Discover more from The Bulwark
How to Fight Disinformation and Denial
Right-wing conspiracy theorists and what it will take to get reality to matter again.
ONE FROSTY WINTER DAY in early 2021, during the height of the pandemic, I stopped to talk to a guy who was standing at a somewhat busy intersection near my home in Madison, Wisconsin, holding up a placard that said “Freedom!” I had just walked out of a Walgreens drugstore, still wearing the mask that at the time was required to be inside. I asked him what he meant by his sign, as pleasantly as I could. He was immediately defensive, saying something like “You know, freedom.”
Freedom to do what? Freedom from what? “Mandates,” he answered. He was white, middle-aged, a bit younger than me. It was just when the vaccines for COVID-19 were becoming available. I said I understood that mandates are a drag but that it really did seem, based on what the scientists were saying, like good ideas for people to wear masks and get vaccinated. He walked away a few feet, a triumph of social distancing. I said something about how he didn’t have to be afraid of me. This, it turned out, was the wrong thing to say, as it made him want to throw down and kick my ass, which he repeatedly offered to do.
This wasn’t going well at all.
I told the man I was a journalist and was curious to know his perspective, which is why I stopped to talk. He asked me if I read WND, which I had never ever heard of. He found this outrageous: “You call yourself a journalist and you don’t know WND?” I promised to look it up. He was still scowling as I left.
I was reminded of this encounter while reading Lee McIntyre’s new book, On Disinformation, out today from MIT Press. The slim volume, small enough to fit into a back pocket, is an engaging disquisition of our present predicament, in which large numbers of our fellow citizens believe things that are demonstrably untrue.
“Denialism is not a mistake—it’s a lie,” declares McIntyre, a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and the author of several previous books including Post-Truth (2018) and How to Talk to a Science Denier (2022). “The truth isn’t dying—it’s being killed.”
McIntyre believes the use of disinformation, which he distinguishes from misinformation as being more deliberate, is part of “a coordinated campaign being run by nameable individuals and organizations whose goal is to spread disinformation out to the masses—in order to foment doubt, division, and distrust—and create an army of deniers.” He sounds kind of paranoid, but for good reason.
What has happened in recent years, McIntyre writes, is that “the truth killers” have taken on a new target: reality itself. Consider, for instance, that two-thirds of Republicans still believe Trump won the 2020 election. How crazy does it get? You could put it in Ripley’s museum, but nobody would believe it.
HERE ARE SOME POSTS I happened upon last week from an account calling itself Truth Justice™ on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter:
The account, less than a year old, boasts nearly a quarter million followers. The account’s proprietor is unknown, but since that person is a paying
And this is just one of a great many such accounts, reaching apparently large audiences with inflammatory, extremist conspiracy theories.
McIntyre, in his book, frames the battle against disinformation in militaristic terms. “The disinformation crisis that is enabling the truth killers to do such violence to our society is not a mistake or even a crime,” he avows. “It is an act of war. And it is time we got on a war footing to fight it.”
He calls for more foot soldiers in the fight against falsehoods:
We need to increase the number of messengers for truth. We simply need more of them. The truth killers may not be many in number, but they have weaponized an army of believers through the amplification of disinformation.
But it won’t help to have more people telling the truth unless there are others willing to believe it. And once people go down the rabbit hole of giving credence to incredible things, no amount of evidence is going to get them to change their minds. McIntyre knows how hard it can be: “Talking to believers is in some sense like treating the sick once they have already been infected; it’s a salvage operation.” Or, as he quotes something Mark Twain is said to have said: “It is easier to fool someone than to convince them that they have been fooled.”
McIntyre encourages people to give it a shot: “Reach out to those who disagree with you, who have been misinformed and disinformed. If at all possible, try to do so with kindness. They do not need another person to hate or distrust.” He says some deniers “can be talked back to reality. Others cannot.”
