Last week Zack Beauchamp of Vox explained on the public radio program “On the Media” why liberals want to believe in outlandish conspiracies about President Trump. “One expert I spoke to on political misinformation said that conspiracy theories were a weapon of the weak,” he said. “They were a way to understand and make sense out of the world when it doesn’t seem to make sense to you or seems hostile to you.”
Beauchamp was referring specifically to the ridiculous drivel promoted by Louise Mensch, a former British parliamentarian whose disinformation campaign has taken in a few Trump critics who should have known better. (A sample: Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and House Speaker Paul Ryan were all about to be arrested because of their ties to Russia).
But I think Beauchamp’s insight is also useful in thinking about a couple of other theories making the rounds among liberals who are trying to explain why a boorish lout like Trump won: his campaign’s use of big data, funded by the shadowy Mercer family, and the proliferation of dubious pro-Trump websites and bot-controlled Twitter accounts.
Unlike Mensch’s claims, these developments are actually real. The question is how important they are in explaining Trump’s success. Their appeal to the anti-Trump left is that they are dark and mysterious. But that doesn’t mean Trump supporters were somehow manipulated into voting against their interests. The reality is that perverse voting behavior and a fervid devotion to misinformation are nothing even remotely new.
The big-data theory has been reported by a number of media outlets, including The New Yorker and The Guardian. It is also the subject of an essay in The New York Review of Books by Sue Halpern, who recently reviewed Daniel Kreiss’ “Prototype Politics: Technology-Intensive Campaigning and the Data of Democracy” and Eitan D. Hirsh’s “Hacking Democracy: How Campaigns Perceive Voters.”
Halpern writes about the role of Cambridge Analytica, controlled by the wealthy Trump donor Robert Mercer, in analyzing tens of millions of Facebook profiles. The goal was to assemble detailed psychological profiles so that the Trump campaign would know exactly which buttons to push in order to persuade people to vote the way they wanted them to — or, for that matter, to stay home. Ads placed by the Trump campaign on Facebook, Google, and other platforms were specifically designed to take advantage of the “psychographics” the firm had compiled. Halpern writes:
Donald Trump is our first Facebook president. His team figured out how to use all the marketing tools of Facebook, as well as Google, the two biggest advertising platforms in the world, to successfully sell a candidate that the majority of Americans did not want. They understood that some numbers matter more than others — in this case the number of angry, largely rural, disenfranchised potential Trump voters — and that Facebook, especially, offered effective methods for pursuing and capturing them.
The fake-news part of the liberal lament gets a thorough airing in Paste magazine, as Roger Sollenberger explains how shadowy pro-Trump forces make use of a blizzard of websites and Twitterbots. Those forces, he writes, attack the internet with “weaponized information” so that truthful reporting by news organizations such as The Washington Post and The New York Times is lost amid a garbage dump of propaganda.
For instance, after Trump was recently reported to have given highly classified information to Russian officials during their visit to the Oval Office, the internet suddenly became clogged with several-years-old false stories that President Obama had leaked classified information about the bin Laden raid with fatal results.
“These outlets launched a broad ‘what about?’ attack, a coordinated attack, on Obama and the left,” Sollenberger writes. “That bullshit story about Obama’s ‘dangerous’ classified ‘leak’ suddenly broke throughout the right-wing media sphere. Some of these articles are even cut-and-paste jobs. There’s no effort here, just content. Tons of content, made quickly, made together, all spewing the same lies, but optimized.” By “optimized,” Sollenberger means that the sites all link to each other and make effective use of certain keywords, thus ensuring that they’ll move up to the top in Google’s rankings.
Is this chilling, creepy, and potentially dangerous? You bet. But what is it really accomplishing? As Charlie Warzel writes in BuzzFeed, worries about big data, the gaming of Google’s algorithms, and the unleashing of the Twitterbots tend to obscure “the very real, very human media machine bent on pushing a pro-Trump narrative and trolling its opponents at all costs, for whom bots are just one of many tools.” In other words, it’s not Robert Mercer, Cambridge Analytica, and internet gamesmanship we should be concerned about. It’s Sean Hannity, Matt Drudge, and Breitbart.
For liberals, though, blaming Trump’s presidency on technological forces we barely understand fits into one of their most enduring narratives: that they would win every election if voters only could grasp the wonderfulness of what they have to offer. In fact, there is little evidence that Trump has benefited from all this manipulation. Yes, he had better data before the election than outside observers realized, and as a result he concentrated his efforts on states in the industrial Midwest that Hillary Clinton was thought to have already sewn up. But the infamously data-poor Romney campaign won 47 percent of the vote in 2012 against a popular incumbent; Trump won just 46 percent four years later. And all the Twitterbots in the world haven’t stopped Trump’s approval rating from plunging to record lows.
There are many factors you can point to in explaining Trump’s victory: his angry blend of populism and racism, which just enough people in a few key states found intoxicating; the media’s endless obsession with Clinton’s use of a private email server; James Comey’s meddling; WikiLeaks; and, of course, Clinton’s own shortcomings as a candidate.
What you can’t blame, at least not yet, is the techno-brainwashing of zombie voters. That day may be coming, and it’s something we should be concerned about. For now, though, the fault is not in our machines, but in ourselves.