"We are in an information war": "On Disinformation" and why we can't "expect journalists to save us"

Donald Trump Alex Wong/Getty Images
Donald Trump Alex Wong/Getty Images

During his much-anticipated Sunday morning "interview" on NBC's "Meet the Press," ex-president Donald Trump lied, prevaricated and steamrolled the show's new host, Kristen Welker. Aside from the de facto confession that he attempted to end democracy on Jan. 6, Trump was defiant as he claimed he has no fear of going to prison for his crimes. In total, he showed utter contempt for the truth and reality.

Donald Trump continues to prove that he is an unrepentant demagogue and a dictator in waiting. His "Meet the Press" performance is but a preview of the unrelenting chaos and stream of lies he is going to unleash during the 2024 campaign. In an attempt to make sense of the mainstream news media's willful and continued failings in the Age of Trump, how Trump and the Republican Party and "conservative" movement have systematically used disinformation to undermine democracy and manipulate the American people, and why the country's democracy crisis is far worse than it appears, I recently recent spoke with Lee McIntyre, the bestselling author of "Post-Truth". His new book is "On Disinformation."

In this wide-ranging conversation, McIntrye also warns that the American people are being targeted in an information war by the Republican fascists and other malign actors — and most Americans do not realize it, which means they are not taking the correct steps to protect themselves and/or their democracy.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

How are you feeling as you try to make sense of the Age of Trump, the democracy crisis, and this moment more broadly?

I feel frustrated that it's come to this, but hopeful that I've got a message that might help if I can get the word out. So far, the media has not done a very good job telling the story that we are in an information war. The assault on truth in the Age of Trump isn't an accident or some sort of crisis that we just backed into because Donald Trump is such a liar but is instead a planned, organized campaign to use disinformation to create an army of deniers because it suits the political goals of the person (Trump) who organized it.

Personally, I feel nervous that more isn't being done. Like everyone else who knows what's going on, I keep wondering why more isn't being done to save us. But finally, I realized, no one is coming to save us. We can't wait for the U.S. Congress to suddenly wake up to this threat. Nor should we expect the social media companies to discover a social conscience and stop amplifying disinformation, even though it might hurt their economic interests. I don't think we can expect journalists to save us either, unless word gets through that there is something we can do to fight back against disinformation. But first, they have to learn to report on this as an ongoing information war, not like a hurricane or some sort of natural disaster.

I wrote "On Disinformation" as a pocket-sized citizen's guide about what each of us can do to fight back against disinformation, while there's still time to save American democracy.

What does your training and expertise allow you to "see" that those in the mainstream news media and commentariat are blind to or are otherwise choosing to ignore? Why do think that the news media as an institution is continuing with these obsolete and dangerous habits?

The most frustrating thing by far is when I see members of the media continue to use the word "misinformation" when they really mean "disinformation." Misinformation is an accident or a mistake. It's when you believe a falsehood but there was no intention behind it (so maybe you will change your mind when you get better information later). But disinformation isn't like that. Disinformation is a lie. It is when someone intentionally shares a falsehood because it is in their best interest to create an army of deniers (who usually end up as victims of the disinformer), so they can get what they want (money, political power, etc).

The reason this isn't better reported, I think, is that the media, as a whole, are allergic to accusations of political bias, so they indulge the reflex to "both sides" of a factual issue, once it has become the least bit partisan. But, as Stuart Stevens recently said, how do you tell both sides of a lie? The most important job of journalists is to tell the truth.

Once you realize that the crisis we are facing about the truth is one of disinformation, not misinformation, that means we have to report it as a lie. And where there's a lie there are liars. The mainstream media needs to do a better job of reporting that.

What is the relationship between disinformation and propaganda?

A lot of people use these words interchangeably but that's not correct. Propaganda is when you use information to try to persuade someone of something you want them to believe because it serves your interests. But this information can be true. And you can even believe it. Disinformation isn't like that. Disinformation is false and known to be false by the person who is spreading it. So, disinformation is really what they call "black propaganda." White propaganda refers to the earlier case where you're trying to manipulate someone with true information (for instance maybe by not telling them the whole story) to get them to do your bidding.

How does disinformation relate to the shaping of public opinion and agenda-setting?

