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How Trump made 2020 the Year of Disinformation

Jon Ward
·Senior Political Correspondent
·21 min read
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COVID-19 and Donald Trump’s election loss will dominate the history books about 2020, but the story connecting those two things and nearly everything else this year was the Republican Party’s adoption of disinformation as one of its primary political strategies.

It was the culmination of a years-long effort by Trump to pit himself, relentlessly, against the press. He has always sought to entrench the news media as his “opposition party,” ABC News White House correspondent Jonathan Karl wrote in his book on Trump, adding that too often the press has fallen into the trap.

Trump sought out an ever-escalating war against reality, starting the day he sent his spokesman to the White House Briefing Room to brazenly lie about the size of his inauguration crowd. His attack on the truth has aimed to separate his supporters entirely from an independent press that could hold him accountable.

The offensive was two-pronged. The frontal assault was to label the media “fake news” and even to label it the “enemy of the people,” a phrase with a history of being used by genocidal dictators. And then there was a broader pattern of provoking — maybe even inviting and welcoming — fact checks and criticism by sending out an ongoing cascade of mistruths, outright lies and controversies.

President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, on April 6, 2020, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)
President Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the White House Briefing Room on April 6. (Alex Brandon/AP)

The endgame was to shatter any trust in mainstream news outlets among his supporters, building on decades of complaints about a liberal bias in the media. Republicans have always portrayed themselves as the victims of media bias, sometimes for good reason, and sometimes because they need a scapegoat to excuse their own shortcomings.

Trump’s innovation was to say the press was part of a grand conspiracy against him, that it is always lying, that its members work for a shadowy cabal of elites looking to sell out the country.

He aimed for total control of what his supporters believed. By the end of 2019 he largely had it, and in 2020 he proved it.

Disinformation’s dominance this year began with impeachment. It accelerated with the response to COVID-19. It continued during the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. It crescendoed during the fall in the run-up to and the days after the presidential election. And right-wing receptivity to disinformation grew as the left dealt with its own challenges, such as the debate over “cancel culture”; as the scientific establishment issued changing and sometimes confusing guidance on the pandemic; and as the press committed its own mistakes in covering the protests over the summer.

This was the year of the infodemic as much as it was the year of the pandemic, and the biggest superspreader of disinformation was the sitting president. It’s not just that Trump lied or misled more than 23,000 times since taking office. It’s that he made such behavior acceptable, leading right-wing media to create a permanent unreality echo chamber and showing the GOP it can win elections by catering to this.

President Donald Trump speaks with reporters before walking to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on July 31, 2020, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)
Trump speaks with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on July 31. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Trump is the first in American history to fully create his own alternate reality, a world with its own rules and its own facts. It finally became its own separate universe when Trump insisted he won an election he lost, tried to overturn the result, and GOP leaders — as well as millions of supporters — jumped on his anti-democracy bandwagon.

So now, even as he exits office, disinformation is here with us for the foreseeable future, an unwelcome guest who won’t leave. And the Republican Party’s commitment to democracy is in question.

Trump has always had legitimate complaints. The press was often “relentlessly negative” in its coverage, as ABC’s Karl put it in his book, “Front Row at the Trump Show.”

And examinations of the FBI’s handling of its investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election have found several egregious errors, such as the reliance on the Steele dossier to obtain warrants to spy on Carter Page, a Trump adviser. Former FBI Director James Comey’s decision to brief Trump on the Steele dossier early in 2017, against the recommendations of others, led to the public release of inflammatory and unverified accusations against Trump.

When it came to light that high-level FBI official Peter Strzok had sent text messages to his colleague Lisa Page that expressed hostility to Trump during the 2016 campaign, including one in which he vowed to “stop” Trump from being elected, it inflamed Trump supporters and allies. Republicans who were no fans of Trump became alarmed, and increasingly enraged, by what they saw as insubordination and potentially a “deep state” conspiracy against the Republican nominee and eventual president.

