Weekend Watch: ‘After Truth’ documentary assesses the costs of disinformation in America

**After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News airs on CNN at 10 pm ET on Saturday, August 28, or is available on-demand via HBO/HBO apps and subscriptions **

Disinformation, misinformation, fake news, weaponized narrative, information warfare. Whether it’s COVID or elections or protests or things much closer to home, these days every major news story has a parallel story that is equally important about how that event is portrayed and distorted in the information domain. How those distortions pull at us, condition us to respond and act in certain ways. And how this process of distortion is absolutely unraveling America. 

I hear constantly from people who are looking for advice about how to engage family members who have become internet conspiracists and promoters of toxic narratives. Even for people who do it full-time — and the reporters on the dystopia beat are some of the best there are — it’s not an easy job to try to tell the stories of disinformation campaigns and the devastating impact they can have on our society in ways that make sense for busy people with no spare hours to “bathe in internet garbage” and then sort real from fake, manipulation from sloppiness, foreign interference from domestic grift — and then decide if any of it matters, or not. And ok, many people argue, social media is awash in conspiracies and false stories — but what does it really do, anyway?

“So what does matter anyway?” is the question that I think is often overlooked in how disinformation stories are approached and understood. They become a clinical analysis of viral amplification techniques or a matter of fact-checking, rather than an explanation about what an information campaign or piece of content aimed to achieve, or who paid the price for those objectives. Because there are a lot of people paying the price. A lot of countries, too.

It’s for this reason that I want to recommend the documentary After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News, and use the occasion of its airing on basic cable as an excuse to discuss some of the film’s themes and questions — as well as what we should do about the disinformation crisis, and what we see happening now, during COVID — with producer/director Andrew Rossi and co-producer Adam McGill. I was enormously grateful to be able to contribute to this film — but that isn’t the reason you should watch it. Excerpts of my interview with Andrew and Adam are included below. 

After Truth breaks down, in an engaging and clear way, a half-dozen important case studies on disinformation from the last five years — many of which you have likely heard about, but may not know all the details of. It includes interviews and research from some of the best reporters and experts in the field of American disinformation. (It is from one of those reporters, Craig Silverman of Buzzfeed, that the line about the job description being “bathing in internet garbage” comes. This is the perfect description.)

The film covers the Jade Helm, pizzagate, and Seth Rich conspiracies; the role of Facebook in the 2016 election, and as disinformation machinery overall; the 2017 Alabama election “experiment;” and a failed attempt to smear Robert Mueller with a completely fabricated sex scandal meant to distract from the Russia investigation. After Truth digs into to the role of malign actors — commercial and ideological — and into the role of the social media platforms. It asks, over and over, who is responsible for the damage these disinformation campaigns incur?

It may not seem like it now, but “Who is responsible?” is a question that will become harder to escape as we look back at this time from any more-clear vantage point in the future. 

* * * * *

After Truth starts in Texas in 2015, with a look at Jade Helm 2015, a military exercise conducted in the southwestern United States (basically a crisis management scenario focusing on unconventional warfare techniques) that became the center of an online conspiracy alleging that it would be cover for mass arrests and the declaration of martial law by the Obama administration. In a short period of time, various conspiracies popped up in online conspiracy sites; converged and gained traction via InfoWars, Alex Jones, and other online personalities; were amplified via social media; and led to angry Texans telling their government to intervene. And they did. The governor of Texas and both Texan senators became involved in responding to these concerns, thus amplifying the conspiracy further (and, frankly, setting the tone for how they would all continue to engage with conspiracy to this day). Since 2015, analysis of the origin of the Jade Helm conspiracies included white papers posted by a Kremlin-aligned organization in Canada, and in 2018 former CIA and NSA Director Gen. Michael Hayden revealed that Kremlin information operations helped build this conspiracy online until a “non-trivial portion of the Texas population” was convinced that it was real. 

