Disinformation and Domestic Extremism are Existential Threats

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Updated at 11:45 am EST on Jan. 28, 2021

In his powerful inaugural address, President Biden rightly identified disinformation and the domestic extremists it fuels as existential threats to the nation.

For decades, strategists warned that falsehoods, conspiracy theories, toxic rhetoric and the vilification of government would prove more damaging to the nation than enemy weapons in their ability to undermine cohesion and foment violence.

That finally happened during the premeditated Jan. 6 attack on the US Congress by domestic terrorists incited by a sitting president to illegally remain in power, an insurrection that killed five and left America’s already frayed reputation as a model democracy in tatters.

To preserve his fragile ego, Donald Trump contrived a lie — one of more than 30,000 he told during his presidency — about widespread electoral fraud, that was embraced by Republican leaders and right-wing media who repeated it so often, it was accepted as fact by the party’s base that largely resides in a closed information bubble. This fake news, in turn, motivated thousands to storm the Capitol to stop Congress from certifying Biden as the nation’s legitimate president.

The attack failed, but still involved those who enjoy the public’s trust — politicians, law enforcement as well as current and former military members. They’re among the tens of millions who believe Biden isn’t the country’s legitimate president, a claim intended to undercut his efficacy and justify further violence.

More depressing, hours after the seat of American democracy was desecrated by a violent mob seeking to harm Vice President Pence, Speaker Pelosi and others, 147 Republican members still voted for the lie. Lawmakers who staunchly preach American exceptionalism suspended principle — critical to a guardrail institution — to avoid political heat from an autocratic president and his virulent base.

A nation where leaders and a large chunk of the population either can’t tell fact from fiction — or deliberately won’t — can be exploited, whether internally by opportunists or externally by adversaries. This was the weakness Russia manipulated to tip the 2016 election in Trump’s favor with a disinformation campaign that cost about $100 million, the price of a single F-35 stealth fighter.

The $740 billion invested annually to defend against external threats is undermined by literally existential domestic political chaos. China, Russia and Islamic extremists want to harm America and get Washington out of their affairs, but not overthrow its democracy.

America can’t lead abroad when it’s divided at home and adversaries can portray it as a polarized, undemocratic, failing state, its capital protected from its own people by thousands of troops. How can such a nation criticize others or serve as an example? Indeed, a United States that has long inspired democracies may now embolden illiberal movements.

Biden didn’t choose to fight this “uncivil war,” as he rightly put it, but he is ideally suited to wage it — as he also confronts a mismanaged pandemic, a botched vaccine rollout, a shattered economy, frayed alliances and emboldened foreign adversaries that historically test new presidents.

After years of toxic rhetoric, lies, enabling and normalization, calls to turn a page in the name of unity are as disingenuous as they are dangerous.

Biden must now launch another long and expensive campaign against violent extremists — this time at home. While the inauguration happened without incident, the Department of Homeland Security on Jan. 27 warned of that groups emboldened by the Jan. 6 attack may commit acts of violence over the coming weeks.

The president must bring the nation together to counter divisive lies and confront ugly truths about racism, white supremacy and religious nationalism as part of his broader top priority effort to forge greater unity.

The key is to relentlessly champion truth in a battle for national survival and global credibility. 

As the FBI, Homeland Security and intelligence agencies assess the domestic extremist threat, Biden must prepare to fight for what the Russians call the most important strategic terrain in the world — the six inches between someone’s ears. Control that and you can win wars, land man on the moon and beat pandemics, or empower demagogues and collapse history’s greatest democracy.

Addressing the Problem 

First, America must defeat covid at home and aboard. The virus started in Wuhan, but Washington must end it everywhere, saving lives and bolstering America’s prestige damaged by failing to deal with the crisis and rally a global response. Toxic disinformation about the efficacy of masks, physical distancing and avoiding crowds by Trump and his allies to improve their electoral prospects ensured the pandemic stayed out of control, killing 418,000 so far. 

Second, he must convene US and allied disinformation experts to map the domestic extremist ecosystem, their motivations, the information sources that influence them and answer why so many otherwise normal people are radicalized including the role of social media. Techniques successful elsewhere should be embraced.

Not all the techniques used to fight foreign terrorists will work at home. Abroad, America and its allies effectively killed or jailed their way through the problem, exterminating the most radical generation thereby scaring the next generation away from a similar path that ends in inevitable death. Meanwhile, nations that originally fostered extremism like Saudi Arabia, UAE and others — realizing the threat would consume them as well — endorsed a more moderate form of Islam that now even tolerates open alliances with Israel.

For de-radicalization to succeed at home, you have compel those propagating disinformation for personal, political and financial gain to change course.