The Justice Department’s inspector general issued two reports, in June 2018 and December 2019, that dealt with these matters.

FBI Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok, waits for the start of a joint hearing on "oversight of FBI and Department of Justice actions surrounding the 2016 election" on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 12, 2018. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
FBI Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok at a hearing on "oversight of FBI and Department of Justice actions surrounding the 2016 election" on July 12, 2018. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

The messages between Strzok and Page “cast a cloud over the FBI’s handling” of its work, the 2018 report said, but it added that “our review did not find evidence to connect the political views expressed in these messages to the specific investigative decisions that we reviewed.”

An environment in which some cheered when, in 2018, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was barred from eating at a Virginia restaurant didn’t help. “A strange, morally righteous vengeance hung in the air, one seemingly indifferent to the spirit of acceptance, diversity of opinion and inclusion from which it supposedly sprang,” wrote Major Garrett, chief Washington correspondent for CBS News, in his 2018 book “Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride.”

But Garrett also noted that “Trump exaggerated repeatedly” when he complained about the FBI or special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. “He screamed louder, branded more recklessly and dared the stupefied world to beat him at his own carnival barker act,” Garrett wrote.

And Karl noted that while Trump “has reasons to be aggrieved … his response is to wage a war on truth that I fear may do as much or more lasting damage to America than any of the mistakes made by the presidents who went before him.”

Trump took his grievances and contorted them into a fantasy in which everyone from the press establishment to antifa hooligans to his own Justice Department was in cahoots against him — but more importantly, against his supporters. Anyone who bucked Trump, even for a moment, was in on it. Even stalwart Republicans like former House Speaker Paul Ryan wound up on the enemies list.

Yet after Trump’s first year in office, there was fairly broad agreement that he had not crossed the brightest red lines that many had worried he would.

“President Trump repeatedly scraped up against the guardrails, like a reckless driver, but he did not break through them. Despite clear causes for concern, little actual backsliding occurred in 2017. We did not cross the line into authoritarianism,” Harvard scholars Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wrote in their book, “How Democracies Die.”

The irony now, three years later, is that Trump’s attempt to throw democracy out the window after the 2020 election has validated the code-red alarms that went off when he was elected four years ago.

The excesses of the media and the abuses of the FBI were not justified. They were wrong. But the grave concerns that Trump could attempt an authoritarian takeover of the government, which animated his critics and opponents, have been shown to be entirely legitimate.

For much of Trump’s presidency, the standard response from most Republican lawmakers when confronted with his lies, exaggerations and provocations was to shrug in embarrassment, or grumble privately, or pretend not to have seen his latest comment.

But Trump’s impeachment seemed to shift things. It marked the open embrace of disinformation and conspiracy theories by significant portions of the Republican Party.

Impeachment was certainly a partisan affair. Democrats were motivated by antipathy for Trump. And the House vote broke down along strict party lines.

But the Democrats did have some serious charges against the president, and the Republican Party did not fight the impeachment battle in the world of facts and reality. Instead, it created an alternative narrative based on distortions and half-truths.

“It was a process that Republicans by and large actually didn’t participate in,” said Susan Glasser, a journalist who covered Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in Russia and the Clinton impeachment in the 1990s, and wrote about Trump’s impeachment for the New Yorker, where she’s now a staff writer.

The facts were that Trump had used the powers of the presidency — in the form of $400 million in foreign aid to Ukraine and a promised White House meeting with that nation’s leader — to try to extract a political favor that would help him win reelection. He wanted the Ukrainian government to announce an investigation into Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

U.S. President Donald Trump holds what appears to be a prepared statement and handwritten notes after watching testimony by U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland as he speaks to reporters prior to departing for travel to Austin, Texas from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on November 20, 2019. (Erin Scott/Reuters)
Trump holds what appears to be a prepared statement and handwritten notes as he speaks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on Nov. 20, 2019. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

