The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Are Democrats ready for the coming disinformation tsunami?

Rep. Ilhan Omar (Michael Reynolds/EPA)
Placeholder while article actions load

On Wednesday, President Trump used his Twitter feed to share a video that falsely depicted Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) partying on the anniversary of 9/11. Yes, the president of the United States cheerfully trafficked in disinformation.

This fact didn’t concern Trump in the slightest, since it afforded him the opportunity to thrill his followers with a disgusting display of anti-Muslim bigotry — or so he seemed to believe, anyway, which doesn’t speak too highly of Trump’s view of his supporters.

You can find the whole backstory here. Trump retweeted a tweet from one of his favorite conspiracy theorists — one whose work he has amplified before — that had pirated a video of Omar dancing on another occasion from another tweet. Trump declared: “The new face of the Democrat Party!”

Which raises a question: Are Democrats prepared for the tsunami of shamelessly propagandistic media manipulation and rank disinformation tactics that Trump and his network will unleash during the coming election?

What we’re about to see in disinformation warfare is likely to make 2016 look tame. We’re talking not just about another Russian disinformation effort designed to divide the country along racial and social lines, as the last one was designed to do. We’re also talking about all manner of domestic disinformation, including troll armies, distorted videos like this one of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) slowed down to look drunk, and possibly even deepfakes.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

Some of this will no doubt be spread by Trump himself. And social media platforms are unlikely to adequately police them.

So what are Democrats going to do about this?

One way to combat this problem that Democrats have discussed concerns adopting a kind of official party doctrine about the scourge of disinformation. Politico recently reported that Democratic state chairs are urging the Democratic National Committee to adopt a pledge in which the party and its committees and all leading candidates would forswear the use of such tactics, as well as vow not to utilize information obtained through hacks and other illicit means.

The basic idea here is that the party should stand for the principle that all this amounts to an extremely serious state of affairs for liberal democracy. It’s a component of a much larger international trend in rising illiberal authoritarianism, and the broader goal is to undermine confidence in shared facts, information gathered in good faith and institutional sources of empirical inquiry as the basis for democratic deliberation.

Joe Biden has spoken about the problem in these sorts of terms. Yet it’s not clear the DNC is willing to adopt a pledge like this.

Another approach has been to pressure social media companies. Beto O’Rourke’s campaign recently took this tack after a conspiracy theory falsely connected O’Rourke to the gunman who carried out recent mass murders in Texas.

The claim was amplified by a couple of shadowy but prominent allies of Trump — which makes this a preview of what we’re likely to see directed at the Democratic nominee.

In response, the O’Rourke campaign sent letters to top executives at Twitter, Facebook and Google, pointing out that these platforms are “being used every day to proliferate misinformation,” and “if they don’t do better in 2020, we may lose our democracy forever.”

One move here might be to continue raising a big fuss in demanding more action by tech companies, though it’s not clear how much it will help.

Still another idea, suggested by Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg, is for many elements of the party to try to come together to forge a grand strategy for proactively combating disinformation.

This might involve multiple party committees investing real money in people and technology designed to track and “out” disinformation, officials from party committees and leading campaigns agreeing to work together against the problem, and possibly even enlisting armies of outside supporters to swarm social media to snuff out disinformation before it gains traction.

And, of course, another question is whether the news media is prepared for all of these possibilities.

Under the radar, a debate of sorts has been taking shape among Democrats about what they can do to counter these efforts. Yet it appears that the party has a lot of work to do on this front. And what’s coming will be very, very ugly.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Think Castro was ‘mean’ to Biden? Get ready for an absolute bloodbath.

Paul Waldman: Trump is building a chaos machine

Eugene Robinson: Tune out President Trump’s propaganda machine

Erik Wemple: Fox News faces consequences for Trump propaganda

Jason Rezaian: The State Department has been funding trolls. I’m one of their targets.