Ronald Reagan had many quotable moments, but perhaps my favorite was “Trust but verify.”
I’m not sure who to trust anymore because it’s exhausting trying to verify what’s truthful when people invest so much time and effort into keeping the waters muddy. Many have suggested (with what I presume is a straight face) that “the media” can’t be trusted while telling their friends they need to watch a YouTube video they saw on a friend’s Facebook page of a fired doctor, July Mikovits, giving the “facts” about Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He has advised every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan.
A lot of the current president’s supporters, who want to see everything reopened no matter how many people catch COVID-19, don’t like Dr. Fauci, who serves on the Coronavirus Task Force. It’s pretty clear the current occupant of the White House does not like sharing the limelight with Dr. Fauci, who has corrected him more than once.
The president, this week, forbid Fauci from testifying before a House oversight committee since he would have been asked tough questions.
Anyway, back to the YouTube video, “Plandemic” spread across social media like a wildfire until Facebook removed it. This only fed speculation that this happened because powerful people wanted a cover-up. Many people didn’t make that effort to fact-check. They just hit that share button and ended up looking kinda foolish.
I have lots of experience as a skeptic, but I still get fooled. Institutions we were once able to rely on to give it to us straight have been exposed in breaches of moral norms or legal requirements, propped up by deceptions and brought down by arrogance and people finally asking the right questions.
The citizens of Flint, Michigan, trusted their city when it told them, in 2014, that the brown-tinged water coming from their tap was fine, but then their children got lead poisoning. Fraud, nepotism, bribery and graft affect the public’s trust in organized religion, banks, public schools, the healthcare/pharmaceutical/insurance industries, the energy sector, athletics, and yes, the news media (yes, some reporting is biased, but we don’t all get together for breakfast to get lies straight; instead, we are fierce competitors).
Another idiom is “Show me, Don’t tell me.” In other words, I am less concerned with your promises and your rhetoric than how you actually behave. This is where hypocrisy, corruption and incompetence are revealed. There’s a reason financial books get audited -- just to make sure good people are kept honest.
Washington D.C. deserves its reputation as a “swamp” after the lies of Vietnam and the invasion of Iraq, the trillions in wasteful spending, mistresses given jobs, blackmailed opponents, Watergate, Iran-Contra, etc. An endless series of lies and criminality has chipped away at public trust. We have such low regard for Congress, yet we keep sending our own representatives back for decades.
The integrity of our elections hangs by a thread, thanks to the Russians. They were spreading disinformation long before 2016, but that was when the long game paid off more than they could possibly predict, thanks to social media.
They used to be our mortal enemies, the Soviet Union. Their strategy was to demonize the West. Among the 15,000 Kremlin agents in the KGB was one named Vladimir Putin. His job was seeding disinformation, which is cheaper than tanks and doesn’t incite violent retaliation like aerial bombardments. It didn’t work as well before the Internet because the U.S. government’s policy was if you respond to a lie, you dignify it.
The Soviets labored to sow chaos and exploit existing class, race and religious tensions in America. The KGB had an affinity for infections and disease. In the eighties, there was a lot of hysteria around AIDS because people were dying, and we didn’t know why. Some politicians activated their base with anti-gay scare tactics, exposing a vulnerability that Putin was eager to exploit.
So in 1983, the KGB used a newspaper in Delhi, India to spread a conspiracy theory that the AIDS virus was created by the U.S. military for use as a biological weapon to kill blacks and gays, as described in New York Times producer Adam Ellick’s series called “Operation InfeKtion.”
“The KGB worked for about six years from Moscow and all around the world spreading this and planting it in different countries, first in Africa and then in Latin America and in South Asia,” Ellick told NPR’s Teri Gross in 2018.
