Declining trust in traditional news media and civic institutions goes hand in hand. Photo Credit: Unsplash/Nijwam Swargiary
On October 8, 2020, The Wall Street Journal made the decision to publish an op-ed by Senator Ron Johnson entitled “An American Coup Attempt.” The piece argues that the United States is in a constitutional crisis because unelected bureaucrats attempted to undermine the President’s administration by leaking information and whistle-blowing. It further claims that “many journalists abetted the plotters by abandoning even the pretense of objectivity and claiming that Mr. Trump poses a grave threat to the country.”[i] In an almost unbearably ironic fashion, the op-ed goes on to target Hillary Clinton by commenting on select, recently declassified and unverified intelligence about the Obama administration’s concern over then presidential candidate Trump’s potential collusion with Russian agents. In publishing this op-ed, and in making such claims about civil servants and journalists, Senator Ron Johnson takes aim at some of the most fundamental American institutions. These institutions not only keep our country running day-to-day, but also ensure relative continuity of American foreign policy and national security. By promoting this narrative, the Senator is promoting disinformation. While it is a tactic American politicians have relied on increasingly to pander to a specific political audience, it also fundamentally degrades public debate and the quality of information on which voters and representatives make critical decisions. By publishing these narratives, the author and the publisher ultimately degrade the public dialogue and civic engagement – the foundational building blocks of democracy.
The fundamental problem with the Senator’s op-ed is the premise. The United States is not in a constitutional crisis – at least not one like the Senator describes. Off the bat, the Senator begins a narrative that is, at its core, not based in the textual reality of our Constitution. The Senator suggests that bureaucrats owe blind loyalty to Executive Branch leadership. He refers to the “62 leaks” that occurred in the first 125 days of the administration “mutiny against the president.”[ii] However, blind loyalty is listed neither in the Constitution nor in the oath of office civil servants take. Those who serve in civilian bureaucratic roles do owe loyalty to their government and to their country; however, nowhere in the United States Constitution do we outline that bureaucrats must swear blind loyalty to the President. Civil servants swear to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” They also swear to “faithfully discharge the duties of the office” to which they are entering. These civil servants promise to defend the Constitution and the United States, not specific elected officials. The Senator compares the number of leaks under the Trump administration in the first 125 days to only “nine such leaks under George W. Bush and eight under Barack Obama.” Perhaps if the Senator reflected on the managerial implications of these numbers, he would understand these leaks to be signals of concern for U.S. national security, rather than casual disregard for it.
The Senator’s first accusation against bureaucrats plays into a wider narrative promoted by the current administration: civil servants who conduct any action perceived as politically unaligned to the President’s political agenda are threats to the security of the United States. Actions that might be justifiably in defense of the Constitution or national security are painted with a conspiratorial brush. Senator Johnson believes the whistle-blower who reported the President’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to be in support of a coup. Perhaps that whistle-blower was simply doing their job to protect the United States against a threat – both foreign and domestic.
The Senator’s second accusation accuses journalists, whose free speech is protected by the first amendment in the Constitution, of “abetting” his aforementioned “coup.” Journalists, of course, have been targets of those seeking power since time immemorial. Political figures never like to be painted in an unflattering light, – and journalists often do just that. Those seeking to quiet such unfavorable narratives, opinions, or ideas have always included extremists, but they have also included American politicians. Usually, it is the attempt to quiet political rivals and journalists that constitutes the constitutional crisis. Watergate springs to mind.
