Disinformation

“Those who can make you believe absurdities
can make you commit atrocities.” — Voltaire

Contents
Risk to Democracy
  • Millions of people believing disinformation like the Big Lie increases the risk that
    • Voters elect election-deniers to run elections
    • Voters elect representatives who pass restrictive voting laws in the name of preventing voter fraud.
    • Voters elect representatives who pass laws empowering legislatures to intervene in the counting of votes.
Disinformation Works
  • The storming of the Capitol on January 6 made one thing clear. Disinformation works. It can make people do things they would not do otherwise.
    • A segment of the population is ready and willing to believe falsehoods, regardless of the evidence.
    • People act on their beliefs.
Disinformation, Misinformation, Propaganda
  • Misinformation is false or misleading information
  • Disinformation is false or misleading information spread to deceive.
    • Disinformation, Merriam-Webster
      • False information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth
  • Propaganda is information—facts, arguments, rumors, half-truths, or lies—disseminated to influence public opinion. (Britannica)
  • The Big Lie
    • Trump repeated claim of rigged election 76 times. WaPo
    • FactChecking Trump’s CPAC Speech, February 28, 2021 factcheck.org
      • He repeated unsupported claims about dead people and “illegal aliens” voting; he talked about “corrupt mail-in voting”; he advanced allegations of widespread “cheating”; and he made wild and unsubstantiated accusations about “tens of millions of ballots … indiscriminately pouring in from all over the country.” None of that is accurate.
    • View Big Lie
  • Russian Disinformation
    • National Intelligence Council, Intelligence Community Assessment, March 10, 2021
    • Foreign Threats to the 2020 US Federal Elections, odni.gov
      • Key Judgment 2: We assess that Russian President Putin authorized, and a range of Russian government organizations conducted, influence operations aimed at
        • denigrating President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party,
        • supporting former President Trump,
        • undermining public confidence in the electoral process, and
        • exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the US.
      • A key element of Moscow’s strategy this election cycle was its use of proxies … to push influence narratives … to
        • US media organizations,
        • US officials, and
        • prominent US individuals, including some close to former President Trump and his administration.
Spreading Disinformation
  • Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister for the Third Reich, spread disinformation using radio, direct mailings, press and leaflet campaigns, films, slide shows, phonograph records, torchlight parades, motorcades through the countryside, and entertainment events.
  • Modern technology has made the mass dissemination of disinformation easier and faster.
  • For example, the Big Lie has been spread through:
  • How an event developed into viral disinformation. From an article by Renée DiResta in the Atlantic
    • On the morning of September 21, 2020, three trays of United States mail were discovered in a ditch in Greenville, Wisconsin. The local sheriff’s office reported that the mail dump included several absentee ballots.
    • Within days of its discovery, the discarded mail had been weaponized into an attack on the integrity of the U.S. voting system. 
    • How the event went viral:
      • WLUK published the story
      • Jim Hoft, the founder and editor of The Gateway Punditdashed off an article that added four lines of original content atop the reporting:
        • Democrats are stealing the 2020 election.
        • Two trays of US mail were discovered in a ditch near Greenville, a rural area north of Appleton, Wisconsin.
        • According to local officials the mail included mail-in ballots.
        • The USPS unions support Joe Biden.
      • Soon after the story’s publication to The Gateway Pundit’s website and social-media pages, Charlie Kirk, a radio talk-show host and Twitter-verified conservative activist with 1.7 million followers, reposted it, as did Breitbart News.
      • By noon the following day, more than 40,000 individual Twitter accounts had retweeted the story, reaching millions of viewers.
      • That afternoon, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany cited the Greenville ballots as evidence that mail-in voting was fraudulent.
  • Another example
Believing Disinformation
  • A segment of the population, seemingly otherwise rational, is ready and willing to believe disproven falsehoods.
  • The Big Lie
    • 65% of Republicans believe Biden’s election was not legitimate.
      • Poll finds 65% of Republicans say they don’t believe Biden’s election was legitimate  Market Watch
    • The uncomfortable reality: Even many Republican officials believe false election claims Bump WaPo
    • Poll: 70 percent of Republicans don’t think the election was free and fair, Politico
  • Why people believe disinformation:
  • From the Constitutional Convention
    • Roger Sherman
      • The people lack information and are constantly liable to be misled.
    • Elbridge Gerry
      • The people do not lack virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots.
Acting on Disinformation
  • People act on false beliefs
    • Assaulting the Capitol
    • Not getting vaccinated against Covid, not wearing a mask, taking ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.
    • Killing oneself
      • Heavens Gate (Britannica)
        • As the comet approached, the Heaven’s Gate group, which had shrunk to only 39 members, took poison in three waves of 15, 15, and 9 in the belief that the spaceship would arrive to take them to a better place.
  • Politicians sometimes act as if they believe disinformation.
    • Voting to reject legitimate electoral votes
      • Voting against certifying Arizona’s 11 electoral votes
        • 6 Republican Senators and 121 Reps
        Voting against certifying Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes
        • 7 Republican Senators and 138 Reps
    • Voting for measures against nonexistent election fraud, thereby suppressing the vote.
      • In Statehouses, Stolen-Election Myth Fuels a G.O.P. Drive to Rewrite Rules, NYT
      • How GOP-backed voting measures could create hurdles for tens of millions of voters WaPo
      • Why Republicans Are Moving To Fix Elections That Weren’t Broken, NPR
      • Voting Laws Roundup: February 2021 Brennan Center
Addendum
Examples of Believing Disinformation
  • They’re worried their mom is becoming a conspiracy theorist. She thinks they’re the ones living in a fantasy world. WaPo