Everyone understands that in politics as usual one is always looking for an edge. We want to tell the best version of the truth. One that favors us or our candidate. We normally "spin" bad facts to put the best face on them. This may be distasteful (and it is not strictly speaking a great way of showing respect for the truth) but it is not widely seen to violate the rules of the game. But what isn't allowed is lying, and when one is caught lying in politics it's expected that there will be some accountability and even contrition. Remember John Edwards? He paid a price for going outside the normal rules of the game. But disinformation is when lying takes place on a massive scale. It is a kind of warfare. Here the goal is not just to find the best spin on the truth but to make up one's own truth if it serves one's interest. Another goal of disinformation is to polarize the audience so they only begin to trust the disinformer, and for the rest perhaps to so confuse and demoralize them that they give up on the idea that the truth can even be known. What's happened in recent years in the USA is that the tactics of information warfare were released into the domestic body politic, and Trump engaged in the first successful nationwide domestic disinformation campaign in our country's history.

The goal was not to win by the rules but to accrete power by whatever means necessary. To dominate reality and the citizens. This is the authoritarian goal and it is why disinformation is so dangerous.

What does a successful disinformation campaign look like? Do the targets even realize they have been subjected to one?

A really successful disinformation campaign is meant to cloak the fact that it is a disinformation campaign. The best example I can think of here is the false, ridiculous assertion in that the COVID-19 vaccines would have tracking microchips in them. This wasn't misinformation, it was disinformation. This whole falsehood was cooked up and amplified by Russian intelligence and then pumped out in one of their English language propaganda arms called The Oriental Review.

The goal was to make this look like a news story and encourage people to share it on Twitter and Facebook. Which they did. The story broke in April 2020 and by May 2020, 28% of the American public (and 44% of Republican voters) thought there was something to this. And sadly, to this day, most people do not realize that this falsehood was the result of Russian disinformation. This was reported in the Wall Street Journal, but to my knowledge no cable news outlet picked it up, so we remained in the dark. How many people died because they believed this bogus story? How many were afraid to take the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines when they came out? And that was the Russians' goal; to clear the way for their competing vaccine the "Sputnik V."

As has been commonly observed, Fox News and the larger right-wing echo chamber are one of the greatest propaganda and disinformation machines ever created. Do you agree or not?

It's true and I think at this point indisputable. The facts that came out during discovery in the Dominion lawsuit against Fox News made clear that their hosts were sharing information on air that they knew to be untrue, because it helped their rating and profits. What's insidious though is that they not only pumped out their own partisan disinformation but managed to recycle some Russian propaganda too. And this was another success for the Russians. They tailor their disinformation toward existing cracks in American society and want it to be picked up as quickly as possible by American media, because then it is off limits to military pushback. Given the U.S. Constitution, American cyber warriors and counter-intelligence officials cannot target or fight domestic purveyors of disinformation. Whether Fox News has been a willing part of this or not hardly matters. They are amplifying disinformation.

What is the role of digital technology and social media in information warfare?

Everyone understands that the ability to spread disinformation faster and wider is a bad thing. And this is what the Internet allows on steroids. Back in the day, a disinformer had to work quite hard to get anyone to listen to their message. And it was expensive to reach that audience. Now it is free and instantaneous. But there's another, less well understood danger to digital "news" propagation as well. The Internet does not just allow you to amplify your message to more people and to reach them faster. It also allows you to micro-target the exact audience you want to hear your message. Think of all the ways that businesses and other direct marketers use Facebook to send us ads that are tailored for our specific desires and interests. They can use that to sell us soap and sneakers. And disinformers can use it to sell us falsehood and hate.

What are the "hearts and minds" that Trump, the MAGA movement, the Republican fascists and the larger white right are trying to win?

True believers are useful to any movement, but the goal of disinformation isn't just to get you to believe a falsehood but to recognize and submit to the power of the person who is sharing the falsehood, whether you believe it or not. The alarming thing about the way that deniers are created (and used) by the MAGA movement is that most of them don't even know that they are being victimized by disinformation.

Is that winning hearts and minds? In a way I suppose, but not in the traditional way we think of it. Trump's goal isn't just to convince his followers that what he's saying is true, but to get them to believe in him as the only reliable truth-teller. That is dangerous. We see that throughout the history of fascist movements. What Trump needs are people that he can put into action when he needs them, but I don't think he really cares about what's in their best interest. He's not sharing disinformation with them for their benefit but for his.

How do we locate these disinformation wars here in the U.S. as seen with Trumpism, the larger "conservative movement" as part of a global project by illiberal actors such as Putin, Orban and others?

The latest thing going on in foreign information warfare is that a stunning number of illiberal countries have leaned into the fight against disinformation, but not for the purposes you might think. Russia and Turkey have already passed laws making it a criminal offense to share fake news. But of course, they get to define what is fake and what is not. The fight against disinformation is now being used in some countries as a fig leaf to jail dissidents and punish their enemies. This is dangerous and needs to be recognized.

