A few years ago I participated in a national security workgroup on disinformation. I was the only one in the group of about 20 people who had openly supported Trump in 2016. The other attendees were smart and professional, but there was a noticeable imbalance in partisan representation.
Since then, I’ve followed the disinformation community and have studied these issues. I take them seriously. My conclusion? Establishment disinformation, more than any other form of disinformation, is killing Western democracy. Disinformation from our own political and media establishment has caused more harm to Western democracy than any other force in the last two decades.
Consider the fallout from the sweeping information operations promoting lies about weapons of mass destruction. Remember how difficult it was to question these claims at the time? The WMD narrative created the pretext for wars that cost $6.4 trillion and 801,000 lives, according to a Brown University study. And we continue to pay the price. The suicide rate among veterans remains double that of the nation as a whole, and we’re still not out of Afghanistan after nearly 20 years.
Consider also the impact of the fake Russian collusion narrative—the lives ruined, loss of public trust, increased polarization, and damage to the peaceful transfer of presidential power, a cornerstone of a healthy democracy.
It is now a proven fact that Hillary Clinton and her Democratic National Committee stooges initiated a coordinated, multimillion-dollar disinformation campaign to undermine Donald Trump and detract from her email scandal. Establishment media breathlessly amplified false, paranoid, and circular narratives, many of which were greased by actual Russian disinformation laundered through the Steele dossier. Where are the calls from establishment media to identify journalists paid by Fusion GPS?
The FBI knew the Steele dossier and collusion narrative were false, just as they knew Hillary Clinton had weaponized these issues to cover up her email scandal—and they still used it as a predicate to spy on Trump’s campaign and launch the Mueller investigation, falsifying documents along the way. The FBI’s actions represent the greatest abuse of law enforcement power in half a century, and they were largely fueled by establishment disinformation.
Now consider the destruction and real-world harm caused by narratives about police racism following the death in May of George Floyd. Many of these narratives were based on falsehoods, anecdotes, and incidents where full information was suppressed to advance Black Lives Matter and Antifa mobilization efforts. The vandalism and looting that took place caused $1 billion to $2 billion in damages. Homicides are up 24 percent from last year in America’s 50 largest cities.
Of course, the looting and riots took place against the backdrop of the pseudo-academic “1619 Project,” an establishment journalism disinformation effort that subverts the history of America’s founding in a way Russia Today or People’s Daily could only dream of doing. It would be tempting to dismiss the “1619 Project” as a fringe polemic by radical journalists, except it was sponsored by the New York Times, won the Pulitzer Prize, and now shapes public school curricula. That’s as established-endorsed as one can get. But the project is so factually flawed that there is now a movement to revoke its Pulitzer by the National Association of Scholars.
Then there’s the most destructive event of 2020: the pandemic. Establishment disinformation around COVID-19 is hard to pinpoint, but anyone paying attention can see the wreckage of attempts to advance certain narratives and suppress others. Remember when the U.S. Surgeon General said masks weren’t effective and then flip-flopped? Or how anyone questioning lockdowns was persecuted? Or how Facebook and Twitter banned posts downplaying COVID’s deadliness? Now even the World Health Organization has moderated its position on lockdowns, which have caused unprecedented job losses, business closures, and economic damage.
Establishment disinformation comes from both sides of the political aisle, but the “woke” radicalization of the Left combined with Trump derangement and a left-leaning media have given it a far-Left flavor. Thus, fake attacks against Jussie Smollett and Althea Bernstein go unquestioned by the same media that slanders the Covington kids and Brett Kavanaugh. Leaks targeting Trump are not scrutinized or censored in the same way they are when targeting Biden or his son Hunter. Dictionary definitions are conveniently changed to enforce establishment narratives.
It may be a cliché, but Orwell didn’t write 1984 as a playbook. Yet here we are. As a friend quipped recently: “I thought we were becoming more like Brazil. Instead we’re looking more like East Germany.”
Establishment disinformation becomes tyrannical when false establishment narratives are combined with the active suppression of authentic dissenting discourse, which has been made highly efficient by the consolidation of discourse on social media platforms. Instead of state persecution and social credit scores, citizens of Western democracies face deplatforming, job losses, and character assassination by power-crazed, petty hall-monitor journalists and Soros-funded NGO researchers. Today’s Hester Prynne is the person who says all lives matter or gender is real. Woke narratives are our Xi Jinping Thought.
There are constructive ways we could address establishment disinformation, but you are unlikely to hear the disinformation community talk about it as an issue. That’s because much of the disinformation community consists of partisans who operate as arms of the DNC and left-wing foundations. While the Right has stupidly ignored these issues, the Left has weaponized “countering disinformation” as a DNC strategy backed by millions of dollars. The term has become so abused that a friend now jokes that “disinfo researcher” in someone’s Twitter bio is code for “DNC hack.” As you can imagine, the partisan weaponization of disinformation has done untold damage to the civic unity needed to address these issues in good faith.
There’s still a segment of disinformation researchers who are earnest, fair, and professional. But these folks almost all lean Left and exist in institutional environments that prevent pushing back on establishment narratives. This is why we haven’t seen reports on the Steele dossier or WMDs as disinformation case studies. This is why the skewed narratives, fear-mongering, and online mobilization efforts behind Black Lives Matter are never given the same scrutiny as, say, QAnon, despite the former causing significantly more offline harm. Meanwhile, challenging the First Amendment has become part of the zeitgeist for many of these people, an argument Emily Bazelon articulates in a recent New York Times Magazine essay.
My focus on establishment disinformation is not meant to underplay disinformation from foreign adversaries and bad actors. Those remain important issues. But there’s something particularly insidious about coordinated false narratives from authority figures and institutions in our own democracies. It’s even more insidious when the legitimate threat of foreign disinformation is instrumentalized to advance establishment narratives, as we saw in Russiagate and as we’re seeing again with the Hunter Biden leaks.
There are legitimate issues to discuss in the broader realm of disinformation. How we approach hack-and-leaks, how we regulate social media, and how we protect authentic democratic discourse against coordinated, inauthentic activity are valid, complex issues. But at the very least we should strive to apply neutral principles evenly and consistently. That’s not what we’ve seen.
Establishment disinformation abuses public trust. It too often goes unchecked. No one in the disinformation community talks about it. Until we confront the problem of establishment disinformation, Western democracy will suffer and the rise of a new, networked form of tyranny will condemn those who step out of line.