I called my mother in California. Between the pandemic and the raging fires, I’m worried about her. She had planned to spend weekends this fall flying to swing states and going door to door to register voters. “I couldn’t live with myself if I hadn’t done everything in my power to save our democracy and sanity,” she said. Now, thwarted by plague and inferno, she is calling unregistered voters, one by one. I commend her efforts, but hang up feeling depressed.
I flick through Facebook. I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon in the past few weeks. My Facebook feed, usually an amalgam of anti-Trump rants, blessings for Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Hindu holidays, and kiddie pics, has suddenly been peppered with posts about celebrity pedophilia and mass conspiracies about the coronavirus. It started with one person and is now up to five. Five people I know personally, all of whom are well-educated, liberal-leaning, and emotionally stable, are posting incessantly about celebrities trafficking children and the government distorting coronavirus data to scare us into submission. They write that masks are like muzzles, a form of rape, and movie stars are selling children, orchestrated by an all-powerful cabal (what is with that word?). It sounds eerily like the messaging of the mega-conspiracy QAnon.
Wait, isn’t QAnon an American right thing? White supremacists and the like? Covert and overt anti-Semitism? How has it infiltrated my bubble of educated, liberal, middle-aged Israelis? I am reminded of Cambridge Analytica, the company that was busted for profiling Facebook users, not only by their political leanings but by their personality traits. Using big data, they could target a user’s secret fears in the most effective way possible — scare tactics, facts, nostalgia, empathy, fine-tuned to fit the target’s personality.
It isn’t a new strategy. In an article in the Atlantic, “How Putin got into America’s Mind,” Dominic Tierney describes how Putin, accused of being behind the Russian disinformation campaign in 2016, learned these tactics of psychological warfare from the Stasi (the East German secret police) when he served in Germany in the ’80s. Using a method known as Zersetzung, or “decomposition,” the Stasi would identify a dissident’s weak points and trap targets in a “Kafkaesque nightmare”: repeatedly breaking into their apartments and moving things around, getting doctors to give them false diagnoses, isolating them at work, “chipping away at an opponent’s sanity until they lost the will to resist.”
Hannah Arendt, the Jewish philosopher, described the mental exhaustion that occurs over time when people in authoritarian regimes are bombarded with misinformation, as causing people to believe that “everything was possible and nothing was true.” The writer Jurgen Fuchs, a Stasi victim, called the campaign against him “an assault on the human soul.” Lately, it seems to me that a similar attack on reality is playing out in the public sphere today, from my Facebook feed to the nightly news — an assault on the human soul, not of an individual, but of the collective.
I think of my mother doggedly calling swing-state voters, and of my friend’s desperate pleas to bombard Republican senators with calls protesting Mitch McConnell’s attempt to seat a Supreme Court justice immediately prior to an election after insisting in 2016 that it wasn’t legitimate to do so. I think of Facebook taking down a video that Trump tweeted, doctored to make it seem as if Joe Biden was singing along to an anti-police song, when he was really singing the Spanish pop song “Despacito” — after it had been viewed by hundreds of thousands of his supporters.
Then I think of Russian troll farms and Cambridge Analytics using big data to feed my friends conspiracy theories tweaked just so, making them believe that Hollywood is a child-trafficking ring. They are blind to the fact that this is clearly an anti-Semitic trope (Jewish Hollywood kidnapping Christian children to use them for their demonic purposes? Sound familiar?). Weaponizing fears of pedophilia is a brilliant tactical move — any attempts to question the doctored videos and unfounded rumors can be countered with a simple “What, do you support pedophilia?” The fact that no one “supports pedophilia” except perhaps pedophiles, does not matter in the propaganda wars.
A bizarre image pops into my mind: Polish cavalrymen in uniforms adorned with shiny brass buttons, mounted on majestic thoroughbreds, heads held high, bravely facing down Nazi tanks before they were obliterated by the blitzkrieg.
That myth has been challenged, with Poles claiming that cavalry never faced tanks, but it is the image rather than the historical accuracy that resonates – that’s what this feels like. One side (that includes both Democrats and Republicans who remain loyal to past principles) is fighting the war of yesteryear — registering voters, protesting in the streets, fact-checking, petitioning elected representatives. They assume fair play — there can’t be separate rules for Democrats and Republicans. Therefore, if McConnell wouldn’t allow Obama to nominate a Supreme Court justice in the last six months of his term, then of course no senator would allow Trump to do so, for fear of looking like a hypocrite. They think that if they block Trump’s nominee, take down the fake videos, expose Russian election interference, prosecute Cambridge Analytica, truth and fairness will emerge victorious. They do not expect another wave of disinformation and fear-mongering to engulf the world every time we refresh our social media feeds. They are today’s Polish cavalry: valiant, determined, and utterly doomed. They do not stand a chance against the disinformation blitzkrieg.
The blitzkrieg didn’t last forever, and the Nazis were eventually defeated. But things had to get a lot worse before they got better.