How new technologies and techniques pioneered by dictators will shape the 2020 election
By McKay Choppins | The Atlantic Magazine | March Issue 2020
ne day last fall, I sat down to create a new Facebook account. I picked a forgettable name, snapped a profile pic with my face obscured, and clicked “Like” on the official pages of Donald Trump and his reelection campaign. Facebook’s algorithm prodded me to follow Ann Coulter, Fox Business, and a variety of fan pages with names like “In Trump We Trust.” I complied. I also gave my cellphone number to the Trump campaign, and joined a handful of private Facebook groups for MAGA diehards, one of which required an application that seemed designed to screen out interlopers.
The president’s reelection campaign was then in the midst of a multimillion-dollar ad blitz aimed at shaping Americans’ understanding of the recently launched impeachment proceedings. Thousands of micro-targeted ads had flooded the internet, portraying Trump as a heroic reformer cracking down on foreign corruption while Democrats plotted a coup. That this narrative bore little resemblance to reality seemed only to accelerate its spread. Right-wing websites amplified every claim. Pro-Trump forums teemed with conspiracy theories. An alternate information ecosystem was taking shape around the biggest news story in the country, and I wanted to see it from the inside.
The story that unfurled in my Facebook feed over the next several weeks was, at times, disorienting. There were days when I would watch, live on TV, an impeachment hearing filled with damning testimony about the president’s conduct, only to look at my phone later and find a slickly edited video—served up by the Trump campaign—that used out-of-context clips to recast the same testimony as an exoneration. Wait, I caught myself wondering more than once, is that what happened today?
As I swiped at my phone, a stream of pro-Trump propaganda filled the screen: “That’s right, the whistleblower’s own lawyer said, ‘The coup has started …’ ” Swipe. “Democrats are doing Putin’s bidding …” Swipe. “The only message these radical socialists and extremists will understand is a crushing …” Swipe. “Only one man can stop this chaos …” Swipe, swipe, swipe.
I was surprised by the effect it had on me. I’d assumed that my skepticism and media literacy would inoculate me against such distortions. But I soon found myself reflexively questioning every headline. It wasn’t that I believed Trump and his boosters were telling the truth. It was that, in this state of heightened suspicion, truth itself—about Ukraine, impeachment, or anything else—felt more and more difficult to locate. With each swipe, the notion of observable reality drifted further out of reach.
What I was seeing was a strategy that has been deployed by illiberal political leaders around the world. Rather than shutting down dissenting voices, these leaders have learned to harness the democratizing power of social media for their own purposes—jamming the signals, sowing confusion. They no longer need to silence the dissident shouting in the streets; they can use a megaphone to drown him out. Scholars have a name for this: censorship through noise.
After the 2016 election, much was made of the threats posed to American democracy by foreign disinformation. Stories of Russian troll farms and Macedonian fake-news mills loomed in the national imagination. But while these shadowy outside forces preoccupied politicians and journalists, Trump and his domestic allies were beginning to adopt the same tactics of information warfare that have kept the world’s demagogues and strongmen in power.
Every presidential campaign sees its share of spin and misdirection, but this year’s contest promises to be different. In conversations with political strategists and other experts, a dystopian picture of the general election comes into view—one shaped by coordinated bot attacks, Potemkin local-news sites, micro-targeted fearmongering, and anonymous mass texting. Both parties will have these tools at their disposal. But in the hands of a president who lies constantly, who traffics in conspiracy theories, and who readily manipulates the levers of government for his own gain, their potential to wreak havoc is enormous.
The Trump campaign is planning to spend more than $1 billion, and it will be aided by a vast coalition of partisan media, outside political groups, and enterprising freelance operatives. These pro-Trump forces are poised to wage what could be the most extensive disinformation campaign in U.S. history. Whether or not it succeeds in reelecting the president, the wreckage it leaves behind could be irreparable.
THE DEATH STAR
The campaign is run from the 14th floor of a gleaming, modern office tower in Rosslyn, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. Glass-walled conference rooms look out on the Potomac River. Rows of sleek monitors line the main office space. Unlike the bootstrap operation that first got Trump elected—with its motley band of B-teamers toiling in an unfinished space in Trump Tower—his 2020 enterprise is heavily funded, technologically sophisticated, and staffed with dozens of experienced operatives. One Republican strategist referred to it, admiringly, as “the Death Star.”
Presiding over this effort is Brad Parscale, a 6-foot-8 Viking of a man with a shaved head and a triangular beard. As the digital director of Trump’s 2016 campaign, Parscale didn’t become a household name like Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway. But he played a crucial role in delivering Trump to the Oval Office—and his efforts will shape this year’s election.
In speeches and interviews, Parscale likes to tell his life story as a tidy rags-to-riches tale, embroidered with Trumpian embellishments. He grew up a simple “farm boy from Kansas” (read: son of an affluent lawyer from suburban Topeka) who managed to graduate from an “Ivy League” school (Trinity University, in San Antonio). After college, he went to work for a software company in California, only to watch the business collapse in the economic aftermath of 9/11 (not to mention allegations in a lawsuit that he and his parents, who owned the business, had illegally transferred company funds—claims that they disputed). Broke and desperate, Parscale took his “last $500” (not counting the value of three rental properties he owned) and used it to start a one-man web-design business in Texas.