Countering disinformation in a nation founded on the principle of free speech will be tough, but essential and doable. The Founding Fathers saw a free press as critical to an informed people able to make wise decisions. But we are where we are because words matter as people are shaped by what leaders say and what they consume. 

The biggest challenges will be penetrating the distorted information bubbles in which so many reside, and counteracting a relentless torrent of lies unconstrained by shame that can overwhelm correction or accountability. Those who knowingly and habitually lie to misinform the public must be ostracized rather than rewarded.

Fox, Newsmax, OANN, InfoWars — and any other outlet or program — that profits from spreading falsehoods can be influenced through new legislation, more libel suits and targeted commercial boycotts.

Legal action by maligned voting machine makers Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic forced right-wing outlets to issue corrections, while the family of Seth Rich won a settlement from Fox News that propagated conspiracy theories about the young Democratic staffer’s murder. Police suspect Rich was killed in a botched robbery. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones faces lawsuits from parents of four children among the 26 killed in a 2012 mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., for falsely claiming the incident was staged by the government.

Perpetrators of dangerous cults like QAnon that have attracted millions of followers online must be revealed and members exposed. 

Moves by social media companies to flag problematic content, ban accounts and apps are helpful, but years too late for platforms based on business models that profit from engagement fueled by discord. Legislation making social media liable for disseminating false content could help, just as liability laws have kept mainstream media on the truthful track. A new Fairness Doctrine would encourage more balanced broadcast media.

False equivalencies and what-about-ism must be resisted. Black Lives Matter demonstrations involved tens of millions of peaceful protestors demanding an end to four centuries of racial injustice that sadly were blemished by acts of violence. The Jan. 6 attack to overthrow the first branch of government was propelled by a lie. Thousands of BLM protestors were arrested. So far, 135 of those involved in the Capitol’s sacking have been charged.

Third, a “broken glass” approach where details matter is necessary. Like cancer, cells of disinformation and extremism left unchallenged can metastasize to deadly effect. Once you start this fight, success depends on everyone doing their part. The mantra must be — “see something, say something, do something.”

Capabilities developed to identify, track and target Islamist extremist networks must be applied against homegrown ones. Greater domestic eavesdropping — in partnership with close allies — is necessary, but with increased oversight. 

Anyone who incited, supported, participated in, or gave insurrectionists aid must face punishment. Putting people in jail or on terrorist watch lists will deter many from acting out.

Dealing with militias will be tougher. Long recognized as a dangerous threat, they’ve been tolerated as former soldiers, cops and wannabes playing dress up. 

No democracy can survive with heavily armed anti-government groups ranging the country to intimidate peaceful protestors, claim rights over federal land, patrol borders, threaten state houses, or try to kidnap lawmakers.

Trump saw them as supporters and law enforcement long sought to avoid Waco-style confrontations with heavily armed groups that enjoy mutual support from their equally heavily armed compatriots. 

Groups must be identified, monitored and, if necessary, disbanded and disarmed. While confrontation should be avoided, use of overwhelming force my be necessary. Backing down isn’t an option as it encourages more bad behavior. Anyone who turns weapons against the government must permanently lose their right to bear arms and serve long prison terms.

Fourth, DoD must determine why former members are attracted to groups seeking  to overthrow the government they served and which gave them so much. Those with military experience were well represented on Jan. 6, including the Air Force veteran killed by police for trying to reach fleeing lawmakers. 

National Public Radio reports one in five of those arrested so far served in uniform. Given active, guard and reserve members constitute 1 percent of the US population and veterans 7 percent, 20 percent participation in the insurrection is troubling.

While troops overwhelmingly serve honorably and apolitically, DoD recognizes it has a problem with racism and extremism, largely turning a blind eye as long as members didn’t act on their beliefs. Many don’t until leaving uniform. That’s why the Joint Chiefs’ in their unprecedented letter reminded troops of their allegiance to the Constitution, rather than any one individual.

While only 12 of the thousands defending DC were removed from inaugural duty after being vetted for right-wing links, it’s worth remembering small numbers of motivated people can wreak havoc. Nineteen Islamic radicals killed 3,000 Americans on 9/11.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s got a big job, but must prioritize the fight against racism, extremism and sexual assault, long-standing problems undermining the efficacy of the world’s most powerful military, leaving many asking how an institution that values honor and discipline consistently failed to address toxic behaviors that undermine cohesion.

No one who serves their country should live in fear of violence or discrimination. High standards on acceptable comportment and a zero tolerance approach to violations are necessary. Discharge and imprison offenders and their enablers consistently and culture will change. 

The first African American as DoD’s top civilian is the right man, at the right time. He’s a tough, principled leader with a strong sense of right and wrong. Born and raised in the Jim Crow South, Austin knows racism when he sees it. He also knows how to fight extremists and their networks.

