April 17, 2024

Fighting Back Against Disinformation

Author Barbara McQuade is in pursuit of the truth
By Anna Faller | March 2, 2024

Legal expert and author Barbara McQuade has dedicated the last three decades to fighting for America’s national security. In recent years, though, her battles have been closer to home as disinformation has spurred public distrust and violence in the U.S. This work formed the inspiration (and title!) of McQuade’s debut book, Attack from Within: How Disinformation is Sabotaging America.

She’ll join the National Writers Series on Monday, March 11, at 7pm to talk about common disinformation tactics, their dangers, and how to dig for the truth.

“I think it’s time we all step back and examine how we consume news,” says Anne Stanton, National Writers Series co-founder and director. “To remain engaged and be a strong believer in democracy, truth is the starting point.”

Government & Law

McQuade’s journey began in the early 1990s when she earned her J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School. From there, she went into private practice and spent more than a decade as an assistant U.S. attorney (where she led a national security unit), before serving as the U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Michigan throughout the 2010s. Appointed by then-president Barack Obama, McQuade was the first woman to hold this position.

During her tenure, she oversaw countless cases involving issues of counterterrorism, human rights, and public corruption, including the high-profile trial of former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick; the conviction of a would-be Al-Qaeda bomber in connection with a 2009 flight hijacking; and the exposure of supposed cancer-specialist Farid Fata’s notorious healthcare scam.

Since then, McQuade’s returned to her alma mater, where she teaches courses in criminal law and procedure, national security, and other related topics. In 2017, she became a regular contributor to MSNBC, where she’s a legal analyst, and she also a co-hosts Politicon’s legal discourse podcast, #SistersinLaw.

If there’s a common thread to her career, it’s McQuade’s lifelong fascination with government—especially, honest and well-functioning ones. “I’m deeply offended by corruption, and I think that’s motivated my life’s work,” she says.

Consequently, it was Robert Muller’s 2016 presidential election report that turned her on to the potential dangers of disinformation online.

“I know most people think about that [report] as all being about the culpability of Donald Trump, but there’s far more there,” McQuade explains, noting the influence of Russian technology to sow discord and impact election results by means of phony cyber personas.

Even more startling to her is the recent uptick in similar tactics within the U.S. “Disinformation is a national security threat. I want to name it, raise awareness about it, and help defeat it through public education,” she says.

Repetition & Lies

So, what exactly is disinformation?

Unlike misinformation, which is when someone unwittingly spreads false content (e.g., you saw it, thought it was true, and shared it with other people), McQuade defines disinformation as deliberately false claims used to further agendas.

Though it feels like a product of our current times, disinformation actually dates back to authoritarians like Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. Further, while digital technology and social platforms offer new means of delivering disinformation, McQuade says that the strategies used to create it haven’t changed much in the last 80 years.

This, she says, is because they’ve been proven to work—even on those who think they’re immune.

Repetition was a noted favorite of German philologist and Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Simply put: a message blasted on repeat will convince people that the message is true…even better if it comes with a catchy slogan. This speaks to a psychological concept known as the Illusory Truth Effect, which suggests that we’re more likely to believe information that we’ve encountered before.

Through the lens of modern disinformation, this is why mantras like “Stop the Steal,” and “Drain the Swamp” have connected with such a wide audience. “People think there must be some truth to it, because they’re hearing it from so many sources,” says McQuade.

Large-scale lies are another key tactic. Though most of us stretch the truth sometimes, it’s often done out of decorum or to preserve another person’s feelings or our own. Big lies, though, are a social no-no—that is, unless you’re trying to convince people of something that would otherwise sound preposterous.

This, says McQuade, is largely how Hitler hid the realities of Holocaust concentration camps, and similarly, is how Donald Trump perpetuated claims of forged election results. Heck, some leaders, like Vladimir Putin, have even built a platform by convincing their followers that all people are corrupt and that truth is for the weak and naïve.

“No one imagines that someone would have the audacity to tell such a big lie, because they couldn’t imagine doing it themselves. Those are the kinds of lies that work,” McQuade says.

Consequences & Weaponization

Attack from Within notes that the consequences of these tactics and others could spell catastrophe for our government.

For starters, McQuade says disinformation engenders harm to democratic structures, like tightening the belt around mail-in voting—a critical resource for those with mobility issues, tough work hours, or a lengthy commute—polling specifics, and voter ID requirements.

“Not only do these impositions undermine confidence in elections, but they also disenfranchise our citizens,” she explains.

Safety is another biggie, especially as it relates to false claims surrounding elected officials and public redress, which has run the gamut from verbal threats to protesting at their homes to legitimate attacks. As McQuade observes, this phenomenon also renounces U.S. rule of law, which dictates that we’re all treated equally and that formal disputes are resolved in court.

When we distrust our public officials though, some people will inevitably be moved to carry out their own law enforcement tactics.

“So we saw on January 6, [2021], when members of the public tried to storm the capital,” she notes, also pointing to instances like the 2020 plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the attack on former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul.

McQuade predicts that the weaponizing of disinformation will get worse before it gets better. With technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and deepfakes now capable of replicating the voices and images of political leaders, a fake story could lead to further distrust among voters or even cause Wall Street markets to tumble.

Literacy & Truth

How can we, as consumers, become more literate in pinpointing disinformation?

For starters, educating ourselves on the hallmarks of false claims is critical. Misspellings of reputable sources, for instance, are telltale signs of disinformation, as are obvious attempts to mask a poster’s identity, like nebulous usernames (think: USA Eagle, Patriot Girl, and the like) or those containing only numbers, both of which indicate bots or false personas.

Cross-checking online information, especially if it’s emotionally-charged, is another. Further, McQuade calls on tech companies to quell disinformation by requiring transparency for algorithms and funding sources for targeted ads (which, she says, could help provide needed structure without running afoul of the First Amendment), as well as encouraging social platforms to redirect false claims to reputable sources.

By arming ourselves with information, we also protect the truth and the people who bring it to light.

“We need brave souls on the front line who are willing to persist, even when it’s scary,” NWS event guest host and fellow author John U. Bacon notes.

The event is supported by Bob Giles’ “Truth Matters” Nonfiction Author Conversations and the Traverse City International Affairs Forum. “If people can remain open-minded in [adhering] to a mission of truth, hopefully they’ll be able to look and think for themselves,” Bob Giles’ daughter Megan Giles Cooney concludes.

About the Event

An Evening with Barbara McQuade will take place on Monday, March 11, at 7pm at the City Opera House in Traverse City and via livestream. Tickets range from $5-$27 plus fees and can be purchased through the City Opera House (in-person tickets only) or online through the National Writers Series website. Signed copies of McQuade’s featured book, Attack from Within, will be available at a 20 percent discount. The guest host for the event will be bestselling sports author and broadcast veteran, John U. Bacon. For more information, visit nationalwritersseries.org.

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