As the U.S. battles the largest measles outbreak in decades, big tech companies like Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp are trying to tamp down the spread of misinformation about vaccines. WSJ’s Spencer Macnaughton explains. Photo Composite: Adele Morgan/The Wall Street Journal
It is easier to spread misinformation on social media than to correct it, and easier to inflame social divisions than to mend them. The very nature of how we engage with Facebook and the rest now helps far-right, authoritarian factions weaken the foundations of democratic systems — and even give themselves an easier pathway to seizing power.
It seems we have to admit a somewhat uncomfortable truth: Social media, in the way that it’s used now, is an authoritarian medium.
.. “It seems undeniable,” Deibert writes, “that social media must bear some of the blame for the descent into neo-fascism.”
Ten years ago, Deibert’s view — now widely shared among journalists and scholars — would have sounded absurd.
In 2009, Iranians rose up to protest against a rigged election, the so-called “Green Movement” using Facebook and YouTube clips of protests to spread their message globally. Two years later, the Arab Spring protests showed the true power of these mediums, as protest movements that made skillful use of social media for coordination and messaging toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.
At the time, the consensus among observers was that social media was, by its very nature, democratizing. Social media facilitates the swift spread of information, allowing citizens to easily get around government censors. Social media allows rapid communication among large groups of disparate people, giving citizen activists new tools for organizing actions. The spread of social media would necessarily weaken authoritarian states and strengthen democracies — or, at least, that’s how the argument went.
There were some dissenters, like the acerbic writer Evgeny Morosov, but they were largely brushed aside in an Arab Spring-induced high. More representative was the 2013 issue of the MIT Technology Review titled “Big Data Will Save Politics,” featuring an interview with the singer Bono declaring that new technologies would be “deadly to dictators.”
.. This theory turned out to be partly true: It can be difficult to simply repress the spread of information on social media. But as we’ve come to discover, it’s equally difficult to repress the spread of disinformation. The core feature of social media that gives it democratic promise, the rapid spread of information, can be used against democracy via information overload.
A savvy person or political party looking to discredit online critics doesn’t need to ban their speech to hamstring it. Instead, they can respond with a deluge of false or misleading information, making it very hard for ordinary citizens to figure out what’s actually going on.
.. The WhatsApp propaganda in Brazil is one example of the effect Deibert is talking about. A well-funded campaign to spread false information was extremely difficult for Bolsonaro’s opponents and Brazil’s independent press to expose or discredit. The falsehoods these messages spread likely became truth in the eyes of a significant percentage of people who encountered them, many of whom would never see rebuttals and wouldn’t believe them if they did.
.. A recent study found that conservatives were more than four times as likely to share fake news on Facebook as liberals. Another study, from researchers at the University of Oxford, found that conservative users were overwhelmingly more likely to spread “junk news” (defined as outlets that “deliberately publish misleading, deceptive or incorrect information”).
“On Twitter, a network of Trump supporters consumes the largest volume of junk news, and junk news is the largest proportion of news links they share,” the Oxford researchers write. “Extreme hard right [Facebook] pages — distinct from Republican pages — share more junk news than all the other audiences put together.”
.. We’re seeing the same phenomenon beyond the US and Brazil. The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte has cultivated an online fan base — even bringing popular social media influencers into the government — that’s known for “patriotic trolling”: sending hate messages to his critics and spreading smears about them. The Philippine news site Rappler has identified a network of more than 12 million pro-Duterte propaganda accounts on various platforms, reporting that led to a concerted smear campaign against the site from Duterte’s fans. An #UnfollowRappler social media campaign cost the site tens of thousands of Facebook followers, a huge hit for an online publication that depends on clicks to stay profitable.
Social media isn’t the only — or even the primary — reason far-right populists have been able to win elections. There are all sorts of more fundamental reasons, ranging from ethnic divisionsto anxiety about crime to the weakness of the political opposition that these leaders have exploited in their rise to power. It would be absurd to blame technology for a phenomenon that has much deeper political roots.