Parscale Media was, by most accounts, a scrappy endeavor at the outset. Hustling to drum up clients, Parscale cold-pitched shoppers in the tech aisle of a Borders bookstore. Over time, he built enough websites for plumbers and gun shops that bigger clients took notice—including the Trump Organization. In 2011, Parscale was invited to bid on designing a website for Trump International Realty. An ardent fan of The Apprentice, he offered to do the job for $10,000, a fraction of the actual cost. “I just made up a price,” he later told The Washington Post. “I recognized that I was a nobody in San Antonio, but working for the Trumps would be everything.” The contract was his, and a lucrative relationship was born.
Over the next four years, he was hired to design websites for a range of Trump ventures—a winery, a skin-care line, and then a presidential campaign. By late 2015, Parscale—a man with no discernible politics, let alone campaign experience—was running the Republican front-runner’s digital operation from his personal laptop.
Parscale slid comfortably into Trump’s orbit. Not only was he cheap and unpretentious—with no hint of the savvier-than-thou smugness that characterized other political operatives—but he seemed to carry a chip on his shoulder that matched the candidate’s. “Brad was one of those people who wanted to prove the establishment wrong and show the world what he was made of,” says a former colleague from the campaign.
Perhaps most important, he seemed to have no reservations about the kind of campaign Trump wanted to run. The race-baiting, the immigrant-bashing, the truth-bending—none of it seemed to bother Parscale. While some Republicans wrung their hands over Trump’s inflammatory messages, Parscale came up with ideas to more effectively disseminate them.
The campaign had little interest at first in cutting-edge ad technology, and for a while, Parscale’s most valued contribution was the merchandise page he built to sell MAGA hats. But that changed in the general election. Outgunned on the airwaves and lagging badly in fundraising, campaign officials turned to Google and Facebook, where ads were inexpensive and shock value was rewarded. As the campaign poured tens of millions into online advertising—amplifying themes such as Hillary Clinton’s criminality and the threat of radical Islamic terrorism—Parscale’s team, which was christened Project Alamo, grew to 100.
Parscale was generally well liked by his colleagues, who recall him as competent and intensely focused. “He was a get-shit-done type of person,” says A. J. Delgado, who worked with him. Perhaps just as important, he had a talent for ingratiating himself with the Trump family. “He was probably better at managing up,” Kurt Luidhardt, a consultant for the campaign, told me. He made sure to share credit for his work with the candidate’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and he excelled at using Trump’s digital ignorance to flatter him. “Parscale would come in and tell Trump he didn’t need to listen to the polls, because he’d crunched his data and they were going to win by six points,” one former campaign staffer told me. “I was like, ‘Come on, man, don’t bullshit a bullshitter.’ ” But Trump seemed to buy it. (Parscale declined to be interviewed for this story.)
James Barnes, a Facebook employee who was dispatched to work closely with the campaign, told me Parscale’s political inexperience made him open to experimenting with the platform’s new tools. “Whereas some grizzled campaign strategist who’d been around the block a few times might say, ‘Oh, that will never work,’ Brad’s predisposition was to say, ‘Yeah, let’s try it.’ ” From June to November, Trump’s campaign ran 5.9 million ads on Facebook, while Clinton’s ran just 66,000. A Facebook executive would later write in a leaked memo that Trump “got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser.”
Though some strategists questioned how much these ads actually mattered, Parscale was hailed for Trump’s surprise victory. Stories appeared in the press calling him a “genius” and the campaign’s “secret weapon,” and in 2018 he was tapped to lead the entire reelection effort. The promotion was widely viewed as a sign that the president’s 2020 strategy would hinge on the digital tactics that Parscale had mastered.
Through it all, the strategist has continued to show a preference for narrative over truth. Last May, Parscale regaled a crowd of donors and activists in Miami with the story of his ascent. When a ProPublica reporter confronted him about the many misleading details in his account, he shrugged off the fact-check. “When I give a speech, I tell it like a story,” he said. “My story is my story.”
In his book This Is Not Propaganda, Peter Pomerantsev, a researcher at the London School of Economics, writes about a young Filipino political consultant he calls “P.” In college, P had studied the “Little Albert experiment,” in which scientists conditioned a young child to fear furry animals by exposing him to loud noises every time he encountered a white lab rat. The experiment gave P an idea. He created a series of Facebook groups for Filipinos to discuss what was going on in their communities. Once the groups got big enough—about 100,000 members—he began posting local crime stories, and instructed his employees to leave comments falsely tying the grisly headlines to drug cartels. The pages lit up with frightened chatter. Rumors swirled; conspiracy theories metastasized. To many, all crimes became drug crimes.
Unbeknownst to their members, the Facebook groups were designed to boost Rodrigo Duterte, then a long-shot presidential candidate running on a pledge to brutally crack down on drug criminals. (Duterte once boasted that, as mayor of Davao City, he rode through the streets on his motorcycle and personally executed drug dealers.) P’s experiment was one plank in a larger “disinformation architecture”—which also included social-media influencers paid to mock opposing candidates, and mercenary trolls working out of former call centers—that experts say aided Duterte’s rise to power. Since assuming office in 2016, Duterte has reportedly ramped up these efforts while presiding over thousands of extrajudicial killings.
