As technology giants and news media titans wrestle with fact-checking, algorithm-tweaking, and outright lies, Americans remain susceptible to a more pernicious threat: fake news.
Fake news is just one tool in President Trump’s disinformation toolbox, one that administration officials wield, not only to discredit the news media, but also the judiciary, individual members of Congress, and the intelligence community. It’s a classic tactic that wannabe autocrats deploy to undermine democracy: consolidating power by sowing distrust in major institutions.
Political commentators Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Yevgeniy Golovchenko, and Gianni Riotta took up the topic of fake news and authoritarianism at the 2018 Social Media Weekend in New York. Sree Sreenivasan, a former New York City chief digital officer, hosted the June 1–2 conference at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
Ben-Ghiat is a New York University professor of history and Italian studies; Golovchenko is a University of Copenhagen PhD fellow in political science and an NYU visiting scholar; and Riotta, a columnist at La Stampa, an Italian daily, is a visiting professor of Italian studies at Princeton.
What follows below are excerpts from their panel discussion, “Can We Stop Fake News?” Their remarks have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Gianni Riotta: The United States invented the internet and social media. All the big platforms that spread social media are indeed American. How did the Russians get here and eat our lunch? Because we were great at technology, but they were masters at disinformation. They know how to run disinformation [campaigns] very well.
Lack of trust precedes the issue of fake news in Western societies, Europe, and the United States. It’s not just media we don’t like. We don’t trust politicians, religious authorities, scholars, and so on. The problem is not the fake news. The problem is the lack of trust.
Yet the percentage of fake news is much less than you [might] assume. In France and Italy, the Reuters Institute found that maybe one out of four voters were actually affected by fake news. Dartmouth and Princeton pretty much estimated the same percentage in the presidential election in this country in 2016.
People who share fake news tend not to have a college degree; tend not to live in the cities but in the countryside; and tend not to buy books during the year. This is true for most of the [Western] elections: Trump versus Hillary Clinton in this country; Brexit in Great Britain; the constitutional referendum in Turkey on President Tayyip Erdogan; in the Italian election last March and the Italian referendum on constitutional reform two years ago.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said that just 1 percent of [the site’s] content is fake before the Cambridge Analytica scandal. But by being pretty much right, he was saying something terrible. Because if I offer you a chocolate, the best that money can buy, and say there are 100 chocolates in this box, but one of them is poisoned—you’re going to die if you eat it, but other 99 are perfectly fine—so please go ahead and help yourself.
What is your reaction? You won’t touch the box. Since you know that one of the chocolates is poisoned, you don’t trust the other 99. How do you [restore] trust? I have no idea. It will be a very difficult task.
If you look at the problem of disinformation and fake news by trying to fix technology, you lose the day. But if you understand that it is a political and cultural issue, we will gain ground soon.
Yevgeniy Golovchenko: What is disinformation? Disinformation is a specific kind of fake news, if you wish to use that word at all. Disinformation refers to intentionally misleading content. Disinformation is not just something you see on some small fringe websites about Hillary Clinton being a lizard person, or Pizzagate. Disinformation is also used by the military to achieve military goals, tactically on the battlefield, but also more strategically.
To illustrate how disinformation can be used for military purposes, which is the most extreme way of using disinformation, [look at] the Crimea crisis. The crisis began with protests against the new government. It was a pro-Russian protest against the relatively pro-Western government in the Ukraine.
That is normal: There are protests all the time. But then something really strange started happening. All of a sudden soldiers appeared, taking over military bases, taking over the airport, taking over a municipality. Nobody knew what was happening.
We know now that these soldiers were Russian. But at the [time], Russian President Vladimir Putin said these soldiers are not Russians; we are not doing any military operations in Crimea. We don’t want to have anything to do with this. Don’t blame us; don’t sanction us.
We know now that this was disinformation. Why? Putin admitted literally on state television that these soldiers were indeed Russian. These soldiers were honored as heroes when they returned to Russia.
This is clear now. But in the heat of the battle, there was enormous confusion about what to do. Seen from the perspective of the Ukrainian government, the question was: Are we at war or are we not at war? Who are we going to shoot at? Are we starting a military operation against Russia? From the perspective of the European Union, the question was: Who should we sanction and for what? Russia is saying that they were not involved. Why would they do this anyway?
My family is in Crimea. I was calling them on Skype. I was thinking, should I evacuate my family in case the conflict escalates? My grandmother was telling me: “Don’t worry these soldiers—they’re obviously not Russian. Why would Russia do this? These are probably just local police officers rebelling against the government.” The point is that even some of the locals who saw these soldiers with their own eyes were confused about what was happening.
The confusion on the international level bought Russian some time. It created confusion in the military in Ukraine and in the political arena in the West. As a result, Russia captured territory the size of a small state within three to four weeks with only a few shots fired.
