“American insurrectionists, for the first time in the history of this country, stormed the US Capitol on Wednesday. Offices were vandalized. Windows were broken. Statues toppled. A woman was shot and killed. Four others have reportedly died, including a Capitol Police officer. It was ugly, embarrassing, and seditious.
But it wasn’t surprising.
We’ve been inching, inexorably, toward this moment for years. I know this because I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time over the course of this presidency thinking and writing about what you might call the “epistemic crisis” or the “post-truth crisis” or the “misinformation crisis” — it all refers more or less to the same thing.
The American mind, or a sizable chunk of it at least, has been deranged by a poisoned information system. The way millions of citizens learn about the world, the way they form core beliefs, is irredeemably broken. And because the media environment has been blown apart by digital technology, “there is no longer any buffer between mainstream thought and the extreme elements of our politics,” as Politico’s Tim Alberta put it recently.
If the depth of that crisis wasn’t apparent before Wednesday, it sure as hell is now.”
“The road to this dark place was paved by lots of hands over many years. But the evolution of right-wing media into a fantasy-industrial complex is at the center of the story.
Propaganda has always been a bipartisan game, but media-driven polarization has become more asymmetric in recent years. The left mostly receives its news from organizations like the New York Times, the Washington Post, or cable news networks like MSNBC or CNN. However biased some of this reporting can be (and there’s plenty of bias), most of it is anchored by basic journalistic ethics.
This just isn’t true on the right. A 2018 book called Network Propaganda by three Harvard researchers is probably the best survey on this disparity, and it shows that American conservative media functions very much like a closed system, with Fox News at the center (at least until recently). The people who inhabit this system rarely collide with information beyond it, and the competition within it — on the supply side — is continually intensifying in order to meet the demand from audiences consuming the high-stakes narratives. As Brian Stelter, longtime media reporter and author of Hoax, told me in November, anchors at Fox are now struggling “to keep up with their viewers’ demand for propaganda.””
“Consumers of this stuff have been fed a daily diet of conspiracies and panicked claims about the death of the republic and the plot to steal the election.”
“If you watch Newsmax and OAN every night, if you listen to talk radio hosts like Mark Levin claim that “Our Declaration of Independence and Constitution are being destroyed by the Democratic Party and the media,” if you hear Sean Hannity (whose show pulls in 4 million viewers a night) insist, “We have a duty to investigate every legitimate claim of fraud and abuse,” if you’re inhaling QAnon fantasies online, you’re likely extremely deluded about the state of the world. Is it any surprise that we’re living in a golden age of conspiracy theories?
The president himself is the most consequential consumer of this stuff. Listen to his leaked hour-long call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and you’ll hear a hodgepodge of familiar conspiracy theories about hacked voting machines and forgeries and collusion among various election officials. It’s all laid out and distilled, just as you’d hear it on Newsmax or read on 4chan or Parler, the right-wing alternative to Twitter.
All these fictions have coursed through the conservative media ecosystem, and the insurrectionists who flooded the Capitol have imbibed it for months. It’s why they chanted, “Stop the steal,” and it’s why you can hear them saying, “They don’t get to steal it from us, they don’t get to tell us we didn’t see what we saw.” And it’s why something like 70 percent of Republicans do not believe the 2020 election was free and fair.
So we reached this precipice because millions of Americans have had a firehose of falsehoods blasted into their brains for months on end. They believe the election was rigged and stolen. And they believe that because they’ve been told exactly that, not just by the president but by a vast network of grifters and online provocateurs and political entrepreneurs who have cultivated and reinforced conspiracy theories about the election and god knows what else.
And all of this is facilitated by social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, both of which, as Warzel told me last year, pretend they’re not “arbiters of truth” and insist they “don’t want to weigh in at all” — but they’re already in that position and have been for a long time. These tech companies may not be putting their thumbs on the scale in the conventional sense, but as Andrew Marantz, author of Antisocial, pointed out to me in a recent interview, they’re “outsourcing those decisions to algorithms” that continually push users into blackholes of mutually reinforcing content. Whatever their intentions, these companies helped lead us to this moment.”
