Americans Were Worried About the Wrong Threat

A crowd of pro-Trump supporters
Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

The attack Wednesday on the U.S. Capitol was a product of the modern internet. The far-right extremists who forced their way into the building had consumed viral conspiracy theories about “stolen” elections and a “deep state” cabal—theories that President Donald Trump himself amplified. The attackers had been radicalized. They saw themselves as heroes and truth-tellers.

Wednesday was not the first time the United States has been forced to reckon with social media’s impact on its politics. Four years earlier, to the day, American intelligence officials released a report describing Russian efforts to promote Trump’s candidacy and sow doubts about the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, during the 2016 presidential election campaign. As the 2020 election approached, the specter of a renewed foreign effort consumed many discussions of U.S. political integrity. In the months before Election Day, fully 81 percent of Americans expressed fear that viral disinformation could decide the presidency, and 75 percent voiced concern about potential interference by a foreign government.  

But no catastrophic, election-altering foreign operation materialized. Instead, something worse happened. Years of domestically driven disinformation and a monthslong campaign to deny the validity of the 2020 election—in both cases furthered by politically motivated actors, profit-seeking media entities driving traffic by peddling falsehoods, and grifters promoting conspiracy theories—created a tinderbox of rage and delusion. And at his rally Wednesday, Trump struck the match.  

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The two of us have studied disinformation and social-media manipulation since 2016. In that time, the collapse of the shared American political reality, not the work of foreign trolls, has proved to be the nation’s gravest information-related threat. Addressing it will be one of the Biden administration’s toughest tasks. Addressing the challenge without succumbing to dangerous overcorrection or hyperbole will be even harder.

On this point, the United States does not have a good track record. In the days after 9/11, the specter of terrorism—and, specifically, terrorism by Islamic fundamentalists—redefined American politics. The Bush administration enacted sweeping policy changes, including the systematic surveillance of American citizens and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. President George W. Bush proclaimed a war between “freedom and fear.”

Yet fear became the main driver of U.S. policy. A new class of self-appointed terrorism experts warned of ever more catastrophic attacks on the horizon. Despite credible dissenting voices, those arguing for the threat found a receptive audience in the American government. The costly invasion of Iraq was justified in part by exaggerating the links between al-Qaeda and Iraq’s government. The surveillance and abuse of detainees became systemized. Color-coded terrorism advisories became part of everyday life, and within the government, counterterrorism work grew in scope and took priority over other activities. This overreaction imposed a dire material and reputational cost on the United States, accomplishing what the architects of 9/11 never could with violence alone.

Well before Wednesday, the public discussions of disinformation and social-media manipulation had become similarly distorted. For a significant portion of the American electorate—especially Democrats—revelations of Russian activities in 2016 left deep scars. After 2016, the inclusion of commentary from a few Russia-linked Twitter accounts in news articles seemed to recast a wide variety of developments—racial-justice protests in the NFL; the reaction to the Parkland, Florida, school shooting; even mixed reviews of a new Star Wars movie—as parts of a suspected foreign information campaign. The fear lingered even as new evidence emerged that few Americans had ever interacted with Russian-produced political content and far fewer had been swayed by it.

The intense public focus on foreign interference—like much of the commentary about Bush’s War on Terror—had the effect of mythologizing those plotting against American interests. Russian activities in 2016 were the opportunistic attacks of a declining conventional power. But for many pundits, that was not enough. Instead, each move was recast as part of a master plan. Fallible, clumsy foreign propagandists were transformed into shrewd supervillains.

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.

Although the problem is deep-rooted, the solution could be refreshingly straightforward: give journalists money. In the short run, these funds should come via no-nonsense government grants to community newsrooms. In the long run, such funds could come via new taxes on the technology companies that have imperiled local reporting in the first place. Reviving local news might well do more to blunt the impact of both foreign trolls and domestic extremism than any number of bold actions by the U.S. national-security apparatus.

The stakes in the coming months are high. The United States can no more solve the challenge of disinformation with security measures today than it could the challenge of terrorism 20 years ago. Instead, the solution lies in policies that remain true to American values and leverage our nation’s remarkable diversity and deep civic pride. Any plan to reduce the appeal of disinformation must engage marginalized communities and empower a diversified press. Some of today’s greatest problems lie at home. Their answers do as well.