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Q+A: Brookings scholar discusses Trump, Russia and the truth

Wed, Sep 13, 2017 (2 a.m.)

When news emerged Tuesday that the Russian government used Facebook to stage an anti-immigrant rally in Idaho, Jonathan Rauch picked up on it immediately.

Rauch, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, was in Las Vegas to present a lecture tonight titled, “Alt-Truth: Can Reality Survive the Era of Trump?” In the presentation, Rauch will examine how political forces have unlocked the power of an old war tactic — disinformation — to fuel distrust in the mainstream media and other institutions, feed animosity between rival political factions and tear at the fabric of the nation’s democracy. Like Pizzagate and other fake news stories that have been circulated in the last couple of years, Rauch said, the Idaho rally was an example of disinformation being used in an assault on Americans.

“It's unclear whether many people showed up, but the Russians were able to move this activism out of the online world into actually using a fake website with fake content to get Americans to show up to a made-up protest against immigration,” he said. “It's really spooky stuff.”

Click to enlarge photo

Jonathan Rauch, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, is shown in this image submitted Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017.

Rauch, a former newspaper reporter who began his career at the Winston-Salem Journal in North Carolina, sat down with the Sun to outline his presentation, assess the state of the media and offer his thoughts about how to heal the damage caused by disinformation before and since President Donald Trump’s election.

He opened the interview with what he described as a “bumper sticker, bullet-point explanation” of his lecture, which is scheduled for 6 p.m. in the first floor auditorium of Greenspun Hall. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow:

The problem I'm here to talk about is the rise of weaponized disinformation on an industrial scale.

Disinformation is different than propaganda. Propaganda tries to convince you of things that are untrue. Disinformation tries to persuade you that nothing in particular is true. It puts so much baloney out there that you don't know what to believe and don't know who to trust.

That has not been a big problem in America until very recently. And then some things changed. These include the collapse of the business model for conventional newsroom journalism, which is a very expensive thing; the rise of social media platforms, which are extremely effective and inexpensive distribution systems for disinformation; the weaponization of disinformation by politicians and by the Russians; and the rise of a so-called troll community — people who specialize in harassing and bullying, putting out false stuff often for fun but also for political gain.

All of these things suddenly made it very cheap to put fake news and disinformation out there, not with the goal of persuading people it was true but persuading them they can't believe anything.

Why would somebody want to do that? It turns out to be very useful in politics. It's like softening an enemy's air defenses before you go in for an invasion. You discredit traditional news sources, and they don't know what to believe. So maybe they'll believe you.

So disinformation is not new, but the industrialization of it is new and the weaponization of it is new. And it's worrisome.

What can be done about it? Part of the inoculation is the news media are covering it. They actually understand what's happening, and they're putting it in the newspaper.

Law enforcement agencies are looking into it. Some of this activity is illegal.

I think the public is becoming aware of it. There's been a flight to quality. CNN just had its best quarter ever. The New York Times is up. Not everybody is fleeing to quality, but a lot of people are saying, wait a minute, some sources are better than others, and they're willing to pay for that.

We're seeing the social media platforms becoming more cognizant of what's happening. Facebook and Google are revising their policies. I think all of those things are the beginning of a response, but only the beginning.

The trolls are in charge of the government right now. That's the most potent weapon that trolls have ever had at any time or place in the world. So I'm going to say this is a long road back.

The last thing I'm going to say is that there's one very important player that's gone AWOL, and that's the American university. There is a problem with liberal bias in the media, but I think a lot of media organizations are wrestling with that. I don't think academia is wrestling with its problem of being heavily skewed to the left, and the problem with that is it's discrediting the idea that universities are places that are really committed to the reality based community and not a political agenda. It's going to be a lot easier to fight disinformation if we can keep people convinced that academic and scientific institutions are on the level.

So I'm going to wind up with a plea to universities to take more seriously that they've got to be more hospitable to alternative views, to conservative views. They've got to stop chasing people off campus who they disagree with. This activity by a minority of universities discredits and delegitimizes the outstanding work that is being done by academics and intellectuals in places like this one.

Are you drawing a distinction between hyperpartisan journalism and disinformation?