“If you believed — I mean really believed — that the president you supported won a landslide victory that was systematically undermined by seditious Republicans and Democrats, and that that conspiracy was being covered up by a crooked and compromised media, and at the same time you saw over 100 Republican House members and multiple senators questioning the validity of the election, and the president was telling you to do something about it, it’s not hard to see how quickly you might move from shitposting online to storming the Capitol.”
“Everyone who participates in this system of misinformation shares responsibility for what happened at the Capitol on Wednesday. We are reaping what they sowed. Still, Tucker Carlson goes on Fox News primetime hours after a violent assault on the Capitol and, naturally, casts blame elsewhere: “We got to this sad, chaotic day for a reason. It is not your fault; it is their fault.””
“It was obvious when a man walked into a DC pizza shop in 2017 with a gun because he believed a conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring. It was obvious when armed protesters occupied the Michigan Legislature to protest Covid-19 lockdowns after an incendiary Trump tweet. It was obvious when we learned the Nashville bombing suspect reportedly believed in various conspiracy theories about aliens and lizard people. As this Wall Street Journal report shows, it was obvious in recent weeks as various watchdog groups warned of growing threats online. And it’s painfully obvious now after we saw the Capitol ravaged by rioters who believed, without any evidence, that an election had been stolen from them.”
“Every member of the Republican Party — from senators like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz to the toadies working in the Trump White House — bear special responsibility for this crisis. They’ve known exactly who and what Trump is from the start, and they rode the tiger straight into the abyss.
And so many of them performed this ridiculous two-step, parroting Trump’s nonsense in one breath and winking quietly while doing it. Even on Thursday, before the dust has settled at the Capitol, Republican House members like Paul Gosar (AZ) and Matt Gaetz (FL) are spreading baseless conspiracy theories suggesting the assault was some kind of “false flag” perpetuated by antifa. And despite everything that happened in the past 48 hours, nearly 150 Republican lawmakers formally objected to the election results anyway.
If the fantasy-industrial complex churning out lies and conspiracy theories wasn’t bad enough, we’re also dealing with a much more pervasive problem in the press. As I tried to explain last year, we’re facing a new form of propaganda that wasn’t really possible until the digital age, something known as “flooding the zone with shit.” It’s less about perpetuating alternative realities and more about overwhelming the public with so many competing narratives, so much misinformation, that even well-intentioned people don’t know what to believe.”
“Without some kind of reckoning in right-wing media, there is no sustainable path forward for the country. And even if the complicit pull back from the brink, it’s probably too late anyway. So much of the damage is already done. The conspiracy theories that radicalized that mob are already out there, already implanted in millions of minds. Like some kind of political pathogen, they will keep working their will on the body politic.
“the “electoral commission” plan backed by Cruz and 10 of his colleagues is nonsense. For one, the commission they demand has no precedent in the modern era and no realistic prospects of being convened. What’s more, the statement is predicated on a series of spurious claims by Cruz and his colleagues that echo similar — and equally baseless — election fraud rhetoric to that heard repeatedly from Trump.
Election Day — November 3, 2020 — is now 60 days in the past. In that time, Trump and his Republican allies have filed and lost at least 60 election-related lawsuits at all levels of the state and federal court systems alleging voter fraud and other improprieties — and they have failed to prove their case at every turn.
Recounts in battleground states like Georgia and Wisconsin — both won by Biden — have turned up no evidence of large-scale fraud or irregularities that could have affected the results of the election. And in all 50 states and Washington, DC, the election results have been carefully reviewed by state officials and certified as accurate.
In short, 60 days of intense scrutiny have turned up exactly zero reasons to believe the letter’s false claim that “the allegations of fraud and irregularities in the 2020 election” are worrying — and there’s no reason to believe that an “electoral commission” would turn up a different result.
That there have been allegations of fraud as never before is true, but as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes pointed out on Sunday, these have been misleading efforts led by Trump, and bolstered by his allies, like Cruz, to overturn the election’s rightful results.