The latest thing going on in domestic information warfare is the organized, coordinated campaign of right-wingers like Jim Jordan to claim that any sort of content moderation, or just the fight against disinformation in general, is a plot to silence conservative voices. Notice the subtlety here. They're trying to equate deplatforming known liars with censorship. And to folks who aren't paying attention this might sound pretty good.

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What people fail to realize in the "censorship" debate is this. Refusing to amplify someone else's lies is not censorship. A liar has the right to say what they like. But why do they think that entitles them to immediate, free, unmitigated access to a platform that allows them to spread their message to every person on the planet within seconds? Suppose you were a radical free speech proponent, and you thought that even hate speech should be protected. You might agree that the Ku Klux Klan should be able to get a parade permit for their public rally. But does that require you to attend that rally and help them hand out fliers? It does not. Refusing to amplify speech is not the same as censoring speech.

Much of what Trump and the global right are doing is out of the Russian playbook on political technology and how to destroy consensus reality and a belief in the legitimacy of democratic government and civil society.

I doubt that Trump has ever taken a course in psyops or that he reads disinformation training manuals in his spare time, but he is nonetheless a master, near-genius-level propagandist. He uses the exact same techniques of disinformation on an American audience that Putin uses on his citizens. The "firehose of falsehood" and "whataboutism" are two that I discuss in my book. Trump also has an intuitive understanding of human cognitive bias around issues like "the repetition effect" or "the primacy effect." This is why Trump keeps saying "hoax" and "witch hunt." Because it works. The techniques of disinformation warfare are not that hard to learn; they just require a certain shamelessness about lying and the weaponization of information. Modern disinformation warfare was invented by Feliks Dzerzhinsky (V.I. Lenin's first director of the Cheka) back in the time of the Russian Revolution, when they discovered that you could sometimes defeat your enemy without firing a shot. That is what the Russians are doing right now against the West. And Trump learned that lesson very well, and he is applying it to an American audience for his own purposes.

In an era where algorithms literally encourage and enable people to create their own alternate reality, how can we find a common truth and shared values? What does this mean for democracy and a healthy society more generally?

The algorithm plays on our weakness to believe what we want to believe. Motivated reasoning. Confirmation bias. Ego defense. This was all discovered by social psychologists in the 1950s and now it has been digitized to the point where we just keep pressing that button to get the dopamine hit that tells us we were right all along. But we can fight that. One of the best ways, I think, is to engage in conversation with people who disagree with us. Not to succumb to the silo.

I wrote an entire earlier book called "How to Talk to a Science Denier", in which I recount my own stories of conversations with Flat Earthers and other science deniers, in an effort to see if I could learn how to break through. And what I learned was this. While it is very hard to get someone to change their mind (especially on the spot, if you're a stranger) it is quite possible to have a patient, cordial, respectful conversation with just about anyone (which is the first step toward convincing them). Listening helps. If you listen to someone, they are more likely to listen to you. And face-to-face conversation helps. It's just a magical thing that when we have face-to-face conversations, we begin to build trust. And that's what's broken here, not facts but trust. This is why a denier can't be convinced by ramming facts down their throats. They don't have a fact deficit; they have a trust deficit. The more we can find common ground and begin to talk to one another again, the sooner I think we can put this crisis behind us.

Are you concerned about your new book being used as a type of roadmap and textbook for malign actors to engage in more successful disinformation and other propaganda campaigns? How can pro-democracy actors and others who want a true democracy and a healthy American (and global) society apply what you have explained in the book? 

I imagine that malign actors could learn from my work how to run a more successful disinformation campaign, but these techniques were not exactly secret in the first place. Anyone can learn them. And lots of people have. The point of my book is to reach a kind of information parity, where the folks who want to defend truth should learn these techniques so they can better defend against them.

At the end of my book "On Disinformation", I outlined ten practical steps that any ordinary citizen can take to fight disinformation. Could government, social media companies, journalists and other mainstream media do more to help us? Certainly. But I want to make sure ordinary citizens know there is something they can do too.

As I see it, disinformation has three goals. First is to try to get you to believe a falsehood. Second is to polarize you around a factual issue so that you begin to distrust, and even hate, the people who do not also believe this same falsehood. But finally comes the third and in some ways the most insidious goal of all they want you to give up. I think one message people get from disinformation is that everyone is biased, and that all speech is political. Or that things are so confusing — and there are so many voices out there who disagree — that it's just impossible to know the truth. People become confused and then cynical. They begin to feel helpless. And that is precisely the type of person that an authoritarian wants you to be.

They want you to give up. The easiest way to control a population is to control their information source. But you are not powerless. There is something you can do to fight back against disinformation. That's why I wrote the book.

But even before you read the book, I want you to know this: the most important step in winning an information war is first to admit that you are in one.