McIntyre sees the true believers in untrue things as victims, people who have been duped. He says that if he could get “one single message out to all of the science and reality deniers I’ve ever met, it would be this: ‘You have been lied to.’” He adds, almost as an afterthought, “Good luck getting them to believe that.”
THE WEBSITE WND, formerly WorldNetDaily, bills itself as “a Free Press for a Free People—Since 1997.” It runs right-wing commentary and articles intended to cultivate a sense of shared grievance.
In his August 17 column, WND founder Joseph Farah cheers on Democratic presidential contender Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for suing Google over YouTube’s “censoring his speech” by removing videos expressing skepticism over vaccines. Farah compares Kennedy’s struggle to that of WND, which has had to fight its own battles for truth:
But, as I’ve told you, beginning in January 2016, with the candidacy of Donald Trump, Big Tech declared total war on us and the rest of the independent media it would blame for Trump’s victory. I warned they would never let it happen again. And they haven’t forgiven us – or America, with which they are at war.
The outlet’s reported stories last week included “Top U.S. doctor group wants taxpayers to fund uterus transplants for men!,” about how the American Medical Association has “floated a trial balloon for uterus transplants for biological men who identify as transgender,” according to a report in the Washington Examiner. (In fact, the AMA has taken no such position, and the ultimate source of the brouhaha is a short academic article in the AMA’s Journal of Ethics exploring the various sides of the question.)
Beneath the WND article—beneath all recent WND articles, as of this writing—is an italicized “important note to WND readers” about “the widespread trafficking and sexual slavery of children”; it quotes Tim Ballard, the sex-trafficking expert made famous by this summer’s controversial movie Sound of Freedom, blaming the Biden administration for enabling and promoting this practice: “Pedophiles are sitting back right now . . . and going, ‘We’ve been pushing this agenda for decades, and now we don’t have to push any more, because the left is taking care of it for us’ – IN AMERICA!”
WND also ran a piece last week, “Judge bends to whining teens on climate change, makes huge ruling,” about the group of young people in Montana who won recognition in state court of their rights to a livable planet. Clark County Judge Kathy Seeley affirmed that the state could not promote fossil fuel development without considering its impact on climate change. (Or, as WND phrased it: “A judge in Montana has ruled that teen angst over the possibility that ‘climate change’ may impact their lives is so important it overrides a state policy that energy decisions should not be made on that ideology, and it is being appealed.”)
Another WND article, “Document stash reveals FBI’s scheming to target Christians,” is about a never-classified FBI memo regarding what the agency calls “Violent Extremists in Radical-Traditionalist Catholic Ideology.” That may sound like a completely reasonable thing for a law enforcement agency to keep an eye on, but the article tries to find the bigger picture. Here’s the lede: “The FBI’s attempt to redefine traditional Catholics who remain dedicated to their faith as potential domestic terrorists long has been known.”
To some people, it has.
Like other far-right outlets, WND spins stories with a vengeance and encourages its readers to believe that they—the wise few—are getting the true picture while others are not. It’s actually pretty good at what it does. I can see why that guy at the intersection in Madison considers it essential reading. I suspect he has been reading WND’s stories about all the recent developments mentioned here, and is, in his own way, as concerned about them as I am.
I should also say that I admire the courage he showed, to stand out there in the cold in the enemy territory of Madison, Wisconsin, holding his sign. His heart was in the right place, at least anatomically. (I’m sure his fist would have found its desired location as well.) He’s someone who cares deeply about his country and believes what he is being told—that others are seeking to destroy it. On that winter day in 2021, he didn’t know what else to do but felt he had to do something. And so he stood on a corner, all alone, with a placard that said “Freedom!”
The man left soon after our encounter. He was gone a few minutes later when I drove past. I wish that I could talk to him again. I don’t think there’s much chance I’d change his mind about anything. But I might learn a thing or two. Those of us who believe in reality are going to have to keep sharing a country with people who don’t.