Trump Disinformation Machine must be a wake-up call
In 2020 Donald Trump was reportedly the biggest source of political disinformation in the world, fuelling social unrest, voter supression, and distrust in democracy. The US election forced us to stare over the precipice at what happens if the political deployment of digital disinformation is allowed to go unchecked. This moment must serve as a wake-up call about the threat to the democratic progress of unregulated political speech amplified by Big Tech (including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube) and mainstream media.
Trump’s team of election strategy consultants, data analysts, ‘meme’ manufacturers, trolls and bots controlled from within the White House, or other similar teams, will now move on to manipulate the democratic process in other countries scheduled to hold elections in 2021. In both authoritarian states and liberal democracies, politicians will spend billions hiring similar teams to psychologically profile citizens and micro-target them on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube with the aim of manipulating beliefs and voting behaviour. Addressing this digital colonisation of the political sphere by Big Tech platforms is an urgent global problem for democracy. If US voters are successful in removing Trump from the White House, they will have secured a much-needed opportunity to impose radical reform of social media companies and political engagement.
The disinformation machine
Recent elections have shown vividly how online disinformation and baseless conspiracy theories are being deployed to derail democratic deliberation, dialogue, and debate. Since the UK’s Brexit referendum and the first Trump campaign in 2016 politicians have developed increasingly sophisticated disinformation machines across multiple media with the aim of disrupting, distorting and drowning-out democratic dialogue and debate. In many instances, they’ve sought to replace discussion with vile vitriol, attacking women , presenting ethnic minorities as the enemy, and presenting white male populist candidates as the solution. In the US, we’ve seen mainstream media benefit from amplifying Trump’s highly inflammatory rhetoric gaining financially from the increased website traffic and advertising spend that it generates for them. Only when it became clear that Trump would lose the 2020 US election, and that Biden would imminently assume control of media regulation, did social media sites start blocking Trump lies. At that point, the mainstream media also suddenly stopped uncritically amplifying his messages and started qualifying Trump claims as “unproven” or “baseless” in their reports.
To understand how to pull back from the precipice we now need to go beyond the simplistic characterisation of Trump as a one-man Twitter madman. We need to understand the sophisticated data-analysis and disinformation machine in the White House that used Black voter suppression and false border wall pledge to engineer his surprise victory in 2016. Trump has been at the centre of a dense network of misinformation making astute use of the affordances of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms to propagate fear and hate, fuelled by lies and conspiracy theories, to mobilise misogyny, militias and misinformation. We have learned that fake news travels six times faster on Twitter than the truth, so attracts more advertising revenue. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have made billions in profits from the hate-filled social media traffic generated by right-wing conspiracy theorists, white supremacist and misogynist groups allied to Trump. Sensationalist lies are good for (social) media businesses, irrespective of the cost to Black Lives, democracy or sustainable development.
Trump’s final gambit was the lie that the election was stolen from him. Fake news about “illegal votes” and baseless claims about Democratic attempts to “rig” the election were used by Trump’s disinformation machine to mobilise armed right-wing groups. In the 48hrs before the US election a tsunami of meticulously manufactured misinformation was unleashed by the Trump campaign and its extended network of other white-supremacist groups. A coordinated misinformation campaign called “Stop the Steal” collected 360,000 followers within 24 hours. But by this time social media companies and mainstream media could see the writing was on the wall and that it was Biden that they would now need to serve. Twitter blocked Donald Trump’s unfounded claims about illegal voting and election fraud. Even Trump-supporting Fox news showed no enthusiasm for his claim that he had won and that the election was being stolen.
Trump’s former political advisor and Nigel Farage ally Steve Bannon was simultaneously kicked off Facebook and YouTube for a radio interviews saying that the severed heads of Dr Fauci and the Head of the FBI should be displayed on pikes as a warning to other disobedient state bureaucrats. Trump’s digital disinformation team had a back-up plan in case they were blocked on social media. They responded by sending millions of text messages to their supporters using a company run by one of Trump’s digital advisors. Some of the texts claimed fraud was underway at the election vote counting centre in Philadelphia and urged Trump loyalists to converge on the counting centre. Philadelphia police were tipped off and they were able to intercept right-wing activists at the voting centre who had a cache of illegal weapons in a truck bearing Q-anon stickers (an extremist conspiracy theory in which Trump is a saviour figure).
Big Tech monopolies
Since Brexit and Trump, the use of political polemics and digital disinformation has inflicted great damage to democratic dialogue and peaceful political process. However much of the foundational damage was done before Cambridge Analytica weaponised digital disinformation: marginalised populations had felt unheard and unrepresented by political parties captured by corporate and establishment interests. It is their discontent that was mobilised to support candidates claiming to be anti-establishment.
The events of the past need to serve as a wakeup call that the power of Big Tech monopolies must be curtailed along with their influence over political process. Media regulation, including social media regulation needs to ensure that political lies, misogyny and race hate are outlawed and that powerful disincentives are put in place for politicians and media companies that profit from it. The ability to block Trump lies in the days following the election proves that it was possible all along, just not profitable.
Breaking up the tech monopolies, as former Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren had pledged to do, taking down hate speech and political lies, and the banning and prosecution of its authors is a logical technical response and a very good place to begin. However, these technical fixes do nothing to address the underlying issues of economic inequality and gender and racial under-representation that create political disaffection, distrust, and detachment from the political process. Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi and Farage are the symptoms not the cause of this problem. Citizens’ interests are served by an increase in representatives that look and sound like them and who commit to remove the injustices that they experience. This is the agenda of groups including Justice Democrats.
Digital technology and political participation
Instead of using social media to profile and micro-target voters, digital technology could be used as part of authentic democratic listing to understand why tens of millions of citizens distrust politicians who often seem more attentive to powerful corporate and lobby interests rather than to voters. Digital media has been used by citizens to collectively re-write their constitution and to co-determine government policies and to track and monitor government spending. We could and should break up the damaging global dominance of Big Tech monopolies or nationalise them as Nick Snricek has argued. Political advertising could be banned on social media or transparently regulated. Political lies could be prohibited and punished as could their uncritical reproduction by (social) media companies. The political will to do this has been largely missing until now.
Understanding influence and finding solutions
Part of the problem has been that incumbent Presidents and Prime Ministers have owed their political position and power in part to media companies including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Now that Trump has been unseated there is a window of opportunity to remove the insidious influence of Big Tech over democratic dialogue and deliberation. Action in the US and internationally needs to be swift and decisive because the teams of political marketing advisors have already decamped from Washington and are intent on inflaming discontent and exploiting disaffection in the long list of elections due to take place in 2021.
We urgently need more research - especially in emerging economies where democratic protections are particularly weak - to understand how the disinformation machine works in emerging economies, such as that from the African Digital Rights Network. Critically we need to identify political solutions to the underlying causes of disaffection and distrust in politicians. Technical and regulatory actions are important and necessary, but they are insufficient, sticking plaster solutions, unless the underlying political and economic problems are also addressed.
Tony Roberts is a Digital Development Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and is the principle investigator of the African Digital Rights Network - a diverse group of activists, analysts and academics working in ten different African countries –investigating the use of digital disinformation to disrupt and distort governance processes.
This blog was first published by IDS here.