There’s a reason why so many people in our country seem a bit off. You’ve run into them: people who are absolutely sure that some story/theory (that you know is flat wrong) is true. This weekend, I read an article that explains why.
The Atlantic published The Billion-Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Reelect the President last week and I can’t stop thinking about it. We know the effect that watching nothing other than Fox News has had on our family and friends, but what I read here goes so much deeper than that.
The article delves deep into everything we know so far about what the Trump campaign is doing to plant ideas, stories, and explanations into their supporters. This is what they’re doing in a nutshell:
What I was seeing was a strategy that has been deployed by illiberal political leaders around the world. Rather than shutting down dissenting voices, these leaders have learned to harness the democratizing power of social media for their own purposes—jamming the signals, sowing confusion. They no longer need to silence the dissident shouting in the streets; they can use a megaphone to drown him out. Scholars have a name for this: censorship through noise.
They are blasting their supporters with alternate explanations about every story you hear in the news. Questions, theories, alternate ideas, flat out lies — and tons of it. Even the author who was conscientiously looking at all these things in order to figure out what they were doing, found himself starting to question what was real and not. Even more disconcerting, the tactics they are using are the same as dictators around the world, with one particularly chilling example out of the Philippines.
After reading this article, I’m really not sure that trying to dissuade Trump supporters is possible. Maybe someday in the future, but not today. As powerful as a human-to-human conversation is, I don’t see how we can overcome the propaganda ecosystem they’re living in.
Now although a lot of the Trump campaign’s efforts are focused on keeping their own supporters in line, they have projects aimed at us, too. You won’t be surprised to learn that they are targeting us with messages intended to suppress our vote. They want to make us feel that our candidates are too flawed to beat Trump, make us feel that there’s no difference between our politicians and theirs (the “everybody does it” narrative), make us feel that elections are rigged and what’s the point of voting, etc. Their goal is to suppress turnout.
Think on that a minute. Have you seen any of those sentiments on the social media platforms you’re on? I bet you have. I know I have. Now here’s the thing–there really isn’t really a way to tell if what you’re seeing is a paid Trump campaign troll or if it’s one of your regular followers who has fallen victim to those narratives and are genuinely feeling that way.
One way or the other, you’re going to feel the influence of these campaign tactics. You may run into these messages yourself but you’ll definitely have friends and family, not to mention the folks you follow (or who follow you) on social media who are being manipulated by these messages.
What can we do about this?
Fact-checking and demanding legitimate sources for information you’re seeing is still important. Keep doing that. But propaganda is about playing to your emotions. Building resilience to those tactics isn’t quite as simple. Some advice I read in the Guardian suggested paying attention to the following things:
- Notice when a post or reply gets your attention. Why is it sticking out to you?
- What emotion is being evoked by the post?
- Now that your emotions are in play, what is the post making you think?
Remember that propaganda is designed to make you feel something in order to control what you think. We know that the Trump campaign is designing propaganda to make us less enthusiastic about our candidates and about voting, among other things. If you read anything that makes you feel those two things, stop and put your guard up. You might be reading propaganda, or reading a post written by someone already influenced by propaganda.
I know I’ve seen these messages and whenever I can, I plan to respond by counteracting the message. I can genuinely say that I can’t wait to get my ballot and vote. I am eager to vote for Democrats up and down the ballot and get as many Republicans out of office as possible.
If I have one request of you all, I’d ask you to do the same. Let’s be the enthusiastic, optimistic, let’s-get-‘er-done voices on social media. Our fellow voters need to hear those messages! Thank you.
UPDATE: President Obama tweeted out the article to his 113 million followers. He recommends the read, too.
Essentially, all of these disinformation tactics are designed to suppress votes. Voter suppression is the goal. We know that we’ll only win in November if we drive turnout. Turnout is the key. And that’s exactly what the Trump campaign is suppressing: turnout of Democratic voters.