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How disinformation 'sabotages America'

This photo illustration created in Washington, DC, on November 17, 2023, shows a phone screen showing a social media video marked as an "altered video," in front of a fact-checked image of news anchors where the claim about them was found to be false. (STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)
This photo illustration created in Washington, DC, on November 17, 2023, shows a phone screen showing a social media video marked as an "altered video," in front of a fact-checked image of news anchors where the claim about them was found to be false. (STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Nearly 40% of Americans say they have no trust in news media, according to a 2023 Gallup poll.

Former U.S. attorney Barbara McQuade says disinformation is seeping into every aspect of our political and social lives.

How can we stop it?

Today, On Point: How disinformation ‘sabotages America.’


Barbara McQuade, law professor at the University of Michigan. Former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. Author of “Attack From Within: How Disinformation Is Sabotaging America.”

Book Excerpt


Excerpt from Attack From Within: How Disinformation is Sabotaging America by Barbara

McQuade (Seven Stories Press, 2024).


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: On the evening of December 5, 2020, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and her four-year-old son were finishing up decorating the house for Christmas. As they sat down to watch “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” they heard a noise outside.

Stop the steal. Stop the steal. Stop the steal.

(You are a threat to us.)

You’re a threat to democracy. You’re the threat to free and honest elections. (SHOUTS)

“Dozens of armed individuals stood outside my home,” Secretary Benson said in a statement the following day.

JOCELYN BENSON: It was quite unnerving because I’m all for peaceful protest and certainly protecting people’s First Amendment rights to do that. But you do cross the line, when you show up at someone’s private residence in the dead of night, trying to intimidate a public official out of doing the job that they’ve sworn an oath to do.

CHAKRABARTI: The protestors were objecting to the results of the 2020 presidential election. In reality, Joe Biden received 51.3% of the popular vote to Donald Trump’s 46.8%. Biden won the electoral college. But the protestors did not believe in reality.

They believed the lie, endlessly repeated by Donald Trump, that the election had been stolen. That lie, and the pervasive digital ecosystem that spread it across American’s sources of information, is still firmly embedded. And it’s not a fringe belief.

According to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll conducted last December, so December of 2023, 36% of U.S adults said that they believe the 2020 presidential election was not legitimate. 36%. That is a 7% increase from similar polling done two years ago, in December 2021.

This election year, with President Biden and Donald Trump poised to face off again, disinformation’s power hasn’t diminished in the least. Here’s Trump on the campaign trail.

DONALD TRUMP: If this election isn’t won, I’m not sure that you’ll ever have another election in this country.

CHAKRABARTI: Former U.S. attorney Barbara McQuade says that disinformation is sabotaging American democracy, even our sense of ourselves. And it’s become one of the biggest threats to U.S. national security.

That’s the focus of her new book, it’s called Attack from Within: How Disinformation Is Sabotaging America. Barbara McQuade is also a law professor at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor, where she joins us today. Barbara McQuade, welcome back to On Point.

BARBARA McQUADE: Thanks very much, Meghna. Great to be with you.

CHAKRABARTI: I’d actually first like to hear your impressions of what we just heard. About the fact that there’s been, at least according to one set of polling, a 7% rise in the number of Americans who say they believe the 2020 election was stolen.

McQUADE: It’s really shocking. I think when you consider that there’s absolutely no evidence to support that claim.

In fact, there is evidence to refute that claim. 61 lawsuits. Endless audits, all concluding that the election was fair, accurate, and the most secure in U.S. history. And yet, we have this growing number of people believing the lie that the election was stolen. And I think one of the things that explains that is some of the tactics that I describe in my book, these are some of the same tactics used by authoritarians throughout history.

And now, it is ramped up because we have the ability through social media to amplify these claims, reach millions of people, and bombard them with the claims over and over again. And so I think it is that repetition, which is one of the techniques that Hitler talked about in Mein Kampf, that causes people to believe something the more they hear it, and they start hearing it from a lot of different sources.

Inside their own echo chambers, that they begin to believe that it’s true. And it’s really disturbing when you think about the influence that it could have on the next election.

CHAKRABARTI: By the way, I was really taken with the dedication that you put in the front of the book, and I just want to read it here for a second.

You said, “To all of the brave American heroes who have given their lives to defend democracy from fascism, a trip to Normandy where more than 9,000 American service members are buried, left me in awe of their courage and selflessness. We owe them and other American patriots our vigilance so that their sacrifices will not have been in vain.”

Why are you dedicating the book to them?

McQUADE: Yeah, I had the opportunity to visit Normandy a couple of years ago, and anybody who’s ever been there, I know, must feel that moving sense of awe to see all of those white crosses and stars of David representing the 9,000 young people who gave their lives for our democracy, and they’re all, young, 19, 20 years old.

