Trust No One: The Toxic Brine of Misinformation

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We are in an era of disinformation. That term is thrown around by all political persuasions to accuse their opponents of not being truthful. The systematic dissemination of disinformation, however, is more than just lying. It is a political strategy in a war to take control of public power. Its intended purpose is to create confusion, which leads to rejecting government institutions entrusted to deliberate over verifiable facts. 
 
There is a significant difference between lying about a particular action or product and a disinformation campaign to undermine public trust in a democratic republic. A classic example of the former is how the tobacco industry lied or created doubt about scientific findings that demonstrated that smoking caused lung and cardiac diseases. Up to the mid-’50s, the tobacco industry had succeeded in elevating smoking to be one of the most popular, successful, and widely used items of the early 20th century.
 
In response to the mounting evidence that smoking cigarettes damaged one’s health, the tobacco industry hired the nation’s leading public relations firm. The industry followed the consultant’s advice and focused its efforts on disrupting the usual processes of knowledge production in medicine, science, and public health. Consequently, the leading tobacco companies embraced the scientific discourse that assumes there is always more to know. 
 
The tobacco industry’s strategy was to exaggerate that principle in order to spread doubt and uncertainty about the known facts. The tobacco industry’s campaign did not attack the validity of scientific institutions to analyze the facts; instead, they accused scientists of not wanting to find the correct data.
     
Eventually, the tobacco industry lost its battle by paying over $206 billion through a court settlement. However, that punishment was only achievable because it was delivered by an independent court system that fairly weighed the facts. 

Borrowing a page from the tobacco playbook, Donald Trump has not directly attacked the concept of democracy; instead, he undermines the creditability of democratic institutions by accusing them of not treating him and his supporters fairly. For example, he attacked Congress for not throwing out Biden’s electoral votes, and he condemned the courts for tossing out his 60 cases challenging the outcome of the election. His repeated message was that the election was rigged. 
 
All politicians and political parties can be justly accused of lying from time to time about their accomplishments or their intent to accomplish things they have no power to do. However, past efforts from major political players have stayed within a sandbox of playing with democratic institutions. Trump stepped outside that sandbox on the night of the 2012 presidential election when he Tweeted, “This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!” He mistakenly thought that Obama had won the 2012 election without the majority popular vote. Four years later, Trump won his presidential election without winning the popular vote, but he didn’t mention that fact. Instead, when the polls indicated that he might lose the 2016 election to Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton, he claimed it would have been rigged if she had won. Then, even after winning, Trump made the unfounded accusation that millions of illegal votes were cast for her. That claim never received any factual support.  
 
Trump has insisted that government institutions allowed Biden to steal the election, a claim that he has not substantiated. Consequentially, as he and his supporters see it, not only are the institutions corrupt but so are their illegitimately elected leaders. And what do you do with corrupt leaders? You jail them.
 
At a campaign rally 12 days before Election Day 2020, Trump called for locking up his opponent, former V.P. Joe Biden, his son Hunter, and tossing Hillary Clinton into the clink. His daughter-in-law Lara Trump excused her father-in-law’s encouraging rally attendees to chant “lock her up” as just him “having fun.” Elected Presidents in other countries who gained authoritarian powers have locked up their political opponents so they could not run for election. President Russian President Vladimir Putin jailing Alexei Navalny for unproven fraud charges is the most famous recent example. 
            
But Trump lost the 2020 election, and his opponents took office. Our democratic electoral process worked. Nevertheless, after the results were counted, Donald Trump Tweeted, “I won this election by a lot…watch for massive ballot-counting abuse…Remember I told you so!” Trump never acknowledged that all 50 states had certified the election results, with Republicans controlling more state legislatures than Democrats. 
 
His campaign of disinformation has been continuous since the presidential election, convincing close to half of the population that he, not Biden, won the election. Two months after the November election, a poll showed that only 55 percent of Americans believed that Biden was legitimately elected. Particularly disturbing is that only 52 percent of independent voters agreed that Biden was a legitimate president. 
 
How did we get to the point where the current disinformation campaign has undermined trust in our electoral process more than any single effort in the past century? Two attempts are currently underway to that answer that question. 
 
Economic Justice and Labor Educator Mark McDermott has introduced a webinar: “We Must Win the War for the Truth to Preserve and Strengthen Our Democracy.” He provides a history of past efforts at disinformation in and outside America. Those efforts are designed to undercut democracy by dividing people, feeding their emotions, destroying their ability to recognize truths, and undermining their capacity to find them. 
 
McDermott uses the following quotes to illustrate how these strategies are pursued.

 
            “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” August 28, 2012, Lindsay Graham, former GOP Presidential candidate and current U.S. Senator. 
 
