That conspiracy theory holds that rogue FBI agents who disliked Trump launched the probe before the election to boot Trump from office once he won. (Why those agents didn’t reveal any suspicions about collusion before the election to ensure Trump’s defeat is not clear.) The alleged plot was revealed in a text message made public last year, one of a giant set of messages released as Republicans investigated the agents.
“I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in [then-Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe]’s office — that there’s no way he gets elected — but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk,” then-FBI agent Peter Strzok wrote to his colleague Lisa Page in August 2016. “It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before 40.”
Strzok and Page separately explained to Congress what the comment meant. At the outset of the Russia probe, they needed to know how fast to move forward, risking revealing assets in Russia. Strzok argued for moving fast, just in case Trump won and started unknowingly considering appointing them to office. It was like a 40-year-old who might get life insurance despite being relatively healthy.
To Trump and to his allies in the conservative media, though, the vague “insurance policy” analogy is reinforcement of the existence of a plot to subvert Trump’s presidency: There was an insurance policy, and it was the flawed, biased Russia probe! That evidence followed the conclusion that the probe into Trump was unwarranted, which isn’t how such things are supposed to go. Trump and his allies were already focused on Strzok and Page as enemies for having texted disparagingly about Trump, a fact revealed when Strzok was removed from the Russia probe. That focus led to the massive release of text messages between the two. That one text message was plucked out of the haystack, and the incorrect “insurance policy” interpretation became canon.
Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig saw this coming. Not this particular example, but things like this. In October 2009, he wrote an essay for the New Republic called “Against Transparency,” a provocative title for an insightful assessment of what the Internet would yield. Lessig’s argument was that releasing massive amounts of information onto the Internet for anyone to peruse — a big cache of text messages, for example — would allow people to pick out things that reinforced their own biases.
He used the publication of campaign finance reports as an example of how “naked transparency” could go wrong. People already assume that money drives political considerations in Washington, he said, and publishing these reports was not likely to undermine that belief.
The assumption of corrupt contributions “sets the default against which anything different must fight,” he wrote. “And this default, this unexamined assumption of causality, will only be reinforced by the naked transparency movement and its correlations. What we believe will be confirmed, again and again.”
But wouldn’t that transparency lead to the truth emerging eventually? Lessig was skeptical.
“No doubt false claims will sometimes inspire more truth. But what about when the claims are neither true nor false? Or worse, when the claims actually require more than the 140 characters in a tweet?” he wrote. “This is the problem of attention-span. To understand something — an essay, an argument, a proof of innocence — requires a certain amount of attention. But on many issues, the average, or even rational, amount of attention given to understand many of these correlations, and their defamatory implications, is almost always less than the amount of time required. The result is a systemic misunderstanding — at least if the story is reported in a context, or in a manner, that does not neutralize such misunderstanding.”
Lessig’s thesis is summarized in two sentences.
“The ‘naked transparency movement’ … is not going to inspire change,” he wrote. “It will simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.”
While Lessig mentioned Twitter, he was writing while Twitter and Facebook were still relatively young communications systems. In 2009, Twitter had about 18 million active users a month, one-eighteenth of what it sees now. There didn’t exist ecosystems that leveraged social media — Facebook in particular — for traffic and attention as effectively as exist now. Breitbart was only two years old. (As Lessig wrote, it was actively targeting the community group ACORN.) The media and users were only just learning what the power of social media actually was.
That power was revealed fully in the 2016 election by one of the targets of the Russia probe: WikiLeaks. The group obtained information stolen by Russian hackers from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. In July of that year, it released the DNC data, with journalists and individuals picking through what it contained to reveal news stories or to impugn Clinton and the Democrats. In October, WikiLeaks slowly released emails from Podesta.
Each day’s releases spawned the same cycle over and over. Journalists picked through what had come out, with novelty often trumping newsworthiness in what was immediately shared over social media. Activists did the same surveys, seizing on suggestive (if ultimately meaningless) items. They then often pressured the media to cover the stories, and were occasionally successful.
Using a steady drip of information to keep the media engaged was deployed unintentionally earlier in the cycle. Then, the State Department released emails from Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state in batches, with each new release prompting new scrutiny of what she’d discussed — and another discussion of Clinton’s use of a private email server while holding that position.
In that case, the drip-drip releases were a function of the processing speeds of the email caches. In WikiLeaks’ case, it appears to have been intentional, an awareness that the steadiness of releases could keep interest high over time — and overwhelm Lessig’s “attention span” fail-safe in the process. New details from the messages filtered out over social media and sometimes made their way into conservative media or even to mainstream outlets.
