“Disinformation” Didn’t Bring Us Donald Trump

Since 2016, the national security establishment has tried to reframe mass disaffection with mainstream politics as the outcome of foreign meddling. But disinformation isn’t the cause of our political malaise, and fighting it won’t get us out of it.

The dominant story of post-2016 populist tumult has centered on disinformation on social media platforms. (Darren Halstead / Unsplash)

The current malaise about tech platforms and the effects they are having on democracy has come to be understood primarily as a question of disinformation. Government agencies, Silicon Valley NGOs, and research centers have been crucial in channeling collective disgust at unaccountable tech oligarchs into a single-minded preoccupation with (alleged) “truth.” From Russiagate to January 6 and COVID denialism — all these are deemed to stem from problems of “epistemic terrorism,” Facebook acting as a “hostile foreign power,” or Russia hacking our minds. Instead of instituting public-interest regulation and bringing out the antitrust blowtorch, a revolving door has been established between the national security state and platforms. Only the disinformation experts get to peek into the algorithmic black boxes that govern the internet. While the prospects for regulation have always been slim, we would do well to avoid reinforcing the dismal Cold War science of disinformation studies.

The dominant story of the post-2016 populist tumult has centered on “bad actors” — from foreign trolls to populist political operatives — weaponizing the openness and ubiquity of network communication. The West’s internet innocence has been taken away by Russia’s malevolence and its deployment of useful idiots from across the political spectrum, the narrative goes.

In a reversion to Cold War propaganda, the Russians are said to benefit from their masterful centralization of power, which they deploy against a divided and embattled West. While we may be past the days when “Buff Bernie” and masturbating Jesus memes were solemnly presented to the US Senate Intelligence Committee, we are still gripped by the idea that our mundane social media lives are the stuff of civilizational war.

A New York Times headline for an op-ed from the great public intellectual of this internet malaise, Shoshona Zuboff, claims that “You Are Now Remotely Controlled.” She writes that sophisticated data tools make us dance to an unknown master: “This new power ‘to make them dance’ does not employ soldiers to threaten terror and murder. It arrives carrying a cappuccino, not a gun.”

Disinformation Field

The attempt to make disinformation the defining source of our political malaise not only helps the national security state. It also bestows a tremendous amount of cultural capital on the technocratic class that helped get us into this mess. The professional authority of the disinfo expert has flourished across journalism, academia, and cyber-intelligence. There has been an attempt to understand every instantiation of populism and social tumult as a question of disinformation. Just how far this goes was made clear when Susan Rice invoked Russian meddling in the context of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protest movement. The resulting vision of the world is one in which movements are seen as pseudo-actors subservient to an underlying system of information war. By the same token, the disinfo technocrats can imagine themselves as an indispensable corps of experts who “promote objective fact as the basis for democratic governance worldwide” — a Hegelian universal class masking their subservience to empire.

So the disinformation technocrats have come to save the internet and our democracy. Internet governance has been transformed, not through public-interest regulation but through the partnering of internet companies with national security institutions such as the NATO-affilated Atlantic Council, whose DFRLab was tapped to make key editorial decisions for platforms.

The disinformation rubric helps to cement an organic solidarity between the corporate, academic, and intelligence fields, a new military-industrial complex for an era in which social media companies constitute a major industry.

This alignment may even take the appearance of a “digital civil society” movement. Silicon Valley NGO Center for Humane Technology (CHT) conflates concerns about “hybrid war” with teen body-image issues on Instagram. CHT’s vanity project, the documentary The Social Dilemma, brought together Valley insiders like Tristan Harris, Soshana Zuboff, and Renee DiResta to present these technocrats as the humane and moral agents able to lead the transformation of tech in our stead.

DiResta is a highly accomplished exemplar of the disinformation field, and her exploits demonstrate how disinformation expertise traverses different professional areas. She is a founding advisor to CHT and head of research at the Stanford Internet Observatory, a crucial institute at the heart of Silicon Valley in which academic tools are developed in partnership with platforms to study disinformation. Her work has been regularly featured in the Atlantic and Wired, and in fora ranging from the Aspen Ideas Festival to the Joe Rogan Experience. She was the lead author of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the Russian Internet Research Agency on behalf of the now disgraced cyber-intelligence firm New Knowledge, and her national security ties include the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations. A former Thiel Foundation fellow, she claims to have been involved with him “before he went reactionary.”

In an interview she gave with CHT cofounder Aza Raskin as part of The Social Dilemma, she neatly demonstrates how truth is ultimately structured by a hybrid war logic. Raskin addresses the camera to tell the audience that DiResta “broke his mind recently”: she had told him that Russian troll farms are involved in pushing anti-fracking content to the West in order to protect Russian state oil interests. This fairly mundane news elicits the following from Raskin:

[Anti-]fracking is just . . . a default position of mine. . . . I don’t really know why I have the opinion about fracking that I do. How is it that I know what I know? The realization that I couldn’t answer that question really hit home for me that I am personally just as influenceable and vulnerable as every other human about things that really matter. . . . That was just a gut punch. . . . I don’t know why I know what I think I know.

Raskin wonders if his own views are Russian implants and whether he might have been an unwitting agent. (Perhaps he’s forgotten watching Gasland back in 2010?) Yet his solution is not to develop any real political conviction around his views but simply to condemn the mendacious, all-knowing enemy. It makes a virtue of the absence of moral or political courage: better to simply trust what the Cold War technocrats tell you about the data.

Against Disinfo Experts

We can do better than to align ourselves with this kind of reheated anti-communism. In the field of disinformation studies, it’s practically taboo to acknowledge a crisis of democracy that is structural, material, and predates QAnon clout chasers. As the critical disinfo scholars at the University of North Carolina’s Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life identify, there is a retreat into fantasies of an epistemically consistent past that allows technocrats to treat political challenges from the left as part of the attack on “our way of life.” This is manifest in the key strategic interventions of disinfo warriors in previous electoral cycles in the UK and United States. DFRLab’s Foreign Interference Attribution Tracker used anonymous intelligence reports to assert that the George Floyd protests and the Bernie Sanders campaign where the two most impactful foreign interference attempts of 2020. Similarly, Ben Nimmo, formerly of DFRLab and now head of Facebook’s influence operations intelligence, was able to reframe Jeremy Corbyn’s use in the campaign of a factually accurate, leaked draft trade deal as principally an issue of hybrid war.

To understand the current crisis of democracy, we need to move beyond a focus on familiar big-data tools and instead place ourselves in this historical moment in which the capacity for meaningful collective public action is being eroded. Ham-fisted attempts to create a “reality czar” or DHS’s Disinformation Governance Board won’t work. They only aid the Right by solidifying the idea that we can only choose between technocratic governance by faceless neoliberal managerialists and the pure libertarian self-publishing ontology of posting as a sine qua non of freedom.