But while the global challenge to democracy from within isn’t social media’s fault, the major platforms do seem to be making this crisis worse. The platforms by their nature allow far-right politicians to marginalize opponents, consolidate their base, and exacerbate the social divisions that helped them rise to power. It helps them act like authoritarians even inside the confines of a democratic political system.
“Social media [outlets] not only are compatible with authoritarianism; they may be one of the main reasons why authoritarian practices are now spreading worldwide,” as Deibert puts it.
In this essay, I provide an analysis of the much-discussed authoritarian aspects of Donald Trump’s campaign and early administration. Drawing from both philosophical analyses of authoritarianism and recent work in social science, I focus on three elements of authoritarianism in particular: the authoritarian predispositions of Trump supporters, the scapegoating of racial minorities as a means of redirecting economic anxiety, and the administration’s strategic use of misinformation. While I offer no ultimate prediction as to whether a Trump administration will collapse into authoritarianism, I do identify key developments that would represent moves in that direction.
.. The unorthodox campaign and unexpected election of Donald Trump has ignited intense speculation about the possibility of an authoritarian turn in American politics. In some ways, this is not surprising. The divisive political climate in the United States is fertile soil for the demonization of political opponents. George W. Bush was regularly characterized as an authoritarian by his left opposition, as was Barack Obama by his own detractors. Yet in Trump’s case, echoes of earlier forms of authoritarianism, from his xenophobic brand of nationalism and reliance on a near mythological revisionist history, to his vilification of the press and seemingly strategic use of falsehoods, appear too numerous to ignore. In this essay, I attempt to provide a sober evaluation of the authoritarian prospects of a Trump administration.
.. I focus on three elements of authoritarianism in particular:
- the authoritarian predispositions of Trump supporters,
- the scapegoating of racial minorities as a means of redirecting economic anxiety, and
- the administration’s strategic use of misinformation.
.. the strategic use of misinformation plays a role in “activating” authoritarian predispositions.
.. my view is that identifying the most statistically significant predictor of supporting authoritarian regimes, or their single most salient causal factor, is less important than attaining a wide-ranging view of their central attributes, thus developing the outlines of a standard by which to judge the Trump and other administrations. Accordingly, while I offer no ultimate prediction as to whether a Trump administration will collapse into authoritarianism, I do identify key developments that would represent moves in that direction.
.. AUTHORITARIANISM AMONG TRUMP SUPPORTERS
If Trump is an authoritarian, then his is a populist authoritarianism, a form of rule in which “a strong, charismatic, manipulative leader rules through a coalition involving key lower-class groups” (Gasiorowski 2006, 111). Thus any study of Trump’s alleged authoritarianism cannot neglect the nature of his appeal to his core supporters, nor the fact that he was propelled to power by a groundswell of support that was largely unanticipated by the Republican establishment that ultimately – though with great initial reservation – nominated him as their party’s presidential candidate.
.. Fortunately, scholarship on authoritarianism has historically emphasized the importance of understanding its psychological appeal, and thereby focused on not just authoritarian rulers and governments themselves, but on their core supporters.
.. Adorno et al.’s study on The Authoritarian Personality (1950) provided the model for this sort of approach, and offers a more general definition of authoritarianism. Adorno et al. identified a number of personality traits that were correlated to
- anti-Semitism, and
- “anti-democratic” attitudes.
.. Grounded in Freudian psychology, these researchers ultimately located support for authoritarian regimes and policies in childhood pathologies that resulted in rigid adherence to simplified worldviews, strict obedience to authority figures, and fear and distrust of those who do not share this same orientation to the world.
.. while this particular study has been criticized both for its reliance on empirically questionable Freudian presuppositions and for methodological errors (Stenner 2005; Hetherington and Weiler 2009; Christie and Jahoda 1954), the core idea of an authoritarian personality type remains influential, and continues to be developed and refined by social scientists.