And then you think about the crass, lying power grabs that we’re seeing today. It’s really disgusting. And it is an insult to people who sacrifice their lives for democracy. To simply lie and try to steal the power of the people through lies to advance a party’s power or an individual’s power.

CHAKRABARTI: Is that what you think is at stake right now in this country?

McQUADE: I do. I think democracy is at stake. We have, for the history of our country, the people have had the power to elect our leaders. And although there certainly have been throughout our history, propaganda and spin and other kinds of things, what we’re seeing now are outright lies designed to fool the American people.

And in addition to those who genuinely believe that an election was stolen, and that the only way to achieve an election is by any means necessary, I think there are also many people who know better. And are willing to traffic in these lies to advance their own agendas. When Donald Trump is now referring to the January 6th defendants as hostages, to suggest that they’re political prisoners in some way who are standing up for American democracy, and now we have other members of Congress, Elise Stefanik, the Congresswoman from New York, repeating that phrase, calling them hostages.

I’m certain she knows better. But she is saying these things because she believes it will advance her own political agenda, I believe. And so it is something that I think threatens the very way we choose our leaders and our policies in this country, which is through information. And making our own decisions about the votes we want to cast.

CHAKRABARTI: Now a little bit later in the show, I want to dive into the details that you write about in your book. About why you think this country is particularly vulnerable to disinformation, how it works in the United States and those other aspects of the information ecosystem we’re living in now.

But let me lean on your firsthand experience, Barbara, as a U.S. attorney who’s worked a lot of national security cases. Make the case to us right now about why you think disinformation could be one of the biggest threats to U.S. national security.

McQUADE: Yeah. So I spent most of my career as a national security prosecutor and certainly the threats that I started with were Al Qaeda and ISIS.

And now we see an evolution. I teach national security law at Michigan Law School and one of the things that I have been teaching my students since around 2018 was Russian disinformation in the Mueller report and the way that social media was used to influence the 2016 election.

But now we see these same information techniques being used by people within the United States. And that’s why, the name of the book is Attack from Within. It’s coming from inside our own country, by our own Americans. But I think it is a challenge to national security, because it is fueling political violence.

The people who attacked the Capitol on January 6th, more than 1,000 charged with crimes, believed they were doing something righteous. They believed they were patriots. It’s the people who plotted to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, thought they were going to plan a citizen’s arrest because they believed she was violating due process.

The man who broke into Nancy Pelosi’s home with a hammer and attacked her husband, all these people believe they are doing good, because they have been so convinced that their cause is righteous and that they have not just license to do whatever they want to do, but they have a justification.

In seeking to write what they perceive to be wrongs. In this country, we use the rule of law to decide our disputes. We all have different viewpoints. We have disagreements about all kinds of things, but we agree at the end of the day that the courts will decide our disputes. And instead, what we are seeing is fueling of anger through disinformation that is sparking people to take the law into their own hands.

And I believe that can lead to anarchy and lawlessness. And we may not know who or where or when or why somebody takes the bait. But when somebody talks about a bloodbath or hostages or even accuses the FBI of planting evidence at their home as Donald Trump did. It’s not surprising when someone takes the bait.

There was a man in Cincinnati the next day who breached the FBI office there with an assault weapon. He was chased away and later died in a standoff with police. So these kinds of episodes, the threats, the swatting of public officials that is causing good people to leave office or not seek public office, I think is really harmful to our democracy.

And unless we recommit ourselves to truth, I worry that this trend will continue.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but did, Barbara, did you say that some of the tactics that you saw used by Al Qaeda and the like are ringing, there’s echoes of that today? Did I mishear that?

McQUADE: What I said is I’ve seen the threat evolve from Al Qaeda and ISIS.

CHAKRABARTI: Evolve, okay.

McQUADE: but I will mention that the tactics of ISIS are things that we’re seeing today.

ISIS had this view that they wanted an Islamic state and that the ends justified the means and that they were willing to kill to achieve their ends. There was a powerful speaker who was part of that group. In fact, he was part of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Anwar al-Awlaki would radicalize people online by preaching sermons that spoke to people and got them excited and agitated and determined to believe that their cause was righteous, and they were told to commit murder wherever you are.

You don’t need to travel anywhere else. You can use a vehicle, you can use a gun, you can use a knife or a sword and kill as many people as you can in the name of our cause. And I think that’s the same thing that we are seeing now with those who are pushing the idea of Christian nationalism or the idea that immigrants are invading our country.

We’ve seen attacks motivated by this idea of the global replacement of the white Christian population. That motivated the mass shooting in Buffalo and mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, and at the tree of life synagogue in Pittsburgh. All of these things are people who are perhaps a bit unhinged, but they hear these claims, and they rise to the occasion to take the bait of the lies they are being fed.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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