Weaponized misinformation is hardly a new phenomenon. Its effect on the 2016 presidential race has, however, been exceptionally ominous. A campaign of deliberate deceptions involving but not limited to foreign entities seeking to disrupt the American political process to their own ends should be ringing alarm bells for patriotic American voters. But there’s no one left to ring them; the stewards of objective discourse have been discredited in the minds of those this campaign has targeted. The age in which there was universally understood and incontrovertible truth is over. The information age has given way to something more closely resembling its antonym.
Republicans know in the core of their being that the Russian government does not have America’s best interests in mind. They know, too, that the clandestine information laundering outfit WikiLeaks, to which the Russian government is inexorably tied, is an anti-American institution. They have outed American assets abroad, jeopardized their lives, and made it less likely that potential operatives will work with U.S. soldiers, contractors, or intelligence agents to advance U.S. objectives. They know all this, but they put it all aside this year because these enemies of the United States found common cause in a Republican political objective: defeating Hillary Clinton.
To that end, the Russian government has infiltrated the Democratic Party’s committees and, using WikiLeaks as a proxy, released reams of information from the private email accounts of Democratic officials and Clinton operatives. It appears that not all of that material is, however, genuine. The FBI and several American intelligence agencies are investigating the likelihood that some of those documents were altered to reflect poorly on Clinton, her associates, and Democratic elected officials.
As the election has grown closer and the effort to install a chaos agent like Donald Trump in the White House grows more desperate, so, too, has this misinformation campaign. “The Podestas’ “Spirit Cooking” dinner? It’s not what you think,” teased the WikiLeaks Twitter account, citing more emails stolen from the personal email account of the Clinton campaign’s chairman. “It’s blood, sperm, and breastmilk. But mostly blood.”
There is no evidence that the vast majority of the emails stolen from Democrats by foreign intelligence agencies are at all falsified, but the banality of most of those communications has led the conservative movement to go chasing waterfalls. The most amateurish falsified documents confirming the worst of the right’s biases against Clinton (like a childish “invoice” remunerating the Black Panthers and the “Sharia Law Center” for services rendered) are embraced by the right’s prominent voices and find their way on the airwaves.
This is the greatest tragedy of it all. Propagandistic information warfare campaigns are only as successful as the credulity of their targets. And this year, led by a man who has an unequivocally antagonistic relationship with the truth, the American right has been so willfully gullible that they gave rise to a new industry.
An investigation conducted by BuzzFeed News recently discovered that at least 140 pro-Trump “conservative news” websites being operated out of Veles, Macedonia by a group of teenagers and 20-somethings generates up to $5,000 per month from misinformation. By repackaging falsities purporting to reveal Bill Clinton’s sexual improprieties, Barack Obama’s foreign birth, and the anti-white racism of Clinton supporters, et cetera, these provocateurs have skillfully exploited the naiveté of the American political media consumer.
The profit model is ingenious. These stories become revenue generators by virtue of their organic sharing potential on social media outlets like Facebook, which has become the chief source of news for millions. The alacrity with which a lie that confirms the biases of Facebook-obsessed Trump supporting information consumers can spread is terrifying.
This phenomenon is not exclusive to the right. Nor is it unique to 2016. It is, however, a function of how distasteful objective truth has become to the Republican presidential nominee that some on the right have this year become hostile to objectivity. The polls are rigged; the election is fixed; the nation’s institutions are infested with traitors—this toxic paranoia has consequences. The irony of the right’s reliance on juicy and conspiratorial misinformation is that they have failed to build a credible case against Hillary Clinton. In chasing illusory silver bullets, the right only made one of the most disliked and scandal-plagued candidates to run for the White House stronger.
Information itself is suspect. Voters retreat into information fiefdoms, cloistered in small cliques on social media, comforted by the preferable delusions with which they are buffeted daily by sources both foreign and domestic. This is embittering, self-defeating, and alienating. And so they retreat deeper into Facebook and the lies they so covet. There are no more gatekeepers; no trusted sources of objective truth. This is a trend with dire consequences for representative democracy. The earliest of those consequences are already upon us.