Op-Ed: When saving democracy becomes local

Local and state officials, law enforcement, must deliver accurate information to citizens, while debunking domestic and foreign disinformation campaigns seeking to undermine this country
Credit: (Courtesy of Paul Goldenberg; Linda Langston; Eagleton Institute of Politics)
Paul Goldenberg, left, Linda Langston and John Farmer

As if the challenge of safeguarding public health and our citizens’ security during a global pandemic were not enough for local government officials and law enforcement, they also face another form of contagion of perhaps greater long-term concern: a pandemic of viral mis- and disinformation that challenges the stability of government and the public’s trust.

In today’s environment, the way citizens view facts, define certainty and classify information no longer adheres to traditional rules. Fundamental changes have made it easier for domestic and foreign bad actors to exploit and amplify vital information to sow discord, push foreign nations’ policy agendas, cause alarm and ultimately undermine confidence and public trust in the core institutions of our democracy.

The challenge for local and county government officials is especially significant from election commissioners to health inspectors, city managers to mayors and county sheriffs, all of whom are for most Americans the face of their government. Likewise, surveys show they enjoy the highest level of trust. But that essential trust is placed at risk with every new uncorroborated rumor, every new groundless conspiracy theory, every new fragment of muddled fact intended to persuade Americans that government at every level is not to be trusted.

The disinformation threat is not a modern-day phenomenon. Governments, lobby groups, advocates, political campaigns have long relied on disinformation as a tool for exploitation and control. What is astonishing is the ease with which falsehoods can be generated and disseminated and myths shared as reality. Advances in technology allow for the increasingly seamless manipulation or fabrication of video and audio, while the pervasiveness of social media enables false information to be swiftly amplified among responsive audiences.

Leveraging technology to sow chaos

On Twitter, a single post can now send an entire economy, military or local community into chaos. Thousands of National Guard troops remain in Washington, in part due to concerns about latent violence stemming from online chatter among QAnon supporters and other conspiracy theorists who suggest that the former president will still be inaugurated by late spring. A 2013 tweet reporting an assassination attempt on then President Barack Obama sent the stock market plummeting before it was debunked.

In the days leading to the November election, local election officials faced “a tsunami of misinformation,” according to Philadelphia election official Eric Schmidt in The New York Times. Schmidt lamented, “It’s not like we have tens of millions of dollars to spend to battle tsunamis of misinformation that come our way. It wears on all of us.” Months after the November election, voting officials from Ohio to Wisconsin to Arizona continue to chase false claims about the efficacy of voting machines. According to The Washington Post, “viral accusations repeatedly debunked by courts and authorities have persisted, hanging over local decision-making and saddling officials with the daunting task of somehow rebuilding public trust.” Local board meetings that lasted only a few hours are now taking an entire day, with members of the public and elected officials embroiled in personal attacks, some of which are leading to violence.

The burden of managing public safety and health during the COVID-19 pandemic has been exacerbated by toxic disinformation about everything from the usefulness of wearing masks and social distancing to the advisability of taking the vaccines. A recent tweet, warning of impending and severe quarantine restrictions, obtained hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets, spreading the false information far and wide before officials could react.

The task of chasing viral disinformation is compounded by solid research establishing that “false information spread[s] faster than the truth, misdirecting real behaviors with real impact.” In “The Hype Machine,” Sinan Aral, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, describes how disinformation mixes false with true information, “highlighting its most sensational and emotional elements” as it “scales rapidly on social media and spreads faster than our ability to verify or debunk it. Once it spreads, he adds, it’s hard to clean up, even with “a healthy dose of the truth.”

The power of the meme

In a 2009 report on “Memetic Warfare,” the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) proclaimed that memes have the power to change individual and group values and behavior, enhance dysfunctional cultures of subcultures and can act as a contagion. At first glance, it is astounding that a meme could have such effect, as they have typically been used merely to share opinions, challenge intellect and produce clever anecdotes to be shared with others. Memes refer to image macros, which were nothing more than illustrations that quickly convey humor or political thought, meant to be shared on social media. Sharing a meme not only entertained many groups, but also it now defines them.