In short, Jade Helm was a test by the Kremlin. We failed that test. This encouraged the Kremlin to go full steam ahead on their efforts to influence the 2016 election using conspiracies and divisive narrative. It is a case study we should all know. 

Filmmaker Andrew Rossi: Jade Helm is a great window into how disinformation began in the contemporary moment, going back to when Russian active measures entered the stream of social media. 

Great Power’s Molly McKew: Jade Helm is constantly on my mind... In After Truth, you include this amazing footage of the actual townhall meeting in Bastrop, Texas, where the angry townspeople confront the US military about the exercise. The head of the local government commission — who is pretty old-school, a nice, reasonable old man — explains that after these crazy-seeming rumors emerged, he figured letting everyone come in and hear what was going on from the source would solve the problem. It doesn’t work out that way, of course. This feels so quaint now, the idea that meeting like grown-ups would work. But I wonder how much cities and counties and states are equipped to deal with these outbreaks of toxic disinformation, or even aware that it is fundamentally reshaping how government works?

AR: On whether local authorities and federal agencies are equipped to deal with the spread of false information, I think the answer is that they are not, at least in an effective way. Yes, the FBI has labeled QAnon as a domestic terrorism threat. But the real world consequences of misinformation continue to take people by surprise, just as it did with Col. Lastoria and Judge Pape at the Jade Helm townhall meeting.

Co-producer Adam McGill: What always strikes me about that townhall is that these aren't just people behind the computer screen — you know, the relegation of QAnon or people railing about antifa as something that’s just happening online. There is this weird moment where it crosses over outside of the computer screen. I had sort of déjà vu when I saw all the anti-mask people showing up at townhalls all across the country [during COVID]. Some of [these conspiracies] get ignored and not dealt with, but they are still living online, and it’s a pretty big problem. 

In the case of pizzagate, the next example the film explores, the jump from online to real life came in the form of an armed man showing up to act on the conspiracy. The pizzagate conspiracy grew out of online speculation that the frequent mentions of pizza (actual pizza) in the emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, which were acquired by Kremlin hackers and then released by Wikileaks, must be a secret code language covering up the activities of a secret child trafficking/pedophile ring run by Democrats out of a pizza parlor in northwest Washington, DC. 

Yes, this is totally fabricated and nonsensical. But it’s a marvelous way to dehumanize political opponents and ensure political compromise is impossible. (Pizzagate, which began around the time of the election in 2016, is now seen as kind of a proto-QAnon, though QAnon would not formally begin until October 2017.)

The film documents how the restaurant, Comet Pizza, the target of the conspiracy, ends up under attack. How a reporter warns them about it. How they start getting threats. How the staff learns to monitor 4-chan and reddit to conduct their own threat assessments of how bad it is going to get. How it gets worse and worse while right-wing media creeps like InfoWars’ Alex Jones and conspiracist Jack Posobiec (now of OAN) helped drive the spread of this conspiracy. They stoked it, fed it, ensured that it grew. Finally, a North Carolina man/InfoWars watcher drives to DC with an assault rifle to free the children he is absolutely positive are being held prisoner in the restaurant. Unable to locate the basement the conspiracy talks about (the building had no basement), he surrenders to police. As he is handcuffed, the cops ask what he is doing there. Making sure there was nothing there, he says. Like what, the police ask. Pedophile ring, he says. What? says one policeman. Pizzagate, says another. He’s talking about pizzagate.

MM: This was the first time I had seen that bodycam footage of the arrest at Comet Pizza. And it was interesting to me that the police knew what pizzagate was.

AR: Adam found that with a FOIA request to the police department.

AM: At this point it is December — I think the conspiracy really kicked in around November — at this point people had been calling the restaurant and levying credible death threats for weeks. ... So my take on this was always that the restaurant workers were calling the police and asking for help and trying to explain this crazy conspiracy theory to the police. 

