On February 12, the New Yorker noted that Pulitzer prize-winning composer Ellen Reid would be joining the New York Philharmonic later in the month for the world premiere of her composition, “When the World as You’ve Known It Doesn’t Exist.” Rarely has reality been so presciently foretold by art. Epidemiological investigations would soon discover that by the time Reid’s composition was performed, approximately 11,000 people in the city were already infected with the novel coronavirus. At one point, New York City alone would record more Covid-19-related deaths than any country in the world—except the rest of the United States. Yet the situation would grow much worse. By May, the United States, with 4 percent of the global population, accounted for 25 percent of Covid-19-related deaths. Health experts in the Trump administration were privately projecting that by June 1 the death rate would double to approximately 3,000 deaths per day. By July, the infection rate in the United States was out of control. Yet, in the face of these grim numbers, President Trump and anti-stay-at-home protesters demanded that states reopen their economies, despite the risk. Accompanying this medical catastrophe was a familiar political one. Disinformation seemed at times to spread as prolifically as the virus. In response, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube all vowed to be on the lookout for coronavirus disinformation. The country’s information disorder was as intractable as its medical one.
In a 2018 article, we define disinformation as “intentional falsehoods or distortions often spread as news to advance political goals such as discrediting opponents, disrupting policy debates, influencing voters, inflaming existing social conflicts, or creating a general backdrop of confusion and informational paralysis.”1W. Lance Bennet and Steven Livingston, “The Disinformation Order: Disruptive Communication and the Decline of Democratic Institutions,” European Journal of Communication 33, no. 2 (2018): 122–139. While this and other similar definitions help distinguish relevant from irrelevant occurrences of disinformation, they don’t explain how it works, what its origins are, or how it can be addressed meaningfully by policymakers.
In surveying existing explanations, we see at least two general patterns. Most observers and researchers emphasize the role of social technologies. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms provide an algorithmically curated social space for misleading content. A second explanation focuses on the health of authoritative institutions. Where authoritative institutions are in crisis, resulting epistemological voids are colonized by “alternative facts.” We will first review the techno-centric argument before turning our attention to an explanation rooted in institutions.
Explaining disinformation“Digital disinformation leads to greater political polarization, which opens space for yet more disinformation, which of course exacerbates polarization.”
In a well-regarded 2018 review of the social media and politics research literature, Joshua A. Tucker and his colleagues offer a thorough summary of what we call the techno-centric explanation of disinformation, or what others often refer to as “computational propaganda.”2Joshua A. Tucker et al., Social Media, Political Polarization, and Political Disinformation: A Review of the Scientific Literature (Menlo Park, CA: William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, 2018). On “computational propaganda” see Samuel C. Wooley and Douglas R. Guilbeault, “Computational Propaganda in the United States of America: Manufacturing Consensus Online” (working paper, The Computational Propaganda Project, Oxford University, 2017). According to this understanding of the problem, social media trigger a recursive downward spiral of democratic dysfunction. Digital disinformation leads to greater political polarization, which opens space for yet more disinformation, which of course exacerbates polarization. Such hyperpartisan online politics in turn repel ideologically temperate citizens, leaving the political arena open to more extreme voices. Online content is then amplified by ideologically driven cable news entertainers, or vice versa. Rumors, innuendo, and conspiracy theories are ratcheted up in a reinforcement loop among online and cable news personalities and prominent political officials. Layered over this dynamic is the disruptive presence of foreign actors who leverage social media propensities and social cleavages to their own political advantage. At the beginning of the spiral are various social media platforms that accentuate extremist content as a design feature intended to generate ad revenue.3New York: Public Affairs, 2019More Info →
This is an elegant description of the problem; what we offer here is not meant to be at fundamental odds with most of it. Nor do we mean to absolve social media platforms of their responsibility in fomenting hate, and potentially even genocide. Instead, we draw attention to other important parts of the story. To be effective, disinformation campaigns on social media platforms require particular political circumstances. In general, countries characterized by high trust in legacy media and public institutions, and low levels of social division are more resilient to disinformation. Much of the information in the news comes from public institutions and the officials representing them. When trust in government, media, and science declines, disinformation thrives, because many people seek “alternate facts.” As a result, public resistance to rumor, conspiracy, hate, and lies weakens. This is illustrated by variance in disinformation effectiveness around the world. Taiwan, for example, has been the target of sustained disinformation attacks from the mainland for years. Indeed, according to one study, Taiwan has been the target of more foreign-sourced disinformation than any other liberal democracy.4Anna Lührmann et al., Democracy Facing Global Challenges: V-Dem Annual Democracy Report 2019 (Gothenburg: V-Dem Institute, 2019). Yet, these attacks have had little apparent impact on Taiwan’s politics and society.“Social fissures encourage the embrace of tribal identities that are accompanied by deeply held emotional truths that are often not anchored by evidence.”
