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The Truth About Lies

Donald Trump’s election in 2016 came as such a thunderous shock that it sent Democrats scrambling in search of an answer to the question of how Americans could have chosen someone so manifestly unfit to be president.

The Lie Detectives: In Search of a Playbook for Winning Elections in the Disinformation Age by Sasha Issenberg Columbia Global Reports, 212 pp.

One popular conclusion quickly emerged and has only gained traction in the years since: Voters were duped by nefarious actors skillfully sowing disinformation among an unsuspecting populace. Whether the perpetrators were Russians or Trumpers, whether their medium was Facebook or illicit WhatsApp groups, the idea that bad guys might have stolen the election in a campaign of widespread deceit was a satisfying explanation for aggrieved liberals trying to make sense of Trump’s victory—on a conscious level because misleading people is tantamount to cheating, and on a subconscious level because it absolved them of having nominated a bad candidate who didn’t connect with voters and allowed a dangerous charlatan to win the White House.

Since then, “disinformation” has assumed a central place in U.S. political discourse. It’s spawned a new journalistic beat, with news outlets now employing specialist reporters who focus on it exclusively. It’s been the basis of high-profile exposés on outfits such as Cambridge Analytica, the British firm that illicitly mined Facebook user data on behalf of Trump’s campaign. It’s become an obsession of many liberal funders, advocacy groups, and political staffers who worry about what they perceive to be a growing threat—all the more so with Trump poised to clinch the GOP nomination once again. Technological advances have also fueled these fears. In January, New Hampshire primary voters received robocalls impersonating Joe Biden that seem to have been generated by artificial intelligence, leading the Federal Trade Commission to impose a swift ban.

For all its attention, disinformation is a slippery subject. It’s rarely defined with any precision, its effect is difficult to measure and easy to exaggerate, and there’s a profit motive to hype it up on both sides—for firms like Cambridge, and also for a new breed of “social listening” companies that will scour social media for signs that a politician is being targeted by disinformation and devise a plan to fight back … for a healthy fee, of course. The challenge, then, is how to think about disinformation and the threat it poses. Is it just Russians sowing online discord or Macedonian teenagers running right-wing conspiracy sites? Or does Trump’s endless lying count, too? Does it trick unwitting voters who’d otherwise support Biden into pulling the lever for Trump? Or is it mainly harmless invective passed around among committed partisans already voting Republican? Is it a real danger? Or is it a handy excuse for liberals to avoid interrogating their own policies and political shortcomings?

Sasha Issenberg’s timely new book, The Lie Detectives, examines the sudden rise of disinformation in U.S. politics and how Democratic campaigns have struggled to respond to it. No one is better suited to the job. Issenberg’s seminal 2012 book, The Victory Lab, made him the leading voice on the complicated interplay between social science, technology, and electoral campaigning that was just then starting to reshape U.S. politics. He’s a gifted explainer of esoteric scientific and technical practices that flummox lesser reporters—something I’ve experienced as both a reader and (briefly) a colleague. Issenberg and I overlapped during his short tenure at Bloomberg News during the first Trump campaign, which happened also to be the dawn of what might be thought of as the new age of disinformation.

U.S. media often fails to provide context when writing about disinformation, favoring speculative doomsday scenarios and giving a platform to a handful of media-friendly academic experts eager to furnish hyperbolic quotes. This dovetails with a credulous tendency among political reporters to marvel at new technological practices they often don’t understand and can’t properly contextualize.

Issenberg’s main protagonist in The Lie Detectives is Jiore Craig, a young Democratic operative whose formative political experiences came in eastern Europe and Africa, where disinformation is a common tactic campaigns have learned to contend with. Craig’s early education was tracking fake news and political propaganda about her candidates, learning what posed a genuine threat that required a response and what attacks simply ricocheted around the sealed-off universe of the opposition’s Facebook and YouTube pages, thrilling supporters but never reaching voters who could be influenced to change their minds.

When Trump advisers like Stephen Bannon and Brad Parscale began boasting about importing these tactics to the U.S., many Democrats freaked out. But Craig was unfazed. As Issenberg notes, she was well versed in races where “media manipulation, untraceable outside money, and foreign influence had all been standard elements of electoral politics well before social media.” 

After Trump’s victory, Craig was one of few U.S. professionals with experience combating disinformation. She relocated to Washington and carved out a career for herself as a kind of campaign whisperer for paranoid Democrats who tended to want to overreact to what they perceived as an existential new danger. The obsession with Twitter among the political class, and Trump’s mastery of it, was a frequent concern. Democrats were often alarmed by viral tweets of dubious origin pushing false information. But Craig understood their limited reach and knew that responding to them might backfire and amplify their influence. A 2017 Pew Research study underscored something she had learned overseas—that a lot of false information, no matter how personal or inflammatory, can safely be ignored. Pew found that just 15 percent of Americans use Twitter, a number that’s surely much lower today. “People kept bringing me these things saying, ‘Is this Russian?’ ” Craig recounts to Issenberg. “I’d say, ‘Slow your roll on whether this is Russian. Why do you even think this is worth spending any time on?’ ” 

One reason Democrats are so anxious about disinformation is that the U.S. media often fails to provide context when writing about it, favoring speculative doomsday scenarios and giving a platform to a handful of media-friendly academic experts eager to furnish hyperbolic quotes. This dovetails with a credulous tendency among political reporters to marvel at new technological practices they often don’t understand and can’t properly contextualize. As Craig tartly observes about much of what Democrats were obsessing over, “Because it had originated from the internet, people don’t know how to use their normal brains.”