.. Matthew MacWilliams has recently utilized such a revised authoritarian personality measure to study Trump supporters, and claims as a result of his study that a predisposition to authoritarianism is the single most statistically significant predictor of support for Trump, more significant than
- level of education, or
- other commonly cited correlates (2016).
.. MacWillams used a serious of questions about childrearing that have been shown to capture not only active authoritarian views, but the predisposition to having such views “activated” by threat
.. MacWilliams’ results have been challenged by Wendy Rahn and Eric Oliver (2016), whose own research showed greater predispositions to authoritarianism among supporters of Ted Cruz than among Trump supporters.
.. claim that anti-elitist populism, manifested in distrust of experts and political elites is the more significant factor that distinguished Trump supporters from supporters of other Republican contenders. But even if Cruz was the preferred candidate of those predisposed to authoritarianism, their study still revealed high levels of authoritarianism in Trump supporters as well.
.. One might expect authoritarians to submit to the authority of political and other elites, but this misses the fact that authoritarians do not view all forms of authority equally. As MacWilliams puts it:
authoritarians’ sense of order is not necessarily or solely defined by worldly powers. To authoritarians, there are higher powers that delineate right from wrong and good from evil. There are transcendent ways of behaving and being that are enduring, everlasting, and the root of balance and order. These authorities are “morally and ontologically superior” to state or institutional authority and must be obeyed. (2016, 14)
.. If the actions of social and political elites are viewed as being inconsistent with these higher sources of authority, if they are viewed as unconventional outsiders aiming to upend traditional values, and so on, there is no inconsistency in authoritarians resisting them or their claims to authority. This is precisely the reason that “populist authoritarianism” is not a contradiction in terms
.. the study of authoritarianism has historically been plagued by difficulties in disentangling it from conservative political ideologies.
.. one of the advantages of approaches that focus on child-rearing is that they are supposed to get behind ideological commitments and political beliefs.
.. “authoritarianism is a predisposition that arises causally prior to the political attitudes and behavior that it affects”
.. in order to understand the distinctiveness of a Trump presidency, we must look at the actions and ideologies of Trump himself, and of his campaign and administration, in addition to the psychological predispositions of his supporters.
.. With this in mind, I now turn to one such tendency of Trump’s governing strategy: the tendency toward racial scapegoating.
.. While MacWilliams presents authoritarianism as an alternative to explanations that focus specifically on race and the alleged racial resentment of many Trump supporters, it is clear that the two factors are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one of the key features of authoritarianism is its fear and suspicion of those who are different
.. helps especially to clarify how exactly populist authoritarian leaders manipulate “key lower class groups.” Trump’s campaign certainly employed this strategy, effectively playing upon the anxieties of the white working class regarding their perceived cultural marginalization in the face of the increasing racial diversity of the United States.
.. Yet analyses of Trump’s rise that focus specifically on racial resentment often neglect the economic dimension of Trump’s support among the white working classes.
.. geographical locations where Trump found the most support are areas where traditional sources of employment have been rendered obsolete or moved overseas, where free trade agreements like NAFTA are viewed with suspicion, and where the social effects of economic marginalization manifested in things like drug addiction have wreaked havoc
.. The economic marginalization of a subset of the white working class provides fertile ground for racial scapegoating
.. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno aimed to show that German anti-Semitism was intentionally cultivated as a means of redirecting discontent arising from economic exploitation. In their words, German anti-Semitism served a specific purpose: “to conceal domination in production”
.. While European Jews had historically been excluded from ownership of major industries, they had, according to Horkheimer, Adorno, and other social theorists of the time including Hannah Arendt (1976), achieved some success integrating the “circulation sphere,” including what we would now call the financial sector, as well as small business ownership. This social position made the Jew an easy scapegoat for the most basic injustice of capitalism, the extraction of surplus value, i.e. profit, from the wage-laborer.