Some Republicans mounted a defense of the president’s actions, or argued that they didn’t rise to the level of an impeachable offense. But House Republicans in witness hearings talked about a conspiracy theory, claiming Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

Most did not go as far as the president did in openly embracing the bizarre and baseless fantasies of a “missing server” in Ukraine that would actually prove the Democratic National Committee was hacked in 2016 by the Ukrainians, not the Russians, and that it was done to help Democrat Hillary Clinton, not Trump. Instead, they talked about a handful of statements made by isolated Ukrainian officials in the 2016 campaign that were critical of Trump, equating them with the Kremlin-orchestrated hacking of the DNC and social media campaigns intended to help Trump defeat Clinton.

It was, essentially, the laundering of a deranged and debunked lie — one concocted by the Russians, according to U.S. government officials — by way of a thin set of loosely connected facts.

Fiona Hill had the most thunderous condemnation of this. Hill had been the top Russia expert inside Trump’s National Security Council until the summer of 2019, when she had been scheduled to leave the administration.

“I’m really worried about these conspiracy theories, and I’m worried that all of you are going to go down a rabbit hole, you know, looking for things that are not going to be at all helpful to the American people or to our future election in 2020,” Hill said while testifying before Congress in 2019.

By the time the Senate trial rolled around this past January, it did not seem to matter to most Republicans that the charges against Trump had been “proven,” as Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., admitted. Alexander, a senior member of the Republican establishment, put it bluntly when he said that while the president was guilty as charged, he should not be removed from office.

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney was the only Republican to vote to convict and remove Trump from office. The president’s actions, he said, were “a flagrant assault on our electoral rights, our national security interests and our fundamental values.”

“Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine,” Romney said.

Having followed Trump and the GOP into a wilderness of mirrors during impeachment, Republican voters were positioned to listen only to the president and a handful of his most trusted surrogates when the COVID-19 pandemic upended America and the world.

The pandemic was slotted into the same overarching narrative as the Russia investigation and impeachment. It was just another attempt to hurt Trump, so the media hype must be downplayed and dismissed. It was the “new hoax,” Trump said in late February.

President Donald Trump gestures as he asks a question to Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, during a briefing about the coronavirus in the James Brady Briefing Room on March 23, 2020, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)
Trump poses a question to Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, during a briefing on March 23. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Trump tried to wish it away for some time, telling the country in late February that, “like a miracle, it will disappear.” In early March he made grossly untrue statements, like his claim on March 6 that “anybody that wants a test can get a test.”

He repeatedly compared COVID-19 to the regular flu, an obvious untruth that nonetheless is still repeated by his supporters as more than 300,000 Americans have died from the virus. We are approaching the mark for total flu deaths over the past decade, which is around 360,000 people.

Trump consistently disagreed with scientific experts and speculated about potential treatments. Because he wanted to keep the stock market going in the spring, or to keep businesses open in the fall, he denigrated those in his own government such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who spoke soberly about taking measures to keep the virus in check.

It was on masks that the president’s anti-science, anti-expert disinformation has been most harmful. It has divided Americans over a basic common-sense health practice that has been shown to reduce infections.

However, elites contributed their own failures. Dishonest guidance from the World Health Organization early in the pandemic seeded distrust of scientific experts. The WHO, fearing a shortage of supplies for health professionals, told the public that there was “no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any potential benefit.” That guidance was later reversed.

Nonetheless, by the summer it was clear that masks were one of the main ways to slow the spread of the virus, and the sustained resistance to mask wearing shows the extent to which the president’s quest to control all aspects of how his supporters view the world had succeeded. Millions of Americans were willing to bet their lives on the notion that if Trump said it, it must be true.

Trump’s political fortunes were lowest in mid-July. His response to COVID-19 was widely panned, but it was the protests after George Floyd’s killing on Memorial Day — and Trump’s initial response to those protests — that sent his support into a tailspin.

He was able to recover by relentlessly distorting the Black Lives Matter movement as violent and dangerous, but he was helped by the media’s own failure at times to accurately report when protests slipped into riots.

