Originally published at The Experiment - June 26, 2020
For almost four years, I have been thinking about disinformation. The resulting work examined computational propaganda and coordinated inauthentic activity and how those things hooked into politics, fairly technical stuff which operated to some degree on the margins and in the shadows, out of obvious public view.
Since then — since the world started to tear, not just at the edges but at the center of most people’s idea of normal life — I have been more worried about what happens right out in the open. “Disinformation from official sources” is the clunky way I refer to it, because it hasn’t always been okay to say “they are fucking lying to you” in every forum, but now maybe it is. They are fucking lying to you, and now we know from dire, real-world experience that this is the most dangerous disinformation of all.
The disinfo campaign around COVID-19 was destructive from the jump. Our leaders haven’t modeled wearing masks; instead, they made it a partisan issue. They called the virus a hoax and said it would go away. They said anyone could get a test and then made getting a test much harder than it had to be. As of June 26, 2020, about 126,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus. When weighed against death tolls in other countries, it is not unreasonable to assume that disinformation from official sources (edit: their fucking lies?) contributed directly or indirectly to many of those deaths. I think you can make a fairly reasonable argument that disinformation has been a significant factor in the deaths of close to 100,000 Americans.
There are plenty of people doing an array of great work on disinformation: Renee DiResta, Samuel Wooley, Laura Rosenberger, Ryan Greer, Olga Belogolova, Welton Chang, Camille Stewart, and many others. My focus has always been fairly narrow, and I had a specific goal. I wanted to communicate to political campaigns, public officials, media outlets, and the population at large that disinformation was a threat, one which should be taken seriously. I did not achieve that goal. I failed.
I failed to bring sufficient attention to the risk’s evolution from being mostly about bots and foreign intel contractor shitposters to being mostly about grossly negligent media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to being mostly about elected officials. I did not garner a large enough platform or audience to influence media reporting about disinformation, to overcome the disinformation itself, or to mitigate the effects of it by teaching people how to spot lies and tell the difference.
To my shame, I could not convince people with big platforms and audiences to tell this tale. I failed to talk them into believing they could do something about it, that they could stop bad actors from stealing an election in 2018, or that they could save lives in 2020. I was not successful in my attempt to disrupt disinformation or to intervene in the hermeneutic phenomenology of how people receive it.
11 years ago, I wrote a cover feature for Texas Observer about how Texas Republicans were learning to use social media. The Democrats I talked to were of two opinions: policy would never be written by tweet, and Democrats had too much of a head start to be overtaken.
Two years ago, I wrote an op-ed for Texas Tribune about elected officials using government communications as a vehicle for partisan messaging, and how such a thing erodes small-d democratic institutions. I ended it by writing that people’s ability to trust official sources of information had been critically damaged by disinformation campaigns across all spectrums of media, starting with Fox News. I wrote that someday soon a real crisis would occur, and that the damaged relationship between Americans (particularly Texans) and the truth would cause a real problem, and that people could die as a result.
In late June 2020, the American pandemic is burning through the American south, and 126,000 of us are dead, and the clear best practices for mitigation and public safety have been denigrated and lied about by those chiefly responsible for keeping us safe because they cannot have been wrong, and they will not allow themselves to be held to account.
In January of this year, the state of Iowa held its presidential caucuses. For the Democrats, it was a train wreck. The media, operating out of the normal election day playbook, had no idea what to do when there wasn’t a clear winner to declare two hours after the polls closed. Instead of reporting on the process, or having planned additional or alternative content for such a delay, TV anchors and analyst panels panicked and spun their wheels.
Republicans, having no real contest to litigate, took the opportunity to fill a national information vacuum with intentional and egregious disinformation. This was an effort embraced and amplified by both Fox News and the federal government, all the way up to the president of the United States and the first family.
Having seen what played out on caucus night in Iowa, I am convinced that the greatest danger to the future of the United States is posed by a period of about seven hours in November.