Yes, hyperpartisanship is also a problem. It's something that traditional media has tried to avoid — not partisanship, but hyperpartisanship. Hyperpartisanship means partisanship that fundamentally distorts the accuracy of what you're talking about. It would be partisan reporting to say Republicans do a terrible job of responding to national disasters like hurricanes. It would be hyperpartisan to say, as Rush Limbaugh said, that we shouldn't even listen to reports about hurricanes because they're being ginned up by the other side.

So that's going on, too. It's all part of the same business model of getting people to distrust the idea that there's a gold standard, a standard of integrity out there — the difference between truth and fiction.

Do you think trust in the media is broken beyond repair?

No, not beyond repair. It's damaged. Trust in all institutions is damaged. Pretty much the military and the courts are just about the only things that Americans are willing to put much trust in anymore.

But people are still able to make distinctions between more and less trustworthy information sources. And my hope — it's just a hope — is that the realization that disinformation is prevalent and damaging is driving people back toward a search for quality and more product differentiation.

It doesn't mean they're going to love the media. I don't think they ever will. And frankly, when we do our jobs, we're not going to be loved. It's not our job to be loved, it's our job to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and people don't like that.

What are the tactics being used in the disinformation campaigns in the U.S.?

The Russians have been doing disinformation for decades. They're masters at it. Vladimir Putin is deeply versed in these principles, from his days as an intelligence officer.

What is new, I think, is the level of proficiency the Russians have shown in their ability to use social media, digital platforms, algorithms, bots. On social media, you don't even know who's a human being and who's not. So you don't know whether the person telling you this stuff that might or might not be true is even a human.

The next thing that's coming, according to experts, is the weaponization of customized disinformation. So I can find out about a person and have algorithms create fake news specifically for that person. It's going to look like exactly what you want to read, and I can put that in front of you in your media feeds.

Now, compare that with what the media have to do to go out and report real news, at the Statehouse or the county commission, wherever it is — the time and expense that that takes, the level of editing, fact-checking, thinking it through and being aware that at every stage if you get it wrong you're going to hurt real people in Las Vegas. You're not dealing with bots. You think about your cost structure versus their cost structure. They don't have to get it right — ever. You have to get it right every single time.

You’ve written several times that it’s nothing new for American voters not to understand what’s going on. But did we reach a new level of that last year?

American voters have always been, on average, remarkably ignorant about basic facts of government — how it works, who does what. They've also always been remarkably ignorant about news.

There's nothing new about that; it has been studied for generations. There's a whole theory about it, called the theory of rational ignorance. The chances that one person's vote will swing an election are infinitesimal. You're much better off gambling a million dollars at a roulette table down the block here. So it doesn't actually make a lot of sense for you to become a master of public policy and read every newspaper.

It makes sense for you to basically get some general impressions of the candidates, some true and some false, and go vote. That's perfectly rational. That's common bandwidth limitations.

So the way we handled that traditionally was branding. You had the Republican brand and the Democratic brand, and people basically knew what both parties stood for. And that's how they voted.

And that actually turned out to be pretty good. If you vote for a Republican, you're pretty likely to get a conservative. If you vote for a Democrat, you're pretty likely to get a liberal, or someone more moderate.

And that's what happened in 2016. People like me who thought that Donald Trump was unsuited for the presidency for a lot of reasons kind of thought that a lot of Republicans wouldn't vote for him. Surprise, it turns out that a lot of Republicans voted the way they always voted, because they're Republicans. A lot of them tune in about four days before the election, look at the ballot and say, it's our guy over theirs, and I'll choose mine.

The really important thing to do about the problem of voter ignorance is not to make unfair expectations of voters.

We have two generations of political reformers whose idea was to put more decision-making in the hands of ordinary people, for various reasons. They thought insiders were corrupt, or they were populists who thought people would make better decisions.

That's the wrong way to go. What the founders intended was a system of mediators and institutions and professionals. I don't necessarily mean elite, but professionals who were in the business of mastering policy, building political coalitions, trying to bring people into those coalitions, then making compromises and bargains to bring about policies. That's what works, it has for generations, that's what the founders set up.