A big hazard of writing about disinformation is that it incentivizes reporters to adopt a tone of bug-eyed alarm that reliably generates clicks from anxious, confused, and outraged readers. Issenberg is immune to this affliction. In 2015, he was one of the first reporters Cambridge Analytica invited in to write about its supposedly cutting-edge “psychographic” technology, a set of techniques the company claimed was so powerful it could “deconstruct” and ultimately change voter behavior on behalf of its client candidates. Plenty of outlets repeated the claim. Issenberg went and tested them and then wrote a long Bloomberg article politely declaring them bunk (the company later
went bankrupt).

Craig’s appeal as an operative and a protagonist is that she shares this same sharp eye for bullshit. Experience taught her that while Russians may be eager to disrupt foreign elections, they aren’t the wily villains of Hollywood movies, and much of what they and other bad actors attempt isn’t effective and can safely be ignored. What does need rebutting doesn’t require the cloak-and-dagger skills of a Tom Cruise superagent, but rather ones that are far more prosaic.

In 2018, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hired its first full-time staffer to counter disinformation. The job mainly entailed cultivating relationships with mid-level Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat employees so that when Democratic campaigns called, the companies would take down false or malicious material in a timely manner. At the campaign level, combating disinformation has amounted mainly to drudge work such as videotaping a candidate’s every appearance so that if footage is later altered by unscrupulous actors—such as the right-wing accounts that posted slowed-down footage of Nancy Pelosi speaking that made her appear drunk—the campaign will have proof to share with media platforms to get it removed.

Issenberg also writes about overzealous liberals such as LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman who have attempted to beat conservatives at their own game, in Hoffman’s case by funding disinformation efforts aimed at duping Republican voters in an Alabama special election for U.S. Senate in 2017. The results were unclear (and minimal at best), and the blowback against Hoffman was substantial enough to force an apology.

Most Democrats aren’t eager to wage a disinformation war against their Republican opponents, even if the feeling isn’t mutual. What some fantasize about instead is a powerful government response that will shut down the lies and manipulation under threat of law. The Lie Detectives ventures south to Brazil, which has had its own struggles with disinformation and responded by granting unprecedented—and frankly Orwellian—powers to its judiciary to intervene and punish perpetrators. But even this didn’t prevent a January 6–style storming of government buildings by angry right-wing Brazilians after their candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, lost the 2022 presidential election.

The lesson Issenberg illuminates in his deeply reported and skillfully written examination of the global war on disinformation is that it’s a conflict that can never be won, only managed. The ubiquity of almost completely unregulated social media, the rise of artificial intelligence, and the wholesale collapse of local news—along with, of course, the eagerness of Trump to deceive his supporters and their willing complicity in that process—have robbed millions of Americans of trusted, fact-based sources of information and left them open to less reliable sources of news. That’s certainly worth worrying about. But it didn’t rob Hillary Clinton of victory. And there’s little evidence that liberals or independents are being tricked by disinformation into voting for Republicans. Instead, studies have found that committed partisans tend to traffic the most heavily in false information, but they mainly pass it among their own tribe because it reaffirms their political beliefs. When 70 percent of Republicans tell pollsters that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, it isn’t evidence that tens of millions of fair-minded people were duped by Russians—it’s motivated reasoning by partisans who aren’t interested in objective truth.

The best way to manage disinformation, Craig and other experts have found, is to keep it bottled up in its partisan universe. In the first years after Trump’s victory, this was achieved mainly through a shaky alliance between campaigns and social media companies to police the worst offenses, an ad hoc process one strategist likened to a game of Whac-a-Mole.

If there’s a valid reason to worry that disinformation will become a more serious problem in American politics, it’s that this alliance has come apart. Twitter once made a concerted effort to rid itself of deceitful content. But it’s now owned by Elon Musk, who seems to regard disinformation as a personal passion and engagement tool. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram have tired of going after perpetrators and absorbing criticism from a growing legion of conservatives—including Trump—who routinely attack them as “biased” for doing so.

The ubiquity of almost completely unregulated social media, the rise of artificial intelligence, and the wholesale collapse of local news have robbed millions of Americans of trusted, fact-based sources of information and left them open to less reliable sources of news. That’s certainly worth worrying about. But it didn’t rob Hillary Clinton of victory.

The retreat of the tech companies is forcing prominent Democrats like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to fight disinformation largely on their own. Issenberg reveals that, with no hope of defeating it, Biden strategists have resorted to buying Google ads opposite the most popular search terms tied to right-wing conspiracy theories, “like ‘Kamala + cop’ or ‘Biden + senile.’ ” In the jargon of disinformation strategists, this is known as “clickbaiting” the enemy’s terms, a practical attempt to limit the damage.

The inescapable conclusion of Issenberg’s investigation is that the rise of disinformation in the United States is forcing political campaigns to adopt the defensive tactics of eastern European countries still fighting off the vestiges of being former Soviet client states. So much for American exceptionalism. The good news, at least so far, is that those efforts seem to have been successful. But there’s no guarantee that will always be true. Disinformation, like COVID, is a chronic and unwelcome new feature of American life that everyone is going to have to learn to contend with.

The post The Truth About Lies appeared first on Washington Monthly.

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