The clock starts ticking at about 7 pm Eastern time on November 3, 2020. Because of massive voter suppression campaigns in many states, huge increases in absentee voting and vote by mail in other states, and the generally enormous and universal challenges posed by a pandemic which will likely still be rampaging throughout the United States through the end of the year, it is almost certain that there will be no clear winner in the presidential race on the night of the election.
As news networks try and fail to deal with the reality of an unclear outcome, on an election night after four years of Trump and near the end of the worst year most of us have experienced in our lives, at the end of what will definitely be a hugely chaotic day, the information vacuum we saw on caucus night in Iowa will repeat itself at scale. So, too, will the panicked struggle to fill it, until at least 2 AM or so, when everyone will give up and call it a night.
This is the moment these grifters have been waiting for, the chance these devastators have dreamed of. If the willful mismanagement of the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t prove it to you, consider the kids in cages. If the attempt to kill the ACA during a public health crisis doesn’t sufficiently make the case, consider the violent deployment of the United States military on American soil against peaceful protestors. If the active and open disinformation campaign against vote by mail isn’t enough, think through the administration’s corrupt pillaging and institutional deconstruction of the Justice Department. I can reach back farther than 24 months, but these examples should be enough.
This is the moment they’ve been rehearsing for, the direct players and all their surrogates throughout the federal and state and local governments, those who cook the books and hide the number of deaths and close the polling places in Black neighborhoods and put kids in cages and uphold no-knock warrants and chokeholds and qualified immunity and always, without fail, make the worst possible decision, with malice and glee.
I regret to inform you that it is also the moment in which we will be at our weakest, our most tired, our most vulnerable. If there’s a time when it could all slip away, this is it.
However bad you think it is -- however horrific the scenarios are that keep you up at night -- you are lowballing it. The bare fact of where we are, of how close the republic has come to the precipice of true danger, should terrify you. Americans think the trappings of the failed state will always be kept at bay because we share a belief in the fairy tale that America is unique and different.
No matter how bad you think things are, they are worse than that. Whatever keeps you up at night is either true or so plausible that it might as well be true, because we have failed to trap it firmly in the realm of impossibility. We have opened the closet door and seen the monster lurking inside. That vision has given shape to the unknowable, a face to the unthinkable.
Since World War II we have embraced the delusion that we are forever and only the victor. We beat Hitler, the last monster we found behind a closet door, and then we split up the world how we and our friends saw fit. After that, aside from deposing a few dictators here and there, we haven’t won a major war despite fighting in several, or at least we haven’t come anywhere close to a result in which we could recognize ourselves as the winners of other wars.
We pretend to be immune from what happens to other countries even though the only time NATO ever rolled out to battle was on our behalf after 9/11. The exception to the rule, a preponderance of vulnerability and failure cast as inevitable invincibility: No one would dare attack the mighty United States, and if they do, it’ll take us and 90 other countries to fight to a never-ending draw in our longest war ever, waged against a non-state actor without a military. Along the way, for some reason, we invaded Iraq. Soft power, indeed.
This view of us versus the outside world is mostly about foreign policy; it is spectacularly narrow and crushingly white. This view is predicated on the fairy tale, made possible by the shared and agreed-upon reality in which we are not subject to the same laws as the rest of the world, whether those laws are scientific or international. It bleeds into how we think about politics at home. The enduring belief — especially among white Americans, because ’it’ certainly never happens to us — is that ’it’ can’t happen here. But it does, and it can, and it has. Fundamental rights are crushed all the time, exposing ideas like the rule of law in America as anything but a system that provides equal justice. People starve and suffer. We are ignorant and indifferent to it, deluded by a culture of selfishness and isolation, characteristics we mistake for independence and strength.
It is this casual, confident self-absorption that has led us to where we are. We assumed people wouldn’t vote for someone as comically, cosmically bad as Donald Trump. Every day we make similar assumptions about things like climate change, wealth inequality, and systemic racism. Whenever we are confronted by an actual existential threat, we whistle past it, because even if it is real, it surely can’t hurt us all that badly, or all that soon, because we are America. The time never comes. The debt is never due.
