This past week, the first debate was held in the 2020 U.S. Presidential election. The next morning, I woke up and scrolled through my Nuzzle feed to see what I missed overnight.
Strangely, there was a lot of buzz around “Joe Biden’s earpiece” and that Biden backed out of an ear “inspection” before the debate. This story seemed very odd, and I wanted to know exactly why it was at the top of my Nuzzle feed.
The earpiece conspiracy theory is an example of what disinformation experts call “trading up the chain,” in which the sheer virality of a meme or a conspiracy theory forces mainstream outlets to cover it, giving it a patina of credibility it otherwise would not have.
“When rumors start to circulate, they can easily become fodder for a disinformation campaign when politicians and the news pick them up in tandem,” said Joan Donovan, the research director at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. “This creates a feedback loop — trading misinformation up the media chain until we all have to reckon with it.”
In the past, I’ve described this as “astroturfing.” This is the process of masking the identity of sponsors of content to make it appear as if it came from local participants. It seems this process is a bit more systemic.
Trading up the chain
Trading up the chain appears to be coined by Ryan Holiday in his book Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. In the book, he states:
I am, to put it bluntly, a media manipulator — I’m paid to deceive. My job is to lie to the media so they can lie to you.Ryan Holiday
As an aside…I need to also indicate at this point that I have not read this book by Holiday. But, I have read (and gifted) Ego Is The Enemy and The Obstacle Is The Way by Holiday. These texts lean heavily on Stoic philosophy and I’ve enjoyed/needed them over the last couple of years. The fact that these two trains of thought are by the same individual is something I’ll think about over the coming weeks.
Holiday explains more about this concentrated effort, and why it is designed to hack our attention economy.
Someone pays me, I manufacture a story for them, and we trade it up the chain — from a tiny blog to a website of a local news network to Reddit to the Huffington Post to the major newspapers to cable news and back again, until the unreal becomes the real.Ryan Holiday
The Biden earpiece conspiracy theory originated in a tweet from a single anonymous source to a NYPost reporter. This was then instantly denied by the campaign. It soon was everywhere on Facebook.
QAnon then took up the challenge of aggregating all of this information overnight and dialed up the conspiracy talking points.
This info was then picked up by influencers on Twitter and elsewhere to create buzz and make it “newsworthy.” As indicated by Ben Collins:
Viral tweets/YouTube vids ➜ coordinated Facebook meme drop ➜ Fox News report ➜ QAnon drop ➜ NY Post’s anonymous source ➜ Trump campaign text ➜ your newsfeed
Disinformation by Design
So why is this important?
The Internet is the dominant text of our generation. We use it to read, write, communicate, and learn. As users of this space, we bear a responsibility to critically consume information, separate out the good stuff from the crap, and create meaningful content to share with others.
Disinformation campaigns short circuit our ability to fulfill duties as informed, responsible members of society.
When memes, fake accounts, bots, and algorithms unite and trade up the chain, the average is unable to critically examine this content and use it to make decisions. When it is picked up by journalists, the rumor becomes fact.
For more on this subject, read this piece by P. M. Krafft and Joan Donovan on how disinformation campaigns such as those perpetrated by far-right groups in the United States seek to erode democratic social institutions.
This raises questions for how adults will critically evaluate online texts when we know that entities are actively targeting our inability (or lack of interest) to do so. This also raises questions about the opportunity to use examples like this to teach students in Pre-K up through higher ed.
Just because we read it online doesn’t mean that it is true.