The Baltic states offer another example of national resilience in the face of a sustained disinformation campaign. NATO has reported the limited effect of social media trolling on Latvia’s population. Similarly, Finland is largely resistant to Russian disinformation. Its “coherent government response makes a strong defense against concerted outside efforts to skew reality and undermine faith in institutions” (emphasis added). As with the Soviet Union in an earlier era, Russian disinformation is meant to exacerbate existing social fissures in a target society. Social fissures encourage the embrace of tribal identities that are accompanied by deeply held emotional truths that are often not anchored by evidence.5Oxford University Press, 2009More Info →
Assaults on authoritative institutions
Authoritative institutions are characterized by norms, processes, and cultural practices designed to assess the soundness of truth-claims.6Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877–1920 (Hill and Wang, 1966). In science, peer-review, replicability requirements, and publication retraction procedures offer an example of such mechanisms. When evidence is flawed, reputational costs are incurred. In judicial proceedings, violations of the rules of evidence can lead to acquittal, not because the accused is necessarily innocent of a crime, but because the procedures in place for guarding the integrity of fact-based claims have been violated. Professional journalism follows similar procedures for assessing truth claims.7New York: Columbia University Press, 2015More Info → Revealed violations of these professional norms and standards comes with a cost. As Yochai Benkler and his colleagues note, “Some shared means of defining what facts or beliefs are off the wall and what are plausibly open to reasoned debate is necessary to maintain a democracy.”8Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts, Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics (Oxford University Press, 2018), 5. Today, in some societies, norms of reasoned public debate have given way to crafted emotional truths and reckless prevarications that, by design, disrupt the basic functioning of authoritative institutions.“What political, economic, or social currents in recent US history might explain the conditions that give rise to outlandish conspiracies?”
In 2019, the Social Science Research Council’s Media & Democracy program invited us to organize a working group consisting of scholars from several disciplines to investigate the historical antecedents of our current “post-fact” world. What political, economic, or social currents in recent US history might explain the conditions that give rise to outlandish conspiracies? The resulting edited volume, The Disinformation Age: Politics, Technology and Disruptive Communication in the United States,9Cambridge University Press, 2020More Info → includes prominent sociologists, communication scholars, political scientists, and historians. In the opening chapter, we develop the conceptual framework outlined briefly here. While the contours of our argument vary from country to country, it hews closely to a core theme: Neoliberalism and the accompanying austerity regimes that have left public sector services in tatters have been accompanied by a sustained assault on science, journalism, labor unions, and academic institutions and other authoritative institutions. Beginning with the Thatcher and Reagan regimes in the United Kingdom and the United States in the late 1970s and 1980s, center-right parties pressed for privatization of public services, cuts in government budgets and public welfare programs, tax policies favoring business and wealthy individuals, and the reliance on markets and private enterprise to guide public policy. By the 1990s, this trend was joined by center left parties such as the Democrats under Clinton in the United States, the Labour Party reshaped by Blair in the United Kingdom, and the Social Democrats led by Schroeder in Germany.
In nearly every of these democracies economic inequality grew, public services were reduced, labor unions weakened, wages stagnated, and personal insecurity increased. These trends were most pronounced in the United Kingdom and the United States. As a result of the frustration, anger, and despair experienced by citizens10New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017More Info → squeezed by shrinking relative wages, precarious job security, and frayed social safety nets, the appeal of soothing emotional truths becomes overwhelming. In a seemingly meaningless world, people seek meaning where they can. It isn’t the cleverness of the bots and trolls that matter most; it is the weakening of authoritative institutions and the fracturing of previously shared understandings of reality that matter. Each tribe is now in possession of its own facts, its own version of reality. How did we get here?