Cruz and his allies cite the results of this effort in their statement Saturday that widespread belief in the existence of voter fraud — a sort of warped “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” argument — necessitates the creation of an election commission.
“Reuters/Ipsos polling, tragically, shows that 39% of Americans believe ‘the election was rigged’,” the group said Saturday. “That belief is held by Republicans (67%), Democrats (17%), and Independents (31%).”
That’s an accurate reporting of the poll’s results — but it does conveniently leave out the likely reason for that widespread belief.
In reality, the Republican base has been inundated with evidence-free voter fraud rhetoric from every corner of the right-wing universe — from Trump’s Twitter feed to Fox News to stump speeches by Republican senators — almost nonstop since Trump’s election defeat. There’s a direct line between Cruz’s rhetoric and the problem he diagnoses: As Hayes put it on Twitter, “They’ve spent months lying to people, telling them the election was stolen and now turn around and cite the fact that many people believe them as evidence!””
“Democrats are increasingly worried about the influence of misinformation on social media aimed at Latino voters in the runup to the election. The misleading narratives continue to spread on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, as well as in closed chat groups like WhatsApp and Telegram, in addition to the more traditional platforms like television, radio, and talking points coming directly from elected officials.
Several misinformation researchers told Recode that they’re seeing alarming amounts of misinformation about voter fraud and Democratic leaders being shared in Latino social media communities. Biden is a popular target, with misinformation ranging from exaggerated claims that he embraces Fidel Castro-style socialism to more patently false and outlandish ones, for instance that the president-elect supports abortion minutes before a child’s birth or that he orchestrated a caravan of Cuban immigrants to infiltrate the US Southern border and disrupt the election process.
“What I’ve seen during this election looks to be a multifaceted misinformation effort seeking to undermine Biden and Harris’s support amongst the Latino community,” said Sam Woolley, a misinformation and propaganda researcher at the University of Texas Austin. “I think that political groups understand that the Latino vote matters and they are showing they are willing to use any and all informational tactics to get what they want.””
“Some of the misleading messages — like that Biden is a radical socialist — aren’t uniquely aimed at the Latino community; Trump often made this claim during his campaign. But these comparisons take on a new intensity with some immigrants from countries like Cuba or Venezuela who have lived under socialist governments and may be deeply opposed to them.”
“Ted Cruz will not get a chance to argue that the Supreme Court should stop Joe Biden from taking office by overriding the presidential election results in four battleground states. But the Texas senator’s eagerness to do so speaks volumes about the extent to which the Republican Party has abandoned the principles it once claimed to defend”
“Both of those lawsuits, which relied on seemingly contradictory legal theories, were unanimously rejected by a Supreme Court that includes six Republican appointees, half of them nominated by Trump himself.”
“Election law expert Rick Hasen called Paxton’s case “a press release masquerading as a lawsuit.” A brief from conservative legal scholars and Republican politicians condemned it as “a mockery of federalism and separation of powers.” Case Western Reserve law professor Jonathan Adler warned that Paxton was pushing “a radical argument that would make a mockery of Article II’s delegation of power to state legislatures and upend core elements of our federal system.” Princeton political scientist Keith Whittington worried that Republican officials who backed the lawsuit were “rushing to throw over constitutional and democratic principles in an effort to curry favor with a president who refuses to accept the reality of an electoral loss.””
“17 other Republican attorneys general, and more than 100 Republican members of Congress joined Trump in backing Paxton’s lawsuit. But Cruz’s eagerness to jump on this batty bandwagon is especially striking because of his legal background, his pose as a diehard defender of the Constitution, and his personal history with Trump.”
“Cruz’s current role as a Trump toady stands in sharp contrast with his criticism of Trump in 2016. After Trump claimed that Cruz, who was then vying with him for the Republican presidential nomination, “stole” the Iowa caucus through “fraud,” Cruz dismissed that fact-free accusation as “yet another #Trumpertantrum.” Yet here he is lending credence to the even wilder, equally unsubstantiated claims of election fraud that Trump has been pushing for more than a month.