Some memes have become symbols usurped by racist and conspiracist extremist movements such as QAnon, Boogaloo and Proud Boys to instill fear and terror. The New Zealand white supremist terrorist who slaughtered dozens of Muslim worshippers praying in suburban mosques, wrote in his manifesto to encourage others to “create memes, post memes, spread memes… Memes have done more for the ethno-nationalist movement than any manifesto.”

Former Republican Rep. Denver Riggleman, from Virginia’s 5th District, notes that anti-government and anti-globalist content on social media is increasingly including anti-restriction and anti-vaccine content. “As a virus that knows no race, that consumes the poor and rich, that infects and kills people of any political persuasion grows in our democracy, a contagion of distrust appears in its wake,” he recently wrote in the foreword to a report published by the Network Contagion Research Center (Rutgers University). “Conspiracy eats at the trust we have for one another as fellow Americans,” he stated, “by casting doubt on the American project itself.”

We don’t need to look too far for evidence. On January 30, protesters in Los Angeles disrupted one of the largest vaccine distribution sites in the U.S., interrupting vaccinations for nearly an hour. Roughly 50 people gathered at the entrance of Dodger Stadium, forcing the fire department to close the gates. Brought together for a “Scamdemic Protest/March” organized on Facebook, the LA incident is an example of the anti-restriction and anti-vaccine protests that have emerged regularly and nationwide since the early lockdowns.

What can be done

What is to be done? How can local, county and state government officials maintain their special relationship of trust with the American people? We suggest several approaches.

  • First, although easier said than done, local governments must devote more resources, either by enhancing the public information offices or by outsourcing to professionals, to the monitoring and countermanding of specific instances of mis- and disinformation as they propagate through social media. In the Twitter example concerning quarantining, law enforcement and local officials quickly managed the ensuing alarm on social media. The episode demonstrated the value of monitoring and crafting a real-time response and its impact on the public safety of civil society.
  • Second, local governments and public-safety officials must invest in public messaging informing the public about the perils posed by mis- and disinformation, and steering the public to reliable sources of debunking, utilizing either government or private resources. Urging members of the public to question their sources of information and to interrogate those sources will go a long way toward raising public awareness of the prevalence of cynicism and lying. In this effort, elected and police officials must work with trusted community leaders including faith-based, civil society organizations and other democratic institutions to better broadcast mutual commitments to one another and to the truth. All parts of society must be vigilant to the risks of disinformation, but local officials will bear a particular burden. They can no longer be complacent to these threats and must find partners both in their local community and at the state and federal level to secure and support trusted information sources.
  • Third, and most important, it is critical that local government officials, county sheriffs and police leadership provide truth, however unpleasant that may be. During these complex times, government and law enforcement leaders are struggling to plan and pay for roads and dams, sustain hospitals and jails, and other critical infrastructure and support public health for their citizens during a pandemic. Each of these vital missions is subject to the corrosive effect of disinformation.

Local and state officials and law enforcement leaders must be steadfast in providing accurate information to the citizenry, while at the same time debunking the domestic and foreign disinformation campaigns that seek to undermine this important work. CDC officials no doubt had the best of intentions in discouraging the wearing of masks in the early stages of the pandemic, but their assurances that masks were unnecessary were simply not true. The crisis of credibility that false advice created has undermined the CDC’s messaging regarding the pandemic at every stage since and has contributed to the disregard of basic public health measures that has plagued our nation’s response at every turn.

Local officials remain the most trusted government officials. To retain that status, they must recognize the threat posed by today’s toxic information environment. Local officials, working with business and community leaders, must rebuild the public’s trust that the information government provides is accurate, timely, and truthful. No amount of spin can disinfect the information environment. In confronting mis- and disinformation as it propagates across social-media platforms, local governments that invest in telling the truth and debunking falsity in every form will be our best hope for a lasting inoculation.

As disinformation persists, county and local government officials will need to react to these deceptions in more informed and effective ways, but first they need to recognize, acknowledge and heed the “noise.”