The development and spread of neoliberalism in the post–World War II era, and particularly after the 1970s, was bolstered by the extensive funding of thousands of affiliated think tanks and political organizations by corporations and billionaires.11New York: Penguin, 2017More Info → Networks of national-level think tanks, charitable foundations, and astroturfing organizations have developed political strategies to limit the political agency of workers, consumers, environmentalists, and other democratic publics deemed hostile to business interests and free market ideology. Billions of dollars have been spent in this effort. Yet, despite the money and push, advocates of small-government, free-market libertarianism failed to convince the US public of the wisdom of abandoning essential government programs dating back to FDR’s New Deal. To accomplish this required a reframing of social welfare programs, mostly through racial tropes. For example, in his 1976 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan created the myth of the “welfare queen.” As one investigation put it,
In the popular imagination, the stereotype of the “welfare queen” is thoroughly raced—she’s an indolent black woman, living off the largesse of taxpayers. The term is seen by many as a dog whistle, a way to play on racial anxieties without summoning them directly.
The poor, especially those in urban communities of color, were portrayed as slackers and con artists who took advantage of Lyndon Johnson’s “war against poverty.” By 2016, what were once not-so-subtle dog whistles had become an unabashed embrace of white supremacy by the President of the United States.“Appeals to hatred and violence against racial and ethnic minorities is an all-too-common practice.”
As political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson put it, “race is the cleavage that defines American politics.”12Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Let them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2020), Kindle, 9–10. Elevating the role of race, “does not require denying the role of plutocracy. It requires seeing how (and how fundamentally) the two are intertwined.”13Hacker and Pierson, Let them Eat Tweets, 9–10. Extensive research suggests that violent extremism is generated from above when elites “capitalize on preexisting prejudices in pursuit of political gain.”14→Kanchan Chandra, “Ethnic Parties and Democratic Stability,” Perspectives on Politics 3, no. 2 (June 2005): 235–252.
→Stuart J. Kaufman, “Spiraling to Ethnic War: Elites, Masses, and Moscow in Moldova’s Civil War,” International Security 21, no. 2 (Fall 1996): 108–138.
→Shiping Tang, “The Onset of Ethnic War: A General Theory,” Sociological Theory 33, no. 3 (October 2015): 256–279. Race and ethnicity served as cross-cutting cleavages—the capacity of conservative parties around the world to “self-consciously find and exploit issues that cross-cut and diminish the impact of social class as an electoral cleavage, supplanting it with issues such as nationalism, religion, and patriotism.”15Daniel Ziblatt, Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019), Kindle, 49. We see this same pattern elsewhere in the world, including Myanmar where the Burmese military have been accused by International Criminal Court officials, Amnesty International, the United Nations, and various news agencies of ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority. Appeals to hatred and violence against racial and ethnic minorities is an all-too-common practice.
In the United States, efforts to rationalize the privatization of public assets and the rollback of government regulation of markets have played a direct role in attacking institutions such as the traditional news media, and furthered disinformation and polarization in the United States. For example, right-wing think tanks and conservative organizations helped organize and fund 2020 anti-stay-at-home protests, in the same way they did anti-union “Right to Work” legislation in 2012. The anti-stay-at-home protests received widespread coverage in right-wing media, particularly on Fox News, which was then reinforced by Trump’s immediate tweets in support of the protests. One domestic terrorism group, calling themselves the “Wolverine Watchmen,” even hatched a plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan.
The techno-centric explanation of disinformation becomes relevant at this point, but only because institutions that would otherwise limit the effect of such disinformation have been undermined by extensive funding and support by neoliberal and so-called libertarian assaults on public institutions, science, and regulation. Shifting the emphasis to the underlying political roots of the information disorder helps us avoid diverting too much attention and resources to treating symptoms, such as media literacy and fact checking, which leave the institutional causes of disinformation untouched.“Solving information disorder involves choking off the influence of enormous wealth and concentrated political power that continues to undermine authoritative institutions.”
What is the takeaway here? Solving information disorder involves choking off the influence of enormous wealth and concentrated political power that continues to undermine authoritative institutions. It is only then that we can expect some closure of the voids left behind by the erosion of democratic institutions. The pattern we’ve identified here in the United States plays out with variations in other countries around the world. But the core dynamic is uncannily the same. Authoritative public institutions that might shed an unflattering light on corporate capitalism and great concentrations of wealth are being undermined. This is the source of our current information disorder.
Banner photo credit: Paul Becker/Flickr
→Stuart J. Kaufman, “Spiraling to Ethnic War: Elites, Masses, and Moscow in Moldova’s Civil War,” International Security 21, no. 2 (Fall 1996): 108–138.
→Shiping Tang, “The Onset of Ethnic War: A General Theory,” Sociological Theory 33, no. 3 (October 2015): 256–279.