The campaign in the Philippines was emblematic of an emerging propaganda playbook, one that uses new tools for the age-old ends of autocracy. The Kremlin has long been an innovator in this area. (A 2011 manual for Russian civil servants favorably compared their methods of disinformation to “an invisible radiation” that takes effect while “the population doesn’t even feel it is being acted upon.”) But with the technological advances of the past decade, and the global proliferation of smartphones, governments around the world have found success deploying Kremlin-honed techniques against their own people.
In the United States, we tend to view such tools of oppression as the faraway problems of more fragile democracies. But the people working to reelect Trump understand the power of these tactics. They may use gentler terminology—muddy the waters; alternative facts—but they’re building a machine designed to exploit their own sprawling disinformation architecture.
Central to that effort is the campaign’s use of micro-targeting—the process of slicing up the electorate into distinct niches and then appealing to them with precisely tailored digital messages. The advantages of this approach are obvious: An ad that calls for defunding Planned Parenthood might get a mixed response from a large national audience, but serve it directly via Facebook to 800 Roman Catholic women in Dubuque, Iowa, and its reception will be much more positive. If candidates once had to shout their campaign promises from a soapbox, micro-targeting allows them to sidle up to millions of voters and whisper personalized messages in their ear.
Parscale didn’t invent this practice—Barack Obama’s campaign famously used it in 2012, and Clinton’s followed suit. But Trump’s effort in 2016 was unprecedented, in both its scale and its brazenness. In the final days of the 2016 race, for example, Trump’s team tried to suppress turnout among black voters in Florida by slipping ads into their News Feeds that read, “Hillary Thinks African-Americans Are Super Predators.” An unnamed campaign official boasted to Bloomberg Businessweek that it was one of “three major voter suppression operations underway.” (The other two targeted young women and white liberals.)
The weaponization of micro-targeting was pioneered in large part by the data scientists at Cambridge Analytica. The firm began as part of a nonpartisan military contractor that used digital psyops to target terrorist groups and drug cartels. In Pakistan, it worked to thwart jihadist recruitment efforts; in South America, it circulated disinformation to turn drug dealers against their bosses.
The emphasis shifted once the conservative billionaire Robert Mercer became a major investor and installed Steve Bannon as his point man. Using a massive trove of data it had gathered from Facebook and other sources—without users’ consent—Cambridge Analytica worked to develop detailed “psychographic profiles” for every voter in the U.S., and began experimenting with ways to stoke paranoia and bigotry by exploiting certain personality traits. In one exercise, the firm asked white men whether they would approve of their daughter marrying a Mexican immigrant; those who said yes were asked a follow-up question designed to provoke irritation at the constraints of political correctness: “Did you feel like you had to say that?”
Christopher Wylie, who was the director of research at Cambridge Analytica and later testified about the company to Congress, told me that “with the right kind of nudges,” people who exhibited certain psychological characteristics could be pushed into ever more extreme beliefs and conspiratorial thinking. “Rather than using data to interfere with the process of radicalization, Steve Bannon was able to invert that,” Wylie said. “We were essentially seeding an insurgency in the United States.”
Cambridge Analytica was dissolved in 2018, shortly after its CEO was caught on tape bragging about using bribery and sexual “honey traps” on behalf of clients. (The firm denied that it actually used such tactics.) Since then, some political scientists have questioned how much effect its “psychographic” targeting really had. But Wylie—who spoke with me from London, where he now works for H&M, as a fashion-trend forecaster—said the firm’s work in 2016 was a modest test run compared with what could come.
“What happens if North Korea or Iran picks up where Cambridge Analytica left off?” he said, noting that plenty of foreign actors will be looking for ways to interfere in this year’s election. “There are countless hostile states that have more than enough capacity to quickly replicate what we were able to do … and make it much more sophisticated.” These efforts may not come only from abroad: A group of former Cambridge Analytica employees have formed a new firm that, according to the Associated Press, is working with the Trump campaign. (The firm has denied this, and a campaign spokesperson declined to comment.)
After the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, Facebook was excoriated for its mishandling of user data and complicity in the viral spread of fake news. Mark Zuckerberg promised to do better, and rolled out a flurry of reforms. But then, last fall, he handed a major victory to lying politicians: Candidates, he said, would be allowed to continue running false ads on Facebook. (Commercial advertisers, by contrast, are subject to fact-checking.) In a speech at Georgetown University, the CEO argued that his company shouldn’t be responsible for arbitrating political speech, and that because political ads already receive so much scrutiny, candidates who choose to lie will be held accountable by journalists and watchdogs.Shady political actors are discovering how easy it is to wage an untraceable whisper campaign by text message.
To bolster his case, Zuckerberg pointed to the recently launched—and publicly accessible—“library” where Facebook archives every political ad it publishes. The project has a certain democratic appeal: Why censor false or toxic content when a little sunlight can have the same effect? But spend some time scrolling through the archive of Trump reelection ads, and you quickly see the limits of this transparency.