After Trump, who had dubbed Cruz “Lyin’ Ted,” implicated the senator’s father in John F. Kennedy’s assassination (yes, that really happened), Cruz was notably angrier. “I’m going to do something I haven’t done for the entire campaign,” he said in May 2016. “I’m going to tell you what I really think of Donald Trump. This man is a pathological liar. He doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. He lies, practically every word that comes out of his mouth. And in a pattern that I think is straight out of a psychology textbook, his response is to accuse everybody else of lying….Whatever he does, he accuses everybody else of doing. The man cannot tell the truth, but he combines it with being a narcissist—a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country has ever seen…..Everything in Donald’s world is about Donald….The man is utterly amoral. Morality does not exist for him….Donald is a bully….Donald is cynically exploiting that anger [at the political establishment], and he is lying to his supporters. Donald will betray his supporters on every issue.””
“By his own account, Cruz is now committed to defending an amoral, narcissistic, unprincipled, utterly dishonest bully, even when that means reinforcing the fantasy that Trump won the election and backing constitutionally reckless efforts to override the actual result. Whatever credit the Cruz of 2016 deserved for telling the truth about Trump has dissolved in a bath of cowardly sycophancy drawn by a politician who is terrified of alienating the president’s supporters.
Cruz, who is up for reelection in 2024 and may seek his party’s presidential nomination that year, has a strong political interest in placating Trump fans. But if voters took to heart Cruz’s advice about supporting candidates they trust to defend the Constitution, he would lose handily in either race.”
“notwithstanding a long series of disappointments for litigants trying to demonstrate that the presidential election was illegitimate, culminating in two unanimous rejections by the Supreme Court last week. According to a recent Fox News poll, 68 percent of Republicans and 77 percent of Trump voters believe “the presidential election was stolen.”
Some of those Trump fans may simply be signaling their loyalties or giving the response they think will irk the president’s enemies. But unless Trump supporters are perpetrating an elaborate gag nearly as sophisticated and complex as the baroque conspiracy he blames for denying him a second term, there are a lot of true believers out there.
Believing Trump requires accepting his claim that election officials across the country—possibly aided by a long list of co-conspirators that includes George Soros, the Clinton Foundation, and several foreign governments—used fraud-facilitating voting machines to give Joe Biden an edge, then switched to manufacturing “hundreds of thousands” of phony paper ballots when the original plan fell short. It also requires believing that pro-Trump news outlets, Republican election officials, Republican members of Congress, Trump-nominated judges and justices, the Department of Homeland Security, and Trump’s own attorney general helped conceal that conspiracy by casting doubt on the president’s charges or obstructing his efforts to overturn the election.
The alternative to buying all that is to conclude that Trump has refused to admit defeat, whether for personal or political reasons, and has therefore resorted to increasingly desperate explanations for Biden’s victory. That hypothesis is consistent with everything we know about Trump, including his disdain for the truth, his enormous yet fragile ego, and his allergy to accepting responsibility.
It is also consistent with the chasm between Trump’s assertions and the claims his campaign has made in court. In a 46-minute Facebook rant earlier this month, Trump complained that “even judges so far have refused to accept” that he won the election—hardly a niggling detail, since courts are the forum where Trump had to support his charges with credible evidence.
Trump thinks the Supreme Court “chickened out” when it declined to hear Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s lawsuit seeking to overturn the election results in four battleground states. The justices simply “didn’t want to rule on the merits of the case,” the president avers.
Yet state and federal judges have ruled on the merits of Trump’s legal arguments and rejected them, often in blistering terms. Equally telling, the Trump campaign’s lawsuits have failed even to allege the sort of vast criminal conspiracy he describes in speeches and tweets—possibly “because there are legal consequences for lying to judges,””
“The Daily Beast reported this week that Biden was considering Michael Morell as a potential CIA director, but Sen. Ron Wyden (D–Ore.) had objections. Wyden publicly warned that Morell, who served as deputy director of the CIA under Obama, shouldn’t be considered due to his past ties in obscuring CIA torture.”
