Disinformation Is Tearing America Apart

“The information war is about territory—just not the geographic kind. In a warm information war, the human mind is the territory.”
—Renée DiResta, “The Digital Maginot Line”

ON JANUARY 5, 2021, Rosanne Boyland left her home in Kennesaw, Georgia, for the ten-hour drive to Washington, DC. Boyland had fallen under the spell of the election-denier movement, bound by a belief that the incumbent president, Donald J. Trump, had won the presidential election but had been robbed of his victory through fraud.1 In fact, sixty-one courts and Trump’s own Justice Department had already rejected every claim of fraud, and federal cybersecurity and election officials had declared the 2020 election “the most secure in U.S. history.”

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The next day, Boyland joined a mob egged on by Trump and stormed the U.S. Capitol to “Stop the Steal,” as the movement slogan went. Of course, as we all know by now, the crowd breached police lines, smashed windows, and broke into the building where Congress was meeting to certify the count of electoral votes from each state, the final procedure that would seal the presidential victory for Joe Biden. Boyland found herself on the west side of the Capitol, in a tunnel near a door guarded by police. As described by the New York Times, the crowd “massed together in a dangerous crush” and used “the weight of their combined bodies to push the officers back, trapping many people in the process.” At some point, Boyland fell to the ground, but the crowd did not relent.

In all of the chaos, no medical professional could render timely aid and, within a few hours, Boyland would be pronounced dead. Witnesses say Boyland was trampled to death. Her official cause of death was an amphetamine overdose, but a medical examiner said a contributing factor to her death was the “raucous scene.” Her sister later said Boyland would not have been at the Capitol at all that day “if it weren’t for all the misinformation.”

Like the rest of America, Boyland had been bombarded with false claims that Biden had used fraud to steal the election—a fabrication that would become known as “the Big Lie.” Eight others would also lose their lives as a result of the Capitol attack that was sparked by the deluge of disinformation. Ashli Babbitt, a Trump supporter and U.S. Air Force veteran, was shot to death by Capitol Police when she tried to climb through a broken window and breach the Speaker’s Lobby. U.S. Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick died after being attacked by rioters with chemical spray. In addition to the physical injuries suffered by 150 police officers, they and many others also suffered trauma that left unseen emotional scars; four officers committed suicide following the attack. And yet, more than a year later, 68 percent of Republicans were still deceived by lies that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen. Was this abhorrent attack on the temple of our democracy the final act that would break the fever that had gripped the country during the Trump administration? Or was it instead the beginning of the end of American democracy? Even after Trump was indicted by a special counsel in 2023 for his efforts to steal the election, the threat persists, because, as journalist Barton Gellman wrote in The Atlantic, “Trump and his party have convinced a dauntingly large number of Americans that the essential workings of democracy are corrupt, that made-up claims of fraud are true, that only cheating can thwart their victory at the polls, that tyranny has usurped their government, and that violence is a legitimate response.”

In 2022, former federal judge J. Michael Luttig, a prominent conservative, warned that 2020 was merely a dry run to steal future elections. He called Trump and his allies a “clear and present danger” to U.S. democracy. Indeed, after Trump was charged with crimes for efforts to upend the 2020 election, he began telling a second Big Lie—that the indictments were themselves election interference, filed solely to prevent his election to the presidency in 2024.

Is our democracy ultimately destined for the same fate as Boyland, Babbitt, and Sicknick—death by disinformation? Will America become a country where losing candidates refuse to concede elections, using lies to spark vigilante violence and impose their will? What if, as Gellman suggests, “January 6 was practice,” and Republicans are “much better positioned to subvert the next election”? What if Gellman is right, and their next effort succeeds?

Or is American democracy undergoing a slower erosion, invisible in real time but as devastating as a metastasizing cancer? Even if our form of government is not destroyed altogether, it risks becoming unrecognizable, controlled not by the people at large but by a small faction of the far right, willing to say or do anything to seize power. And while the current purveyors of disinformation do not represent every member of the GOP, the party’s silence is a form of complicity. When Republican leaders like former congresswoman Liz Cheney denounce their party’s disinformation, they are ignored or purged. Now that the potency of disinformation has been revealed, this weapon can be used by any demagogue or self-interested opportunist, regardless of political affiliation.

Disinformation is the deliberate use of lies to manipulate people, whether to extract profit or to advance a political agenda. Its unwitting accomplice, misinformation, is spread by unknowing dupes who repeat lies they believe to be true. In America today, both forms of falsehood are distorting our perception of reality.

In a democracy, the people need a shared set of facts as a basis to debate and make decisions that advance and secure their collective interests. Differences of opinion, and even propaganda, have always existed in the United States, but now, enemies of democracy are using disinformation to attack our sovereign right to truthful information, intellectual integrity, and the exercise of the will of the people. Online disinformation is particularly insidious because of its immediacy, its capacity to deceive, and its ability to reach its target.

In February 2022, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a threat bulletin warning of “an online environment filled with false or misleading narratives and conspiracy theories, and other forms of mis- dis- and mal-information (MDM) introduced and/or amplified by foreign and domestic threat actors.”21 The bulletin stated that these threat actors “seek to exacerbate societal friction to sow discord and undermine public trust in government institutions to encourage unrest, which could potentially inspire acts of violence.” As technology continues to advance, the threat of disinformation looms even larger.

