We were told in June that the Democratic National Committee had been hacked by Russians. We were told in October that material subsequently passed on to WikiLeaks came from the same source. Numerous articles were written about these leaks and about Donald Trump’s many Russian connections. And yet no one was really outraged until now. Why? I have a theory: Until you have seen for yourself how 21st-century disinformation works, you laugh at the very idea of it. Once you have understood its power, you stop laughing.
If I was slightly ahead of the curve, it’s only because I saw it firsthand. A couple of years ago, I was the focus of a smear campaign. Elements of it could have been lifted out of a spy novel, but the basic idea was quite simple: In the wake of the invasion of Crimea, when I was writing quite a bit about Ukraine, nasty little articles about me started appearing on Russia-based websites. The technique was the same as that used by people who later dressed up the stories from the emails of the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta: Mix truth and lies — my book contract and royalties were described as mysterious income from questionable sources — make ludicrous claims, pass on the lies to other Russian-backed websites, and then watch them pass it on again.
There was no way to correct the stories — to whom would I complain? — and as I’m not running for president, frankly, who cares? But it was eye-opening to watch the stories move through a well-oiled system, one that had been constructed for exactly this sort of purpose. Eventually the articles about me were echoed or quoted in a dozen places: on quasi-respectable websites with ties to Russian business, on Russia Today, and on pro-Russian U.S. websites such as Ron Paul’s Institute for Peace and Prosperity. The process peaked in November 2015, when WikiLeaks — out of the blue — tweeted one of the articles to its 4 million followers.
It was a peculiar experience, but I learned a lot. As I watched the story move around the Web, I saw how the worlds of fake websites and fake news exist to reinforce one another and give falsehood credence. Many of the websites quoted not the original, dodgy source, but one another. There were more phony sites than I’d realized, though I also learned that many of their “followers” (maybe even most of them) are bots — bits of computer code that can be programmed to imitate human social media accounts and told to pass on particular stories.
The Russians understood the power of such networks to fool people before anybody else. They also understood that the global information space, accessible to all, offered a cheap way for an impoverished ex-superpower to meddle in other countries’ politics. In my case it didn’t matter, because nobody I know cared about the stories. But during the U.S. election campaign, with millions and millions of bots at work, hundreds of fake stories in circulation and many volunteers joining the troll factories and botnets, maybe Kremlin-generated lies and Kremlin-created echo chambers did make a difference. The same techniques were at work: Take a “truth” revealed in a hacked email, twist it into a scandal, pass it on via fake-news sites, troll factories and botnets, and see whether it sticks. If nothing else, the Russian fake websites and botnets were amplifying Trump’s own campaign, which was using the same tactics.
None of which means Americans had to fall for it — but they did. Why are Americans so vulnerable to fake news, both domestic and foreign-sourced? Why do they consume it and pass it on? A part of the explanation lies with the Republican Party, which told people for years to hate and fear “Washington” and has now created a constituency that actually prefers information generated by the Kremlin or white supremacists to fact-checked or edited news. In this election, the distrust of Hillary Clinton also made people shy away from anyone who seemed to support her.
But it is also true that we are living through a global media revolution, that people are hearing and digesting political information in brand-new ways and that nobody yet understands the consequences. Fake stories are easier to create, fake websites can be designed to host them, and social media rapidly disseminates disinformation that people trust because they get it from friends. This radical revolution has happened without many politicians noticing or caring — unless, like me, they happened to have seen how the new system of information exchange works. This is true not only in the United States and Europe but also around the world. Half of all Filipinos are active Facebook users, and millions of them shared the scare stories and fake news that helped elect President Rodrigo Duterte, a populist who claims he has personally carried out nonjudicial executions.
There are precedents. The printing press, praised by Martin Luther as “God’s highest and extremest act of Grace,” led to the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation — and a century of bloody religious wars. The invention of radio led to Hitler and Stalin, who understood the new medium better than anyone else, as well as to the 20th century’s totalitarian regimes and ideological wars.
Eventually equilibrium was reached, and someday we will reach equilibrium, too. But until then we should be prepared for political turmoil of a kind we thought was long behind us.