What Can Voters Do?
The political consulting profession is not known for unilateral disarmament -- one side holding back while the other prepares to attack. Any effective tactic tends to be quickly embraced by all sides. By mid-2019, the caustic contours of Trump's messaging and disinformation were clear.
In the first six months of 2019, Trump's campaign spent more than $11.1 million on Facebook and Google ads, the platforms reported. Trump put forth thousands of ads attacking factual media as "fake news," citing an "invasion" at the Mexican border and attacking an unfinished special counsel investigation of 2016 Russian collusion as a "witch hunt." By November, his campaign has spent more on finding supporters than the top three Democratic candidates combined. As 2020 approaches, the topics in his messages might change, but their tone and overall narrative will not.
The Trump campaign's common thread is not just to create doubts about Democrats and to demonize critics, but also to reinforce tribal lines. Trump is defending white America against the "undeserving outsiders and the Democrats who represent them," the New York Times said in early 2019, describing his playbook and its GOP copycats.
By Labor Day, Trump was telling crowds that they have no choice but to vote for him -- contending that voting for the Democrat will mean economic collapse. His team knows what they are doing by fear-mongering. In recent years, political scientists have noted a trend where voters are both more partisan while more skeptical of their party. "Americans increasingly voted based on their fear and distrust of the other side, not support for their own," the Times noted in March 2019.
Fear-based politics is not new, but online psychological profiling and micro-targeting are more powerful than ever. Any swing district voter identified as traumatized is likely to be caught in a crossfire. Whether or not people seen as tipping 2020's election will fall victim to online provocations is the open question. When asked what advice he had for such voters, Martin said, "Do your research."
Emma Briant, the British academic and propaganda expert, is less optimistic. The platforms are "lawless" and won't turn off their surveillance and targeted advertising systems, she said, even if top platforms like Facebook are outing foreign influence operations.
But her big worry is that the Democrats will try to match Trump's shameless disinformation -- and civil society will further unravel.
"If you imagine a scenario where both sides decide to weaponize targeting certain kinds of people with fear-based messaging -- and they know who to go for -- this will cycle out of control," she said. "We are all being made fearful of each other. There's no way on earth that we can handle this, psychologically, and deal with the important issues, like climate change, when we are being turned against each other."
But that is what disinformation is designed to do. And all signs suggest that there will be more of it than ever in 2020 as the presidential election, congressional elections, state races and impeachment proceed.
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