Disinformers deliberately inflame our passions and demonize their political opponents to artificially limit options to only two perspectives on an issue. (Debaters refer to this tactic as the “either-or fallacy.”) And when one side is portrayed as good and the other as evil, the choice is easy. You must be for either the Trump-supporting right or the rivals they frame as the “radical left.” There will always be those who get taken by the P. T. Barnums and Bernie Madoffs among us. But now, there is something more at work than simply gullible people falling for lies. A significant number of Americans don’t seem to care anymore whether a statement is true. What seems to matter instead is whether any given message is consistent with their worldview. If a lie supports their position, some people seem willing to go along with the con and pretend it’s true. When Donald Trump was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of illegally retaining classified national defense documents, for example, his defenders parroted Trump’s claims that he was being attacked for political reasons. On the day of Trump’s arraignment, Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY) said, “God bless America, President Trump, and all those targeted by Biden’s regime as we continue our efforts to end this corrupt political weaponization and stop the deep state.” My new book, Attack from Within, documents the ways that political opportunists and profiteers use disinformation as a weapon.

This is a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, and the stakes could not be higher. Legislation in a number of states is harming democracy by making it increasingly difficult to cast a ballot. Election suppression laws create obstacles to voting, such as limits on early voting, prohibitions of third-party assistance for delivering ballots, restrictions on voting by mail, and limits on the number and locations of ballot deposit boxes. These restrictions have a disparate impact on communities of color, young people, and the economically disadvantaged—not coincidentally, all likely Democratic Party voters—leaving some of them effectively disenfranchised. Election deniers serving as secretaries of state, canvassers, and poll workers are endangering the integrity of our electoral process. Political violence has become a reality, as public officials face threats, harassment, and attacks. In 2020, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer was the subject of a plot to kidnap her and put her on “trial” for objections to her stay-home orders during the Covid-19 pandemic after Trump called it a hoax. Two years later, an intruder broke into the home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and brutally attacked her husband in a twisted act of political protest. In 2023, Solomon Peña, a Republican candidate for the statehouse in New Mexico who refused to concede defeat, was arrested on charges of orchestrating shootings into the homes of four elected officials, all Democrats, narrowly missing a ten-year-old girl asleep in her bed.

In addition to elected officials, members of the public are at risk. Lies scapegoating people of color, immigrants, Asian Americans, Jewish people, and the LGBTQ+ community have coincided with increases in hate crimes. Claims that the FBI is a “disgrace” and that the government has “weaponized” criminal investigations are eroding public faith in law enforcement. When people are led to believe that police officers and federal agents are corrupt, they become reluctant to provide tips and information that officers need to solve crimes. Jurors tend to distrust the testimony of federal agents when they have been told the FBI “plants” evidence, as Trump claimed following the 2022 search of his Florida home for classified documents after he had left office. A diminishing ability to enforce the law reduces public safety and cultivates corruption.

A lack of trust in the criminal justice system also fosters vigilante violence, a direct assault on the rule of law. Untrained civilians are taking up arms to right perceived wrongs, leading to the kind of destruction wrought by teen gunman Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 2020 and more than one thousand insurrectionists in our nation’s capital on January 6, 2021. Much of the American right glamorizes assault weapons, based on the absurd claim that the Second Amendment protects not only the right to bear arms but also the right to overthrow our government, insisting that ordinary citizens must be able to match the firepower of the US military. Flamethrowing congresswoman Lauren Boebert (R-CO) has said the Second Amendment “has nothing to do with hunting, unless you’re talking about hunting tyrants, maybe.” Promoting assault weapons ownership has become a membership ritual in the far-right wing of the Republican Party, even though these are the very same kinds of guns that have made mass shootings an American epidemic.

America is experiencing an attack from within, and disinformation is the weapon of choice. If the attack succeeds, elections will be decided by manipulators, unjust laws will be enacted by the puppets those manipulators install, and political violence, corruption, militia activity, and vigilante violence will likely become widespread and routine. When power is acquired through disinformation, coups can eventually be accomplished without bloodshed. Disinformation operations turn us on ourselves. As a result, we become outraged or fearful, then cynical, and finally numb and apathetic. It is not an overstatement to say that disinformation threatens to destroy the U.S. as we know it.

In the end, though, this attack from within is a battle for hearts and minds that requires citizens to step up and take back the sovereign power of self-government. All the laws and policies in the world cannot change attitudes unless we are willing to abide by them. We the people need to remember that democracy depends on an informed electorate. As the famous saying goes, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.

We already face serious challenges in climate change, pandemics, refugee crises, cybercrime, global conflict, and countless other threats. Reasonable minds can disagree on solutions, but making progress as a society requires a willingness to learn facts, appreciate nuance, and engage in meaningful debate. But instead of focusing on solving urgent problems, some political opportunists provoke voters to spend their time and energy attacking the rights of groups underrepresented in positions of power—women, people of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community. Rather than address climate change, we debate the dress code for women in the Missouri statehouse.

We can’t begin to develop a coherent strategy to meet new challenges if we continue to allow disinformers to dominate national discourse. Only an unyielding commitment to truth and justice can save our nation from the same fate that met Rosanne Boyland, Ashli Babbitt, Brian Sicknick, and the other victims of disinformation.

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