MM: My overall sense from the last couple years has been the law enforcement needs to get better about understanding how to track and analyze disinformation threats and how they might impact their cities etc.

AR: The FBI labeling QAnon as a domestic terrorism threat [is important]. Clearly law-enforcement is trying to catch up with what the real world implications of what conspiracy seekers could be.

MM: I agree with that. I think that FBI memo was really significant, in terms of giving everybody an anchor to point to that’s at least something with authority behind it. You can say: “QAnon is inspiring acts of domestic terrorism.” But are we failing to learn the lessons of how online conspiracies bleed into real life?

AR: When it comes to the current crisis around coronavirus, the key question is, can we engender enough confidence in science and the medical community’s efforts, so that people can weather all the uncertainties of the moment and not resort to tribal thinking and paranoia. And it seems like that’s playing out in different ways in different parts of the country. So for all of the resistance to common sense in some places, there is also a lot of good faith cooperation going on. 

We're living through one of the most tremendous challenges to the social contract and the idea of sacrificing for the common good, ever. On some levels, the amount of conspiracies that there are, about the origin of the virus and the paranoia that the ‘deep state’ is experimenting on us, represents an unprecedented, 24/7 trigger for those who are most susceptible to false stories. This has got to be a tough time if you are a person who regularly fears being manipulated by unseen, powerful forces. The idea that we’re still standing and able to have some form of civil society is in some ways heartening. 

The only thing that seems clear is that the misinformation is here to stay. These conspiracies and false stories are totally baked into the modern communications platforms, and we just have to figure out a way to coexist with them — and hopefully thrive enough and offer a meaningful set of societal values and goals— for people to find something better to dedicate their time to than hanging out on 4-chan... But we are living in a giant, perpetual rabbit hole right now. If people get radicalized when they have nothing better to do, then being at home during lockdown and not being able to work and spending all one's time behind a screen is the ultimate context for these kind of conspiracies to flourish and convert people.

AM: The film was released right around the start of lockdowns and the pandemic (at the end of March 2020), and I think one small glimmer of hope was seeing the way in which — and there’s still a ton of work to do, that’s a big caveat — social media companies responded to COVID disinformation, which was seemingly somewhat more robust than how they usually respond to misinformation/disinformation in general. They were really freaked out by the idea that someone could receive bad information about coronavirus and die. That seemed to impress upon at least some of the people working there that this disinformation ecosystem can be a matter of life and death. 

Since then there have been some slip ups, like the way the “Plandemic” [a conspiracy film about the origins of COVID-19] video was able to go viral.… But the way they are able do these large scale anti-misinformation rollouts, it seems at least a little bit hopeful. 

MM: I agree with that, but it frustrates me that they won’t apply the same judgement to other areas. It’s this idea of defining “physical harm” that I’m not sure the platforms have grappled with.

There is, perhaps, no part of the film so enjoyable as when Kara Swisher, legendary tech journalist, deconstructs Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, explains that the manipulation that occurs on the platform is exactly how it is suppose to work, and rips the company for refusing to deal with disinformation. Really — every second is perfection.

AR: [on the idea of physical harm] I feel like it really goes back to Kara’s point that the platforms are built by, in large part, white bros from Silicon Valley, and so their definition of what is harmful and who is the potential victim is skewed. I think the question is, can the platforms' policy makers empathize with a particular victim’s position... So in the case of coronavirus, it’s a global threat that they can understand. So policing that information is relatively easier, because the stakes or the harm are not in doubt. 

But do the platforms have the emotional imagination to understand — and not blow off as an outlandish joke — a conspiracy about sex trafficking at a pizza place that is being targeted partly because of its identity as a queer safe space and its gay ownership? How can they understand and take seriously the terror that the folks at Comet Pizza were experiencing? What are the bounds and who qualifies as a "victim" in the discourse that Facebook and Twitter have established?