Even observing our failure to keep our responsibilities to each other over the last several years, we still assumed that when things got really serious and push came to shove, Americans would come together, buckle down, and do our part to save each other and the Republic, because, as we are fond of saying, that’s who we are. We fooled ourselves into thinking that serious, critical problems -- both their consequences and the work required to solve them --- were things for other countries to worry about.
When the internet became one of those problems, with astonishing speed and relentless, multiplicative force, it didn’t even feel like climate change or subprime lending. We got enormous benefits from the internet, tangible and immediate advantages, so it was hard, at first, to see the poison buried inside. I didn’t see it, despite being in full view of the worst parts of the internet for my entire adult life. The Good was so good; the Bad hadn’t added up to much. Sure, there were dark corners where bad guys said and did bad things, where they preyed on the weak and the lonely. But if you look under most rocks, you’ll find ugly bugs. The price of doing business, for me and thousands of other dudes like me —a gross extension of white privilege.
We didn’t know it, but the internet was developing along a timeline similar to the radical alt-right, born from the seeds of white supremacy inside of the weird Moral Majority pressure cooker set to boil during the Nixon years. This miasma leaked out through rotten seals onto talk radio at the end of Reagan’s time, blowing a real gasket in 1987 when the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine. This hard right extremism — born of white supremacy, always and forever white supremacy — evolved into and continued to evolve because of Fox News, the most powerful, most successful propaganda and disinformation effort since the Stalinist era.
By the time Obama was elected, conditions were perfect for the extreme right to weaponize itself, to take white supremacy and mix it with a healthy dose of pre-fascism. They called it the Tea Party. Republicans knew that they could leverage the racism-as-cultural-and-economic schism they’d cooked up to get ahead on an internet evolving into warring and distinct social media kingdoms. The pieces came together so fast it was hard to see it happening until it had already happened.
By the end of 2016, disinformation had graduated to being a problem similar to climate change: few people honestly interested in fighting against it doubted that it was real, or that the danger was extreme, but the prevalent opinion was that the whole deal was too big to do anything about. And, also like climate change, Americans achieved an imperfect understanding of the true nature of the problem, treating symptoms like the disease itself. With climate: Plastic waste. Forest fires. Floods. With disinformation: Bots. The Russians. Wikileaks.
You might be forgiven for thinking that, because the problem of disinformation developed relatively quickly, and since the vast majority of the damage to our collective ability to objectively understand and describe reality happened with what feels like great speed, the solution could also be quick. You’d be wrong.
Everything feels like it happened yesterday, or in the last six months, or since a weird night in early November of 2016. But this rotten ache at the base of our necks, these worms in our collective brains, they’ve been settling in since at least October 7th, 1996, the day Fox News came on the air. Conspiracy theories and propaganda have existed for thousands of years but the real tipping point for our most critical modern problem was the day Roger Ailes decided he’d had enough rehearsal and the time had come to do it live.
Back in 2009, when I wrote that story for Texas Observer, it was a gentle warning that Republicans had discovered the internet and were starting to figure it out. In 2018, I started publishing research with footnotes and endnotes and solid sources and literary references about how foreign intelligence shops, modern propagandists, and shitposters like Seb Gorka were inheriting Karl Rove’s legacy of bullshit and supercharging it, using old techniques and new technologies to take advantage of our willingness to believe in fairy tales.
They used our cognitive bias against us, and took advantage of how our brains are hardwired to short circuit, and deployed both to expose and exploit a casual cruelty within us, an ignorant indifference to human rights and bad governance. They did it to own the libs, and to take disinformation and white supremacy and class warfare mainstream, by way of policy and official communications from federal agencies and executive rule by fiat, institutional costs be damned.
In June of 2018, I was catching on to the real danger. I illustrated the risk environment in yet another paper, again trying earnestly to prove my case through academic rigor and studied reference, that disinformation from official sources now posed the most danger to life as we knew it, that elected officials were knowingly broadcasting bad information for political purposes, and that they could end up doing that dirty work during a real crisis and killing people as a result. I cited Greg Abbott’s ridiculous red meat politicization of Jade Helm as both a perfect example of this risk and a direct causal progenitor of utter bullshit like Pizzagate and QAnon.