    • Something fundamental had changed since Claire and her husband “pulled the cord on mainstream media” a few years ago, said Laurie Nelsen, 46, the second-oldest of Claire’s five grown children.
    • One of the siblings would fact-check something Claire said or posted on Facebook, and Claire would accuse them of trying to censor her.
      • “Do you think you have the right to control my vote and to completely lambast me over it. It is sickening to me. If you want to be an MSM cheerleader not knowing or caring how much they have been [bought] then you go ahead,” Claire texted Laurie in December.
    • Claire wrote in an email:
      • “The MSM were, to a person, arrayed against Trump, from the day after the [2016] election, and over time that’s where my suspicions finally landed. Even a [broken] clock is right twice a day, but they couldn’t throw Trump even a crumb. It sickened me and I stopped watching MSM in 2017.”
    • Claire said:
      • “But I am still convinced that Trump won the legal vote and by a landslide. And now the question for me is: Is my vote worth a plug nickel, given what I saw happen in the past election?”
    • Claire was steadfast in her belief that “paid infiltrators” had “facilitated” the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. 
    • She had not been tricked by an epidemic of disinformation, she said. She chose whom and what to believe for herself. She did not want her children to be too disappointed when the proof came out that the election really was rigged against Trump, she said.
    • Celina suspected that Claire’s husband, Kelly, was pushing an extreme worldview on her.
  • Retired N.Y.P.D. Officer Who Guarded City Hall Charged in Capitol Riot, NYT
    • Judge Krause acknowledged that before Jan. 6, Mr. Webster had been a model citizen and said that he found it to be a difficult case. But he said that Mr. Webster’s “proud and impressive record” as a public servant made the video of his attack on the officer all the more upsetting.
    • Ultimately, the judge said that the “undercurrent of political hostility” that appeared to have led a person with a previously exemplary life to act in a violent manner had not dissipated, and Mr. Webster could still be considered a threat to public safety. He ordered him held without bail pending another hearing.
  • Life amid the ruins of QAnon: ‘I wanted my family back’ WaPo
    • She bought ammunition, camping gear, a water purifier and boxes of canned food. Then, Tyler’s mother started wearing a holstered pistol around the house, convinced that 10 days of unrest and mass power outages were coming.
    • The chaos would culminate, she assured her son, in former president Donald Trump’s triumphant return to power on March 4, the original Inauguration Day before the passage of the 20th Amendment in 1932.
    • Tyler, 24, had been living with his mother an hour north of Minneapolis since he graduated college in 2019. The paranoia and fear that had engulfed his home had become unbearable in the months since Trump began to falsely claim that the 2020 election had been stolen from him.
  • 60 Minutes QAnon’s corrosive impact on the U.S.60 Minutes
    • Some of the attraction of QAnon is their use of Christian symbolism and apocalyptic prophecies. A new survey by the conservative American Enterprise Institute found more than a quarter of White evangelical protestants and nearly one in five White Catholics believe the QAnon conspiracy.
    • Nate, a school psychologist in Minnesota, watched in pain as QAnon gripped his 70-year-old mother.
      • Lesley Stahl: Would you go so far as to say that your mother’s detached from reality?
      • Nate: As of late, I would. She’s not a crazy person. She’s a very bright person. But this thing happens in a million little paper cuts.
      • Lesley Stahl: Was she a political person before this? Was she a big Trump fan in 2016?
      • Nate: No. In fact, we were Hillary supporters then. And my mom was even a Bernie Sanders canvasser in the primary in 2020.
Epistemic Warfare
  • A war on truth is raging. Not everyone recognizes we’re in it.WaPo
    • Opinion by:
    • In 2015, word spread online that a routine military exercise in the southwest, called Jade Helm 15, was a plot by President Barack Obama to impose martial law and seize everyone’s guns. The paranoia was “fueled by conservative bloggers and Internet postings,” the New York Times reported. So far did the claim spread that Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor the exercise.
    • Attacks on the concept of objective truth are not new. Left-wing attacks on objectivity date at least to the 1970s, with the rise of academic trends such as deconstructionism and postmodernism.
    • The digital era raised the stakes by making misinformation easy to spread.
    • For years, Americans have been targeted with epistemic warfare — that is, with attacks on the credibility of the mainstream media, academia, government agencies, and other institutions and professionals we rely on to keep us collectively moored to facts. Those doing the targeting are nameable individuals and organizations, including Trump, conservative media outlets, Republican politicians, anti-vaccine groups and Russia’s Internet Research Agency.
    • Since epistemic warfare has proved its mettle so spectacularly in U.S. politics, it is likely here for good. Measures may allow us to fight back, such as revamping social media and teaching media literacy. But our primary means of defense is to be awake to the scope and origin of the threat. The first step toward winning the war on truth is to accept that we are in one.
Major Threat
  • Many Developed Countries View Online Misinformation as ‘Major Threat’  8/31/22 NYT
    • New research from the Pew Research Center shows nearly three-quarters of respondents are very concerned about the spread of false information online.
    • Researchers asked 24,525 people from 19 countries with advanced economies to rate the severity of threats from climate change, infectious diseases, online misinformation, cyberattacks from other countries and the condition of the global economy. Climate change was the highest-rated concern for most countries, with a median of 75 percent of respondents saying it is a major threat. Misinformation trailed closely behind, with a median of 70 percent deeming it a major threat.
Disinformation: Quick Take
  • Disinformation is false or misleading information spread to fool people.
  • Disinformation works. It can make people do things they would not do otherwise.
  • Disinformation is a real danger to democracy.
    • Millions of people believing the Big Lie increases the risk that voters elect:
      • election-deniers to run elections
      • representatives who pass restrictive voting laws in the name of “election integrity”
      • representatives who pass laws empowering legislatures to intervene in election administration because of “voting irregularities.”

View entire Disinformation