These questions about terror and victimhood are explored in the section of the film on the conspiracies about Seth Rich’s murder. Rich was a DNC staffer who was murdered in what was probably an attempted robbery before the 2016 election, and a conspiracy was constructed alleging that he was the source of the DNC emails that were actually hacked by Russian intelligence and given to WikiLeaks. The elevation of this conspiracy by all the usual actors, plus by Wikileaks and FoxNews’ Sean Hannity, tormented the family of Seth Rich. 

The film also describes how this conspiracy is used by right-wing media as an “interference pattern” to overshadow stories on Russia and impeachment. This is a persistent tactic employed by malign information actors, and in particular those who work in support of President Trump. They will throw out and amplify a crazy, loud false story to distract specific audiences from more important stories. In the case of the Seth Rich conspiracy, Russian intelligence gained help from Hannity and others in undermining the legitimacy of the Russia investigations by consistently using the Seth Rich story to distract Trump supporters from more important things. And it worked. 

Because these techniques in the information domain work. It’s why they have become a critical tool of hybrid influence for many foreign powers. There’s probably no assertion more frustrating for any researcher or analyst of disinformation campaigns than that which is constantly asserted by conservatives: Russian “election meddling” didn’t change any votes. In this assertion, of course, they are purposefully conflating the Kremlin’s attempts to hack and infiltrate US voter rolls and election systems with the broader effort by the Kremlin to wage an information war on American voters. These are not the same thing. One is a cyber issue, the other is in the information domain. And really, if you understand anything about what the Russians did in 2016 and the issues animating voters in 2016, and the way that social media narratives co-opted other media coverage of 2016, it’s impossible — IMPOSSIBLE — to assert that no one changed their mind, or decided to vote or not vote, based on the polarized information environment Americans were living inside. Because obviously, they did. (There is actually a lot of good new academic research on this issue.)

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg initially asserted that it was “crazy” to believe the “small” amount of fake news on Facebook had any impact on the 2016 election. In discussing how Facebook has slowly shifted its position on the impact of the 2016 Russian election interference over time, Kara Swisher is again devastating in After Truth: “‘Not one vote was shifted’ — but that’s not true.” The evolving explanations expose that Facebook is unwilling to change the system they have built, which is “architected to have no responsibility and get all the money.” 

Swisher concludes: “These are the most powerful tools in the history of the planet. They are. They just are. Once you have a gun you want to shoot it — you just do. That’s what guns are for.”

This sentiment is mirrored by the two other stories covered by After Truth — first, an unbelievable episode, filmed in real-time, where two hucksters attempt but fail to smear Robert Mueller with a fabricated sex scandal; and second, when a group of Democratic activists decides to use the special Senate election in Alabama in 2017 (Doug Jones v. Roy Moore) as an opportunity to experiment with information techniques like those the Russians used in 2016, including voter suppression techniques. Both are super-sketchy. But in both cases, the people wielding the information weapon make exactly the same case: we do this because we can, and because we know the other guy will. Now-Senator Doug Jones appears in the film, highlighting how this tit-for-tat escalation will end in disaster — a sentiment with which I agree, which is why I offered this set of rules for how we should consider social media influence campaigns. 

Jones is right. Because not only do we underestimate the scale of misinformation and disinformation, but we fail to assess its real impact. After Truth starts to catalogue some of those costs. 

MM: Why did you end the film that way you do — on a hopeful note about community that comes from the owner of Comet Pizza? 

AR: It’s so interesting now because ... our ability to come together in real life is so constricted. But James Alefantis’ call to break bread together at the table and not necessarily have the government or the platforms tell you what’s true or false, but rather return to this very primal conversation between friends or family about what they’ve heard and basically factcheck on a human level  — it seemed like a great note to wrap everything up. In the end, I wanted the film to get out of the abstract headspace of the bigger social questions, which can sometimes be overwhelming.

MM: So is the best defense against online disinformation actually offline?

