A half-hour into our morning routine earlier this week, my wife and I inadvertently stumbled upon the immediate impact of weaponized misinformation masquerading as fact, at once both absurd and yet not completely out of the question. Over toast, coffee and our respective media providers, we perused what we both assumed was the news of the day until she said: “There’s a newspaper clipping on Facebook that claims Pete Buttigieg was arrested for strangling five dogs when he was 16.”
Our immediate response was that however real the newspaper clipping appeared to be, this was utterly ridiculous, no way it could have happened. But after a few seconds of silence, my wife said “Is it possible?” ... and those three words hit like a lightening bolt. It all became crystal clear, exactly what a concerted misinformation campaign is designed to do — have people asking that very question ... ”Is it possible?”
Given the obvious answer is “yes,” because most everything is at least a possibility, confusion results and it’s mission accomplished. The clandestine operators don’t need to convince anyone of anything. The only thing necessary is creating doubt; fooling enough of the people, enough of the time. Once doubt is firmly established, someone screaming “fake news” gains a measure of credibility and very soon, alternative facts are not so alternative, having gained equal footing with reality.
Whether you see the internet and its stepchild, social media, as a vast banquet or a nauseating stew of unsavory, fast food, there’s no question that the world’s consciousness has been altered at incomprehensible speed. You may agree with PJ O’Rourke, who said that with the advent of “The internet, Google and Wikipedia, we’ve entered the age of post-intelligence;” or perhaps you’re more inclined to go with Marc Jacobs, who thinks everyone “wants to be a celebrity ... We all want to be seen,” and social media is the vehicle to achieve that goal.
Although each of these sentiments is valid to a certain extent, the medium itself has the inherent capability of spreading any and all ideas to a vast international audience in mere seconds. That power to influence what we believe is staggering. Facebook alone — where we learned of Mayor Pete’s puppy problem — has over 2.5 billion regular users. Twitter projects nearly 60 million followers by 2022, while Instagram boasts 1 billion worldwide, including 37% of American adults.
And, as the speed of this information bombardment has increased, so, too, has the volume, which makes weeding out the truth exponentially more challenging and plays directly into the hands of those who would benefit from our miscalculation. While the sources are many and varied, from Russian troll farms to Chinese bots, much of the disinformation we encounter originates right here at home, where an ongoing, massive effort is underway to keep the president in power another four years. While information is being weaponized toward that end, the wheels of government are being compromised as well, manipulating facts until they’re barely recognizable.
For instance, Attorney General William Barr’s recent, well-publicized tantrum that a barrage of presidential tweets “are making it impossible for me to do my job,” would have been more believable had he not, the following day, ordered an investigation into the investigation of former White House adviser Michael Flynn, convicted of several felonies. Barr has become a vital cog in the administration’s fog machine that facilitates dodging accountability, perhaps most egregiously in the Mueller investigation into Russian interference during the 2016 election.
Ignoring the 10 instances of obstruction of justice and skipping over Mueller’s clearly stated “Does not exonerate,” the AG famously waited a month to release a heavily redacted version of the report, while providing Congress and the public with a short synopsis that mischaracterized the conclusions. Barr’s complete control of the narrative, allowing the president to chortle “No collusion, no corruption, total exoneration” for weeks, successfully neutered Mueller’s findings.
While we were able to quickly determine the Buttigieg Boy-strangles-Dog story was a complete fabrication, the nefarious disinformation campaign to reelect the president is just getting started. During the next nine months, the concerted effort will be focused on shaping our thinking, challenging what we believe and creating chaos: drowning out truth with noise. Writing in this month’s Atlantic, McKay Coppins presents an utterly frightening compendium of mass manipulation that describes the veritable carpet bombing of disinformation so slickly presented that we’ll all be asking ourselves: “Is this possible?”
Coppins, himself, thinking his skepticism and media literacy would inoculate him against the distortion, was surprised at the effect the deluge of misdirection had on him: “I soon found myself questioning every headline ... it wasn’t that I believed the president’s boosters were telling the truth. It was that in the state of heightened suspicion, truth itself — whether about Ukraine, impeachment or anything else — felt more and more difficult to locate ... the notion of observable reality drifted further out of reach.”
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.