In search of a vaccine for a disinformation virus

Fingerprints_of_Russian_Disinformation__From_AIDS_to_Fake_News_-_The_New_York_TimesAs Mark Twain famously blogged, a lie can be tweeted halfway around the world while the truth is still unlocking its smartphone.

Misinformation is unintentional. Disinformation is not.

A “misinformation virus” infects minds instead of computers, spreading socially across homophilic networks, and inoculating people against facts they don’t want to believe.

Disinformation is intentionally false or misleading information that’s spread deliberately, often by a nation promoting propaganda, but also by other bad actors who may profit from public confusion or division.

A disinformation virus today may be even more pernicious, as we saw in the 2016 election in the United States, see daily today, and will see this fall.

Disinformation viruses can inoculate populations against revelations that powerful people and politicians dislike.

An early victim in information wars like the ongoing influence campaigns of today is the public’s shared understanding of muddied facts and their production, particularly when a populist demogogue deliberately disinforms people from within an institution like the White House with a legacy of assumed integrity and veracity.

The impact of eroded credibility will be diminished public safety in the event of a national security crisis or natural disaster like Puerto Rico.

This week, President Donald J. Trump tweeted again that journalists are “the real enemy of the people.”


Over the course of the week, the President of the United States continued to try to delegitimize the journalists holding him and his administration accountable, lying to the public about how journalism works.

trump lies july 19

There a strategy for his latest attacks, as there has been from his campaign to his presidency. History shows that these are an autocrat’s words, attempting to delegitimize journalism and inoculate his supporters against more inconvenient facts.

There’s a well-known reason autocratic leaders repress the press: journalists expose their abuses of power and inform the public, law enforcement, courts and legislatures.

Trump is targeting the institutions that are holding him accountable while Congress abdicates its constitutional role to oversee, check and balance a chief executive engaging in maladministration.

In this case, the New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence officials, citing sensitive evidence, told Trump after his election that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered a hacking and disinformation campaign.

It’s a startling report, as it would mean that Trump has lied to the public ever since about what Russia did, intentionally weaponizing public mistrust of government and media outlets to evade accountability.

It’s hardly news in 2018 that Trump is a serial liar seeking to distract and divert public attention from his corruption, scandals and the ongoing investigation of his campaign by the Justice Department.

It was an established public fact, after all, that prior to the 2016 election that he is a “routine and habitual fabulist.” Trump’s history of lying – includes lying about his wealth and impersonating someone else in calls to the media – is well-documented.

A president who constantly lies requires a more innovative responses, as NYU professor Jay Rosen recommends, not simply running the same editorial playbook.

For decades, reporters have been trained to record and amplify the public statements of a President.

Trump’s brazen lies have “hacked” that approach, resulted in amplified propaganda, misinformation and disinformation.

Sunlight may be a good disinfectant, and electricity a fine policeman, but some disinformation viruses are highly resistant to exposure.

How should journalists respond when corruption is brazenly open, lies are intended to disinform, and they themselves are the targeted by a hate movement?

The public remarks of a President should be covered — but this one’s must always be factchecked and contextualized, not just reported.

Unprecedented public mendacity by the President of the United States requires a better response.

Here’s a form I think is worth trying: a “truth sandwich,” as made by linguist George Lakoff and outlined by Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan:

  • report the truth
  • report what a politician or official claimed
  • fact-check those claims in-line in the same broadcast, story or post

Here’s an timely, relevant example of a “truth sandwich”:

No responsible newspaper would run a raw transcript of Trump’s words on the front page in 2018 without both. His campaign can “go direct” if Facebook, after all, if it wishes. The White House can put it on YouTube.

Stop broadcasting rallies full of lies and disinformation live, giving both a frictionless platform for infecting the public. Identify new or notable — the news — and put it in a “truth sandwich.”

As I told U.S. Senators in December 2017, investigative journalism is a better antidote for misinformation and disinformation than censorship.

The existential problem that confronts publishers and watchdogs alike is that Trump is simply exploiting and further eroding the low trust in journalism that existed in 2015, when he ran for office – and while some of the damage is self-inflicted, politicians, pundits and powerful plutocrats and industrial interests who benefit from casting doubt on science.

trump disinfo

As conservative commentator Charlie Sykes has noted, Trump simply built upon decades of conservative politicians, talkshow hosts, and partisan media outlets delegitimizing news media.

That could have disastrous consequences for this historic moment. As Sykes wrote in May 2017, I honestly think that if we had this media ecosystem during the Watergate scandal that Nixon would have survived.”

A healthy Congress would hold conduct oversight, holding hearings, and censure Trump for engaging in disinformation warfare with American democracy that contradicts the U.S. government’s own assessments. It would also consider whether lying to the public about public safety represents a “high crime and misdemeanors, ” and act accordingly.

We face a President lying to the public, in public, daily. Remarkably, data compiled by the Toronto Star shows his “dishonesty density” is increasing.

Even worse, Trump is deliberately disinforming the public about Russian actions or activities, and keeping our government in the dark about what, exactly, he talked about with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki without serious consequence to date from Congress.

In 2018, the hyperpartisan news bubble, complicit Congressmen surrounding and protecting Trump and his own disinformation campaigns is putting that to the test. I continue to hope that we and our institutions are up to this historic challenge.

4 thoughts on “In search of a vaccine for a disinformation virus

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