The wider problem with Senator Johnson’s piece, and other such political spin, is that it seeks to make politicians the victims of organized insurrection rather than criticism of legitimate and political opposition. What he labels a constitutional crisis is actually a political one. Politicians are representatives of the government, but they are not the government. As politicians feel the pressure of the election and pre-election polling data, they concoct result to concocting narratives that simply are not based in textual fact or legal premise. This trend of releasing politicized information is not limited to Senator Ron Johnson and The Wall Street Journal. The Trump administration has been rife with this type of narrative-building. In the same week, on October 7, 2020, John Ratcliffe, Director of National Intelligence, declassified “notes from former CIA Director John Brennan indicating that on July 28, 2016, Brennan had told President Barack Obama about US intelligence findings related to Russia.”[iii] These notes were spun to make it look like Hillary Clinton created a plot to vilify then presidential candidate Donald Trump. The story was covered on Fox Business, and included coverage of President Donald Trump citing the news as evidence to indict his political opposition. The irony, of course, is that Senator Johnson argues that bureaucrats have created a constitutional crisis by leading a ‘mutiny’ when they are meant to be apolitical; and yet, he leverages agents[iv] of and intelligence from those same institutions to do the very thing of which he accuses bureaucrats. Never mind that the intelligence had been previously rejected by the Senate Intelligence Committee. The so-called ‘unmasking’ of Russian collusion has been debunked (and skewered) by Politico[v], The New York Times[vi], and even Lawfare[vii].
The implications of this type of rhetoric have usually faced resounding rejection from the American public, but the internet has added a layer of complexity to how Americans get their news. The internet’s fragmented information ecosystem has created a new sociotechnical system. Dr. Philip Howard of the Oxford Internet Institute writes extensively on computational propaganda. His recent book Lie Machines describes the systems that distort our access to accurate information. He dubs these “lie machines,” or systems of “people and technologies that distribute false messages in the service of a political agenda.” Lie machines do not have to consist of a single entity. They can be for-hire companies, like digital marketing or advertising agencies, state-sponsored agencies like Russia’s Internet Research Agency, or even volunteer groups and affinity groups. They can consist of multiple entities working in synchrony. They can be leveraged by political campaign managers, lobbyists, or foreign adversaries to try to distort a narrative to gain an advantage for a cause or a belief. In his book, Howard also discusses how governments may leverage “new information technologies for social control.”[viii] Though he mostly refers to authoritarian governments leveraging these technologies, it is easy to see how a political figure might also seed “multiple conflicting stories about events … to prevent the public from having sensible debates about those events.”[ix]
If democratic governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed,” per Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract,[x] then the consent of the governed must be based on public dialogue about information that is based in fact. Perfect truth may not be attainable – there are always competing narratives – but journalists and bureaucracies ensure continuity and norms that create processes for fact-finding and determination. In a democracy where voting counts as expressing informed consent, citizens and representatives alike base their votes on this information. The accuracy of this information is reflected in the public dialogue. Policy becomes a reflection of the accuracy of the information citizens and representatives read, hear, or watch. When issues cannot be properly addressed in government because of these lies, it ultimately creates “more grievances and less information” that fundamentally affects public trust in institutions.[xi]
American politicians, like Senator Johnson, can create misleading political content, which can undermine the very type of public dialogue that allows our democracy to function. Political lies have always been harmful, but now they can play into a sociotechnical system on the internet that generates bad information and conspiracy theories. It is made even worse when politicians condone the lies or seem to support these conspiracy theories. At minimum, it undercuts how citizens make informed decisions about the candidates who represent them and degrades public life. In extreme circumstances, it leads to conspiracy theories like Pizzagate or plots to kidnap the Governor of Michigan. Disinformation has real cognitive effects – and in extreme cases can lead to violent action.
Bad information can cut both ways: politicians can fall prey to their own lies, to the lies of those in their party – or to the lies of foreign-operated agencies, like Russia’s Internet Research Agency, that seek to propagate junk news in the United States. The complexity of the internet and a lack of digital literacy can mean that representatives can have “such poor-quality information that their deliberations result in solvable errors.”[xii] While it may be hard to know Senator Johnson’s motivations in writing this specific op-ed, it is not hard to imagine how confirmation biases and anchoring biases might play into his argument. It is possible that Senator Johnson, as a representative of the American people, has fallen prey to the same online tactics, like troll armies, bots, and junk news, that can amplify incorrect information and opinions given by people who never really existed. It is perhaps this threat – our own representatives falling prey to this lie machine – that is ultimately in most critical need of countering.