The campaign doesn’t run just one ad at a time on a given theme. It runs hundreds of iterations—adjusting the language, the music, even the colors of the “Donate” buttons. In the 10 weeks after the House of Representatives began its impeachment inquiry, the Trump campaign ran roughly 14,000 different ads containing the word impeachment. Sifting through all of them is virtually impossible.
Both parties will rely on micro-targeted ads this year, but the president is likely to have a distinct advantage. The Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign have reportedly compiled an average of 3,000 data points on every voter in America. They have spent years experimenting with ways to tweak their messages based not just on gender and geography, but on whether the recipient owns a gun or watches the Golf Channel.
While these ads can be used to try to win over undecided voters, they’re most often deployed for fundraising and for firing up the faithful—and Trump’s advisers believe this election will be decided by mobilization, not persuasion. To turn out the base, the campaign has signaled that it will return to familiar themes: the threat of “illegal aliens”—a term Parscale has reportedly encouraged Trump to use—and the corruption of the “swamp.”
Beyond Facebook, the campaign is also investing in a texting platform that could allow it to send anonymous messages directly to millions of voters’ phones without their permission. Until recently, people had to opt in before a campaign could include them in a mass text. But with new “peer to peer” texting apps—including one developed by Gary Coby, a senior Trump adviser—a single volunteer can send hundreds of messages an hour, skirting federal regulations by clicking “Send” one message at a time. Notably, these messages aren’t required to disclose who’s behind them, thanks to a 2002 ruling by the Federal Election Commission that cited the limited number of characters available in a text.
Most experts assume that these regulations will be overhauled sometime after the 2020 election. For now, campaigns from both parties are hoovering up as many cellphone numbers as possible, and Parscale has said texting will be at the center of Trump’s reelection strategy. The medium’s ability to reach voters is unparalleled: While robocalls get sent to voicemail and email blasts get trapped in spam folders, peer-to-peer texting companies say that at least 90 percent of their messages are opened.
The Trump campaign’s texts so far this cycle have focused on shouty fundraising pleas (“They have NOTHING! IMPEACHMENT IS OVER! Now let’s CRUSH our End of Month Goal”). But the potential for misuse by outside groups is clear—and shady political actors are already discovering how easy it is to wage an untraceable whisper campaign by text.
In 2018, as early voting got under way in Tennessee’s Republican gubernatorial primary, voters began receiving text messages attacking two of the candidates’ conservative credentials. The texts—written in a conversational style, as if they’d been sent from a friend—were unsigned, and people who tried calling the numbers received a busy signal. The local press covered the smear campaign. Law enforcement was notified. But the source of the texts was never discovered.
WAR ON THE PRESS
One afternoon last March, I was on the phone with a Republican operative close to the Trump family when he casually mentioned that a reporter at Business Insider was about to have a very bad day. The journalist, John Haltiwanger, had tweeted something that annoyed Donald Trump Jr., prompting the coterie of friends and allies surrounding the president’s son to drum up a hit piece. The story they had coming, the operative suggested to me, would demolish the reporter’s credibility.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this gloating—people in Trump’s circle have a tendency toward bluster. But a few hours later, the operative sent me a link to a Breitbart News article documenting Haltiwanger’s “history of intense Trump hatred.” The story was based on a series of Instagram posts—all of them from before Haltiwanger started working at Business Insider—in which he made fun of the president and expressed solidarity with liberal protesters.
The next morning, Don Jr. tweeted the story to his 3 million followers, denouncing Haltiwanger as a “raging lib.” Other conservatives piled on, and the reporter was bombarded with abusive messages and calls for him to be fired. His employer issued a statement conceding that the Instagram posts were “not appropriate.” Haltiwanger kept his job, but the experience, he told me later, “was bizarre and unsettling.”
The Breitbart story was part of a coordinated effort by a coalition of Trump allies to air embarrassing information about reporters who produce critical coverage of the president. (The New York Times first reported on this project last summer; since then, it’s been described to me in greater detail.) According to people with knowledge of the effort, pro-Trump operatives have scraped social-media accounts belonging to hundreds of political journalists and compiled years’ worth of posts into a dossier.
Often when a particular news story is deemed especially unfair—or politically damaging—to the president, Don Jr. will flag it in a text thread that he uses for this purpose. (Among those who text regularly with the president’s eldest son, someone close to him told me, are the conservative activist Charlie Kirk; two GOP strategists, Sergio Gor and Arthur Schwartz; Matthew Boyle, a Breitbart editor; and U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell.) Once a story has been marked for attack, someone searches the dossier for material on the journalists involved. If something useful turns up—a problematic old joke; evidence of liberal political views—Boyle turns it into a Breitbart headline, which White House officials and campaign surrogates can then share on social media. (The White House has denied any involvement in this effort.)
Descriptions of the dossier vary. One source I spoke with said that a programmer in India had been paid to organize it into a searchable database, making posts that contain offensive keywords easier to find. Another told me the dossier had expanded to at least 2,000 people, including not just journalists but high-profile academics, politicians, celebrities, and other potential Trump foes. Some of this, of course, may be hyperbolic boasting—but the effort has yielded fruit.Parscale has said the campaign intends to train “swarms of surrogates” to undermine coverage from local TV stations and newspapers.
