From the March 2020 issue: The billion-dollar disinformation campaign to reelect the president
Exaggerating the threat of foreign disinformation made the problem harder to address. As the information scholars Alexei Abrahams and Gabrielle Lim warned in a prescient article last summer, the more that the problem was described in sensational, militarized terms, the narrower the band of potential solutions. Describing online disinformation as a national-security problem tends to prompt blunt responses: the criminalization of foreign broadcasters, new speech regulations, or even the normalization of internet shutdowns and government firewalls.
And that was before Trump raised more than $200 million by convincing supporters that the election results were fraudulent; before a December Gallup poll found that just 63 percent of Americans were willing to be inoculated against COVID-19 following a surge in online anti-vaccine conspiracy theories; and before disinformation-addled insurrectionists occupied the well of the U.S. Senate.
Already, Wednesday’s events are sparking renewed discussion of additional domestic-terrorism statutes in the United States. Americans can expect heated congressional hearings about internet-enabled extremism and a push to severely punish the perpetrators of the Capitol attack. Although some of these actions may be necessary, they also carry the clear risk of overreaction.
In the years after 9/11, many officials and political commentators painted Muslim American communities with the brush of extremism. That led to unjust arrests and detentions and harmed America’s standing with Muslims around the world. To categorize all Trump supporters—or even all attendees of pro-Trump events in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday—as domestic extremists would be counterproductive too. Such actions will push some Americans deeper into webs of conspiratorial fantasy. Pulling them back from the brink will become even harder.
Now should be a moment to look beyond symptoms and toward the causes of disinformation—to the polarization and mutual distrust that enable falsehoods to fester, regardless of whether foreign or domestic social-media accounts are spreading them. One root cause is the death of local news outlets in the United States. Over the past 15 years, the digital-ad duopoly of Facebook and Google has decimated smaller U.S. media organizations. Predatory hedge funds, acquiring these weakened publications and stripping them for parts, have done the rest. The result has been the destruction of more than 300 newspapers and the creation of more than 1,800 “news deserts” in which community-driven journalism is absent.
As local newspapers have faded away, the remaining news sources have grown more partisan and more focused on national headlines. Consequently, voting behavior has become more polarized, while trust in media (particularly among Republicans) has fallen to all-time lows. For a growing number of Americans, their interactions with reporters do not take place at city-council meetings or high-school sports games. Instead, they take place by way of cable-news scandals and one-sided Twitter diatribes. Believing that journalists are “enemies of the people” is easier when you do not personally know any.