Democrats must battle social media disinformation attack with the facts

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I cannot believe I have to say this, but Democrats are not pedophiles who worship Satan, as alleged by the social media enterprise QAnon. However, if you believe otherwise, you should prepare yourselves. I heard that High Lord Wolnir the skeleton king is registering aliens, I mean actual aliens, as Democrats in battleground districts. The Republican National Convention this week may not head into such dark fantasies, but it hovers around the outskirts. So here is a disinformation quiz to test how much attention you paid in the events. Which of the following was not said?

Donald Trump: “We are not getting rid of our postal workers. They would like to sort of send that out there. If anyone does, it is the Democrats, not the Republicans.” Steve Scalise: “Joe Biden embraced the insane mission to defund” the police. Matt Gaetz: Democrats will “disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home, and invite MS13 to live next door, and the police are not coming.” Patty McClosky: “Lex Luthor is the Democrat from Missouri running for Congress. He has a new proposal to add protoplasm in our water supplies and turn us into zombie mutants.”

It is fair to say that exaggerating and embellishing are bipartisan arts. But we are viewing something different from Trump and his operatives in the masterful campaign with social media disinformation and the embrace of online communications platforms that legitimately threaten the informed discourse that holds a democracy together. When public debate sounds like an old Art Bell radio program, it is time to watch out.

QAnon conspiracies include claims that Hillary Clinton assassinated John Kennedy, Angela Merkel is related to Adolf Hitler, and Barack Obama and George Soros are planning a coup while participating in an international child sex trafficking organization. In normal times, such claims would be laughed out of town. But in the Trump era, they have been embraced by dozens of Republican candidates for Congress this year. A Tik Tok video with the hashtag QAnon garnered millions of views. Facebook has over 1,000 groups related to QAnon with millions of members.

Despite routinely spreading racist and antisemitic notions, and now even called a domestic terrorism threat by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Trump has retweeted QAnon conspiracies dozens of times and lauded its followers as “people that love our country.” That is true only if the country is not the home of the brave but the nation of the paranoid. According to Curtis Hougland, described by the Los Angeles Times as a “technologist and online extremism expert,” the strategy has three pillars.

First, the disinformation is disciplined. Hougland cites the repeated lies about mail voting fueled by Trump, who has “convinced his followers to put their support of him” above a foundation of democracy. Second, the disinformation is emotional. It resonates with the fears of the deep state, socialism, and caravans of immigrants coming to our suburbs. Third, the disinformation is everywhere. The president starts “some of his greatest fabrications” with tweets that are “laundered around conservative news outlets” until the “most outrageous lies sound reasonable.”

Here is a case of this in action. In aiming to discredit mail voting, Trump tweeted that this will be the “most inaccurate and fraudulent election in history.” The tweet became a lead story on Fox News, which was echoed by the faithful pundits, which was widened by hundreds of conservative websites under the disguise as local media organizations.

Hougland and others have been trying to form networks of fact checkers and truth tellers to counter the major advantage that Trump has on social media. His organization, Defeat Disinformation, is building up a grassroots army to spread honest stories to counter the lies. Hougland reminds us of the saying that one lie can travel halfway across the world before the truth can put its boots on. As he said, “We have tried, and failed, to slow the lies down. Instead, we must find ways to speed the truth up.”

It will not be easy. Trump and his campaign have spent nearly $80 million for misleading ads on Facebook. If he succeeds, I am moving. The planet Novus seems nice. I will check the classifieds on QAnon.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and was the chairman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.

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