The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump and allies ratchet up disinformation efforts in late stage of campaign

President Trump surveys destruction in Kenosha, Wis., last week accompanied by former camera shop owner John Rode, wearing glasses. The current owner of the camera shop refused to meet with Trump. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

For President Trump and his allies, it was a week spent spreading doctored and misleading videos.

On Aug. 30, the president retweeted footage of a Black man violently pushing a White woman on a subway platform under the caption, “Black Lives Matter/Antifa” — but the man was not affiliated with either group, and the video was shot in October. White House social media director Dan Scavino shared a manipulated video that falsely showed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden seeming to fall asleep during a television interview, complete with a fake TV headline.

And Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the second-ranking House Republican, released a video splicing together quotes from activist Ady Barkan — who has Lou Gehrig’s disease and uses computer voice assistance — to falsely make it sound as if he had persuaded Biden to defund police departments.

For the president and his top supporters, it was a campaign push brimming with disinformation — disseminating falsehoods and trafficking in obfuscation at a rapid clip, through the use of selectively edited videos, deceptive retweets and false statements.

The slew of false and misleading tweets and videos stood in contrast to the approach taken by Biden, the former vice president, who in 2019 took a pledge promising not to participate in the spread of disinformation over social media, including rejecting the use of “deep fake” videos.

Trump has built a political career around falsehoods, issuing more than 20,000 false or misleading statements during the first three-plus years of his presidency. But many experts said the onslaught of the disinformation efforts by Trump and his team in the late weeks of the campaign make the deception particularly difficult to combat, not to mention dangerous to the country’s democratic institutions.

“When you have this disinformation and it’s introduced to one side of the forest, for example, it can travel so quickly through so many different communities and does so many unintentional things before you can even do a fact check,” said Whitney Phillips, assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University. “He’s able to muddy the waters so thoroughly that democracy wilts on the vine.”

By late August, the deceptions came in quick succession. In addition to the misleading subway video, Trump repeated a false claim that just 6 percent of the nation’s death toll in the pandemic was actually caused by the novel coronavirus itself — part of his ongoing effort to portray the virus as less deadly or pervasive than it actually is.

Trump’s campaign shared a short video on Aug. 31 of Biden saying, “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” But the video failed to include the full context of Biden’s remarks, which he used to argue the opposite — that Americans are experiencing violence and unrest in Trump’s America.

Later that day, in an interview with Fox News’s Laura Ingraham, the president pushed hazy conspiracy theories claiming — again, with no evidence — that Biden is controlled by people in the “dark shadows” and that a plane full of uniformed “thugs” was descending on cities with the intent of creating violence and discord.

During a Tuesday visit to Kenosha, Wis., which has been the site of unrest after the police shooting of a Black man, Trump held a photo op that was muddier than he made it appear. He met with the former owner of Rode’s Camera Shop, which was destroyed in the riots and fires there, while claiming the man was the current owner of the shop. In fact, he is the owner of the building and not the shop.

The photo store’s current owner, meanwhile, had refused to meet with Trump — characterizing the visit as a divisive “circus.”

Later on Thursday, Trump sent tweets seeming to encourage people to vote twice — and prompting Twitter to place a public interest notice on the missives for violating the site’s “civic integrity policy.” The same day, in response to an Atlantic story detailing Trump’s repeated denigration of the military and those who served, Trump falsely claimed on Twitter that he had never called the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) a “loser” — despite calling him that publicly in 2015, shortly after announcing his candidacy for president.

In the case of the Barkan video, Scalise eventually updated the clip after a public uproar. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Barkan warned of the “ominous lessons” he gleaned from the experience: “the ability to use technology not only for good but to mislead and manipulate; the willingness of those with political agendas to resort to such disinformation and propaganda; and the way in which America has cleaved into two separate information universes, with a conservative media ecosystem amplifying falsehoods that then take root.”

Some social media platforms, including Twitter, removed some of the misleading and manipulated content or labeled it as such. The Trump campaign, meanwhile, claimed its out-of-context video saying voters wouldn’t be safe in “Joe Biden’s America” was simply in jest, lambasting “all the triggered journalists who can’t take a joke about their candidate.”

White House spokesman Judd Deere dismissed the idea that the president is actively promoting disinformation, saying that “the American people never have to wonder what the president is thinking or how he feels about a particular topic.”

“The media routinely manipulates the President’s words and takes him totally out of context, but that will never stop him from unapologetically calling out their biased reporting, raising important questions, or suggesting common sense ideas to solve problems,” Deere said in an emailed statement.

Democrats, however, argue that the messages spread by Trump and his allies go beyond mere political trickery.

“Spin has been something that folks in politics have come to expect, but this is the invention of a totally new reality,” said Lily Adams, a senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee’s Trump response team. “Because they can’t run on the reality that every American is seeing, they’re inventing a new one.”

Joan Donovan, research director at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, described Trump’s strategy as “terminal incoherence,” a deliberate effort to so “flood the zone” with misleading information that “it really makes it hard for people to understand what the stakes are of life-and-death information, like what’s going on with the coronavirus.”

The last night of the Republican convention featured words from President Trump's closest allies, and an acceptance speech from the president himself. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump has repeatedly retweeted false, misleading and controversial videos and content, with his aides sometimes claiming that he never watched the videos or did not fully understand what he was sharing. His team has declined to put in place any system to prevent the president from blasting out disinformation.

“Retweeting is now his plausible deniability strategy. He now says, ‘I didn’t watch the video, I just retweeted,’ ” Phillips said. “If it’s not an active strategy that they sat down to work through, it is still what is communicating the most pernicious elements of his communications strategy in 2020.”

There were several prominent examples of deceptive videos presented at the Republican National Convention last month, when Trump formally accepted his party’s nomination. In one instance, event organizers created a video featuring four tenants of federal housing programs in New York talking about Trump’s record on public housing — but three of the four people interviewed for the video later said they didn’t support Trump and were misled about the purpose of the production.

The president also hosted a naturalization ceremony at the White House that was used in another convention video — but again, several of the participants said they were not aware that their ceremony would be featured prominently at the convention.

Daniel Effron, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School, said that from a psychological perspective, repeating a false claim is an effective strategy because it makes the falsehood more familiar.

“The concern is not just that we’re post-truth in the sense that you can say anything and people will believe it,” Effron said. “It’s that we’re post-truth in the sense that people won’t believe anything that anyone says and, worse, they won’t care. It’s that we become morally numb to all the falsehoods swirling around.”

Biden spokesman TJ Ducklo said in a statement that Trump’s misinformation is intended to obscure his poor leadership.

“The coordinated effort by Donald Trump’s campaign to promote conspiracy theories, manipulate media to mislead Americans and lie about Joe Biden is the clearest signal yet they know they’re losing,” Ducklo said.

For some like Barkan, the actions of Scalise and others in Trump’s orbit are not missteps. They are deliberate “disinformation test balloons that should put every single one of us on alert.”

“If they can without consequence make it seem as though I said something I didn’t, what else can they do?” he wrote in the op-ed. “What else will they do?”

Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed to this report.