There were days when I would watch, live on TV, an impeachment hearing filled with damning testimony about the president’s conduct, only to look at my phone later and find a slickly edited video—served up by the Trump campaign—that used out-of-context clips to recast the same testimony as an exoneration. ‘Wait,’ I caught myself wondering more than once, ‘is that what happened today?’
As I swiped at my phone, a stream of pro-Trump propaganda filled the screen: …‘The coup has started …’ ” (Swipe.) “Democrats are doing Putin’s bidding …” (Swipe.) “The only message these radical socialists and extremists will understand is a crushing …” (Swipe.) “Only one man can stop this chaos …” (Swipe, swipe, swipe.)
What I was seeing was a strategy that has been deployed by illiberal political leaders around the world. Rather than shutting down dissenting voices, these leaders have learned to harness the democratizing power of social media for their own purposes—jamming the signals, sowing confusion. They no longer need to silence the dissident shouting in the streets; they can use a megaphone to drown him out. Scholars have a name for this: censorship through noise.
…Stories of Russian troll farms and Macedonian fake-news mills loomed in the national imagination. …Trump and his domestic allies were beginning to adopt the same tactics of information warfare that have kept the world’s demagogues and strongmen in power.
…Parscale likes to tell his life story as a tidy rags-to-riches tale, embroidered with Trumpian embellishments. He grew up a simple “farm boy from Kansas” (read: son of an affluent lawyer from suburban Topeka) who managed to graduate from an “Ivy League” school (Trinity University, in San Antonio). …Parscale took his “last $500” (not counting the value of three rental properties he owned) and used it to start a one-man web-design business in Texas.
…Perhaps most important, he seemed to have no reservations about the kind of campaign Trump wanted to run. The race-baiting, the immigrant-bashing, the truth-bending—none of it seemed to bother Parscale. While some Republicans wrung their hands over Trump’s inflammatory messages, Parscale came up with ideas to more effectively disseminate them.
…Outgunned on the airwaves and lagging badly in fundraising, campaign officials turned to Google and Facebook, where ads were inexpensive and shock value was rewarded. As the campaign poured tens of millions into online advertising—amplifying themes such as Hillary Clinton’s criminality and the threat of radical Islamic terrorism—Parscale’s team, which was christened Project Alamo, grew to 100.
…Trump’s effort in 2016 was unprecedented, in both its scale and its brazenness. In the final days of the 2016 race, for example, Trump’s team tried to suppress turnout among black voters in Florida by slipping ads into their News Feeds that read, “Hillary Thinks African-Americans Are Super Predators.” An unnamed campaign official boasted to Bloomberg Businessweek that it was one of “three major voter suppression operations underway.” (The other two targeted young women and white liberals.)
…From June to November, Trump’s campaign ran 5.9 million ads on Facebook, while Clinton’s ran just 66,000. A Facebook executive would later write in a leaked memo that Trump “got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser.”
Though some strategists questioned how much these ads actually mattered, Parscale was hailed for Trump’s surprise victory.
…When a ProPublica reporter confronted [Parscale] about the many misleading details in his account, he shrugged off the fact-check. “When I give a speech, I tell it like a story,” he said. “My story is my story.”
…[P] created a series of Facebook groups for Filipinos to discuss what was going on in their communities. Once the groups got big enough—about 100,000 members—he began posting local crime stories, and instructed his employees to leave comments falsely tying the grisly headlines to drug cartels. The pages lit up with frightened chatter. Rumors swirled; conspiracy theories metastasized. To many, all crimes became drug crimes.
Unbeknownst to their members, the Facebook groups were designed to boost Rodrigo Duterte, then a long-shot presidential candidate running on a pledge to brutally crack down on drug criminals. …P’s experiment was one plank in a larger “disinformation architecture”—which also included social-media influencers paid to mock opposing candidates, and mercenary trolls working out of former call centers—that experts say aided Duterte’s rise to power.
…They may use gentler terminology—’muddy the waters’ [or] ‘alternative facts’—but they’re building a machine designed to exploit their own sprawling disinformation architecture.
…The campaign doesn’t run just one ad at a time on a given theme. It runs hundreds of iterations—adjusting the language, the music, even the colors of the “Donate” buttons. In the 10 weeks after the House of Representatives began its impeachment inquiry, the Trump campaign ran roughly 14,000 different ads containing the word impeachment. Sifting through all of them is virtually impossible.
…If candidates once had to shout their campaign promises from a soapbox, micro-targeting allows them to sidle up to millions of voters and whisper personalized messages in their ear.
…“With the right kind of nudges,” people who exhibited certain psychological characteristics could be pushed into ever more extreme beliefs and conspiratorial thinking.
…In one exercise, the firm asked white men whether they would approve of their daughter marrying a Mexican immigrant; those who said yes were asked a follow-up question designed to provoke irritation at the constraints of political correctness: “Did you feel like you had to say that?”
…Beyond Facebook, the campaign is also investing in a texting platform that could allow it to send anonymous messages directly to millions of voters’ phones without their permission. Until recently, people had to opt in before a campaign could include them in a mass text. But with new “peer to peer” texting apps—including one developed by Gary Coby, a senior Trump adviser—a single volunteer can send hundreds of messages an hour, skirting federal regulations by clicking “Send” one message at a time. Notably, these messages aren’t required to disclose who’s behind them, thanks to a 2002 ruling by the Federal Election Commission that cited the limited number of characters available in a text.
…The medium’s ability to reach voters is unparalleled: While robocalls get sent to voicemail and email blasts get trapped in spam folders, peer-to-peer texting companies say that at least 90 percent of their messages are opened.
…Voters began receiving text messages attacking two of the candidates’ conservative credentials. The texts—written in a conversational style, as if they’d been sent from a friend—were unsigned, and people who tried calling the numbers received a busy signal.
…The Breitbart story was part of a coordinated effort by a coalition of Trump allies to air embarrassing information about reporters who produce critical coverage of the president. …According to people with knowledge of the effort, pro-Trump operatives have scraped social-media accounts belonging to hundreds of political journalists and compiled years’ worth of posts into a dossier.
Often when a particular news story is deemed especially unfair—or politically damaging—to the president, Don Jr. will flag it in a text thread that he uses for this purpose.
…They exposed one reporter for using the word fag in college, and another for posting anti-Semitic and racist jokes a decade ago. These may not have been career-ending revelations, but people close to the project said they’re planning to unleash much more opposition research as the campaign intensifies. “This is innovative shit,” said Mike Cernovich, a right-wing activist with a history of trolling. “They’re appropriating call-out culture.”
…When the press as an institution is weakened, fact-based journalism becomes just one more drop in the daily deluge of content—no more or less credible than partisan propaganda. Relativism is the real goal of Trump’s assault on the press, and the more “enemies of the people” his allies can take out along the way, the better.
…This dynamic makes it all but impossible for the press to hold the president accountable, something Trump himself seems to understand. “Remember,” he told a crowd in 2018, “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
…“It’s our job to sell our narrative louder than the media.”