Trump's Firehose of Falsehood

His refusal to concede is more than sour grapes. It's an information-warfare tactic to leave the public bewildered and cynical.

With the presidential election over and Joe Biden’s victory beyond rational dispute, the game plan of Donald Trump and his allies has come into focus. For their last act, they are executing a Russia-style disinformation campaign.

To be sure, there are other interpretations of the blizzard of spurious lawsuits, baseless allegations, conspiracy theories, and outright lies that the Trump team has unleashed across the courts, conservative media and social media. But none of those interpretations fits the facts.

Do the Republicans really think the election was an intricately coordinated fraud perpetrated in multiple states? There is no evidence that this happened, or even could have.

Do they seriously expect the courts to overturn the result? Legal experts say the chances are infinitesimal. A few narrow claims of miscounts or procedural glitches might stand, but all the charges of fraud on a scale large enough to change the result have been fabrications.

Unfortunately, a more sinister interpretation better fits the facts. What Trump and his supporters are up to should be thought of not as a litigation campaign that is likely to fail, but as an information-warfare campaign that is likely to succeed—and, indeed, is succeeding already. More specifically, they are employing a tactic called “the firehose of falsehood.” This information-warfare technique, according to researchers at the RAND Corporation, is marked by “high numbers of channels and messages and a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions.”

After Russian agents poisoned Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain in 2018, Kremlin-controlled media blamed Britain. And/or Ukraine. And/or it was an accident. And/or it was suicide. And/or it was a revenge killing by relatives. And/or Russia did not produce the nerve agent that was used. And/or an entirely different nerve agent was used. The Washington Post, which published a flowchart of Russia’s kaleidoscopic inventions, summarized what the propagandists were up to: “They fling up swarms of falsehoods, concocted theories, and red herrings, intended not so much to persuade people as to bewilder them.”

Unlike more traditional forms of propaganda, the firehose of falsehood does not aim primarily at persuading the public of something that is false (although this is a welcome result). Rather, it floods the information environment with so many lies, half-truths and theories that the public becomes disoriented, confused and distrustful of everyone.

While the bulk of firehose claims are false or misleading, even mutually contradictory, a skilled propagandist may salt the mix with statements that are partly valid, lending apparent plausibility to the rest. The bewildering panoply of true and false, rumor and conspiracy, lawsuits and countersuits, all work toward the main objectives: to undermine legitimate authorities, polarize and fracture society, and open the door to cynicism and demagoguery.

The firehose works—not all the time, not on everyone, but dangerously often. A 2017 study found that around 10% to 20% of the public believed a variety of fake-news reports, such as the false claim that the pope had endorsed Trump for president, or that the Clinton Foundation had spent $137 million on illegal arms purchases. Importantly, two to three times as many respondents were unsure about the claims. They didn’t know what they could believe—itself a victory for the propagandists.

Trump has often been dismissed as a would-be authoritarian whose saving grace is his incompetence. That may be true in some respects, but at disinformation he is ambitious and skilled. As of Election Day, he had made around 25,000 false and misleading claims. Amid the hailstorm of confusion and contradiction, it was little wonder that Sen. John Kennedy (R-Louisiana) parroted Kremlin disinformation about whether Russian operatives had hacked and released Democratic emails before the 2016 election. “I don’t know, nor do you, nor do any of us,” he said.

I don’t know, nor do you, nor do any of us: That is the outcome Trump and his minions are playing for. Their latest campaign is the most audacious. It began months ago, with Trump’s drumbeat of false attacks on mail voting, quickly echoed by conservative media. That narrative of impending fraud set up the current campaign. Whereas most ordinary Americans view the courts, politics and the media as separate spheres, Trump understands them all as information battlegrounds—avenues of influence to the central goal of casting doubt.

Trump’s strategy is sophisticated, even if his style is not. As a profligate and frequently unsuccessful litigant, he almost certainly knows that his lawsuits will not reverse the election. To succeed, however, he must merely reach two attainable goals: convince Republicans that the election was not free and fair (as 70 percent of them already believe, according to a recent  Politico/Morning Consult poll); and convince much of the rest of the public that the election result is in doubt, and can never be known for sure. Those outcomes will frustrate and distract Democrats, outrage and mobilize Republicans, and—most important from Trump’s point of view—position him to remain agitator-in-chief after he leaves office.

In 2020, the United States did better than in 2016 against pre-election disinformation. Traditional media wised up to manipulators; social media reduced the reach of propaganda; scholars and activists got better at exposing coordinated campaigns; the public grew more sophisticated about fakery. Taken together, those and other countermeasures were an impressive feat of adaptation.

But information warfare also adapts, and it has no more innovative practitioner than Trump, who has applied disinformation techniques to U.S. politics with astonishing audacity and success. Over the past four years, he and his followers have mastered the firehose of falsehood to dominate the public conversation and degrade the country’s understanding of facts, and they will not relinquish their weapon when Trump leaves office.

Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the forthcoming book The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.