            “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party
 
            “Voters are basically lazy…Reason requires a high degree is discipline…The emotions are more easily aroused.”
William Gavin, a Nixon media advisor

 
            “The goal isn’t to sell an ideology or a vision of the future; instead, it is to convince people that the truth is unknowable, so you need “to follow a strong leader.” Peter Pomerantsev, a Russian propaganda expert
 

Paul Loeb, a West Seattleite and the founder of Campus Election Engagement Project (CEEP), said the project has published Do Not Be Deceived: Detecting Disinformation Guide. It advises readers to start reading news by putting its information in context, zooming out to get a broader picture. Also, if you post a story that you later learn is false, go public with your discovery. Your admission can help rebuild trust with your online community. 
 
Overall, Loeb’s guide shows how social media is a spawning ground for disinformation. For instance, in the three months leading up to the 2016 election, the top 20 fake election stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the 20 best-performing stories from major news websites.
 
Political disinformation efforts date to the Roman Empire and will continue indefinitely, so a democracy must learn to live with it. However, a democratic society can rebuff attacks on its institutions if citizens are educated. As I have argued in Teach Civics In Schools or Face More Insurrections, students should learn how to evaluate the reliability of all information they receive, regardless of the source. Accepting verifiable knowledge pours water on enflamed irrational fears. 

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Nick Licata, was a 5 term Seattle City Councilmember, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials. Author of Becoming a Citizen Activist. http://www.becomingacitizenactivist.org/changemakers/ Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Urban Politics http://www.becomingacitizenactivist.org/

12 COMMENTS

  1. Agree on 1 thing – teaching civics in schools (along with math, social studies, language) is important. We are also teaching political science quite early via the media.
    Nick you should maybe expand your political positioning and become more current, as it reads more like a religion when your focus is so one sided. You will lose your debating skills by alway arguing the same side of the political question. The Trumps are not the devil – The Clintons, Bidens, Obamas, etc. are not angels. They are politicians. Most political observers can see what has transpired and look for solutions to current problems in the voting booth.

  2. The “zoom out to get a broader picture”, “look for context” advice seems a little vague, for the kind of person who’s going to be roped in by facebook stories.

    For example, every time Biden turns around, there’s a new story about some shocking evidence that he isn’t all there. He shook hands with thin air at some public appearance; that seemed unlikely. I found pages and pages of web hits with this claim and video evidence … and one lonely hit from politifact where they looked at the seconds around this event: the mysterious thin air handshake was a gesture to someone off screen.

    Around the same time, Biden appeared at an Easter Egg Roll at the capitol, and cooperated with the organizer of the event who was wearing a bunny outfit. This was cast as the president of the United States taking orders from someone dressed as the Easter Bunny, who prevented him from possibly saying something his managers would regret. Pages and pages of hits, and really nothing that I recall that really rebutted the story – he did allow himself to be interrupted by this organizer staff person, it’s just that this wasn’t a press conference on matters of international importance, it was an Easter Egg Roll, whatever that is, with a bunch of little kids.

    The only way we are going to get out of this torrent that will otherwise sweep us into the sewer, is to recognize it for what it is, and just turn it off. I don’t think many people will have the patience to track these things down, and I expect the stories will be progressively more sophisticated and more difficult to debunk. We have to get tired of being lied to.

  3. Great piece, Nick, with so many important, accurate and thoughtful observations about Trump. Those of in the center, especially those of us who didn’t vote for him, recognize the danger of clear denialism and gaslighting, and it’s a major reason many of us cast our votes elsewhere.

    But so many of late, whether it be writers at The Atlantic, pundits on MSNBC, President Obama in his Stanford speech, or the current Press Secretary want to pretend “misinformation” and “disinformation” are somehow the exclusive purview of the right. That’s blatantly untrue.

    It would be far more credible to name some of the most important pieces of disinformation to arise over the past ten years which came from the left and center-left: The Steele Dossier, which began as an opposition-research paper and somehow found its way into the highest echelons of the FBI. The “pee tape” allegation. The suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story, in which numerous “national security experts” portrayed it as Russian disinformation without even inspecting the emails themselves. The rallying around “no possible way that COVID began as a lab leak.” The idea that colonists in the United States Revolution were primarily motivated to preserve slavery (they weren’t.) The idea that justice Brett Kavanaugh was some kind of gang rapist in high school and college. The idea that “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan, period.” That Stacey Abrams is the duly elected governor of Georgia. None of these misinformation/disinformation storylines came from the right — they were released and amplified by a Blue Stack which is all too happy with certain kinds of disinformation campaigns.

    No question the Red Stack has numerous harmful and crazy disinformation efforts, from the “stolen” election of 2020 (it wasn’t) to QAnon (still don’t quite grok that hypothesis) and more. It’s just that far too few people are willing to acknowledge it exists on both sides.

    Only by allowing more speech and opposing voices do we eventually get to a truer sense of what is true. For sure, there needs to be moderation (speech should stay within the constraints of law, no incitement of violence, etc.), but the purpose of dialog in a free and liberal society is to get closer to the truth in the end.

    • Steve, it isn’t a contest. I don’t think he left out left wing misdeeds because he wants the left to win, he left them out because they aren’t breaking down our society.