AR: I do think that something about the cutting-through-the-bullshit human connection that it represents is what’s important. And that can be delivered in person, or delivered in a virtual place. But it just has to take the form of really human, down to earth sharing of ideas and facts... What do you think is the solution? 

MM: It’s impossible to fix the ‘most dangerous and most powerful tools on the planet’ problem when the platforms just refuse to acknowledge the real power and depth and scale of what is happening and the impact that it’s having. So I just think there has to be a technology component of how we get out of this. But at the same time, I really do believe that it’s all those other things — family, school, community, people we know, people willing to debate us and engage us — that are so important to shaping how we view things. I don’t think there’s a holistic package of how we fix it. There are technology pieces and government pieces and regulation pieces and community pieces and ‘all of us understanding how we are being used by narrative’ pieces that we are just so so far behind on. So sometimes I just get very pessimistic... 

But the unwillingness of so many critical components of a necessary solution to participate in a solution — primarily just for the sake of money, although some is ideologically driven, or for other forms of power, but so much of it is inherently just about profit — that it’s really disheartening sometimes.

AR: A lot of this comes down to the idea that “ordinary people” don’t necessarily track the existence of conspiracies. So there’s a handful of really sharp and great voices online, like you and Renee DiResta and Anna Merlan and Craig Silverman, Jane Lytvynenko and Ben Collins, Brandy Zarodny and Will Sommer, and then there’s more academic people, and then there is, in the middle... there’s just humanity. There’s all these little campaigns going on to really modify behavior, to really change the way that people act. But people are largely unaware that that’s happening to them. They’re just going on about their daily lives.

AM: The way that we were able to unpacked Jade Helm helm, that was such a luxury for us, in hindsight, to be able to go through and look at the clusters of tweets happening, and the personalities and the people that were pushing it at this time, and then getting the Michael Hayden statement on Russian involvement as well, and there were all these factors. And we have the luxury of time to put all these pieces together and break apart how something like Jade Helm happened. Most people don’t have the luxury of that time, and are just in the middle, and you see a tweet, or something trending, or somebody tells you about something. People don’t have the luxury to figure out how this got in front of their screen.

AR: That is such a good point. Those people who argue that it’s the responsibility of the consumer to sort of factcheck what they choose to believe and also have a higher standard for what they share... Of course, that's a critical point. But how are they supposed to do that? Without the benefit of hindsight and analysis, without all this evidence being presented about where the manipulation is coming from? It's really overwhelming and perhaps unrealistic to think that individuals can parse it all on their own. And that’s obviously what happened in 2016 and the ramp up to the election, when everyone who was exposed to the Russian ads on Facebook.

MM: Obviously we all need to be better consumers of information, but even when people describe the thing — well, before you post or engage with any tweet, you should go to the source, and read about the source, and read other articles on the source, and figure out if it’s consistent — no one’s going to do that. It’s silly for me to be offering advice like that all the time because it’s not going to solve the problem that the platforms are built specifically to encourage you not to do any of those things...  So yes, we all need to be better consumers of information. But to pass all the responsibility down to the level of the individual — it’s just such a punt from everybody else in that hierarchy about whose responsibility it is for creating this environment. It just makes me mad every time I hear it.

Throughout the film, there is the repeated label — crazy — used to describe these conspiracies and disinformation campaigns. And really — they are. They defy fact, logic, reason. And yet to some people, they are deeper than truth, better than truth. A path to a sense of bigger self-purpose that is quite seductive. 

But why is it crazy for some, and so powerful for others? This is a question my work on information operations explores, and which I think After Truth does a good job of digging into. Because the film makes clear that these information weapons have more than virtual impacts as radicalization cycles become faster and easier using the combination of malicious conspiracy, false news, and social media. After Truth is definitely worth a watch — especially with friends and family members who are spending too much time down the wrong rabbitholes — to build the arsenal of anecdotes and information that will help you defend yourself from weaponized information, and to help others decide to defend themselves, too. For now, that’s all we have.