Nov 4, 2020 - Technology

Disinformation is a bell that can’t be unrung

Illustration of Uncle Sam ringing a bell

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Although the winner of the 2020 presidential contest is still unknown, one thing is clear: disinformation is becoming an endemic feature of U.S. politics.

Why it matters: Every nation is an "imagined community," political scientist Benedict Anderson said, bonded together by shared understandings, values and historical narratives. Disinformation cleaves those commonalities, making a country more dysfunctional, more divided and altogether weaker.

What's happening: In 2016, a defining story was how a foreign government, after correctly identifying long-running fractures in American society, perpetrated a covert action campaign using cyber espionage and other forms of malign online activity to heighten those political tensions. It worked spectacularly.

  • This year, foreign campaigns have been quieter, seemingly limited to instances like crude pre-election shenanigans from Iran and Russia. Instead, the story of this election entails powerful U.S. actors, including the sitting president and some of his closest confidants, unleashing a torrent of domestic disinformation.

The state of play: President Trump and his allies spent the period before and after the election ramping up the sharing of false claims and misleading media.

  • Overnight following the election, Trump tweeted, "We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election. We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Polls are closed!"
  • There is no evidence — none — of attempted large-scale election fraud. This is just the latest version of Trump’s claim that "the only way we're going to lose this election is if the election is rigged," one that he continued to gesture at in further tweets Wednesday morning.
  • Trump’s former acting director of National Intelligence posted a tweet Monday with photos of Joe Biden wearing a face mask outdoors and going maskless on an airplane, suggesting he only follows coronavirus safety protocols for show. In fact, the airplane photo was taken pre-pandemic, in 2019. The misleading tweet was shared more than 27,000 times.
  • A senior adviser to the president falsely claimed that only ballots counted on Election Day itself should be considered valid — and that if the president appears ahead on election night, he is the rightful winner.

Between the lines: It matters that these messages have come from the White House and figures like a former top intelligence official. This brand of disinformation is far more pernicious than anything Russia's FSB or GRU could have dreamed up, because people in positions of authority and those in their orbit enjoy built-in credibility within American institutions and society.

  • Foreign actors will likely soon move to amplify and seize on these American-made narratives. Already, U.S. officials worry that Russia and Iran are likely waiting until the immediate post-election period to execute their more fully realized online disinformation campaigns.
  • Officials believe those will focus on discrediting the election results, no matter the winner.

The big picture: The last four years have seen a dramatic acceleration and escalation of the U.S.'s digital Balkanization, with many Americans living in entirely parallel information environments that share fewer and fewer first principles and basic truths. In the era of COVID-19, this has had tragic and deadly consequences.

The bottom line: America’s adversaries have surely already identified these new schisms as prime targets for future meddling opportunities. But their work has been made immensely easier by the devolving domestic environment itself. American politicians have rung this particular bell too many times, and it simply can’t be unrung.

Go deeper