Perfusion and Corrosiveness of Disinformation on Social Media is Clearly a Domestic Threat

Scott Deshefy


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Washington correspondent Major Garrett and election lawyer David Becker, co-authors of The Big Truth: Upholding Democracy in the Age of “The Big Lie,” have recently asserted that the United States is “85 percent close” to civil war. How one reliably assigns probabilities to potential violence between political factions is unclear, but bloodbaths between two-party ideologues would likely be sporadic, small-scale and rare. Any expansion of the January 6th insurrection would be met with dispatch by U.S. armed services, even if scores of illegal militia groups organized effectively. Yet, armed men in tactical gear have been reported lurking around ballot drop boxes in Arizona recently. Perfusion and corrosiveness of disinformation on social media is clearly a domestic threat. By polarizing the gullible, fanning their ingrained hatreds and prejudices, it’s a catalyst for violence. Other factors also make Garrett’s and Becker’s storm warnings seem warranted. Two failed wars in the Middle East turned a lot of servicemen, discharged with lingering PTSD and a sense of lost purpose, into easily recruited mercenaries. Haunted by feelings of abandonment, many are seduced, manipulated and radicalized by paramilitary calls to arms and hegemonic quests extolling their skills and training.

While Proud Boys and other domestic terrorist, neo-fascist; white nationalist groups glean military rolls to expand their numbers, individual puppeteers are pulling extremist strings.  Former national security adviser Michael Flynn, for instance, who advocated martial law to seize voting machines, cherry pick ballots and rerun the 2020 election in Donald Trump’s favor, considers the aftermath of the January 6th assault on the Capitol “a coupe in progress.” Flynn, who has called for a single religion in America, has even agitated election deniers to engage in a spiritual “holy war” against progressive idealists. A felon, who would be in prison but for presidential pardons, Flynn isn’t the only dangerous demagogue to hijack Christianity for his own nefarious schemes. Religion has always been a gateway drug for suspension of reason. But politically-motivated distortions of fact, scientific illiteracy and general disregard for truth- and evidence-based institutions are not only warping reality. Transparent falsehoods and moral turpitude are lowering America’s IQ. As a result, a profitably dichotomous red versus blue alignment of states has begun to form skirmish lines, and that politically charged atmosphere has made our elections, predominantly fair in tabulating ballots, sources of instability. Voters no longer register so much as enlist, making each new contest a grudge match and branches of government battlegrounds. We’re already a violent nation traumatized by daily shootings. No public place is truly safe anymore because of surfeits of guns and idiots who think arming more people will mitigate shootings.  At a time when a single pyromaniacal Nero could ignite that tinderbox, political aspirants seem intent on self-indulgence and calling attention to themselves instead of problem-solving. The result: a rogues’ gallery even Pandora would loathe to unleash.

Naked ambition is never attractive, and no one seeking office should court social evils to win an election. Yet, willingness to engage in Faustian bargains is acceptable practice, especially in Washington, where 12,000 or so lobbyists helped clients spend $3.5 billion to influence elections and policy in 2020. While Green Party candidates refuse to accept PAC and corporate donations, graft and quid pro quo relationships to fossil fuel, military, pharmaceutical, and Big Ag industries are lifeblood for Democrats and Republicans alike. Candidates are thusly incentivized to distort facts and push lies to get elected, keying a radical right nihilism that, by empowering hate groups, endangers not only democracy but the biosphere itself.

David Corn’s new book “American Psychosis” focuses primarily on the last seven decades of that growing derangement and how figures such as Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich weaponized that rage. Corn’s book also attempts to answer two questions. First, how did MAGA extremism gain footholds in the GOP? Second, what can conscientious Americans, remembering fascism’s rise in the 1930s and wary of its tendency to pander to hate groups, private militias and white supremacists, do about it? These are valid and important queries at a time when a former president, facing charges of possible fraud, misappropriation of funds, obstruction of justice, national security breaches and seditious conspiracy, still has support. Trump has even hinted at violence if potential indictments take their judicial course.

