Americans today hear the name Ben Franklin and picture a kindly old grandfatherly type who established the nation’s post office, flew a kite in a thunderstorm to demonstrate the electrical nature of lightning, and helped draft the Declaration of Independence.
Franklin also invented stories about his political opponents and printed them in a fake newspaper.
Disinformation — deliberately misleading information — is not a new phenomenon. History tells us that incorrect and misleading information has long been used in politics until it confuses the issue or even becomes a part of the accepted narrative.
Sometimes the use of disinformation is just the rough and tumble of political dirty tricks. However, as Matthew Ingram wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, the issue we face today is often one of scale. When users weaponize falsehoods and harness new technology to spread it widely and quickly, the disinformation can damage our democracy. The scale of that disinformation can swamp the positive.
Overwhelming the good news
When we do hear good news, such as the recent report about vaccination rates and rates of death in my home county, it can get lost in the cacophony of lies and willful obfuscation.
The good news bears repeating:
“Perhaps the most highly vaccinated large county in America, according to New York Times data, is Montgomery County, Md., just outside the District of Columbia. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show 93 percent of those 12 and older there are fully vaccinated, compared to around 70 percent nationally. The number dying over the past week is eight times as high nationally — 3.4 per 1 million — as it is in Montgomery County — 0.4 per 1 million — even as Montgomery County is near some virus hotspots.“Washington Post, December 4, 2021
A key issue is that disinformation — deliberately misleading information — distorts or covers up real problems that people are trying to address in their personal lives. Disinformation is designed to obstruct and restrict constructive conversations between citizens with different points of view, conversations which should be the basis for democracy. The challenge in sorting through all we hear in our dangerously divided times to winnow out the bad and misleading information is more difficult — and more important — than ever.
To begin with, it is important to know that disinformation in America is often designed to bolster the oligarchy.
Historian Heather Cox Richardson has written and spoken a great deal about disinformation, the American paradox, and the corollary to the American paradox, most recently in her book How the South Won the Civil War.
The paradox is that from the very beginning of the nation, the phrase “all men” in the oft repeated refrain that “all men are created equal” never meant everyone, or even all men in the founders’ worldview. They excluded many groups — people of color, women, indigenous people, paupers. In other words, “freedom depended on racial, gender, and class inequality.” … The corollary to the American paradox states that “If equality depends on inequality for women and minorities, the opposite should also be true. That is, inclusion of women and minorities as equals in American society would, by definition, destroy equality.” This corollary has been behind the weaponizing of rhetoric used by those attempting to maintain oligarchic rule and eliminate democracy in the US by appealing to white men’s fears of becoming subservient to women and people of color.
When you read or hear something, consider the source.
An important first step in the journey towards truth is to, as my grandmother used to say, “consider the source.” In those pre-Internet days, she would also tell us, “Don’t believe what you hear and only half of what you read.”
Grandmother had a very sensitive “BS” radar (although she would never use those words.)
These recent articles, with their focus on “news” sites that take political talking points, mix in some falsehoods, and frame the resulting bogus stories as news, provide similar counsel.
- Right up front, Dan Froomkin suggests at Press Watch, that we remember that Fox News is not news. Period. Full stop.
- Fox isn’t alone. Writing in Popular Information, Judd Legum outlines how Right-wing operatives deploy a massive network of fake local news sites to spread disinformation. West Nova News — which appears to be a standard local news site — was one of the places carrying a great deal of disinformation about the teaching of Critical Race Theory in Virginia schools. West Nova News is part of a massive network of 1300 websites (there’s the scale) linked to conservative businessman Brian Timpone, including at least 28 that operate in Virginia. Between January and November 2021, the 28 “local news” sites in Virginia published 4,657 articles about Critical Race Theory in schools. CRT is not taught in Virginia schools.
Disinformation will often deliberately miss the point.
Another way that information is weaponized is by deliberately hiding the key point in a story.