Whether Senator Johnson’s op-ed was published as a blatant political lie or whether he truly believes the information contained there-in cannot be known. Regardless, its publication by a traditional, trusted media company is ultimately harmful to the public good because it did not take into consideration the full spectrum of implications: that it creates a false narrative not based in fact and leverages the type of information and conspiracy theories that adversaries actively deploy to harm our democratic processes. On the surface, it legitimizes the type of disinformation to which President Trump and his colleagues are prone. It seems like a political lie suited to keep them in power. But, in addition to the political lie, it is also potentially a reflection of how politicians have allowed themselves to be lied to about public opinion. Instead of relying on traditional polling methods, politicians and campaign managers listen to social media, which can reinforce bad information and unverified facts – amplified by our adversaries through bot networks and armies of trolls. And while leaders have always been prone to echo chambers created by their advisors, focusing on social media as a public dialogue can create a cognitive trap because it reinforces the extremes rather than focusing on the average. It allows for the type of environment in which politicians can convince themselves that President Trump faces a ‘coup’ instead of political opposition – and which a trusted newspaper will publish such fiction.
Senator Johnson is right in one regard: journalists and bureaucrats need to continue to be more responsible about the information that they choose to publish and the information that they choose to believe as factual. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, as publishing platforms in their own right, have begun finally to weed out trolls, bots, and bad information about elections and candidates. The Wall Street Journal seems yet to learn this lesson. Accurate information is critical to democracy – as the foundation for consent in elections and to those representing those citizens in government. These warnings have been made before by scholars, technologists, and policy-makers, but Senator Johnson’s op-ed makes it worth shouting once more. Computational propaganda has created a threat to democracy at home, and it has undercut American legitimacy in the international system. If we hope to reignite civic engagement and reassert our position, we must begin to create better frameworks and tools for promoting accurate information, for providing transparency about who has paid for ads, and for weeding out bots and trolls (foreign and domestic). Technology companies and publications can lead the way, but so too must Senators and other representatives of our government who take an oath to “bear true faith and allegiance” to the Constitution of the United States.
[i] Johnson, Ron. “An American Coup Attempt.” The Wall Street Journal, October 8, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/an-american-coup-attempt-11602181261
[iii] Friedman, Dan, “Donald Trump’s New Clinton Conspiracy Theory Is Complete Bullshit,” Mother Jones, October 7, 2020, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2020/10/donald-trump-clinton-russia-brennan-ratcliffe/
[iv] Specifically, John Ratcliffe, Director of National Intelligence.
[v] Desiderio, Andrew and Daniel Lippman. “Intel chief releases Russian disinfo on Hillary Clinton that was rejected by bipartisan Senate panel.” Politico, September 29, 2020. https://www.politico.com/news/2020/09/29/john-ratcliffe-hillary-clinton-russia-423022
[vi] Barnes, Julian E. and Adam Goldman. “John Ratcliffe Pledged to Stay Apolitical. Then He Began Serving Trump’s Political Agenda.” The New York Times, October 9, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/09/us/politics/john-ratcliffe-intelligence.html
[vii] Greer, Brian. “John Ratcliffe’s Dangerous Declassification Game.” Lawfare, October 7, 2020. https://www.lawfareblog.com/john-ratcliffes-dangerous-declassification-game
[viii] Howard, Philip N., Lie Machines: How to Save Democracy from Troll Armies, Deceitful Robots, Junk News Operations, and Political Operatives. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020
[x] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract. 1762.
[xi] Howard, Philip N., Lie Machines: How to Save Democracy from Troll Armies, Deceitful Robots, Junk News Operations, and Political Operatives.