Corn’s convincing connection of past authoritarianism and White supremacist movements to MAGA Trumpism today begins with the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s, which emerged following the Whig Party’s collapse and passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) expanding slavery. It served as flagship for a nativist movement, centered about a widely-held conspiracy belief that Irish Catholics were subverting U.S. civil and religious liberties. Also called the American Party, Know-Nothings ran former president Millard Fillmore in 1856 during a presidential election in which fledgling Republican Party candidate John C. Fremont ran second to James Buchanan. Because he needed their votes in 1860, Abraham Lincoln failed to disavow Know-Nothings’ nationalistic bigotry, one of many principled actions fallen by waysides to win an election since. Cases in point are many for both major parties, perhaps piling highest at GOP doorsteps, however, where winning elections the last 60 years has become a dangerous game of playing to society’s foremost divisive influences, especially racism.

In the 1964 GOP National Convention, moderate Republicans, trying to introduce a resolution to condemn Ku Klux Klan-John Birch Society ideologies, were shouted down by Barry Goldwater supporters, who cheered Goldwater’s assertion that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” One can hear that sentiment reverberating today in attitudes of anti-vaxxers, “unmaskers,” school book banners and few remaining global warming deniers.  In the months leading up to the 1968 election, Richard Nixon, a civil rights expansion supporter publicly, got cozy with Strom Thurmond’s segregationist Dixiecrats to improve GOP metrics in the South. The strategy worked. Nixon and Reagan succeeded in flipping majorities of White voters in the South from Democrats to Republicans. George W. Bush likewise courted Christian fundamentalists to win the 2000 primary against a more-principled John McCain. McCain would compromise his principles in 2008, selecting grossly ill-equipped Sarah Palin as his running mate to placate tea partiers, who later supported Donald Trump in 2016.

Republicans, more than any other party, have persistently exploited older Americans’ prevailing fears about culture change and often fail to acknowledge well-established facts and science. Spurred by an agitated base, candidates resort to patterns of disinformation, infusions of lies and alternate realities for votes. The gambit is designed to infuriate citizens feeling dispossessed, static in numbers perhaps, but increasingly contemptuous of due process and government. First introduced by Joseph McCarthy, but perfected in false accusations and personal attacks by Sarah Palin and Donald Trump over a decade, the “psychosis” to which Corn refers encompasses “a combination of smear politics, conspiracism, and know-nothingism.” That “political madness,” what Corn calls “Palinism,” is not only dismantling the Republican Party, which once gave us national parks and monuments; EPA, OSHA, Title IX and the Marine Mammals Protection and Endangered Species Acts; put astronauts on the moon, banned CFCs to save the ozone layer, and abolished slavery. It threatens the very republic from which the GOP got its name.

The trial of Oath Keepers founder, Stewart Rhodes, and four associates charged with seditious conspiracy for the January 6th insurrection, is an eye-opener for anyone who doubts the seriousness of that danger, one which the Big Lie pumps with steroids. Not only had rioters used lethal force to temporarily halt certification of Joe Biden’s presidency, caches of armaments were stored along the Potomac for days. So deluded and determined were some of the insurrectionists to overturn a legitimate, lawful and valid election, rogue militia groups were willing to kill for that misguided end. Rhodes spent roughly $25,000 the week before the assault on the Capitol for guns, night vision devices, mounts, sights, magazines and other paramilitary paraphernalia to secure the White House perimeter. His followers were expected to “use lethal force” to prevent the National Guard (or any authorized public protector) from tossing Trump on his ear. Oath Keeper teams from several states brought weapons, ammo and food supplies sufficient to last 30 days, according to court papers.

In 2016, we saw consequences of a single lapse of judgment, how a lesser-of-two-evils/two-party dominated politic put someone into power who was intellectually and psychologically unfit. More than most social animals, our cultural evolution can be teleological, that is, steered to predetermined goals. Years ago, as social media platforms appeared, I coined the term “eumemics” to describe memes as cultural guardrails, a type of “unnatural selection” permissible only if outcomes are ethically preordained and memes of “goodness” act as rudders guiding progress. Unfortunately, wicked memes often outnumber the good, turning well-intentioned cultures off their tracks. Even if a final outcome is desirable, deontological ethics can be sacrificed along the way. As another election approaches, it’s important to vote for candidates who represent foresighted policies of teleological and deontological merit, what Buddhists describe among their Noble Eightfold Path as right mind, right behavior; right course. Comparably, the Green Party has 10 Key Values. Peruse them and consider the Green Party slate November 8th as a vanguard against strife, including Kevin Blacker for Congress and Michelle Louise Bicking and Cassandra Martineau for Governor and Lt. Governor. Get a grip; put your heads together; seek perfection.

Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.