.. The exploitation that they attribute to the Jew is really a projection of their own exploitative nature, and in unleashing violence against these substitute exploiters, the masses feel a false sense of emancipation, while remaining within the established “reality principle” of capitalist exploitation.
.. Horkheimer and Adorno’s theory also describes the way that this form of scapegoating relied on what contemporary race theorists call “racialization” – the transformation of a social group into a racial group
.. Prior to the early twentieth century, and even in the earlier writings of critical theorists (Horkheimer 1989), the “Jewish question” was primarily considered to be a matter of cultural and religious difference.
.. German fascism understood Jewishness first and foremost in racial terms, thus distancing itself from the “liberal thesis” which held that “the Jews, free of national or racial features, form a group through religious belief and tradition and nothing else”
.. The Nuremburg Laws, for example, like the so-called “one drop rule” in the United States, included precise specifications of who was to count as a Jew, in order to eliminate any element of voluntary self-identification (or, perhaps more to the point, dis-identification). In this way, the group targeted for scapegoating is identified and fixed in a more or less stable form.
.. The key idea is simply that scapegoating occurs as a response to a real economic crisis, which results in political dissent of a sort that threatens the vested interests of those who hold economic power, which is then redirected toward vulnerable minority groups.
.. Scapegoating of this sort has certainly played some role in Trump’s rise to power. White working class communities that have experienced
- the loss of low-skill manufacturing jobs,
- decreasing tax revenue,
- crumbling infrastructure, and
- general social anomie have proven incredibly
responsive to explanations that link these phenomena to the (perceived) influx of immigrants from the south.
.. Growing white anxiety about misleading reports that whites will soon become a minority in the United States due to increased immigration from non-European nations compounds these economic fears
.. This shows that it is not immigration per se that worries Trump supporters, but a racialized immigration that challenges white control over power and resources.
.. Authoritarian predispositions are “activated” by threat, and scapegoating represents targeted groups as both economic and existential threats. Mexicans not only threaten “our” jobs, but are also represented as murderers, rapists and all around “bad hombres,” responsible for (fictional) increases in crime and disorder.
.. Their perceived threat to law and order is surpassed only by those from the Arab world, who are equated with terrorism and “radical Islam.” Such threats must be rooted out by any means necessary, and so racial profiling and increasingly invasive police practices are tolerated within our borders, and broadly restrictive immigration measures, physical barriers, and other imprecise responses are promoted as a means of fortifying them.
.. While it is true that these forms of scapegoating target minority identities that are not technically racial (at least not by the United States’ own official system of racial classification), there is a gap between “official” and popular understandings of race when it comes to Arabic Muslims and “Hispanic” groups. For example, the myriad reports of impending white minority almost always focus on non-Hispanic whites as the relevant demographic for measuring
.. And even if Trump supporters’ aversions to Arabs or Muslims appear to be primarily cultural or religious aversions, the rarity of distinguishing between culture, region, and religion in the discourses surrounding immigration from the Middle East demonstrate the increasing racialization of this group
.. that Hispanics and Arabs are commonly thought of as being racially distinct from non-Hispanic, non-Arab whites.
.. As tools like the Census are integral to defining and categorizing populations as “racial,” it will be interesting to see how a Trump administration approaches the 2020 Census, and in particular whether some effort is made to distinguish Arabs and Middle-Eastern populations from “whites.”
.. Finally, new research suggests that it is not just economic marginalization, but economic inequality in general that contributes to authoritarian attitudes, which in turn make their possessors amenable to racial scapegoating. The “relative power” theory of Frederick Solt holds that economic inequality leads to inequality in power and thereby produces hierarchy. This hierarchy in turn “mak[es] experiences that reinforce vertical notions of authority more common and so authoritarianism more widespread”
.. if the economic structure of a society requires or rewards submission to the authority of employers, benefactors, and those with more economic power, this sort of subservience is likely to be seen as normal, and thereby transferred to the sphere of political (or familial) authority, where it can be exploited to support xenophobic policies that purport to address complex social and economic issues.