In the past year, the operatives involved have gone after journalists at CNN, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. They exposed one reporter for using the word fag in college, and another for posting anti-Semitic and racist jokes a decade ago. These may not have been career-ending revelations, but people close to the project said they’re planning to unleash much more opposition research as the campaign intensifies. “This is innovative shit,” said Mike Cernovich, a right-wing activist with a history of trolling. “They’re appropriating call-out culture.”
What’s notable about this effort is not that it aims to expose media bias. Conservatives have been complaining—with some merit—about a liberal slant in the press for decades. But in the Trump era, an important shift has taken place. Instead of trying to reform the press, or critique its coverage, today’s most influential conservatives want to destroy the mainstream media altogether. “Journalistic integrity is dead,” Boyle declared in a 2017 speech at the Heritage Foundation. “There is no such thing anymore. So everything is about weaponization of information.”
It’s a lesson drawn from demagogues around the world: When the press as an institution is weakened, fact-based journalism becomes just one more drop in the daily deluge of content—no more or less credible than partisan propaganda. Relativism is the real goal of Trump’s assault on the press, and the more “enemies of the people” his allies can take out along the way, the better. “A culture war is a war,” Steve Bannon told the Times last year. “There are casualties in war.”
This attitude has permeated the president’s base. At rallies, people wear T-shirts that read rope. tree. journalist. some assembly required. A CBS News/YouGov poll has found that just 11 percent of strong Trump supporters trust the mainstream media—while 91 percent turn to the president for “accurate information.” This dynamic makes it all but impossible for the press to hold the president accountable, something Trump himself seems to understand. “Remember,” he told a crowd in 2018, “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
Bryan Lanza, who worked for the Trump campaign in 2016 and remains a White House surrogate, told me flatly that he sees no possibility of Americans establishing a common set of facts from which to conduct the big debates of this year’s election. Nor is that his goal. “It’s our job to sell our narrative louder than the media,” Lanza said. “They’re clearly advocating for a liberal-socialist position, and we’re never going to be in concert. So the war continues.”
Parscale has indicated that he plans to open up a new front in this war: local news. Last year, he said the campaign intends to train “swarms of surrogates” to undermine negative coverage from local TV stations and newspapers. Polls have long found that Americans across the political spectrum trust local news more than national media. If the campaign has its way, that trust will be eroded by November. “We can actually build up and fight with the local newspapers,” Parscale told donors, according to a recording provided by The Palm Beach Post. “So we’re not just fighting on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC with the same 700,000 people watching every day.”
Running parallel to this effort, some conservatives have been experimenting with a scheme to exploit the credibility of local journalism. Over the past few years, hundreds of websites with innocuous-sounding names like the Arizona Monitor and The Kalamazoo Times have begun popping up. At first glance, they look like regular publications, complete with community notices and coverage of schools. But look closer and you’ll find that there are often no mastheads, few if any bylines, and no addresses for local offices. Many of them are organs of Republican lobbying groups; others belong to a mysterious company called Locality Labs, which is run by a conservative activist in Illinois. Readers are given no indication that these sites have political agendas—which is precisely what makes them valuable.
According to one longtime strategist, candidates looking to plant a negative story about an opponent can pay to have their desired headlines posted on some of these Potemkin news sites. By working through a third-party consulting firm—instead of paying the sites directly—candidates are able to obscure their involvement in the scheme when they file expenditures to the Federal Election Commission. Even if the stories don’t fool savvy readers, the headlines are convincing enough to be flashed across the screen in a campaign commercial or slipped into fundraising emails.
DIGITAL DIRTY TRICKS
Shortly after polls closed in Kentucky’s gubernatorial election last November, an anonymous Twitter user named @Overlordkraken1 announced to his 19 followers that he had “just shredded a box of Republican mail in ballots” in Louisville.
There was little reason to take this claim at face value, and plenty of reason to doubt it (beginning with the fact that he’d misspelled Louisville). But the race was tight, and as incumbent Governor Matt Bevin began to fall behind in the vote total, an army of Twitter bots began spreading the election-rigging claim.
The original post was removed by Twitter, but by then thousands of automated accounts were circulating screenshots of it with the hashtag #StoptheSteal. Popular right-wing internet personalities jumped on the narrative, and soon the Bevin campaign was making noise about unspecified voting “irregularities.” When the race was called for his opponent, the governor refused to concede, and asked for a statewide review of the vote. (No evidence of ballot-shredding was found, and he finally admitted defeat nine days later.)
The Election Night disinformation blitz had all the markings of a foreign influence operation. In 2016, Russian trolls had worked in similar ways to contaminate U.S. political discourse—posing as Black Lives Matter activists in an attempt to inflame racial divisions, and fanning pro-Trump conspiracy theories. (They even used Facebook to organize rallies, including one for Muslim supporters of Clinton in Washington, D.C., where they got someone to hold up a sign attributing a fictional quote to the candidate: “I think Sharia law will be a powerful new direction of freedom.”)
But when Twitter employees later reviewed the activity surrounding Kentucky’s election, they concluded that the bots were largely based in America—a sign that political operatives here were learning to mimic Russian trolling tactics.