That's what a lot of modern reformers don't understand and have tried to take apart. So where I wind up with all of this is that ironically, the solution has got to be more professionals in politics, not less. And by the way, that's not because voters are stupid, it's because they're smart. They're smart enough not to over-invest in politics.

Is it a lonely time right now to be advocating for more professionals and less populism in politics?

Two answers to that one: Hell and yes. But there are a few people saying it, and others are coming around. There's a school of thought that I'm kind of a member of, we call ourselves political realists or neo-realists. A bunch of people in academia now, some people inside politics, are saying it's time to put some of these idealistic ideals and reforms aside and start fixing what's really broken about this system.

Ironically, we're at a moment of very strong partisanship but very weak parties. And these things are actually two sides of the same coin. The tribalism is getting more fierce while the traditional party structures — which were about bringing together all these forces and mediating them — get weak. The Republican Party is barely a party at all. It's a victim of a hostile takeover. It's at war with itself. It can't pass its No. 1 priority; it looks like it might not be able to pass its No. 2 priority.

These are very serious problems for our democracy. And you're going to have to strengthen these institutions and not weaken them.

How should political operatives be dealing with the parties’ problems?

I don't think you can do it if you're a party operative.

More of it is incumbent on the media and people like me at a think-tank to begin to do two kinds of things. The first is reconsider a whole series of reforms that misfired or backfired. A lot of those things in principle aren't difficult to change. We tied the hands of the parties with campaign finance laws that put them at a severe disadvantage to candidates and outside groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts. Parties can't compete with that; it's very difficult for them.

We can untie the hands of the parties, which involves regulatory changes. We can introduce more of a role for professionals and insiders in influencing who the candidate choices are. That's very important. It turns out that primaries are a deeply flawed way of choosing candidates, because they're dominated by small numbers of extremists. It turns out that smoke-filled rooms are a much better way of choosing candidates, because they were thinking about how do we find a candidate who will unite the party and bring in lots of different voices. It's not the way primary voters think.

The parties could change their rules tomorrow in ways that would give insiders more of a role.

We've got rules that make it hard to do pork-barrel spending, which is a very important tool that legislators use to trade votes and build coalitions.

There are rules on transparency, which made it harder than it should be to negotiate, to talk frankly about stuff. A deal requires going in a back room and saying, what's your bottom line, really? What do you really need? You can't do that in public.

There are all kinds of things at this micro level which in principle are not hard to change, but would help. There's no silver bullet, but these things would help things move in a better direction.

At the macro level, the big thing you need to do is begin creating a climate of opinion that is more receptive to the idea that politicians need to be able to do politics.

The big story over the last 50 years is politics is a dirty game, it should be limited, it's corrupt, it's untrustworthy. All of these rules have been trying to limit the ability of politicians to do politics. And here you have to function at the level of ideas. You have to go to the public and say, wait a minute, if you hire a plumber and you don't let him use his tools, he's not going to fix your sink. And if you bring in a politician and you take away all the things he needs to do to keep the government open, to pass a debt-limit bill, to pass a budget, they're not going to be able to operate, either.

So hey, Mr. John Q. Public, how about rethinking this. I think Americans are receptive to that, actually. I think a lot of people sense things are on a bad track, that it's not working. I wrote about this a year ago in The Atlantic, and it got a huge reaction.

We've had political machines in this country. We practically invented them. Americans are very historically comfortable with that model of politics, so it's not a huge stretch to think we may be able to reassemble some of these institutions.

Is that how to break through politophobia, which you’ve written about? (In other words, Americans being completely averse to politics?)

You won't break through it completely, but at least you can create an alternative story. Right now, when people talk about reforming politics, it's all about weakening parties and strengthening small donors. Well, that makes it worse, actually. Because the people small donors fund tend to be extremists, and when they get elected they don't owe anything to anyone, and it's difficult to get them to vote. That's why it's so hard to keep the government open.

So you start to change this story. You say, wait a minute, maybe we shouldn't be thinking so much about making everyone more independent. Maybe we should be thinking more about rebuilding some of the bonds between politicians.

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