Trump seized on actual violence in some parts of the country to play on the fears of suburban Americans. Calls to defund the police by left-wing activists also alarmed many moderate voters who didn’t like Trump but also didn’t want to see disorder spread any further in their communities. Trump took this fear and supercharged it, playing on racial fears and telling suburban voters that if Americans elected Biden, “low income housing would invade their neighborhood.”

The president was helped at times by the slowness of Democratic leaders, media outlets and others to acknowledge that violence and looting were a part of the overall response to Floyd’s death. That led to his campaign’s repeated use of the term “peaceful protests” to describe its own events.

President Donald Trump speaks to manly maskless supporters at a campaign event, in Lititz, Pennsylvania on October 26, 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
Trump speaks to mainly maskless supporters at a campaign event in Lititz, Pa., on Oct. 26. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

This was a mocking reference to a pattern of TV news reports that seemed to go out of their way to emphasize nonviolent protests over violence that may have been less prevalent and more isolated but was nonetheless happening. Conservatives also noticed that cable news outlets would often harp on the lack of mask wearing whenever Trump supporters gathered publicly, but there was much less comment on such things when racial justice protesters gathered in the streets.

As some voters reluctantly moved back toward Trump because of their concerns about violence, others were nudged back into the president’s column by a far stranger method.

Some who might have been initially sympathetic to the calls for racial justice and supportive of the slogan “Black Lives Matter” began to shift their attention to a different social justice cause: that of child sex trafficking. Social media posts about that topic exploded out of nowhere in July, the result of a shift in the tactics of the QAnon conspiracy theory cult, which appropriated a hashtag, #SaveTheChildren, that had been used by legitimate anti-trafficking organizations for some time.

The result was that countless Americans, many of them Trump-supporting white evangelicals, transferred their attention and social concern away from a cause that Trump opposed. (He called Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate.”)

Instead, the attention of many moved toward a cause that had become infected with the conspiracy theory that Trump himself was fighting to expose a child-trafficking ring run by Democrats and Hollywood elites. Victim-advocate organizations complained that this bizarre falsehood actually harmed and impeded their work to save real people from the clutches of traffickers.

Emily Belz, a reporter for World Magazine, an evangelical Christian publication, told Yahoo News that the readiness to embrace QAnon among some white evangelicals seemed to be “an avoidance of wanting to deal with problems like race or other more thorny issues,” because, she said, “something like child sex trafficking is sort of an easy topic to be socially activist about online.”

Once the pandemic hit, Trump began to wage a campaign of lies against the American election system. He had already claimed for years, without any evidence, that the 2016 election had been marred by millions of votes from noncitizens, an attempt to explain away the fact that he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by almost 3 million votes.

But after COVID-19 forced most states to shift to mail-in voting, Trump began to focus his propaganda there. Over and over he predicted that the 2020 election would be “rigged” and unfair toward him, despite the overwhelming testimony of Republican election experts that such a conspiracy would never succeed even if it were real. American elections, while far from perfect, had been professionalized and used modern technology that would easily detect any attempt to cheat in any large-scale fashion, they said.

One of these experts was Michael G. Adams, an experienced election lawyer who is now Kentucky’s top election official and who had worked most recently for Vice President Mike Pence, advising his PAC on how to navigate the election-law landscape. “You’re not going to see widespread fraud in a presidential or a Senate or a governor’s race. It’s just not feasible,” Adams told Yahoo News.

Trump’s disinformation campaign did produce a robust response in the media to arm the public with accurate information about the voting process, and energized millions of Americans who opposed his reelection to make sure they found a way to vote. But it also served as a form of inoculation against the truth for the millions of Americans who supported him.

Since his loss in the Nov. 3 election, Trump has maintained an avalanche of false claims and complaints about the election. He still persists with the fiction that he actually won, a situation unprecedented in American history. And millions of voters apparently believe this, hanging their hopes on complaints that have been repeatedly debunked, despite the fact that lawyers have brought 60 lawsuits in various U.S. courts on Trump’s behalf and lost all of them but one, which affected a small number of votes in one state.

