As we learn more about how Russia used social media as part of its campaign to help elect Donald Trump, what stands out is how easy it was. Spend $100,000 on Facebook ads, create a bunch of Twitter bots, and before you know it you've whipped up a fog of disinformation that gives Trump just the boost he needs to get over the finish line. Even if it's almost impossible to quantify how many votes it might have swayed, it was one of the many factors contributing to the atmosphere of chaos and confusion that helped Trump get elected.
As new as it might seem, this is just the latest manifestation of a broader problem that goes back a long way, one of the degradation of truth, a conservative electorate taught to disbelieve what's real and accept whatever lunatic things their media figures tell them, and liberals who can't figure out how to respond.
In the latter, I don't exempt myself. I've been thinking seriously about this problem since the 1990s, when I first went to graduate school to study political communication. And I still don't have the answer to what we ought to do about it.
On a recent episode of the podcast "Pod Save America," Hillary Clinton described the problem as she saw it:
The other side has dedicated propaganda channels, that's what I call Fox News. It has outlets like Breitbart, and crazy InfoWars, and things like that. In this particular election, it was aided and abetted by the Russians and the role that Facebook and other platforms played. We are late to that. We did not understand how a reality TV campaign would so dominate the media environment, and I confess, I was trying to do everything I could to build on the success of President Obama's campaign, I had a lot of people you guys know involved in the campaign, we were really proud of it. But boy, it was tough to break through. So I think the Democrats can do a lot, but they are still going to face a very difficult media environment. And we've got to figure out how we're going to break through. Obviously, more podcasts, more other ways of communicating so voices can be heard and real positions can be understood is part of it, but we're still at a disadvantage.
She says liberals were "late" to it and didn't "understand" the kind of collective madness that would overtake the broader media environment, which may be true. But if you could go back in time to two years ago and give them advice, what would you tell them to do? Would calling attention to the Russian manipulation have mattered? What would you advise them to do about a news media possessed by the idea that Clinton's email management practices were the most important issue of the campaign? How would you tell them to respond to the fact that the GOP candidate was perfectly willing to tell dozens of lies every day and repeat them over and over no matter how many times he had been fact-checked?
At the heart of the problem is that when it came to what conservatives were willing to believe and act on, 2016 was simply an exaggerated version of what had come before. This is where Clinton is right that even if liberals come up with "more other ways of communicating so voices can be heard," it won't be enough.
That's because liberals have plenty of ways of communicating. There are huge numbers of liberal websites, and magazines (Like this one! Subscribe today!) and even radio and television shows out there where their perspective can be heard. But the effect they have on their audiences is of a profoundly different character than what conservative media achieve.
There's a doctrinal basis to conservative media that makes it fundamentally different from liberal media, that makes Rush Limbaugh most definitely not the mirror image of a liberal radio host and Sean Hannity not the mirror image of Rachel Maddow. It's not merely about the conservatives' and liberals' respective adherence to truth or penchant for ugly demonization of their opponents, though they differ in that too. It's that an argument about the larger media world is the foundation of conservative media. Conservative hosts and writers tell their audiences over and over again that nothing they read in the mainstream media can be accepted, that it's all twisted by a liberal agenda, and therefore they can only believe what conservatives tell them. It's the driving backbeat to every episode, every story, and every rant.
Liberals complain about media coverage of one story or another all the time. What they don't do is tell their audiences that any news source that is not explicitly and exclusively devoted to their ideological agenda cannot be trusted. But conservatives do.
Hearing that message thousands of times over the last couple of decades has left them not only uniquely vulnerable to fabricated stories and ludicrous conspiracy theories, but with an immunity to the kinds of sober refutation of those lies that mainstream media, with the noblest of intentions, attempt to carry out. Who cares if The Washington Post's Fact Checker or PolitiFact says that the story my aunt just put up on Facebook about Hillary Clinton is completely bogus? They're just liberal media! As the Russians discovered, those stories can be injected into the electorate from anywhere and they spread like a malignant virus, eventually infecting even some who aren't already devoted to the right-wing cause.
Not long after the election, NPR spoke to a man in Los Angeles who had hit upon a money-making scheme in which he'd create bogus stories under official-sounding but nonexistent publications like the "Denver Guardian." Stories aimed at ginning up conservative outrage—people are buying pot in Colorado with food stamps! An FBI agent investigating Hillary Clinton was murdered!—quickly went viral, spreading to thousands or even millions of unsuspecting eyeballs. But he couldn't duplicate his success with the other side. "We've tried to do similar things to liberals," he said. "It just has never worked, it never takes off. You'll get debunked within the first two comments and then the whole thing just kind of fizzles out." And now conservatives have a president who feeds their gullibility and contempt for anyone who tries to distinguish between what's true and what isn't.
The optimistic take on all this would be to say that it only matters at the margins. After all, despite the best efforts of the conservative propaganda machine and his own relentless fabulism, Donald Trump's approval ratings are in the 30s. Your uncle may tune in to Fox and watch Sean Hannity tell him that Trump had the biggest inauguration crowd in history and criminal immigrants are killing and raping all our white women, but he was never going to vote for a Democrat anyway.
The trouble is that even if it matters only at the margins, sometimes the margins matter a great deal. Like they did in 2016, where the candidate who got nearly three million more votes lost the electoral vote.
And as media change, disinformation will change with it. Twenty years ago it was Jerry Falwell sending out hundreds of thousands of copies of a videotape called "The Clinton Chronicles," which accused Bill and Hillary of running drugs and having their enemies murdered. Today it's Russians spreading bogus stories on Facebook about Hillary Clinton having Parkinson's disease. Twenty years from now it will be computer generated holo-fabrications of a Democratic nominee kicking a puppy placed into our VR brainstreams. A certain number of conservatives will believe it all, and liberals will still be asking themselves how they can fight back. And we still won't have the answer.