      “There is a significant difference between lying about a particular action or product and a disinformation campaign to undermine public trust in a democratic republic.”

      • Who decides to what degree political misdeeds undermine public trust ?

        In your opinion the Clinton campaign and their allies were doing an OK disinformation campaign – the Biden campaign was OK stifling the Hunter business interests and laptop.
        Trump’s problem was that he is/was politically naive and took it personally and overreacted.

        • I really have no opinion about whatever the Clinton campaign is supposed to have done, or the Hunter business, whatever it was.

          > “How did we get to the point where the current disinformation campaign has undermined trust in our electoral process more than any single effort in the past century?”

          And it isn’t just the election steal lie. It’s the intensive campaign to counteract US public health efforts, which has borne its evil fruits in death, illness and economic depression. It’s the story fed to Haitians and Central Americans that the southern border is open. Etc. Lies that have had real consequences, that Americans should care about.

  4. Nick, good piece; hope more read by more than just the usual suspects. You’re right when you boost teaching civics, especially with attention how our democracy is supposed to operate. You neglect, however, to mention the need for newspapers and independent media to keep voters informed.

  5. “However, a democratic society can rebuff attacks on its institutions if citizens are educated.”

    The Republicans take advantage of their less-educated base. It’s time to require a test in order to vote so that only critical thinking is choosing the government leaders. Remove morons like Trump and MTG from the political discourse.

    • Can’t believe what I just read………..
      Only the educated can vote !
      IQ test to get a ballot !
      Have you just reread Atlas Shrugged ?
      Still wearing your Hillary button ?

      • Well, the Republican party would drop from 50% public support to about 5% if intelligence was a prerequisite to vote. Not hard to imagine why Republicans and morons would be against the concept.

  6. I can’t help to notice that there wasn’t any mention of the fact that these tactics cross political lines. Until the finger isn’t pointed at only one group, consensus will be difficult to achieve. I acknowledge that using Trump as an example of what can and did happen is an entirely understandable approach, we have very fresh experiences here. But he and the GOP aren’t the only ones using these tactics.

    It seems to me that ethics are what have declined over my 42 years of voting, working and 30 years of running a business. Hegemony and nest feathering are rank within government and private sectors. Especially government. I’m not confused; Camelot never existed. But the prevalence of self serving ideology is disturbing.

    Means testing for voting is a tempting fantasy. Just like mental acuity and means testing for parenting would be attractive. I’m pretty sure though, that having a college degree is not a useful standard. So we’d have to come up with a different approach…

    There are certainly morons in both parties. (is that still and ok word? I hope I’m not offending anyone.) There are also a bunch of people who were bamboozled by an unethical, mercurial narcissist into a belief system he clearly doesn’t hold. And it is, frankly, slightly harder to understand the thought process of the most vocal and active members of the patriot movement than it is the woke movement. Slightly.

    I was chagrined (horrified) to learn that anyone took Trump as seriously as that group did. I thought it was all showmanship and tactics. It certainly get the opposition standing in place and stomping feet.

    That said, stupidity, self righteousness and laziness are everywhere.

    Education in this country is at a low-ebb. In my home state the democrats have been in charge of it for three generations and we are 56th in the nation for high school scores. Can’t blame everything on a few mouth breathers.

    I believe we try to accommodate too many special interests from languages to sexuality and gender issues to swearing clear of discussions (not promotion) of religion. I’ve met young people who didn’t have to take history classes (or didn’t have to work at learning it; hard to tell). It’s hard to discuss with young people, whether Trumps followers resembled the Nazis when the kids don’t know what happened in 1939 and the war generation before that.

    And yes, history is written by the victors or the oppressors and yet, what actually happened can be uncovered.

    It also amazes me that the voters have no trouble voting for bonds that build $300 million high schools and yet won’t pay teachers a living wage! It ain’t the building graduating kids.

    I despair that civility has been lost for a long time. That those with differing points of view live in fear of expressing their view point and that we have such a hard time discussing a topic instead of railing about it.

    If people don’t understand that like the German people made the ground fertile for Hitler, a no-holds-barred, demonize-the-opposition approach breeds what happened. (Grouping people as morons or racists or homophobes or whatever, is not going open eyes, ears and hearts.)

    Fortunately, that is in the rear view mirror (centrist GOP voters won the day for Trump; I’m no longer an GOP member and many of those who stayed in the party won’t vote that way again.)

    But, by god we need a candidate and I don’t care what side of the aisle it is. Socialism isn’t part of the doctrine I ascribe to, and there is entirely too much navel gazing and worry about who is calling whom by what pronoun or who is in who’s bed or who is practicing what religion (or not) our what ones genes are. Discrimination for any reason should be prosecuted and education…well, there’s a conundrum, one pronoun’s education is another’s advocacy or recruiting.

    But, as my friendly therapist says “We tend to (dislike, fear, etc.) that which we do not understand.”

    Let’s be civil and try and understand each other. Generalizations and judgment are impediments to progress.

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