“They chose publications that exhibited some sympathy for communist ideology and often planted stories in countries where journalists could be easily bribed. And they also planted stories in countries that had a vulnerable audience, and by that, I mean sort of a lack of media literacy. One of the ways the Soviets kind of juiced this story was to find a ‘scientist’ who was willing to endorse it and thus lend supposed scientific credibility. Every successful disinformation campaign needs a ‘useful idiot’ who can help spread and disseminate the lie. And they also kind of have to be an idiot because they need to be able either to be willing to pass it on or they need to genuinely believe it.”
You see where I am going with this?
Surveys as recently as 2005 found that at least 30 percent of African-Americans still believed in the AIDS conspiracy theory. It happened again with the Zika virus. A lie never truly dies.
Bogus stories and videos can appear so convincing, usually by persuading you that you can’t trust anything you’ve previously been told and anything contrary to what they’re now saying. They claim you can’t trust websites like Snopes that investigate whether claims are true or false, thus making it impossible to verify if you become convinced that the fact-checkers are biased. It’s all some giant conspiracy, they say, to keep you in the dark when the actual conspiracy is selling snake oil to the tin foil hat crowd in order to make a living.
Sometimes the lies are just half-truths and omissions of facts. Ellick said Russia’s disinformation playbook “dictates that they wrap the conspiracy theory around a grain of truth. If 80 percent of what’s reported is actual journalism and 20 percent is disinformation, this gives the 20 percent of disinformation a lot more credibility because you think, well, so much of what’s on here is true.”
The bottom line is that it’s foolish to believe much of anything you read between now and Nov. 3. In a campaign with few new ideas and candidates lacking the talent to inspire, both political parties (and the international powers trying to influence the outcome) are going to provoke you as much as they can so you become so angry that you can’t wait to vote against their opposition.
Be a skeptic. Stick to articles with verifiable facts from trusted sources, peer-reviewed journals, etc., and resist being indoctrinated by propaganda rather than sharing just because the story is juicy. We are prone to believe claims that reinforce what we already believe – and that which takes the other side down a notch.
Commentator Anand Giridharadas this week said he’s been studying the Russian disinformation campaign in 2016 “trying to understand what they were doing when they interfered. And what a lot of these Tweets were doing was trying to turn people who disagree with each other, which is fine and normal, into people who disgust each other. People who cannot stand the idea of each other. There is something so fundamentally broken – we don’t just disagree anymore, we disgust one another as Americans.”
That diagnosis is consistent with what Ellick concluded: “The Soviet Union collapsed, but the Russians still do that today, a disinformation campaign against the States, which is basically trying to get us to believe in nothing. It’s trying to erode belief and credibility in anything. And it’s also us against us. And this country is so split and divided that we’re now using this Soviet disinformation playbook on ourselves.”
The disinformation strategy seeks to destroy the very idea of an objective, verifiable set of facts. These manipulations don’t create tendencies or traits in our society. They elevate, exploit, and distort divides and grievances that already are present. By doing so, they disrupt and attack our norms and institutions.
Countering disinformation requires more than just fact-checking false claims because the masters of deception dispense their lies faster than they can be debunked. This is a threat to the foundations of American democracy, yet it has nothing to do with Republicans and Democrats.
Fighting disinformation is an exhausting, never-ending game. And if you don’t get in the game at all, you’re definitely going to lose. So, getting in front of these lies and showing facts is a big part of what’s needed.
Putin has been in power for a really long time, and there appears to be no end in sight of his rule. Sadly, we have to become more sophisticated about information. We have to become more like the people living in the Baltic states, where Putin’s disinformation campaigns were refined --states where the most popular TV isn’t “reality” shows like “The Bachelor” but instead dedicated to debunking all of the lies that the Kremlin disseminates each week.
Dr. Fauci is by no means perfect, but let’s not get rid of him based on one slick video featuring a former medical researcher with a history of making discredited claims.
Otherwise, the only person left on the stage will be the one who claims he’s being sarcastic when he’s caught dispensing dangerous medical advice based solely on miracle cures he hopes will boost the stock market and his poll numbers.
Remember: Trust but verify.
— Steven Stiefel is a staff writer at the Times-Journal. His column appears in Saturday editions. Email: email@example.com.