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Attacks on Facts Designed to Kill Democracy

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Is it a fact that dictionaries define words like “violence”, “assault”, or “vandalism” as “Legitimate Political Discourse?”

Of course not! 

Yet that’s exactly what the Republican National Committee declared in a voice vote taken on February 4, 2022, to censure Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for their participation in the investigation of the deadly January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol. Political violence is violence perpetrated to achieve political goals. Whether or not such violence is legitimate is a separate judgment call on which two sides may not agree. The larger question is how did we come to the point where one of our major political parties thinks violence is a legitimate means to settle political differences? How did we become so divided? One explanation is that we are seeing the cumulative impact of a sustained, covert, global cyber-war being waged against democracy. (For the record, I’m still in favor of having an equal say in government, and may the majority rule!)

We are under constant attack by the enemies of the world’s democratic societies. It is being waged through military-grade propaganda and disinformation campaigns using every means of mass communication. Make no mistake… it is organized, purposeful, and well-funded. The goal is to replace governments of the people with authoritarian rule and crony, unfettered capitalism.

Disinformation attacks take direct aim at our perceptions and feelings. They bypass normal filters and influence our subconscious. We feel these attacks when we read or hear something scandalous or shocking in the news that may not sound entirely true but still makes us feel extremes of anger towards the government, democratic institutions, opposing politicians, or neighbors. Our initial skepticism fades as these fictions stories are endlessly echoed over multiple media sources and from our online community of friends, some of whom may be fake accounts. We feel the effects of these attacks when we become uncharacteristically unsure about what to believe or who to trust. We become casualties in the cyber-war, or unwitting participants when we engage in verbal or physical attacks against friends, family, or strangers. We are casualties of war when our long-held belief systems are overturned in a relatively short time span. When friends or loved ones get upset and tell us we changed, we need to listen instead of justifying our feelings. They are in a better position to judge what is happening to us. There are very few internal warning signs when our perceptions and worldview are altered when under attack. It feels like we are still making our own choices when in fact we are being manipulated by targeted disinformation. 

We must all learn more about cyber-warfare, how it works and how to recognize it. We must inoculate ourselves against it. There is a good article below on how Russia conducts its cyber-warfare, but they aren’t the only enemy of democracy. It is also helpful to reinforce our understanding of some basic terms about knowing when facts are true. 

Many impasses in our fraught discussions boil down to completely different sets of facts between us and others. It’s like living in different universes. We need to state our facts, but we need to know how we sort fact from fiction. Under fire in an argument, folks who don’t share the same facts cause us to conflate terms like information, misinformation, and disinformation. They begin to would like roughly equivalent terms. When people under the influence of disinformation are confronted with verifiable facts, they may argue that all facts are really just someone’s opinion. That is a slippery slope towards chaos and disorder. When under pressure to produce data sources to verify their facts, people who are under the influence of propaganda strongly resist or refer you to their favorite websites instead of original source materials. Their denialism becomes apparent. 

Here then are some defining terms and their relationship to what we believe to be true in the real world. 

In an article published January 2020 in the British Journal of Sociology, Martin Innes defined disinformation this way:

“Disinformation can be defined as “deviant information.” For where information is imparted to enhance awareness, insight, and understanding, disinforming communications blend intent and action to distort, deceive, and dissemble.”

Disinformation – At its source, disinformation is a subset of propaganda. It is deliberately false information that is spread to deceive and cause harm. Also known as black propaganda, it is sometimes confused with misinformation. Disinformation may be comprised of knowingly false or fabricated data, intentionally biased, misleading, or fictitious rendering of the underlying data, or information devoid of any factual basis. Disinformation is never a real description of objects, people, or events in the world. It is, however, often embedded in truthful information to trick us into accepting it as true. Even misinformation can become disinformation when it is willfully represented as true even after it is known to be false. This is often the case on social media when individuals repost statements that they know to be misinformation. Disinformation is always intentionally harmful and corrosive to human understanding.

How is knowledge and understanding of the real world supposed to take place? It starts with data.

Data – Data are fundamental units of information about the real world. They are like the pixels that create a picture in a flat-screen TV. They are even more like sensory input from our eyes, or ears that our brain must then sort out and interpret. In a technical sense, data are a set of values of qualitative or quantitative variables about one or more persons or objects. They are building blocks of “facts” that can be transformed into information when viewed within a larger context. The expression, “check your facts” is a request to reexamine the underlying data for errors, omissions, faulty analysis, bias, etc. There are many ways that data can be in error, which includes intentional falsification.

Fact – A fact is a verbal statement of something that exists or happens in the natural world. It can be a single datum, or it can emerge from a coherent set of data pertaining to the real world. Either way, a fact must contain a high degree of certainty. If a statement of fact is later proven false it is no longer a fact. Facts can be thought of as subunits of information. They are assertions of confidence that its underlying data is accurate. Facts can be verified, replicated, observed by others, or logically derived. Facts cannot be metaphysical, hypothetical, To be a fact, it must accurately or fairly represent the current state of its underlying data. It must be testable in this regard. But that doesn’t mean must be durable over time. Facts must be true to the underlying data, but they may not represent absolute truth. Data evolves. It may progress, improve, or grow in unexpected directions over time. This drift of the underlying data requires altering the overlying facts. This can be a frustrating exercise for many people seeking certainty, including some scientists for whom this is a familiar feature. 

Information – Information, in the everyday use of the word, is a verbal representation of an aspect or event in the world based on processed, organized, and structured sets of data-verified facts. Information conveys cognitive meaning within the context of our highest, most durable perception of natural reality. It provides a coherent contextual framework to understand the facts that emerge from very large sets of data. The information enables the type of higher-level decision-making of which we humans are capable. Information is usually more durable than facts or data because the overall picture can be correct even when some of the facts are less than certain.

Misinformation – Misinformation contains unintended errors of fact. It can result from faulty, misleading, or unintentionally omitted data, wrong assumptions, clerical errors, translational errors, measurements errors, etc. Misinformation is different from rumors which are purely speculative. Even if later retracted or corrected, misinformation can continue to influence the actions and memories of others. The outcomes of misinformation can be very harmful, so care must be taken to avoid misinformation. The diligence required to avoid misinformation should be at least proportional to the potential harm it could cause. Misinformation is an inevitable but correctable part of our understanding of the world.

Just keeping these concepts in mind as we consume content on social media or other media sources may help us our skepticism about what we see or read. Rather than surrender to those who push disinformation into our public discourse, we need to be proactive in checking our facts and stating them clearly, out loud, or in writing. This isn’t likely to change the mind of the person to whom you are responding, but many more impressionable online views need to see both sides of every argument. Do it for them. Not responding at all to propaganda and disinformation is tantamount to surrendering the battlefield to the enemies of truth and democracy.