Towards the end of that piece, I said this:
What if a significant portion of the public ends up geared so far towards confirmation bias that they reject any guidance provided by government channels and elected officials that doesn’t fit a hyper-political worldview? This is the crisis of belief. Jade Helm was a symptom of a deep and throbbing infection that is actively being exploited by foreign aggressors.
Shit happens, and someday in the near future, another real crisis will occur in Texas. Lives will hang in the balance due to another mass shooting, a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, a hacked election, or a compromised utility — maybe even a slow-motion slide towards civil unrest. In that eventual and certain emergency, the ability of elected officials to communicate about objective reality will be vital, and the will to do so will be required.
Even with all of my urgency and alarmism, even within my most panicked calls to action, I never landed on a public health emergency. I blame my inherent optimism. I couldn’t imagine that we could be so cruel and stupid as to actively and intentionally make a pandemic worse.
But that’s what happened. As a nation our crisis of belief is so crippling, even when we have good information we can’t do anything with it because half of us think it’s a lie if it doesn’t come from the right team. Abbott won’t shut Texas down again until refrigerator trucks and mass graves are on the news, and maybe not even then.
The beaches in Santa Cruz, California will open tomorrow because local law enforcement says they can’t enforce their closure, despite the exponential growth of COVID-19 cases over the last few weeks. Santa Cruz County health officer Dr. Gail Newel wanted to keep them closed through the 4th of July, because all of their local infection spikes have stemmed from holiday gatherings. Now, Newel said, ”People are not willing to be governed anymore in that regard."
Not willing to be governed anymore.
Framing ethical responsibility, care for others, and wearing a mask as one side of a binary political identity has a price.
In thinking about politics, terrorism, propaganda, and disinformation, I have spent the better part of 15 years writing warnings that read like intelligence product, backed up with scholarly diligence.
That time has passed.
Now I am simply here to tell you a story, to describe the disquieting probability of the end of an empire using examples you might recognize so that the narrative can be one you understand. Because no matter how bad you think it is, no matter what the worst-case scenario is that keeps you up at night, worried about the future, or your family, or the republic, I can guarantee you that things are worse than that.
The problem is not that Donald Trump might win again, or at least it is not the problem I am concerned with here. Elections happen and have consequences. At this point in 1988 Dukakis was up 17 over Bush. Anything can and does happen, even in elections which by international standards could be classified as free and fair. That is not the circumstance in which we will operate in the 2020 general election, and we know that for certain, because so many elections already held this year have not lived up to the standard of being free and fair. The real danger is this: Trump loses and he refuses to leave.
Set aside the inarguable fact of an executive branch armed with a radicalized DOJ and fully operating without meaningful oversight, an administration in open rebellion against both institutional norms and laws which might operate as any sort of check on power or corruption. The known, demonstrable instances of elections being actively disrupted by voter suppression are real predictors of what the future holds.
Kentucky reduced polling locations from 3,700 to 200 ahead of its primary election held on June 23. In Georgia, voting machine problems, huge lines at the polls, and ballot shortages occurred, predictably, in non-white, non-rich areas in their election held on June 9th. These outcomes are by design and absolutely represent a dress rehearsal for November. Combine that with Trump’s daily bluster about the election being rigged, and the full-court press against vote-by-mail during a pandemic run riot, and the intention becomes clear. The Voting Rights Act is dead. This is why they tried so hard to kill it.
Did you know that voter suppression is always the ultimate goal of propaganda and disinformation? It is. This stuff never really changes behavior, but rather hardens it. Propaganda campaigns — or rather, their fucking lies(!) — aren’t about acquisition or persuasion, only reinforcement. The people who aren’t inclined to believe, either the genteel stuff at the edges or the worst insanity buried deep in the heart of darkness, those people are the new swing voters.
