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Hearts & Minds — The Disinformation War

The Brood: Robert Mueller’s special counsel “Russia” investigation has issued its first charges against members of the Trump campaign. But by focusing solely on the details of the Russia investigation, are we missing the larger picture?

When news came that Paul Manafort was being indicted on several charges by the special counsel, including conspiracy against the United States, speculation about Trump’s impeachment began to resurface. Given the daily media circus the people of the United States are subject to under this administration, its not surprising that most opponents of the President focus most intensely on the hope of impeachment. But by doing so, we are missing the larger, and more disturbing, fact of our times. It’s one that touches a darker, scarier place than Trump himself could ever represent.

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Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Lintao Zhang/Getty Images.

Let’s review what has happened. It has yet to be proven definitively, but it seems almost certain now that there was cooperation between the Trump campaign and the Russians to sway the election. What is important in the broad sweep of history is not so much the cooperation itself, but the methods that were used. The hacking of, and strategic, coordinated release of information from the DNC. The Russian government, and affiliated independent actors, planted fake, inflammatory stories on social media to divide and scare Americans, which on Facebook alone reached 126 Million Americans.

This includes Fake Americans, fake stories about Democrats colluding, and perhaps even stories like the infamous Pizzagate. These efforts included at least a thousand paid writers to generate convincing false stories. They included several thousand automated Russian bots which would propogate and disseminate these stories to the top of twitter feeds. The prevalence of these stories distorted people’s perceptions of reality, affecting members of all political stripes, including liberals. For example, with a Russian-generated story which exaggerated claims about Hillary Clinton’s health condition, even affecting the coverage of sources like the Washington Post.

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Silicon Valley companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter were summoned today to testify in front of Congress about their part in the hacks. They have showed reticence to concede their role in the Russian interference drama. But Senator Grassley hammers home the gravity of the situation:

“Russia does not have loyalty to a political party in the United States,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “Their goal is to divide us and discredit our democracy.”

What the internet and social media have done, for the first time in the history of human kind, is that they have made disinformation scaleable on a society-wide level. Suddenly, if you have the resources and the willpower, you can goad your enemy’s population into infighting and paralysis by shaping their perception of the world around them to fit your interests. This is what Russia has done in the United States. But it has also used this disinformation technique during its invasion of Ukraine, during the vote on Brexit, and during multiple other European elections.

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Orwell’s 1984 foresaw a world where state actors could have the power to control and curate the information that constructs people’s perceptions of reality.

As nuclear weapons have made conventional war between major countries (nearly) unthinkable, warfare has evolved into the realm of the psychological. Already we can see through Russia’s disinformation campaigns that the wars of the future won’t be fought through arms, but through the persuasion and manipulation of behavioral psychology.

The internet has produced huge amounts of data. When information is high volume, it becomes incoherent. When it becomes incoherent, the most emotionally resonant messages will prevail in the mind. Social Media companies have long understood this, as explained often by Tristan Harris, former product manager at Google. That’s why Facebook has algorithms that push people toward emotionally satisfying, but intellectually unchallenging content. In other words, we have built our major media and communications infrastructure on the same addictive, priority-distorting principles that keep you glued to candy crush.

Mindless fun? Or Orwellian Mind Control? (Source: Google Images)

Society-wide information curation and distortion poses a serious challenge to democracy in the 21st century, since democratic deliberation is based on, at least, shared agreement on facts. If war in the 21st century is based on sowing disinformation to change minds and hearts, our national security apparatus, laws, educational system, and culture will all need to radically adapt. While there are certainly thoughts as to how to address it, we are in a brave new world.

How should we adapt to this new, digital age problem? How do we ensure the veracity of information without infringing freedom of speech? Comment and share your thoughts!

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Written and edited by Dylan Welch, co-host and creator of the Municipals podcast.

5 thoughts on “Hearts & Minds — The Disinformation War

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