Of course, dirty tricks aren’t new to American politics. From Lee Atwater and Roger Stone to the crooked machine Democrats of Chicago, the country has a long history of underhanded operatives smearing opponents and meddling in elections. And, in fact, Samuel Woolley, a scholar who studies digital propaganda, told me that the first documented deployment of politicized Twitter bots was in the U.S. In 2010, an Iowa-based conservative group set up a small network of automated accounts with names like @BrianD82 to promote the idea that Martha Coakley, a Democrat running for Senate in Massachusetts, was anti-Catholic.
As Trump’s 2016 digital director, Brad Parscale flooded the internet with the campaign’s messages. (Illustration: Mishko; Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post / Getty)
Since then, the tactics of Twitter warfare have grown more sophisticated, as regimes around the world experiment with new ways to deploy their cybermilitias. In Mexico, supporters of then-President Enrique Peña Nieto created “sock puppet” accounts to pose as protesters and sabotage the opposition movement. In Azerbaijan, a pro-government youth group waged coordinated harassment campaigns against journalists, flooding their Twitter feeds with graphic threats and insults. When these techniques prove successful, Woolley told me, Americans improve upon them. “It’s almost as if there’s a Columbian exchange between developing-world authoritarian regimes and the West,” he said.
Parscale has denied that the campaign uses bots, saying in a 60 Minutes interview, “I don’t think [they] work.” He may be right—it’s unlikely that these nebulous networks of trolls and bots could swing a national election. But they do have their uses. They can simulate false consensus, derail sincere debate, and hound people out of the public square.
According to one study, bots accounted for roughly 20 percent of all the tweets posted about the 2016 election during one five-week period that year. And Twitter is already infested with bots that seem designed to boost Trump’s reelection prospects. Regardless of where they’re coming from, they have tremendous potential to divide, radicalize, and stoke hatred that lasts long after the votes are cast.
Rob Flaherty, who served as the digital director for Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign, told me that Twitter in 2020 is a “hall of mirrors.” He said one mysterious account started a viral rumor that the gunman who killed seven people in Odessa, Texas, last summer had a beto bumper sticker on his car. Another masqueraded as an O’Rourke supporter and hurled racist invective at a journalist. Some of these tactics echoed 2016, when Russian agitators posed as Bernie Sanders supporters and stirred up anger toward Hillary Clinton.
Flaherty said he didn’t know who was behind the efforts targeting O’Rourke, and the candidate dropped out before they could make a real difference. “But you can’t watch this landscape and not get the feeling that someone’s fucking with something,” he told me. Flaherty has since joined Joe Biden’s campaign, which has had to contend with similar distortions: Last year, a website resembling an official Biden campaign page appeared on the internet. It emphasized elements of the candidate’s legislative record likely to hurt him in the Democratic primary—opposition to same-sex marriage, support for the Iraq War—and featured video clips of his awkward encounters with women. The site quickly became one of the most-visited Biden-related sites on the web. It was designed by a Trump consultant.
FIGHTING FIRE WITH FIRE
As the president’s reelection machine ramps up, Democratic strategists have found themselves debating an urgent question: Can they defeat the Trump coalition without adopting its tactics?
On one side of this argument is Dmitri Mehlhorn, a consultant notorious for his willingness to experiment with digital subterfuge. During Alabama’s special election in 2017, Mehlhorn helped fund at least two “false flag” operations against the Republican Senate candidate, Roy Moore. For one scheme, faux Russian Twitter bots followed the candidate’s account to make it look like the Kremlin was backing Moore. For another, a fake social-media campaign, dubbed “Dry Alabama,” was designed to link Moore to fictional Baptist teetotalers trying to ban alcohol. (Mehlhorn has claimed that he is unaware of the Russian bot effortand does not support the use of misinformation.)
When The New York Times uncovered the second plot, one of the activists involved, Matt Osborne, contended that Democrats had no choice but to employ such unscrupulous techniques. “If you don’t do it, you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back,” Osborne said. “You have a moral imperative to do this—to do whatever it takes.”
Others have argued that this is precisely the wrong moment for Democrats to start abandoning ideals of honesty and fairness. “It’s just not in my values to go out there making shit up and tricking voters,” Flaherty told me. “I know there’s this whole fight-fire-with-fire contingent, but generally when you ask them what they mean, they’re like, ‘Lie!’ ” Some also note that the president has already handed them plenty of ammunition. “I don’t think the Democratic campaign is going to need to make stuff up about Trump,” Judd Legum, the author of a progressive newsletter about digital politics, told me. “They can stick to things that are true.”Eventually, the fear of covert propaganda inflicts as much damage as the propaganda itself.
One Democrat straddling these two camps is a young, tech-savvy strategist named Tara McGowan. Last fall, she and the former Obama adviser David Plouffe launched a political-action committee with a pledge to spend $75 million attacking Trump online. At the time, the president’s campaign was running more ads on Facebook and Google than the top four Democratic candidates combined. McGowan’s plans to return fire included such ads, but she also had more creative—and controversial—measures in mind.