.. societies with a high degree of economic inequality will produce heightened levels of authoritarian predispositions, and that these heightened authoritarian predispositions are more easily activated in times of economic or political crisis
.. Given that capitalism is prone to both extreme inequality and frequent crisis, it is fair to say that it will reliably produce such authoritarian attitudes, especially in those that become economically marginalized. Scapegoating will thus appear as an easy solution to any legitimation crisis that might arise.
.. A final, much discussed feature of Trump’s alleged authoritarianism is his seeming indifference to truth.
.. Trump is by no means the first politician to employ a strategy of deceit and falsehood. But generally, politicians lie through omission, or in ways that can be easily retracted or reinterpreted.
.. Trump’s cavalier and easily repudiated use of falsehoods regarding matters large and small has struck many observers as unique.
.. Arendt claims that authoritarian regimes are marked by their “extreme contempt for facts
.. “the chief qualification of a mass leader has become unending infallibility; he can never admit an error”
.. Yet the authoritarian orientation to the truth is misunderstood, she claims, if it is viewed as an attempt at factual accuracy. Rather, the “propaganda effect” of such pronunciations consists in their “habit of announcing their political intentions in the form of prophesy”
.. Once authoritarian rulers attain power, “all debate about the truth or falsity of a … prediction is as weird as arguing with a potential murderer about whether his future victim is dead or alive”
.. The baseless claim that three-to-five million undocumented immigrants voted illegally in the general election, for example, was taken by some as “telegraphing his administration’s intent to provide cover for longstanding efforts by Republicans to suppress minority voters by purging voting rolls, imposing onerous identification requirements and curtailing early voting”
.. Trump also claimed that the U.S. murder rate was at a 47 year high when it was actually at a 45 year low, and his Attorney General Jeff Sessions repeated similarly false claims about increasing crime rates
.. these claims serve both to shore up obedience in general and to signal an intent to “get tough” on crime, continuing the legacy of criminalization that undergirds the repression of minority groups
.. But perhaps most troubling, and less discussed, are the claims that look more like “prophesy” than assertion. For example, when a federal judge issued a stay on his Executive Order temporarily banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, Trump tweeted “just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!” (Trump 2017). While the claim that people were “pouring in” could be disputed on factual grounds, the more important aspect of this message is found in its prophetic character, and the precedent it sets for blaming the judiciary for any future attack that might occur. Given the high likelihood of some act of terrorism occurring at some point in Trump’s presidency, this message sets the groundwork for consolidating power in a truly authoritarian fashion.
.. public approval ratings of Congress remain at historic lows. This demonstrates a lack of faith in the effectiveness of the legislative branch of government. If faith in the judiciary were similarly undermined, the stage would be set for reigning in its powers, and undermining the system of checks and balances designed to prevent autocracy.
.. One might identify as key features of authoritarianism (as a political system, as opposed to a psychological predisposition)
- the consolidation of executive power,
- the elimination of effective checks on that power from legislatures,
- judiciaries, and
- the press,
- repression of opposition parties, and
- repression of political opposition more broadly.
.. Trump’s early administration does not seem to have consolidated power or repressed dissent in this way. To the contrary, his actions appear to have produced levels of dissent, protest, and pushback, from citizens, from the media, from opposing political parties, and in some cases even from the Republican Party itself, not seen in the United States in some time. Perhaps this indicates that worries about Trump ushering in an era of authoritarian repression and control are exaggerated.