This is a tricky environment for the media. The regular emergence of new revelations can by itself downgrade the ability of mainstream outlets to separate wheat from chaff. A constant insistence from activists that media bias is causing outlets to downplay new information can work as intended, spurring reconsideration of rejected stories. The race among members of the media to uncover interesting details can itself lead to promoting things that may be social media interesting but not necessarily newsworthy.
Trump celebrated the targeting of Clinton as a candidate, at one point telling an audience at a rally that he loved WikiLeaks. (The extent to which he embraced WikiLeaks was made clear in the final report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, which revealed that the Trump campaign had been planning a communications campaign and news release around expected WikiLeaks dumps.) Once he was president, though, that same transparency came to haunt him.
For two years, new stories about the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russian actors emerged. Some were serious and ultimately validated, like the meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016. Others still exist in a murky space of uncertainty. Others were obviously false but nonetheless became part of a robust narrative about the culpability of the Trump campaign in interactions with Russia. There remain many people convinced not that coordination between Trump’s team and Russia wasn’t definitively proved but, instead, that there is a proven, documented conspiracy involving Trump directly. There remains an economic system — or, at least, publishing industry — powered to some extent by this belief system.
The response from Trump and his allies to this political problem? Establish a counternarrative, fueled by other data sets, like those text messages from Strzok and Page. Lessig assumed that people might stumble into a “systemic misunderstanding” of information culled from public data sets, but he also noted that some will seize upon useful rhetoric willingly to distract or deceive.
People’s “responses to information are inseparable from their interests, desires, resources, cognitive capacities, and social contexts,” Lessig wrote, quoting from a book called “Full Disclosure.” “Owing to these and other factors, people may ignore information, or misunderstand it, or misuse it.”
We’ve seen each of those in response to the Russia probe. And we see them now with Ukraine.
Last week’s vote to formalize the impeachment process and Monday’s release of transcripts from the existing impeachment depositions provide a new set of data for Trump critics and allies to peruse. Some Republicans, perhaps understanding the perils of a steady drip of information, are calling for all of the transcripts to be released at once. (Trump, certainly aware of the risk, wants Republicans to release their own, presumably different, transcripts.) Democrats, perhaps learning the same lesson, don’t seem to be eager to do so. The transcripts released Monday are in the process of being assessed for newsworthiness — and for political chum.
How is this avoided? As Lessig writes, the key considerations for news outlets seem to be the overlapping considerations of context and time. In the interest of time and as a result of familiarity, news outlets might inadvertently omit important context for new developments. It’s not always obvious until later what context is important to include. Mainstream outlets looking to fairly represent events consider context and urgency but certainly at times weigh the balance incorrectly.
What Lessig seems to have underestimated is the economic power of cherry-picking misleading information and sharing it. He understood that these tidbits would appeal but, perhaps, not how much that appeal would be lucrative to third-party arbiters. That includes conservative media outlets on Strzok and Page, and it includes liberal outlets exaggerating what Mueller found. From the great, ad hoc database of publicly available information and news reporting, a group of Macedonian teenagers were able to create a lucrative network of political sites in 2016, dependent on distributing chunks of information, true or false, through social media. It’s what the Russians tried to do in 2016, too.
There is no more extreme example of what Lessig warned about than QAnon. QAnon centers on Q, an anonymous writer who for months picked out nuggets of information from a variety of sources and presented them in cryptic messages. The messages theorized that Trump was predominantly engaged in a secret fight against a high-profile international cabal of child abusers. Q messages were shared widely and themselves often picked apart for meaning. The appeal was simple: For many followers, Q gave some sense of order to the disorder that’s common in Trump’s decisions.
QAnon builds off another conspiracy theory that emerged shortly after the 2016 election. That was Pizzagate, which posited that child abusers were headquartered at a pizza shop in Washington. In December 2016, a man fired a gun in the D.C. restaurant as part of a futile effort to uncover the alleged crimes. Where did Pizzagate come from? Emails stolen from Podesta and released by WikiLeaks. Adherents like conspiracy theorist Alex Jones blended an invitation from an artist to attend a dinner with a fundraiser at the pizza place.
Those emails, Mueller determined, were stolen by Russia, which wanted to do explicitly what Lessig warned about with releasing massive amounts information in the context of transparency: “push any faith in our political system over the cliff.”
It wasn’t completely unsuccessful.