For example, she established a media organization with a staff of writers to produce left-leaning “hometown news” stories that can be micro-targeted to persuadable voters on Facebook without any indication that they’re paid for by a political group. Though she insists that the reporting is strictly factual, some see the enterprise as a too-close-for-comfort co-opting of right-wing tactics.
When I spoke with McGowan, she was open about her willingness to push boundaries that might make some Democrats queasy. As far as she was concerned, the “super-predator” ads Trump ran to depress black turnout in 2016 were “fair game” because they had some basis in fact. (Clinton did use the term in 1996, to refer to gang members.) McGowan suggested that a similar approach could be taken with conservatives. She ruled out attempts to misinform Republicans about when and where to vote—a tactic Mehlhorn reportedly considered, though he later said he was joking—but said she would pursue any strategy that was “in the bounds of the law.”
“We are in a radically disruptive moment right now,” McGowan told me. “We have a president that lies every day, unabashedly … I think Trump is so desperate to win this election that he will do anything. There will be no bar too low for him.”
This intraparty split was highlighted last year when state officials urged the Democratic National Committee to formally disavow the use of bots, troll farms, and “deepfakes” (digitally manipulated videos that can, with alarming precision, make a person appear to do or say anything). Supporters saw the proposed pledge as a way of contrasting their party’s values with those of the GOP. But after months of lobbying, the committee refused to adopt the pledge.
Meanwhile, experts worried about domestic disinformation are looking to other countries for lessons. The most successful recent example may be Indonesia, which cracked down on the problem after a wave of viral lies and conspiracy theories pushed by hard-line Islamists led to the defeat of a popular Christian Chinese candidate for governor in 2016. To prevent a similar disruption in last year’s presidential election, a coalition of journalists from more than two dozen top Indonesian news outlets worked together to identify and debunk hoaxes before they gained traction online. But while that may sound like a promising model, it was paired with aggressive efforts by the state to monitor and arrest purveyors of fake news—an approach that would run afoul of the First Amendment if attempted in the U.S.
Richard Stengel, who served as the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy under President Obama, spent almost three years trying to counter digital propaganda from the Islamic State and Russia. By the time he left office, he told me, he was convinced that disinformation would continue to thrive until big tech companies were forced to take responsibility for it. Stengel has proposed amending the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which shields online platforms from liability for messages posted by third parties. Companies such as Facebook and Twitter, he believes, should be required by law to police their platforms for disinformation and abusive trolling. “It’s not going to solve the whole problem,” he told me, “but it’s going to help with volume.”
There is one other case study to consider. During the Ukrainian revolution in 2014, pro-democracy activists found that they could defang much of the false information about their movement by repeatedly exposing its Russian origins. But this kind of transparency comes with a cost, Stengel observed. Over time, alertness to the prevalence of propaganda can curdle into paranoia. Russian operatives have been known to encourage such anxiety by spreading rumors that exaggerate their own influence. Eventually, the fear of covert propaganda inflicts as much damage as the propaganda itself.
Once you internalize the possibility that you’re being manipulated by some hidden hand, nothing can be trusted. Every dissenting voice on Twitter becomes a Russian bot, every uncomfortable headline a false flag, every political development part of an ever-deepening conspiracy. By the time the information ecosystem collapses under the weight of all this cynicism, you’re too vigilant to notice that the disinformationists have won.
POWERS OF INCUMBENCY
If there’s one thing that can be said for Brad Parscale, it’s that he runs a tight ship. Unauthorized leaks from inside the campaign are rare; press stories on palace intrigue are virtually nonexistent. When the staff first moved into its new offices last year, journalists were periodically invited to tour the facility—but Parscale put an end to the practice: He didn’t want them glimpsing a scrap of paper or a whiteboard scribble that they weren’t supposed to see.
Notably, while the Trump White House has endured a seemingly endless procession of shake-ups, the Trump reelection campaign has seen very little turnover since Parscale took charge. His staying power is one reason many Republicans—inside the organization or out—hesitate to talk about him on the record. But among allies of the president, there appears to be a growing skepticism.
Former colleagues began noticing a change in Parscale after his promotion. Suddenly, the quiet guy with his face buried in a laptop was wearing designer suits, tossing out MAGA hats at campaign rallies, and traveling to Europe to speak at a political-marketing conference. In the past few years, Parscale has bought a BMW, a Range Rover, a condo, and a $2.4 million waterfront house in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “He knows he has the confidence of the family,” one former colleague told me, “which gives him more swagger.” When the U.K.’s Daily Mail ran a story spotlighting Parscale’s spending spree, he attempted deflection through flattery. “The president is an excellent businessman,” he told the tabloid, “and being associated with him for years has been extremely beneficial to my family.”
But according to a former White House official with knowledge of the incident, Trump was irritated by the coverage, and the impression it created that his campaign manager was getting rich off him. For a moment, Parscale’s standing appeared to be in peril, but then Trump’s attention was diverted by the G7 summit in France, and he never returned to the issue. (A spokesperson for the campaign disputed this account.)
Some Republicans worry that for all Parscale’s digital expertise, he doesn’t have the vision to guide Trump to reelection. The president is historically unpopular, and even in red states, he has struggled to mobilize his base for special elections. If Trump’s message is growing stale with voters, is Parscale the man to help overhaul it? “People start to ask the question—you’re building this apparatus, and that’s great, but what’s the overarching narrative?” said a former campaign staffer.
