The Kremlin strategy is not so much to make people believe its individual lies as to make them doubt the very possibility of truth. As the old saying goes: In a world where nothing is true, everything is permitted.
Russia brought this nihilistic mind-set to its covert efforts to influence the outcome of the 2016 and 2020 elections in Donald Trump’s favor. But the American right, which was effectively allied with the Kremlin in both campaigns, has so successfully internalized the secret of Russian disinformation operations that it no longer requires much — if any — help from Vladimir Putin. Two stories that spread like wildfire across the information landscape in the past week show how the right can be just as brazen as the Russians in spreading fake news.
The first of these fictions was the claim that, in order to fight climate change, President Biden plans to reduce red meat consumption by 90 percent, limiting everyone to just four pounds of red meat a year. This falsehood began with a story in the right-wing Daily Mail in the United Kingdom, citing a University of Michigan study that had nothing to do with any administration initiative. It was then picked up by Fox News, with Fox Business host Larry Kudlow ominously warning viewers that there would be “no burgers on July 4th.”
Republican politicians such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Idaho Gov. Brad Little and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley amplified the message. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) even tweeted a picture of Biden with a hamburger to suggest that he was a hypocrite: “No burgers for thee, but just for me.”
On Monday, Fox News’s John Roberts apologized for a network graphic that had suggested that Biden had a plan to cut red meat consumption, admitting “that is not the case.” But how many on the right saw this correction?
By then the disinformation caravan had already moved on to the next pseudo-scandal: the claim that the government is distributing Vice President Harris’s children’s book, “Superheroes are Everywhere,” at shelters for migrant children. The New York Post — which, like Fox News, is owned by the Murdoch family — screamed in a front-page headline: “KAM ON IN: Solo kids at border welcomed with copy of veep’s book.” Once again Fox News and various prominent Republicans hyperventilated. (GOP chairwoman Ronna McDaniel wondered if Harris is “profiting from Biden’s border crisis.”) Yet there was not a shred of truth to the claim.
The whole story was based on one photograph from a Long Beach, Calif., migrant shelter where some citizen had simply donated a copy of the book. The Washington Post fact-checker debunked this absurd claim. The New York Post reporter who wrote the original article quit the newspaper, saying she had been ordered to produce an “incorrect story.”
But, as with the red meat story, the damage had already been done. Even by debunking these stories, Democrats and the mainstream media elevate them. Whether or not most Republicans believe that Democrats are going to take away their hamburgers or force migrants to read Harris’s book, they are confirmed in their general impression that Biden is a left-wing radical who is up to no good.
These are small lies added to the larger foundation of falsehoods upon which the right-wing movement now rests. Far too many Republicans believe that Trump won the election (78 percent) and that Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is innocent (46 percent). Far too few Republicans believe that global warming will pose a serious threat in our lifetimes (only 11 percent).
The Republican Party is increasingly catering to people who live in an alternative universe of false narratives spread by media outlets such as Fox News and Newsmax and on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google/YouTube. A major political movement becoming completely untethered from reality is terrifying to see — and often accompanies the slide into authoritarianism.
The government can’t police speech, but Congress should take the advice of political scientist Francis Fukuyama and his Stanford colleagues to force Internet platforms to give users the ability to employ “middleware” — "software that … can modify the presentation of underlying data” — to filter their feeds for minimal levels of veracity. This is hardly a cure-all, but it is an important step to fight back against the falsehoods that threaten our democracy.