This a classic example of disinformation used in a military context. [Former NATO Supreme Commander] Philip Breedlove said that “this is the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Pretty much everything that Trump is doing has been used by authoritarian rulers in the past. He probably checks all the boxes. These guys need to establish their own version of reality. To do that, everybody else’s has to be discredited. You have to establish a culture of threat around the notion of truth and around truth-bearers. You physically threaten journalists, which happens in Putin’s Russian and Erdogan’s Turkey.
This is why every single autocrat goes after all the sectors of society that value evidence, investigation, and facts. So that’s the judiciary, research, the press, and even intelligence services if they are not cooperating. This is a kind of insurance policy.
These men are very impulsive. Often we think they’re mad men. But, in fact, they are long-term planners. They are very calculating because they are all very corrupt and they know that they are guilty of many things. When the press and judiciary inevitably put forth charges of wrongdoing and corruption, they need themselves to be the only people to be believed. To do that, they have to ruin trust in the media and in the judiciary in order to have any chance of weathering any charges that they know or fear will come forth.
In other words, they need the public to already be trained by fake news and propaganda, to only believe them.
I have been pointing this out for almost two years, so it is a bitter victory in a way when recently Trump admitted on TV that he was trying to discredit the media. So one of the only remedies is, and I am not the only one saying this, but this is very hard to correct: Don’t invite propagandists like Steven Bannon, who had a CNN special which I was disappointed about, and Kellyanne Conway on TV to spread disinformation. And above all, don’t retweet Trump and act as his unpaid publicists and amplifiers.
He says, “I’m the only one that matters,” and, in too many of our Twitter feeds, that seems to be the case. This happened with Mussolini, Hitler, and every single autocrat. It started early in their dictatorships: The whole media environment and news cycle became organized around them. The one lesson is that when you are dealing with strong men you have to quarantine these people at the beginning.
But Trump has called forth a very strong counter-reaction. Every single time an investigative journalist publishes an article outing Trump’s corruption and his family’s, that’s a victory.
It may be harder in the future to publish such things. So I believe it’s time to take the gloves off, stop being polite, call a lie, a lie. That’s the only way to proceed because there is a lot at stake. The fact is Trump seems very bold right now, saying these things. But he’s revealing his strategy when he says I’m just trying to discredit you—that’s a sign that he feels very empowered.
Fox News journalists are unabashed warriors for untruth. We need to be warriors for truth. I’m not saying that we adopt Fox News lurid graphics or their lies. But there has to be something else we can do without being so genteel.
Authoritarians always disappear people and they disappear facts, sentences, and statistics. What do we know about Mussolini? He made the trains run on time. But when you actually investigate if they ran on time at all, [you find that] it was because evidence of delays and accidents were suppressed in the media. There were no strikes, there were no unions. We forget about all these inconvenient and often bloody facts that don’t make it into the narrative. It’s very typical, but very sad that these narratives that regimes themselves have manufactured are the ones that we believe today.
Another thing they do, which Trump has done, is criminalize their enemies. We have gone from Trump retweeting false crime statistics about African Americans during his campaign [to having] a misleading Department of Justice and Homeland Security report linking immigrants to crime, which is a prime example of disinformation by the Trump administration.
You combat fake news with legal rebuttals. I advise one of the many groups doing great things, Protect Democracy. Recently, in conjunction with the Brennan Center, Benjamin Wittes [a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution] and others filed a complaint against the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security for disinformation about immigrants and crime that they used to justify the Muslim ban.
I would like to see the press and social media amplify this world of legal resistance and other kinds of resistance to Trump’s fake news. I would like those fighting the battles to be our mainstream media heroes. I would like for them to get profiled in The New York Times Style section, instead of the National Rifle Association’s Dana Loesch, who got a profile. Because she’s so stylish? I’m not sure why.
The daily fight against these regimes and disinformation goes on in very telegenic mass protests. The history of authoritarianism tells us that you have to have bodies massing publicly to show support for resistance. But the resistance also takes place in very un-telegenic offices in which people toil long hours filing briefs and doing investigative journalism.
These are stories that need to be told because one of the biggest problems we face in fighting disinformation is that you begin to feel helpless and hopeless. The endpoint of an authoritarian discrediting of everything, saying you can’t trust anything, is for you not to trust yourself anymore.
What Trump wants is for you to no longer have any critical faculties and discernment: You don’t know what to believe, so you believe him. This has worked, unfortunately, over and over again over the years. It’s a very dangerous cycle that we’re in now. It’s been an enormous learning curve for the journalism profession, for citizens, and for every sector of society.
I am optimistic but we have a long way to go. We’re actually at a critical juncture. That’s why you see so many articles coming out now on the question of calling a lie, a lie. Trump is getting more aggressive and the stakes are getting higher and there are some important decisions to be made.