“Trump’s Firehose of Falsehood”

From Jonathan Rauch:

Unfortunately, a more sinister interpretation better fits the facts. What Trump and his supporters are up to should be thought of not as a litigation campaign that is likely to fail, but as an information-warfare campaign that is likely to succeed—and, indeed, is succeeding already. More specifically, they are employing a tactic called “the firehose of falsehood.” This information-warfare technique, according to researchers at the RAND Corporation, is marked by “high numbers of channels and messages and a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions.”…

Unlike more traditional forms of propaganda, the firehose of falsehood does not aim primarily at persuading the public of something that is false (although this is a welcome result). Rather, it floods the information environment with so many lies, half-truths and theories that the public becomes disoriented, confused and distrustful of everyone.

While the bulk of firehose claims are false or misleading, even mutually contradictory, a skilled propagandist may salt the mix with statements that are partly valid, lending apparent plausibility to the rest. The bewildering panoply of true and false, rumor and conspiracy, lawsuits and countersuits, all work toward the main objectives: to undermine legitimate authorities, polarize and fracture society, and open the door to cynicism and demagoguery.

Trump has often been dismissed as a would-be authoritarian whose saving grace is his incompetence. That may be true in some respects, but at disinformation he is ambitious and skilled. As of Election Day, he had made around 25,000 false and misleading claims. Amid the hailstorm of confusion and contradiction, it was little wonder that Sen. John Kennedy (R-Louisiana) parroted Kremlin disinformation about whether Russian operatives had hacked and released Democratic emails before the 2016 election. “I don’t know, nor do you, nor do any of us,” he said.

I don’t know, nor do you, nor do any of us: That is the outcome Trump and his minions are playing for. Their latest campaign is the most audacious. It began months ago, with Trump’s drumbeat of false attacks on mail voting, quickly echoed by conservative media. That narrative of impending fraud set up the current campaign. Whereas most ordinary Americans view the courts, politics and the media as separate spheres, Trump understands them all as information battlegrounds—avenues of influence to the central goal of casting doubt.

Trump’s strategy is sophisticated, even if his style is not. As a profligate and frequently unsuccessful litigant, he almost certainly knows that his lawsuits will not reverse the election. To succeed, however, he must merely reach two attainable goals: convince Republicans that the election was not free and fair (as 70 percent of them already believe, according to a recent  Politico/Morning Consult poll); and convince much of the rest of the public that the election result is in doubt, and can never be known for sure. Those outcomes will frustrate and distract Democrats, outrage and mobilize Republicans, and—most important from Trump’s point of view—position him to remain agitator-in-chief after he leaves office.

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