Truth in a disinformation society

This Yascha Mounk interview with Jonathan Rauch is so good.  First, great stuff about our disinformation environment and a pretty strong take on Trump’s role:

Mounk: You say that this is a set of tactics which in certain ways were first pioneered by Putin, but do you think that Trump actually used them in a more effective or more subtle way? What are those tactics? 

Rauch: The first and most important is what researchers at the RAND Corporation and elsewhere call the “firehose of falsehood” tactic. You just put out masses of lies at a rate which no one can keep up with. You can’t possibly debunk it all: It would be silly even to try because it doesn’t matter if the lies are mutually contradictory. But what you do is you swamp the information system with so many lies and conspiracy theories, people become disoriented, they become cynical, they don’t know who to trust, you dumbfound and disorient mainstream media that try to check it [but] can’t possibly keep up. You do this over every channel simultaneously. We saw that with “Stop the Steal:” They were using the office of the presidency and his Twitter account, but they were also using conservative media, Republican politicians, and the courts. Dozens of lawsuits filed, all of them meritless, [were] another form of spreading disinformation. This just disorients and drowns people. It’s very effective. They don’t know which way to turn and that opens the door to demagogues. Putin is very good at this. A good example is Sergei Skripal—the poisoning of him and his daughter. Some [Russian] agents went to Britain and used Novichok, a nerve agent, to poison two people, and when they were nailed for it, [they] said, “We have an explanation for this. In fact, we have dozens of them.” And they just poured out: “Well, it was a suicide. It was a lover’s quarrel. It was an accident. It wasn’t Novichok. It wasn’t a nerve agent. It was a nerve agent, but another nerve agent.” And so forth and so on.

Mounk: It’s not saying, “Here is one countertheory, which is as plausible as the main one.” It is trying to muddy the waters by coming up with lots of different theories. 

Rauch: To coin a phrase, this is not about persuasion: This is about disorientation. […] As Steve Bannon famously put it, “Flood the zone with shit.” This is a structured attack, and it is coordinated. Trump was coordinating it. That’s why he started the campaign against mail-in voting. He was signaling to a network what the message was going to be, and he was setting up the network and testing it so that after election day it would be ready to go. 

And, also a great conversation about cancel culture:

Mounk: Let’s talk about the second half of your account, which is not disinformation but cancellation. You had a really wonderful article early in the days of Persuasion about how you distinguish cancellation from straightforward criticism. What is the nature of cancellation? 

Rauch: Cancellation is not like criticism. Criticism is about the rational exchange of ideas in hopes of finding truth; cancelling is about manipulating the environment for political gain. And it’s also important to understand that the goal here is to get people to self-chill, to self-censor. So you’re not just going after the particular idea that Yascha Mounk may have. You don’t want safe harbors. You want to make people just afraid that anything they say could get them into trouble. If it comes anywhere near a topic—it’s usually going to be race or gender, sexuality, but could be a lot of other things—you intimidate them, and they’re silent and their point of view doesn’t get represented. [emphases mine] The other part [of cancellation] is really sophisticated because it’s cognitive, which is that humans look to each other to figure out what’s true. If we’re the only one in a room of eight people who says x, even if x is demonstrably true, a lot of the time we will decide that y must be right, because all those other people can’t be wrong. So when cancelers mess with the environment to suppress one point of view, they bring in a lot of other people who say, well, maybe this point of view that seems so strange and wrong and excessive and illiberal must be right. What people are trying to do here is create an environment that’s just studded with landmines. You don’t know where they are, you don’t know where you can walk—and, remember, the ultimate goal here is to demoralize the other side because demoralization is demobilization. But you know, there’s the famous case of David Shor a year ago. A left-leaning, Democratic political analyst, he tweets out an accurate account of a solid piece of academic work and loses his job after people gang up on him. That’s not a conversation about a viewpoint. It’s not even really about David Shor. It’s about a demonstration that at any given moment, no one is safe: We can come after you, we can go after your friends and your jobs. So we’re in charge around here. That’s the real agenda. 

Mounk: Why has cancellation risen as a threat to the constitution of knowledge? Once you have someone like Donald Trump in the White House, or even as a major presidential candidate, it’s easy to see why disinformation suddenly takes a more central role. I think with the rise of cancellation campaigns, it’s a little less clear. Is the source just technological? Is it the existence of Twitter with its algorithm that favors the most controversial tweet, or is there a broader reconfiguration of our moral, political or intellectual landscape?

Rauch: I think that the technique itself is ancient. Tocqueville cited it as the biggest threat to freedom in America in the 1830s. John Stuart Mill cited it as the biggest threat to freedom in Britain in 1859. There’s nothing new about using social coercion to create “spirals of silence,” as they’re called. So what turbocharges it now is, for one, the technology. [In the past] you’d have to do it by mail, or take out an ad in the newspaper. Well, now it’s just trivially easy to dogpile. Literally, you can do it with a few clicks of a button. A second is the emergence of “emotional safetyism” as a doctrine, which is the notion that if you’re saying something I disagree with, you’re actually committing an act of violence against me, a human rights violation. This turns out to be a powerful tool for intimidating people. It’s what was used at The New York Times to fire James Bennet: A lot of staffers said, “Running an editorial we disagree with was the equivalent of violence. It made us unsafe.” A third is generational change. A fourth is a very powerful tool that people discovered recently, and it’s that employers are a very vulnerable target. They are wired to avoid controversy. They’re not there to promote free speech by their employees. So if I go after Yascha, and Yascha has an employer, the easiest way for the employer to solve that problem is to fire Yascha. That’s a major vulnerability. 

What’s being appealed to here are deeply good things. For instance, anti-racism. I’ve learned a lot from anti-racist ideas. I’ve changed as a result, and I’m grateful for that. The problem comes when people don’t just argue for the ideas, but use coercion—illiberal means to regulate how we talk about those ideas. No one wants to be accused of being a racist: We want to be on the right side of this issue. That makes it hard for us to distinguish between the ideas themselves, which may be good or may have good in them, and the tactics that are being used to promote the ideas, which can be illiberal and authoritarian.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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