By now, most of the world has read about the attempt by Russian hackers/intelligence agents to sow discord across American society leading up to the 2016 Presidential election by supposedly planting controversial social media stories, memes, and other such propaganda.
The American Intelligence Community has officially stated that these efforts will continue and that there will be still more attempts to ‘undermine American confidence’ in its own democratic institutions, even in its own civil society, by using this virtual disinformation campaign during the mid-term 2018 elections and onward to the 2020 Presidential election. The goal: create chaos, hostility, and outright potential violence between disparate political groups in America.
While most people have read these reports very few seem to understand just how disinformation works, let alone how virtual examples of it could actually be successful in breaking down the famously stable American civil society. To that end, I present to you the following two memes that have been virally spreading all across the internet in the past few weeks, each one obviously geared as fodder for their respective conservative and liberal camps. Indeed, this is one of the more subtle points missed in the analysis of Russian bots and foreign meddling: that disinformation tends to aim at both ends of the political spectrum, not just one. The point is to make everyone displeased, not just one side. By breaking down the following two memes we can see that both prey upon the prejudices and insecurities of each camp while enflaming the mutual resentment and indignation they feel toward each other. Perhaps most important, and least emphasized, is how BOTH memes are in fact wrong, which is always the crucial heart of any successful disinformation campaign to begin with.
While both memes focus on the recent defacement of Donald Trump’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the ultimate conclusions about how to feel over the vandalism are starkly opposite. The meme to the left is popular with the conservative crowd in America, particularly those who feel a special rejection for Hollywood and its supposed peddling of immoral values and sexual largesse. These people angrily feed off of snobbish Hollywood elitism, off a celebrity crowd that supposedly likes to present itself as the crème de la crème of society and a behavioral model of tolerance and acceptance. The conservative meme obviously flips this self-perception on its head, noting how Trump’s star has been defaced simply because of disagreement with his political positions while the stars representing Kevin Spacey and Bill Cosby have not only remained on the Walk of Fame but have been left unscathed. In this case, the disinformation is to breed within the conservative camp a sense that anyone who admires Hollywood is morally debased. After all, how else can one explain physical violence toward the symbol of Donald Trump while two other figures already proven (Spacey admitted it publicly while Cosby lost his court battle) to be, in turn, a pedophile and serial rapist? The problem, of course, is that the meme’s moral accusation is false.
When it comes to Kevin Spacey and Bill Cosby, the real consequences have been stark: both of them have seen the literal end of their celebrity careers; their names now openly synonymous with being predators; they have been physically and symbolically ostracized and outcast from their beloved Hollywood society; they both will be facing years of legal battles and settlement negotiations as they pay out tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars to their victims, who continue coming out into the public light by the day; and law enforcement entities still do not say they are in the clear in terms of possibly facing a prison sentence, as more and more evidence of previous misdeeds becomes exposed. While these facts do not explain why their stars have not been removed from the Hollywood Walk of Fame, they do prove that no one in the liberal camp is ‘morally at peace with their sexual deviance.’ So the meme has nothing to do with reality, legal evidence, or true societal consequence. Instead, its only aim is to make one political persuasion utterly convinced people of the other political persuasion are morally reprehensible and beneath contempt. Obviously, there will be no civil discourse or polite political discussions between two sides when one side views the other as vile. Alas, it does not get much better when analyzing the ‘liberal’ interpretation of the meme.
The meme to the right is borrowing from the Harry Potter lexicon, where our heroes from the series had to search down and destroy seven ‘horcruxes’ that had been hidden by Valdemort in order to safeguard his immortality. Each time a horcrux was destroyed Valdemort would become more vulnerable, ultimately leading to his re-mortality and the possibility of being killed once and for all. In this version of social media disinformation (Russian or otherwise), Donald Trump’s Hollywood star is a horcrux needing to be destroyed so as to help America’s valiant liberal heroes eventually overthrow and politically ‘kill’ The Donald. And no, this is not an attempt at farce, where we just need to poke fun at the liberal crowd that legitimately sees Donald Trump as ‘the politician that shall not be named,’ a supernatural force bent on murderous evil. But it is not too far from the truth when memes like the one above are encouraging the liberal side to view Trump with the same level of righteous indignation and moral repugnance as the people of Hogwarts viewed Valdemort. Trump, for anyone who has ever watched him over the years across the media, has been called many different things, some even self-proclaimed: showman; charlatan; braggart; cretin; snake oil salesman, and the like. But, no matter how much one may disagree with his politics and positions (or lack thereof), he is not the embodiment of darkness bringing about a coming future Apocalypse.
Pushing this type of hyperbolic rage and fear is the essence of disinformation broken down. It takes the exaggeration of inaccuracy and positions it intentionally to fuel deeper misperception that in turn breeds irreversible rejection. When done successfully, as is clearly taking place across social media in today’s American political landscape, it does more than simply cut off dialogue or the chance for civil discourse: it pushes otherwise fair-minded people out of the center and secures them deeper on the fringe-ends of their own political spectrum. And for anyone who truly understands the glory of American political stability and the fundamental spirit of why the Founding Fathers formed a two-party system in the first place, you know that any force that pushes people AWAY from the center, especially during election season, rather than TOWARD the center, is in fact a force that isn’t just pushing people toward their baser natures, but is pulling the very fabric of our political legitimacy apart. This disinformation campaign is currently a force that comes from both the left and the right. While it may have indeed been a campaign started by the Russians, the reality is that much of what is currently being peddled is now being maintained by Americans. The seeds were sown and bitter fruit now springs to life of its own accord. A force that is quintessentially un-American is obliviously being used by Americans to exhibit their own sense of warped patriotism. That is how disinformation works. That is how a disinformation campaign succeeds. And it is how the Russians will win this virtual war (barely trying) if the American populace itself doesn’t stop aiding and abetting its own manipulation.