‘Swing voting’ no longer indicates someone that could be swayed from independence to alignment with one political party or another, or one candidate or another, because partisan alignment and candidate favorability are based on morals and policy agendas and civic engagement rather than team loyalty. The swing voter is not someone you can get that might have voted the other way, but rather someone who will either vote at all or stay home, pounded into apathy by a never-ending air raid siren of lies, chaos, extreme rhetoric, and culture jamming.
So: Reasonable people are suppressed from voting by disinformation. Those that make the effort to vote anyway and are statistically likely to vote the “wrong way” in states or cities where Republicans control the levers of power will be suppressed literally, by a lack of machines or ballots or opportunities to vote which don’t require life-threatening risks. It has never really been a fair game in this country. But now access to the franchise is well and truly restricted, and they don’t even lie to us about it anymore.
And that’s the key difference and why, dearly beloved, we are gathered here today. They don’t feel like they need to lie about restricting access to the ballot. They don’t feel like they need to avoid telegraphing their intention to turn peaceful protests into police riots, or to rail publicly against any assertions that they should be held responsible for violating laws and rights. They won’t think twice about stealing an election, and have done it right out in the open more than once since 2016.
Donald Trump is a liar, but he has always been excruciatingly honest with us about who he is and what he wants. Our great failing, thus far, has been our unwillingness to believe him. His cronies -- these bootlickers in the Republican Party who have traded any semblance of patriotism or civic duty for carrying his vision and his water, these minions who make every decision based on surviving the next 24 hour news cycle and not pissing him off -- they believe him. It's why they do what they do. Once again, Republicans caught up and surpassed us when it really mattered.
We are on our own, out here on the perimeter of what we previously imagined American life could be. The zone is flooded and the stage is set. They could pull it off tomorrow with things as they are, but we still have four and a half more months to go before Election Day. The lengths to which this administration and those aligned with it have been willing to go to claim victory in relatively minor matters demonstrates what they’ll do to maintain a grip on real power.
A year ago I thought they would do it if the election was even a little bit close. Now I feel, very strongly, that they’ll do it no matter what, because they’ve been presented with the opportunity to do it: by fate, and circumstance, and a global pandemic, and elected officials all the way down the chain willing to do anything to maintain and consolidate power and stay in Trump’s good graces, and a populace who are willing to tolerate much more tragedy and death and violence and civil unrest and rights abuses and government malfeasance than I thought possible.
Up through the end of 2019, political people were fond of writing off Trump’s rhetoric and that of his supporters. Most of politics, they claimed, didn’t happen on the internet, and Twitter wasn’t representative of most American voters.
That may be true, but: Look what’s happened. Look what we’ve tolerated, and what we’ve believed, and what we’ve done to each other. Apathy and self-interest are two of the most powerful, sought-after items in the authoritarian tool box.
This dark work has already begun, but it will accelerate as Election Day nears. The media is extremely unlikely to get any better at reporting through uncertainty, or at managing expectations. We could mitigate some of this risk with a total information war, a huge but possible effort that bombards all media with simple descriptions of how Election Day will work, and how it might take as long as two weeks for all the results to be counted from every state and precinct, and how we shouldn’t expect a winner on Election Night.
We are unlikely to get that from a campaign, and the media won’t do it for us, or for itself. They don’t seem to know how. If the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder proved something about major media outlets, it is that they barely know how to cover civil unrest and police riots -- the protests continue, as do police riots, but property damage is down and so coverage has turned away.
You should count on civil unrest in our future, too. People may take to the streets before the seven hours have passed, in opposition to what may amount to plain, naked aggression against the last surviving norms of democratic process, cooked up by an executive who will do anything to stay in power and avoid vulnerability to prosecution. If you think it can’t happen, know that it already has, in a thousand small ways. That big, final, unimaginable step isn’t all that big anymore.