Workers scan ballots as the Fulton County presidential recount gets under way Wednesday morning, Nov. 25, 2020 at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta.  (Ben Gray/AP)
Workers in Atlanta scan ballots as a presidential recount gets underway there on Nov. 25. (Ben Gray/AP)

Trump supporters and some prominent Republican politicians are further inflamed by the efforts of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google to block disinformation as signs of a plot against them. This points to the challenges lying ahead.

“Trump’s lies will linger for years, poisoning the atmosphere like radioactive dust,” the journalist George Packer recently wrote in the Atlantic.

Disinformation is a global problem. It is “the structural disintegration of the public sphere that we’re seeing in the digital age,” according to Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, who has written two books on disinformation and propaganda.

Two drivers of the problem are how easy it is to amplify lies through social media, and the fact that there is no transparency around how social media companies run their platforms and elevate certain content.

“We continue to identify thousands of such accounts and networks reaching millions of people day in and day out with misinformation,” said Sasha Havlicek, founding CEO of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “They are in a way gaming the platform systems and algorithms to achieve scale.”

Pomerantsev said there is a need for a “new political language” about how to deal with this because our traditional ideas about how speech, technology and government intersect have been upended, all as our “public sphere [is] moving into private hands.”

“We are in a world where we see freedom of expression being cynically used … to spread doubt and confusion through bots and trolls, through amplified and targeted disinformation,” he said in a panel he hosted this month. “And when we see regimes in the Philippines, in the U.S. actually, but also in Latin America or Eastern Europe, practice these very well analyzed techniques, their response is ‘This is freedom of expression.’”

“I do think we have to start with regulation,” Pomerantsev said. “But of course regulation in the field that has anything to do with speech immediately hits, and quite rightly hits, the paradox of how do we go about thinking about regulating our public sphere, regulating speech in some form, I suppose, and freedom of expression?”

Shawn Powers, the chief strategy officer for the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees Voice of America and other state-run media outlets like Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia, said stakeholders need to think of the digital public square as an “ecosystem” and then focus on answering the question of “What is toxic in that ecosystem?”

“We need to figure out how to draw that line about ‘This is toxic and creates consequences that have some serious problems for any given society,’ and we need to deal with those toxic communications in ways that are a bit stronger than any market-based solution would allow,” Powers said in the panel hosted by Pomerantsev.

One key regulation Pomerantsev and others called for is that governments should demand transparency from social media platforms on how the algorithms they use function.

Mark Zuckerberg, Chief Executive Officer of Facebook, testifies remotely during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on 'Breaking the News: Censorship, Suppression, and the 2020 Election' on Capitol Hill on November 17, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Bill Clarke/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies remotely to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17. (Bill Clarke/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

There is significant support in Congress among both Democrats and Republicans for regulating the big tech companies. More than 40 states joined with the Federal Trade Commission last week to charge that Facebook is an illegal monopoly, and called for Instagram and WhatsApp to be separated from Facebook’s ownership and operation.

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., has led the charge in the House of Representatives to investigate and regulate the big tech companies. He is planning on pursuing the first legislative proposals early next year.

But even if regulation succeeds in slowing the spread of disinformation, much damage has been done that can be repaired only through personal responsibility and personal relationships. Each of us has to work at developing standards for identifying legitimate information.

And “one of the essential tasks of this decade, then, is to rebuild trust in one another — and that happens best person-to-person, often at the local level, a conversation at a time, a generous act at a time,” wrote Peter Wehner, a former White House adviser to President George W. Bush, earlier this month.

“There has to be some human connection, some way to reassure others that they’re not under attack, some means to instill confidence that the person you’re arguing with doesn’t hate you and might even care for you. We have to find a way to lay aside, at least for a time, our swords and shields.”

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