To Fight Disinformation is to Mirror Trumpism
“Truth” can’t save our democracy.
The main thing on my mind on this election eve is the same thing that’s been on my mind since Trump won in 2016: the mutually reinforcing trend we see in American democracy towards the delegitimization of our electoral system.
Yes, Trump gave this a big shove, and, sure, we can say it’s his “fault”. (I’d say that the trend predates Trump by at least 27 years, but let’s not get distracted by that.) Trump mainstreamed the tendency with his “fake news” rhetoric in the campaign, and has been clearly signaling his distrust in the electoral process even before he legitimately won six years ago.
But then the damndest thing happened: Democrats and most of the media fueled a frenzy of speculation as to the legitimacy of the 2016 vote. Was there a reason to investigate Russian meddling in the election? For sure there was. But it was pretty clear early on—very early on, I dare say—that there was no “there” there. The Russian info op was a great success, but not in the way Democrats (or, likely, the Russians themselves) thought. It failed in meaningfully swaying the election, but it succeeded in making both sides lastingly doubt the legitimacy of the process for how we elect our leaders.
A lot got packed into this debate about democratic legitimacy, some of it interesting and worth talking through in first principle terms—the impact of our counter-majoritarian institutions, the nature of representation, the use (and abuse) of gerrymandering, and the importance (or repressiveness) of voter ID laws. And there has been far less light than heat as a result. Every one of these issues has become a purity test for both sides—a partisan marker. That’s too bad, but it’s not catastrophic. These are the sorts of things that democracies internally squabble about all the time. Adjustments are made, no one is fully satisfied—a luta continua, the struggle continues.
The far more toxic legacy of 2016 has been the emergence of the concept of “disinformation”—and now “misinformation”—into our political discourse. It came in as a somewhat technical term, an appropriation of the KGB-era practice of dezinformatsiya—the spreading of lies for political gain with the explicit goal being to undermine faith in the very concept of truth itself. That the Soviets did this both at home and abroad is well documented. That Putin’s Russia was playing the same old games is beyond doubt.
But in the Soviet—and modern Russian—context, this weapon works best because “truth” is easy to define: it is what is most useful to the authorities. In a democracy, however, it gets messy real quick. To fight against disinformation is to fight for truth. But how is truth to be disambiguated from political claims? The reality is that in a democracy, much of our life—many of the claims we make—are politically contestable. Disambiguation is hard, and maybe impossible.*
There’s an idealized form of democracy which is supposed to entail politicians rationally debating ideas and principles before an interested voting public. The victor is chosen as a result of the collective judgment of the people. But that’s never been how it works.
All politics, and especially democratic politics, is inextricably tied to rhetoric—persuasion. Persuasion is however not solely done through syllogism and scientific method. Indeed, it is rarely done that way. Facts are often marshaled, but are never presented without context. We call this “spin” and accept it as an unavoidable part of our politics. Relatable stories, appeals to human emotions and aspirations, and personal charisma all play an even more important role. As do personal attacks and vitriol. (It’s only a partisan naïf who thinks only the other side engages in “dirty tricks”.)
Demagogues have always haunted democracies in no small part because they understand these mechanics all too well. They tell relatable stories about widely (or narrowly) felt injustice, they appeal to fear and prejudice, and they are without fail all very charismatic individuals. They attack, they malign, they slander. But what makes them so dangerous is that they set fewer limits on what they allow themselves to do. They lie more and with greater abandon than is normal for a democratic politician. But they are not qualitatively different. It’s merely a question of degree, a disregard for thresholds.
“Fact checking” political statements by the press of course predates the arrival of American demagoguery in the guise of Trump by several decades. It’s always been done, and it’s always made only a marginal impact. It worked best if politicians felt shame and backed down in public. It worked worst with the more sociopathic ones. But it was rarely decisive—and therefore probably a neutral phenomenon. Why is “fighting disinformation” so bad then?
Before Trump, conservatives consistently groused about a liberal bias among reporters. They complained, but largely accepted it—and would even win elections. It was then up to the (liberal parts of the) media to see what they missed, to come to grips with whatever “truth” the electorate had unearthed for them. Post-mortems would follow, and everyone told themselves that they had learned something important and would do better the next time.
“Fake news” implied something different—that the elites were consciously lying, and that Trump and his followers had access to the truth. It politicized, and therefore relativized, truth and falsity to an extent to which hadn’t been attempted before. “Fighting disinformation” plays into the exact same logic, but in reverse. In trying to elevate democracy to an idealistic standard which it has never managed to sustain in practice, it lays bare the fact that truth claims are always being spun. And in moralizing political disagreements about reality, it imputes bad faith to the other side. In such a dynamic, democratic compromise, and indeed democratic legitimacy, becomes increasingly impossible.
Worst of all, it leads to a mainstream complement to the more familiar trend of right wing conspiratorial thinking. In the preceding few days, articles have popped up suggesting that Russia, China, and Iran are all “interfering” in the elections. Our adversaries are almost certainly doing things on social media. But it’s also likely that should things go badly for Democrats tomorrow, we’ll be hearing about foreign interference at the expense of the kind of post-mortem introspection that allows democracies to self-correct.
Or consider the recent remarks by Stacey Abrams, the Georgia gubernatorial candidate once again in trouble in her race. Abrams has latched on to the idea that “misinformation”—a softer form of “disinformation” usually attributed to domestic actors, more commonly known as “political spin”—is making her black constituents vote the wrong way, against her. Her argument seems to be a form of the false consciousness accusation that frustrated progressives have leveled at poor rural voters since time immemorial: “Don’t they know their true interests (that I faithfully represent)?” But it’s more pernicious in today’s context. The question of the legitimacy of the outcome hangs in the air. In a democracy, legitimacy boils down to the question of whether you actually trust the people to speak for themselves or whether you try to explain them away when they turn on you.
As I go to sleep tonight, the big question is whether the Republicans’ “red wave” materializes tomorrow. If it does, I would wager that it will have been the product of inflation swamping all other concerns. And if that is the case, I’d say there’s hope for our democracy yet. Voters will have shown that they are captive of neither party, and are up for grabs. The side that snaps out of its Manichaean moralizing first could stand to reap lasting gains.
*Truth is hard in all societies, not just democracies. Democracies just make it a point to try to unearth truth through political contest. Therein lies the rub.