And so the disinfo campaign will start running hotter than ever days and weeks before November 3. We’ll be told, as we have been told already, that any mail-in ballots are a fraud. We’ll be told that voting safely isn’t an option, and the reality will come home to many that if they want to vote, they’ll have to endanger their lives to do it. Anywhere Trump and those on his team can make it more difficult to cast a ballot, they will. In some states where elected officials will actively try to make it easier to vote by mail, those efforts will create space and time in which uncertainty will thrive. They’ll use that against us, too.
The airwaves and the internet will be overrun with accusations of voter fraud. Results will be cast into doubt before they even get reported. The battle in the court of public opinion will begin. In the end, it will be the only one that matters, even if you’re in the street being tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed and brutalized and arrested as you fight the final battle for truth in America, the taste of your own blood rich in your mouth.
Do you remember how the recount ended in Florida after the general election in 2000? If you aren’t old enough, it’s okay. I’ll tell you. With a full and fair recount, Gore would have won, but that’s not what he got. The Supreme Court stopped the recount before it was finished. As a result, the decision to award the presidency to George W. Bush by Katherine Harris, the Republican Secretary of State in Florida, was upheld. Bush fought with every tool available to him and pulled every lever to which he had access. His party did the same.
Gore did not. Instead, Gore trusted the judicial process, and an institutionalist belief in that familiar American fairy tale told him and the rest of the Democratic Party that, for the good of the country, he had to accept the Supreme Court’s ruling and concede.
That was a mistake, the kind of thinking which created an environment that did not support Stacey Abrams setting the world on fire to prove she won the Georgia governorship in 2018. Instead, lacking institutions within the Democratic Party that would actually support her righteous fight no matter how long it took, she refused to concede but gave up the fight. She had to, because we don’t know how to do this like Republicans do. They’ve been successful more than once at stifling hundreds of thousands of votes and stealing elections. They were good at this even before the world was ending, and before so many systems we comfortably relied on, or comfortably didn’t think about at all, broke down. The people at the top of the Democratic Party have never bothered to figure out how to fight this battle. They won’t know how to do it in November.
I have been giving talks to political types about disinformation and the danger it poses for years. Some useful early feedback I received was to always present a way forward. What can we do about it? How can we fight disinformation? What are some solid steps my organization can take to mitigate this risk?
I always tried to include some practical, actionable options in my presentations, even to rooms full of campaign operatives or political professionals who did not want to hear what I had to say. Here’s how to keep your data safe. Here’s how to not do stupid things that end up on the news. Here’s how you can build a resilient audience that’s ready to both believe you and go to war for you when they pull you into a disinformation campaign, or when they steal your election.
Some groups listened. Others didn’t. In the face of a pandemic and hundreds of thousands in the streets and the complete breakdown of any recognizable version of law and order, I don’t know now if any of it made a difference. I don’t know that it matters either way.
I don’t have any options for you, or good news, or plans, or powerpoint slides about how to protect yourself against what’s coming. Social science tells us that the best way to combat disinformation is for people locked into a crisis of belief to have meaningful conversations with trusted loved ones. So if you have a parent or an uncle or a friend with a poisoned brain, you could do the work of helping them see their way back to reality. That has worth and meaning, between the two of you. It will help them to see what’s happening when it happens. Maybe you won’t feel quite as alone.
But if I am a climate scientist, thinking through the impact of coal-fired power plants on migratory geese, the last few months have been a global thermonuclear war and those seven hours in November are when the sun and stars and sky are blocked by fallout. My calculations and recommendations don’t matter anymore. If I am a surgeon, my skill matters little if you bring me a man who has passed through a grain thresher. We are both a mess, and there’s nothing I can do, nothing to be done.
What I can tell you is that we must bear witness. We got into this mess because enough of us believed in the fairy tale and we allowed it to happen. We believed it couldn’t happen here, and now it has, and it is awful. Trump is awful. But for the first time, we need to really see things in a context that acknowledges the systems and culture that got us to this point and made the worst possible person president at the worst possible time.
The best thing about Election Day 2020 is that it will show us, once and for all, who we are. If the truth has a future, the path to it will either be revealed or destroyed over those seven hours in November. Even if we don’t know exactly what will happen, we already know what’s going on.