The New York Times reported last Tuesday that as the January 6 deadline for certification of state electoral counts drew near, former president Donald Trump exerted increasing pressure on his Justice Department to declare that the 2020 election had been corrupt. “Just say it was corrupt + leave the rest to me,” indicate the notes taken by Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Richard Donoghue. This command echoes Trump’s July 2019 call to the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, whom he asked to make a public announcement that Joe Biden, his then political opponent, was under investigation. In both cases, what mattered most wasn’t the truth, but shaping public perception for political ends. This is the hallmark of information warfare, and Trump has normalized its deployment against Americans.
Information warfare is the weaponization of information to distort reality and confuse a target population in order to destabilize and weaken that society. Although this technique has been perfected in countries like Russia and in other authoritarian regimes — both against their own populations and others — we here in the United States find it hard to wrap our minds around such a concept. After all, at first glance, information — or speech, essentially — doesn’t seem like the same thing as missiles and bullets. In fact, as a society that places the highest constitutional value on free speech, we have been taught that information functions in its own “marketplace of ideas,” where good ideas ultimately win out over bad ones. The closest concept we have to the idea of information warfare is military deception, or MILDEC, which is the tactical use of disinformation or propaganda to achieve a strategic military objective. But we don’t really think of information, or disinformation, as a weapon that elected officials might use against a civilian population, including their own constituents.
Of course, we have seen over the last eighteen months that even if they are fired from someone’s mouth, and not the barrel of a gun, words can have deadly consequences. Trump repeated claims that COVID-19 would simply “go away,” and could be cured with hydroxychloroquine and yet the pandemic has claimed the lives of 600,000 Americans — a number that continues to grow even with a free vaccine available. His Big Lie that President Biden didn’t really win the election, along with the claim that those results could be overturned, led to an insurrection against the Capitol on January 6, resulting in 5 deaths. At least 140 police officers were physically injured that day, a number which doesn’t fully account for the additional mental and emotional trauma suffered by those who protected the Capitol, about which four officers present testified to Congress last week.
The consequences of government manipulation of our “marketplace of ideas” is why maintaining the integrity of our information space is the focus of many of our laws. I have written previously, for example, about how the Foreign Agent Registration Act seeks to create transparency when foreign governments use individuals acting on their behalf to further their interests. Similarly, the 1991 Intelligence Authorization Act prohibits the U.S. government from using covert propaganda “to influence United States political processes, public opinion, policies, or media.” These laws recognize that democratic deliberation is only possible if we start from a shared, and accurate, set of facts.
Unfortunately, the last four years have revealed that our laws aren’t enough to prevent government actors — foreign and domestic — from distorting the reality many Americans believe they live in. Trump’s attempt to co-opt the Justice Department into a propaganda arm to discredit the 2020 election was one example of that — one that, to a large extent, has succeeded in convincing Americans that their institutions, fellow citizens, and entire electoral process can’t be trusted. Trump’s tactics have been adopted by other political officials and aspirants to office, like Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who have discovered their political effectiveness. Countering this assault will require reframing how we address domestic disinformation.
The key is understanding that information warfare only works on unsuspecting targets. Therefore, news media and commentators need to begin analyzing disinformation in these terms — this means not only fact-checking claims and debunking falsehoods, but exposing disinformation as deliberate tactics in a larger effort to subvert our democracy. For example, Professor Jen Mercieca, an expert in rhetoric, has used cognitive science to break down how Tucker Carlson uses the same tools of warfare in his nightly television program. Similarly, Professor Jason Stanley laid out how Trump employs fascist propaganda as a political tactic, in a video op-ed for the New York Times. And more recently, Netflix has created a documentary series with the tongue-in-cheek title, “How to Become a Tyrant,” which illustrates how controlling the truth is part and parcel of the authoritarian playbook.
These efforts are a good start, but they need to increase exponentially to truly educate the public and combat the democratic erosion resulting from domestic disinformation. As the revelations of the Trump era continue to demonstrate, we are in an information war — and the minds of Americans are the battlefield.