Disinformation is an old enemy with new weapons and powerful friends

In Book II of The Republic, Plato launches social philosophy’s foundational inquiry by posing social philosophy’s foundational question. Imagine discovering a ring which made you invisible so that you could behave with complete impunity. The person in possession of such a device “might with impunity take what he wished even from the marketplace, and enter houses and be with whom he pleased, and slay and loose from bonds whomsoever he would, and in all other things conduct himself among mankind as the equal of a god.” Why, Plato wonders, should a person facing no accountability or sanction ever behave justly or morally? Behind that moral question stood a political one: how, if at all, can a society be constructed to withstand the force of sociopathy?

The American founders, like Plato, predate modern psychological jargon, but they possessed deep psychological insight, and they recognized that the problem of sociopathic behavior challenges every social order. America’s founding generation feared sociopathic demagoguery as much as they did anarchy, and they understood that the two abet each other. In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton warned of the dangers posed by men with “talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity”—men who commence as demagogues and end as tyrants. Later, in a letter to President Washington, Hamilton warned that the “only path to a subversion of the republican system of the country” is by way of the ruthless demagogue who uses fear and flattery to “throw things into confusion [so] that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’ ”

Trolls and Shitlords

In 2017 the Huffington Post unearthed a style manual for The Daily Stormer, a white supremacist website. The guide advised using “naughty humor” to draw in curious readers, and then hammering them with a few repeated points “over and over and over and over again.” The guide’s author, Andrew Anglin, added, “The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not. . . . This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas kikes. But that’s neither here nor there.”

Trolls, despite their pose as online Jokers, seemed to grasp classic propaganda methods and had a knack for adapting them to the online world. Outrage and humor, they understood, were viral and addictive and could be weaponized to seize attention and occupy people’s brains. They understood psychology. “Remember the main law: EMOTION IS THE HOOK, FACTS ARE THE SIDE DISH,” propounded the trolls’ style manual. They understood insurgent tactics and asymmetrical warfare. “We have the advantage of being an anonymous swarm with a singular goal,” said the manual. “We don’t have to play fair. We can say and spread whatever we want.”

Today, so-called cancel culture—the use of social coercion to silence or isolate targets—is primarily the province of the left, while disinformation is primarily the province of the right.

Firehose of Falsehood

The study of propaganda and disinformation has a long and distinguished history. Propaganda is a campaign to influence public opinion without regard for truth, often (but not always) conducted by a state actor seeking some political outcome. Although the means vary widely, the end is this: to organize or manipulate the social and media environment to demoralize, deplatform, isolate, or intimidate an adversary.

Propaganda is a tool, not an ideology. Today, so-called cancel culture—the use of social coercion to silence or isolate targets—is primarily the province of the left, while disinformation is primarily the province of the right; but it might just as easily be the other way around, and someday no doubt will be. Disinformation attacks not just individual people or facts but the whole information space. In a famous remark to the journalist Michael Lewis in 2018, Steve Bannon, the Breitbart News chairman, said this: “…The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” Flood the zone with shit: although the formulation is crude, there could be no more concise and accurate summation of what modern information warfare is all about. All communities, and especially the reality-based community, rely on networks of trust to decide what is and is not true. Every aspect of trust and credibility is degraded when the zone is flooded with shit. 

The firehose of falsehood aims not to persuade but to confuse: to induce uncertainty, disorientation, and attendant cynicism.

For a disinformation operative, the goal is to subvert truth’s compulsion. That is difficult to do by changing people’s minds but making people confused and mistrustful is easier. As [Hannah] Arendt famously wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

The firehose of falsehood aims not to persuade but to confuse: to induce uncertainty, disorientation, and attendant cynicism. 

Epistemic helplessness—the inability to know where to turn for truth—was the desideratum of the firehose of falsehood. “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda,” the Russian dissident Gary Kasparov observed in a December 2016 tweet. “It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.” The goal was demoralization. In a chillingly candid interview in 1983, Yuri Bezmenov, a Russian intelligence defector who had specialized in propaganda and ideological subversion, explained: “A person who is demoralized is unable to assess true information. The facts tell nothing to him. Even if I shower him with information, with authentic proof, with documents, with pictures.”

(Dis)information Is Power

But why spend many millions of dollars and build national bureaucracies and international networks in order to demoralize people? As always with politics, the purpose was power. 

If you flood the zone with distractions and deceptions and just plain garbage, people’s attention would be diverted and exhausted and overwhelmed.

“It’s to make people passive and not want to fight,” the British journalist and disinformation expert Peter Pomerantsev told me. Whereas Communism had tried to convince people it was forging a great socialist future, the newer model focused on sowing confusion and disseminating conspiracy theories. Pomerantsev thought it resembled an “unserious version of postmodernism.” He noticed that as the Kremlin consolidated its control over media, it drove messages which were aimed not at motivating people to support the government but at demotivating them in order to make them feel helpless. “When you’re surrounded by conspiracy theories, you feel you can’t change anything, and there’s nothing to guide you,” he said. “The metanarrative is that there is no alternative to Putin.” 

In this way, troll epistemology could achieve something rather like censorship, only perhaps better, and certainly easier. Suppose, instead of banning unwelcome ideas, you swamp and swarm them? In a landmark 2017 paper called “Is the First Amendment Obsolete?” the legal scholar Tim Wu argued that traditional censorship assumed that information and access to audiences were scarce and could be blockaded or bottlenecked. In the digital era, however, information (good and bad) is abundant; attention is what is scarce. So instead of blockading information, why not blockade attention? If you flood the zone with distractions and deceptions and just plain garbage, people’s attention would be diverted and exhausted and overwhelmed. 

To demoralization, disorientation, and de facto censorship, one might add a further virtue of disinformation, from the point of view of the authoritarian or kleptocrat. Recall conformity bias: we conform our beliefs to the beliefs of others in our social environment. By swarming social media platforms and using software to impersonate masses of people, trolls can spoof our consensus detectors to create the impression that some marginal belief held by practically no one is broadly shared. 

The point is not that the public is gullible and always falls for spoofing, trolling, and disinformation. The point is that by fouling and defrauding the information environment, troll epistemology could make it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, to distinguish experts from imposters, to know the provenance of information, to assess what others do and do not believe, to know whom (or what) one is interacting with, and to orient yourself within the information environment. 

Thus, when they succeed, trolls and their sponsors achieve something like the powers of Plato’s invisibility ring, lying with impunity, mocking and marauding and harassing at will. 

Reality Pushes Back

Cause for alarm, yes. Cause for fatalism—no. There are many reasons not to assume that troll epistemology will prevail, and many reasons to hope it will fail. The reality-based community has its share of vulnerabilities, but troll epistemology has vulnerabilities of its own. It is, again, entirely parasitic and destructive; its inability to do anything constructive limits its sustainability and appeal. It relies on the information networks it targets to spread and amplify falsehoods, but those networks tend to wise up. It can coordinate its attacks but has little control over the demons it lets loose. It is not good at building durable institutions, because its norms are sociopathic. It is not good at maintaining its own situational awareness, because, as Thomas Rid notes, propagandists tend to become enmeshed in their own lies and half-truths.

Reprinted with permission from The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth by Jonathan Rauch published by Brookings Institution Press, © 2021 by Jonathan Rauch.