- In Press Watch, Dan Froomkin has another of his rewrite pieces with Failing to call out ‘critical race theory’ as a racist dog whistle? Let me rewrite that for you! Reporters know “critical race theory” isn’t a real issue, asserts Froomkin. “They know it’s euphemistic shorthand for all sorts of right-wing, often racist concerns about modest attempts to address diversity, equity and inclusion. They know it’s a backlash against Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project and its powerful recognition of slavery as a central element of the American narrative.” While news organizations should refute this disinformation campaign, they don’t. Scare stories — such as “death panels” in 2009, “migrant caravans” in 2018, “voter fraud” for decades, and now “critical race theory” in public schools — are too appealing, even though none of those things have ever been a real problem. Foomkin considers it crazy “that reporters are writing so much more about how winning a strategy it is than about what a lie it is.” His rewritten headline reads, “Republicans riling up voters with a lie designed to appeal to racism”
- In A Tale of Two Thefts, Judd Legum at Popular Information takes up a similar refrain of deliberately missing the point. Legum notes that “In the United States, only certain types of theft are newsworthy.” A shoplifting crime in a Walgreens in San Francisco — according to an analysis by FAIR, a media watchdog — “generated 309 stories between June 14 and July 12” including in a slew of major publications. In most coverage, the video is presented as proof that there are no consequences for shoplifting in San Francisco. But the man in the video, Jean Lugo-Romero, was arrested about a week later and faces 15 charges. In the meantime, Walgreens settled a $4.5 million class action lawsuit a few months earlier after stealing millions of dollars from its own employees. “How much news coverage did it generate? There was a single 221-word story in Bloomberg Law, an industry publication. And that’s it.” $4.5 million vs. maybe $950. As FAIR wrote, “While basic arithmetic would indicate that $4.5 million is greater than $950, media have demonstrated that the question isn’t how much is being stolen, but who it is being stolen from.“
Technology often makes it worse.
Old-fashioned disinformation such as that practiced by Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson was “artisanal” in the words of Matthew Ingram. That’s no longer the case.
- Joan Donovan and Brandi Collins-Dexter wrote a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review “about some of the tactics that right-wing groups used to spread disinformation about the 1619 Project and critical race theory. “Our research reveals that the popularity of ‘1776’ owes in part to keyword squatting — a tactic by which right-wing media have dominated the keywords ‘1619’ and ‘critical race theory’ and enabled a racialized disinformation campaign, waged by Trump and his acolytes, against Black civil rights gains.”
Remember that disinformation often includes flat-out lying.
Scaring people about inflation is another way of weaponizing information.
- Paul Waldman covers the campaign as he writes in the Washington Post that Inflation is manageable. Inflation panic is out of control. “Inflation is a genuine problem, but it’s hardly spinning out of control,” notes Waldman. “Inflation panic, on the other hand, is getting ridiculous. Right now a highly motivated political opposition and a hysterical media are cooperating to characterize a real but manageable issue as a historic economic catastrophe.” Recent economic news has put Republicans in the position of appearing to root against the economy. But don’t expect a change, as the instinct to weaponize disinformation runs deep.
Tell the truth and make them think it’s hell.
There is historical precedent for how to respond to blatant disinformation. As John Stoehr writes in The Editorial Board, it is blatant because divide and conquer is what the Republican Party does so well. Stoehr suggests that President Biden “make the Republicans deny more things in your favor. Create the kind of heat the press corps loves to cover. This would destabilize the contours of public information. It’s what the Republicans do all the time. Only instead of lying, as the Republicans do, Biden can tell the truth.”
During a 1948 campaign stop in Bremerton, Washington, President Harry Truman delivered a rousing speech attacking the Republicans. One of Truman’s supporters called out, “give ’em hell, Harry!” Truman replied, “I don’t give them hell. I just tell the truth about them, and they think it’s hell.”
Truman pulled off a massive upset and won that election. Give ’em hell, Joe!
More to come…
P.S. Since I started with good news, I’ll end with good news as well.
This is part 1 of a two-part Weekly Reader on the effects of disinformation on our democracy. Part 2 on Friday will look at what happens when leaders lie.