.. It does seem unlikely that a Trump administration will succeed in outlawing the Democratic Party, disbanding Congress, or replacing independent journalism with state-sponsored channels of propaganda. For this reason, it seems premature to declare the Trump administration definitively authoritarian. However, it is equally unwise to ignore Trump’s clear pretensions to authoritarianism: his disdain for judges and legislators alike, his attempts to delegitimize protest and resistance with conspiratorial fantasies of shadowy puppet masters, paid operatives, and terrorist infiltrators, and his attempts to exclude certain news media from White House press briefings, to bypass journalistic channels entirely, communicating with the public through Twitter, and to create his own news organization. If some of Trump’s intentions and preferred methods of rule are indeed authoritarian, this is reason enough to pay close attention to changes in the political environment that might create possibilities to introduce such methods.
.. For example, Trump has already flirted with the dangerous possibility of simply disregarding judicial review of his policies. When the first federal judges issued a temporary stay on Trump’s January 27th travel ban, the Department of Homeland Security originally announced its intention to continue to enforce the provisions of the order in spite of the early rulings. Thankfully, the administration changed course as public outrage grew and additional decisions reinforced and expanded the initial rulings.
.. But it is easy to imagine that if public opinion turned against the judiciary (perhaps as a result of acts of terrorism as prophesied by Trump’s tweet), such a strategy of disregard might appear more feasible to Trump’s administration.
.. A major terrorist attack on the United States would also provide a convenient premise for expanding executive power and restricting the constitutional rights of citizens, following precedents set in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
.. Authoritarian regimes appeal to the authoritarian inclinations of their supporters, and such inclinations do appear to be present at significant levels among Trump’s supporters. These inclinations make Trump supporters amenable to policies and explanations that scapegoat vulnerable racial minorities (as well as contribute to the “racialization” of groups that were previously not thought to be racially distinct), and that redirect attention away from the structural economic causes of their increasing marginalization.
.. And finally, Trump’s strategic use of falsehoods points to their “prophetic” character as predictions rather than truth claims, intended to construct ideological grounds for rationalizing future actions, as Arendt describes. Citizens and political analysts alike should continue to monitor these elements of the Trump administration, and to guard against their expanded use and exploitation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to think that he has been using his strategically incompetent American counterpart to advance his ends. In fact, Donald Trump has dragged everyone into his reality-TV world, in which sensation, exaggeration, and misinformation all serve his only true goal: to be the center of attention.
But the truth is that neither Democrats nor the media have actually had much success in reining in Trump. As for the Republicans, who control both houses of the US Congress, even once-vocal opponents – such as Senators Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz – now lick Trump’s boots. With Trump having bullied his party into submission, it seems unlikely that his failure to deliver for Putin can be blamed on others.
The more likely explanation for Trump’s betrayal of Putin is that his warm rhetoric was, like everything else that comes out of his mouth, driven by his desire for ratings, not any actual interest in – let alone commitment to – helping the Kremlin. Consider how Trump’s early overtures to another strongman, Chinese President Xi Jinping, gave way to a full-blown trade war against that country, which Trump now portrays as America’s enemy.
.. Of course, the world has come to expect broken promises and capriciousness from Trump. What is surprising is how Putin has misread the situation so badly. How could such a keen observer of the US, whose former career as a spy honed his ability to decipher people’s motives and intentions, fail to recognize the falseness of Trump’s promises?
.. If anyone knows that actions speak louder than words, it is Putin, whose words often include transparent denials of documented wrongdoing, from meddling in the US election to violating treaties. Yet Putin continues to ignore Trump’s actions and seeks for more meetings “to touch base” with the ever-complimentary US president, such as at this month’s World War I centenary in Paris or the G20 summit in Argentina.
Putin seems to think that he has been using the strategically incompetent Trump to advance his ends. In fact, Trump has dragged everyone into his reality-TV world, in which sensation, exaggeration, and misinformation all serve his only true goal: to be the last “survivor” on the island. By the time Putin finally realizes that he has been duped, the world will probably have paid a high price in terms of political stability, strategic security, and environmental damage. And Putin will have to pay it, too.