“Morell’s role in essentially absolving CIA staff (including current CIA Director Gina Haspel) of responsibility for destroying tapes of CIA torture of suspected terrorists during the Iraq War. He was also responsible for the CIA’s response to the Senate’s torture report, insisting that the CIA’s methods had resulted in actionable intelligence. They had not.”
“CNN reported that Nick Shapiro, a spokesperson for Morell, insists that Morell was not familiar or involved with the CIA’s torture program, didn’t learn about it until 2006, and has since said that “he believed that waterboarding is indeed torture.””
“Trump is not making a narrow, surgical, legally feasible case to enhance his chances to still be living in the White House come January 21. (That’s … improbable.) He’s not doing this, either, to win the argument. (It’s almost mathematically impossible.) He’s doing it, say political strategists, longtime Trump watchers and experts on authoritarian tactics, to sow doubt, save face and strengthen even in defeat his lifeblood of a bond with his political base.
And it’s … working. Seven in 10 Republicans, according to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll earlier this week, believe the election was stolen from their candidate.
It is overall for Trump both a culmination and a continuation: a grand finale of sorts of the past five-plus years, in which he’s relied so much on so much unreality—and also a runway, a kind of topspin toward what’s to come once he leaves Washington, D.C., and presumably decamps to Mar-a-Lago to initiate a post-presidency that is all but assured to be unlike any other. The stakes are sky-high, and the collateral damage to America’s democracy could be lasting and profound, but Trump is doing what Trump has always done. He’s spinning a myth to serve his own interest. He’s doing what he believes he needs to do to put at least himself in the best possible position for the future after yet another failure.”
“Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden was confronted by a CBS reporter as he stepped off a plane. “What is your response to the New York Post story about your son, sir?”
To his credit, Biden dismissed the question, but that’s not really the point. The story the reporter was referencing, which was peddled to the Post by Rudy Giuliani, is absolute bullshit. The staff journalist who wrote the story even reportedly refused to put his name on the byline out of concerns that it was bogus and unreliable.”
“the goal of people like Giuliani was to get the press to cover a story not in order to convince people that it’s true, but to amplify a false narrative and divert attention — and maybe drive the public to exhaustion. It’s a strategy that Steve Bannon colorfully dubbed “flooding the zone with shit.””
“Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society released a working paper studying mail-in voting disinformation campaigns. Using a quantitative and qualitative study of millions of tweets and tens of thousands of Facebook posts and news stories about mail-in voter fraud — the persistent but debunked idea that people are illegally using mail-in ballots to meaningfully sway elections — the study found that President Trump was largely responsible for spreading that disinformation.
In particular, the study found that the president himself, on Twitter as well as through press conferences and interviews, was the main source of falsehoods about mail-in voter fraud. In turn, right-wing media organizations and media organizations in general abetted the spread of that disinformation by uncritically parroting it without full context.
The intention is to get people to believe mail-in voting is faulty precisely as 80 million people are set to vote by mail this year, due to the coronavirus. Uncertainty about the mail-in voting process has the potential to subdue voter turnout and undermine faith in the outcome of the upcoming election.
This is hardly the only disinformation campaign being led by Trump this year. A recent Cornell study found the president to be the largest driver of coronavirus disinformation as well. In conjunction with lies about mail-in voting, these two campaigns not only jeopardize the health of millions of Americans but also stand to sway the election results.”
“It’s quite the list, but this level of lying and misleading isn’t new to Trump. According to the Washington Post, Trump has now made more than 20,000 public false or misleading claims since he assumed office.
As my colleague Matt Yglesias has argued, there’s something more to this than just lying — it’s bullshitting. Here’s Princeton University philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt, explaining the concept:
“For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”
It’s not just that Trump is lying. It’s that Trump doesn’t seem to care at all for the truth. What he says is only meant to make him look good.”