (see these stories on Russia running right-wing and left-wing “news” sites by paying Americans to write on specific themes they wanted).
- The president is flooding social media with wackadoo conspiracies — including such hits as “Osama bin Laden is still alive and Benghazi was part of an operation to kill the SEAL team that didn’t kill bin Laden,” and QAnon (a massive, grotesque conspiracy that is ultimately about eroding faith in institutions and authority and breaking down social structures) is “fighting pedophiles” — as ideas for people to consider, pushing QAnon in particular into the Republican mainstream.
- Where in 2016 we heard “BUT HER EMAILS” and WikiLeaks used as a proxy for Russian intelligence-obtained product, in 2020 we have this improbable “oh Biden’s son just happened to leave his laptop in my repair shop and I read all the emails and made a copy and gave it to Rudy Giuliani, who US intelligence had already warned is laundering Russian intelligence product” emails story. Again, the key difference is, this is much more in the open, the president doesn’t even pretend to care (it should be noted, actually knew he was receiving this aid from the Kremlin even during his impeachment trial earlier this year,), and his staunchest Republican allies on the Hill are pushing it despite knowing this is backed by the Kremlin, even though their report on the Hunter Biden allegations was a dud just weeks ago. Giuliani is an open, willing vehicle for Russian intelligence product, he’s probably being paid for it, and he doesn’t care.
- We’ve seen increased use of altered content and forgeries in disinformation, which is something we should be alert to in new hack-and-leak operations.
- In 2016, Kremlin trolls pushed to split the Democratic vote, targeting Sanders supporters and black voters. Now, one of the president’s senior advisers is pushing the same narrative to Sanders’ supporters repeatedly.
- Twitter and Facebook have moments when they seem to have gotten it, especially when finally waking up to QAnon — but many other moments when they still seem on a back foot. The explosion over how they handled Giuliani’s “Hunter’s emails” story has inflated the story beyond what it would have been and given conservatives a rally point on the supposed oppression of conservative free-speech on social media.
Everything everyone warned about is here (except of course for deep fakes, which were really kind of over-inflated in importance as a predicted threat). Only it’s worse because one party is totally open to it. And part of the other side doesn’t hear it when they echo it back just as loud.
You should read most of these stories if you want to have a good sense of how awful it must be in any real newsroom right now. But this is what we see every day: an endless series of stories about the stories that seek to influence us and where they come from and what that means. Is it true, is it manipulation, is it conspiracy, is it madness? It’s an exhausting and multi-layered process that leaves us frayed, frail, frustrated, deep in our own doom-scrolling of American decline.
But maybe this is because we really have forgotten it doesn’t have to be like this. You’ve constantly heard me and others speak about how vital and essential leadership is to fixing the problem of the effectiveness of disinformation, in terms of establishing values, calling balls and strikes, setting us to the task of building instead of tearing down. Now, I have an example of this to show you.
Biden, in his half of the “dueling town halls” on Thursday night, repeatedly avoiding taking swipes at Trump supporters or Republicans, or saying that all is lost or that we are close to the abyss. We have to stop suspecting each other’s motives, he said, even when we don’t agree on policy. Over and over, he didn’t go for a zinger or a throat punch. He spoke of a better America. This thing about not questioning the motivation of opponents gives everyone a way out of the Trump era death spiral — a simple way to end the endless “no, that’s a conspiracy” cycle that has polarized congressional discourse, poisoned media discourse, and amped us all up in hyper-partisan stances where we think everything needs to be the bloody Alamo even when that actually makes no sense.
Asked what it means if he loses, Biden offered that it may mean he isn’t a very good candidate, but he hopes it doesn’t mean we’ve given up on the idea of unity. Asked if he believed he could avoid seeking revenge against Trump, who the questioner believed was largely responsible for the very toxic political atmosphere in the country, Biden emphasized the need to find a way back to bipartisanship, and said “vindictiveness in a president” isn’t a good thing.
He repeatedly avoided blaming the challenges we are going to face on any one faction or side — he just accepted that they will be his burdens to carry, his problems to solve.
Joe Biden is serious about unity. I think maybe we are all underestimating how serious he is about unity. He’s already walking the unity walk, because he knows this is what he is selling to America, banking on the fact that our desire not to have to think about the government all the time and live in a permanent state of existential dread is very real. He’s not talking about the worst attacks on him because it would mean having to attack his attackers. He seems to know this is a dead end.
Biden has Trump’s number, and he has an encyclopedic memory of every disgraceful act Trump has committed and every humiliation of the office that must be overcome. But he also seems to understand the deep impact the corrosive effect that Trump’s presidency has had on all of us. On our faith in the nation, and our ability to see truth, and our ability to find common ground, and our ability to be willing to disarm. I think perhaps we have forgotten what it’s like not to be targeted by a weapon of cognitive erosion 24/7, 365 days a year. But it felt like he was trying to show us.
My dad called after the town halls to ask me something about socks. “I turned on the Biden thing for a minute,” he said. “It was like opening a portal into a saner time.” And it was. Biden was willing to admit past faults, and he explained how and why he had evolved on issues. He was respectful of questioners, whose views he didn’t agree with and explained why. He showed his views are informed by deep knowledge, and aware of disagreements with those positions. And no — he didn’t say we should check out a conspiracy about how his opponents are demons, in case we might agree.
Probably no one will be very happy about a president actually focused on unity — at least, not initially. But maybe, just maybe, Biden can turn down the temperature enough that we can all return to a lower activation energy and focus on the hard work that needs to be done instead of just living in the burn-and-churn adrenaline haze of the last 4 wacky years.
Can Joe Biden spontaneously will a calmer, unified America able to dedicate itself to solving the problems of actual people into existence? No, of course not. He can’t do it on his own. But in the same way that the Russians have hacked our perceptions of who we are and what we can accomplish — and Donald Trump has hacked our perceptions of who we are and deeply convinced Americans of a sense of doom and powerlessness that simply isn’t real — maybe Joe Biden can convince us to stop doom-scrolling the American demise that hasn’t happened and is not imminent and turn instead back to the hard, non-reality show work of building a functional country that will lead the way through these coming decades of transformative human transition before it’s too late and we find authoritarian nations have set the terms of a dystopian future. Maybe this would be the greatest perception hack of all.
It’s an example to consider, and one to follow, as we try to find our way ahead, especially in the information domain.