In fighting disinformation, Austin has a formidable ally on his team. DoD’s new spokesman, retired Rear Adm. John Kirby, is one of the nation’s foremost communicators, having served as spokesman for the Navy, DoD and the State Department. And he’s thought deeply about the problem and the importance of truth in communications externally — and internally. 

When it comes to radicalization, it’s legitimate to ask whether Fox News and other right-wing media are contributing to the problem — in the ranks and beyond. 

Virtually every TV — whether at the Pentagon, bases, aboard ships, service academies or guard shacks — is tuned to Fox, bombarding captive audiences with a mix of legitimate news, disinformation, conspiracy theories and distortions that supercharged Trump’s cult of personality. 

Fifth, to prepare citizens for life in a cacophonous and manipulative digital age a K-12 cyber, disinformation, online and social media curriculum must be compulsory nationwide.

Technology can identify falsehoods in real time, putting on notice those knowingly disseminating lies, exposing them to future litigation and punishment.

Sixth, there’s the Republican Party and its disinformation organs that have so contributed to this lamentable situation. Having been warned over many decades that radicalizing their base through manufactured outrage, stoking grievances, peddling conspiracy theories and fostering anti-government sentiments would be problematic, they still pressed ahead.

And with good reason. The steady march toward extremism motivated the base to win elections and Trump delivered tax cuts, undermined reproductive rights, deregulation, more defense spending, and three conservative justices and 300 federal judges. 

The disinformation industry is also highly lucrative, as ever crazier guests increasingly radicalized an ever growing audience that’s now separating from the party. This puts the lawmakers who fueled the madness now hostage to it as sanity will be punished.

That’s why 147 members choose a lie to protect their political prospects, and the 10 GOP members who joined Democrats in Trump’s second impeachment may lose their political careers as a warning to GOP senators thinking of convicting the former president.

As Republican lawmakers privately debate their once-great party’s future, the need for moderation, and whether they break with Trump they face unrelenting pressure from their base and media ecosystem to stay crazy. 

State parties are already turning on prominent members for breaking with Trump. The Arizona GOP has censured the state’s Republican Gov. Doug Doucey, former Sen. Jeff Flake, and Cindy McCain, the wife of the late Sen. John McCain. In Wyoming, censured Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican, for voting for impeachment.

Despite hemorrhaging members and political contributions, the party embraced Trump, blinded by his 83 percent GOP popularity rating. But the man who demands absolute loyalty is preparing to betray the party that fueled his rise, poised to launch the Patriot Party — to compete against Republicans. It’s unclear whether anger at Trump for not pardoning those he incited will impact his following.

This internecine warfare is likely to make matters worse as both Trump and Republicans try to out crazy one another.

Winning this battle will be easier with Republicans as getting into those who live in the right-wing media bubble is harder without their help. Democrats also must do their part. Both should consider national changes to depolarize the electorate, including scrapping partisan gerrymandering, primaries that favor zealots and a broken electoral college. That would drive change — and sanity — through the ballot box.

America’s survival ultimately depends on truth. The world’s most successful democracy depends on everyone buying into common facts, shared truths, and established norms of behavior. Strong institutions depend on principled people and truth.

History has time and again shown that autocrats succeed by creating an alternate reality of mistruths and doublespeak. Insurrectionists become patriots, fake news become truth and the unprincipled fecklessly undermining the republic portray themselves as its staunchest guardians.

How else can Macro Rubio snarkily accuse Biden’s team of being  “polite and orderly caretakers of America’s decline” while he and his colleagues actively undermine “American greatness” by disenfranchising voters to keep a narcissistic, would-be autocrat in power?

America’s greatness isn’t about quoting the Constitution and calling yourself a patriot, but advancing the principles freedom, justice, equality, opportunity and prosperity for future generations.

This will not be easy

True patriotism means loving your country and having the courage to right wrongs, despite personal consequences. Endorsing obvious and dangerous lies to protect your job is the antithesis of patriotism. 

And patriotism demands truth, both about problems and solutions. That’s why truth is always targeted by autocrats — it’s the glue that holds everything together. Peddling falsehood and conspiracy succeeds because it blurs fact and dilutes reality to the point that — per the title of Peter Pomerantsev’s book about Russia — nothing is true and everything is possible, whether you’re Hitler, Stalin, Putin or Trump.

This fight will be harder than fighting al Qaida or the Taliban. Because it will be against fellow Americans. 

And it will be made harder by Trump. His tenure imposed enormous financial, emotional, human, international and reputational costs on the nation that will endure for many more years. But he will continue to wield enormous power. While many see his departure as the end of American carnage, it may well mark the beginning.

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