But whether Trump finds a new narrative or not, he has something this time around that he didn’t have in 2016—the powers of the presidency. While every commander in chief looks for ways to leverage his incumbency for reelection, Trump has shown that he’s willing to go much further than most. In the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, he seized on reports of a migrant caravan traveling to the U.S. from Central America to claim that the southern border was facing a national-security crisis. Trump warned of a coming “invasion” and claimed, without evidence, that the caravan had been infiltrated by gang members.
Parscale aided this effort by creating a 30-second commercial that interspersed footage of Hispanic migrants with clips of a convicted cop-killer. The ad ended with an urgent call to action: stop the caravan. vote republican. In a final maneuver before the election, Trump dispatched U.S. troops to the border. The president insisted that the operation was necessary to keep America safe—but within weeks the troops were quietly called back, the “crisis” having apparently ended once votes were cast. Skeptics were left to wonder: If Trump is willing to militarize the border to pick up a few extra seats in the midterms, what will he and his supporters do when his reelection is on the line?
It doesn’t require an overactive imagination to envision a worst-case scenario: On Election Day, anonymous text messages direct voters to the wrong polling locations, or maybe even circulate rumors of security threats. Deepfakes of the Democratic nominee using racial slurs crop up faster than social-media platforms can remove them. As news outlets scramble to correct the inaccuracies, hordes of Twitter bots respond by smearing and threatening reporters. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign has spent the final days of the race pumping out Facebook ads at such a high rate that no one can keep track of what they’re injecting into the bloodstream.
After the first round of exit polls is released, a mysteriously sourced video surfaces purporting to show undocumented immigrants at the ballot box. Trump begins retweeting rumors of voter fraud and suggests that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers should be dispatched to polling stations. are illegals stealing the election? reads the Fox News chyron. are russians behind false videos? demands MSNBC.
The votes haven’t even been counted yet, and much of the country is ready to throw out the result.
NOTHING IS TRUE
There is perhaps no better place to witness what the culture of disinformation has already wrought in America than a Trump campaign rally. One night in November, I navigated through a parking-lot maze of folding tables covered in MAGA merch and entered the BancorpSouth Arena in Tupelo, Mississippi. The election was still a year away, but thousands of sign-waving supporters had crowded into the venue to cheer on the president in person.
Once Trump took the stage, he let loose a familiar flurry of lies, half-lies, hyperbole, and nonsense. He spun his revisionist history of the Ukraine scandal—the one in which Joe Biden is the villain—and claimed, falsely, that the Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams wanted to “give illegal aliens the right to vote.” At one point, during a riff on abortion, Trump casually asserted that “the governor of Virginia executed a baby”—prompting a woman in the crowd to scream, “Murderer!”
This incendiary fabrication didn’t seem to register with my companions in the press pen, who were busy writing stories and shooting B-roll. I opened Twitter, expecting to see a torrent of fact-checks laying out the truth of the case—that the governor had been answering a hypothetical question about late-term abortion; that a national firestorm had ensued; that there were certainly different ways to interpret his comments but that not even the most ardent anti-abortion activist thought the governor of Virginia had personally “executed a baby.”
But Twitter was uncharacteristically quiet (apparently the president had said this before), and the most widely shared tweet I found on the subject was from his own campaign, which had blasted out a context-free clip of the governor’s abortion comments to back up Trump’s smear.
After the rally, I loitered near one of the exits, chatting with people as they filed out of the arena. Among liberals, there is a comforting caricature of Trump supporters as gullible personality cultists who have been hypnotized into believing whatever their leader says. The appeal of this theory is the implication that the spell can be broken, that truth can still triumph over lies, that someday everything could go back to normal—if only these voters were exposed to the facts. But the people I spoke with in Tupelo seemed to treat matters of fact as beside the point.
One woman told me that, given the president’s accomplishments, she didn’t care if he “fabricates a little bit.” A man responded to my questions about Trump’s dishonest attacks on the press with a shrug and a suggestion that the media “ought to try telling the truth once in a while.” Tony Willnow, a 34-year-old maintenance worker who had an American flag wrapped around his head, observed that Trump had won because he said things no other politician would say. When I asked him if it mattered whether those things were true, he thought for a moment before answering. “He tells you what you want to hear,” Willnow said. “And I don’t know if it’s true or not—but it sounds good, so fuck it.”
The political theorist Hannah Arendt once wrote that the most successful totalitarian leaders of the 20th century instilled in their followers “a mixture of gullibility and cynicism.” When they were lied to, they chose to believe it. When a lie was debunked, they claimed they’d known all along—and would then “admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.” Over time, Arendt wrote, the onslaught of propaganda conditioned people to “believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.”
Leaving the rally, I thought about Arendt, and the swaths of the country that are already gripped by the ethos she described. Should it prevail in 2020, the election’s legacy will be clear—not a choice between parties or candidates or policy platforms, but a referendum on reality itself.
This article appears in the March 2020 print edition with the headline “The 2020 Disinformation War.”