On Terror

I want to share a personal experience I had across the first months of this year: I fell out of sync with the news cycle.

In January I published the 2018 Year In Review risk assessment from Rogue Metrics, which catalogued how the risk dimensions identified in early 2018 had evolved during the election cycle. Shortly thereafter, beginning in February, I had several things happen to me which conspired to pull my focus from the news cycle and my work on disinformation. A medical issue, travel, a whole house sick with the flu. The catch-up from those side-quests ran right into a big family vacation.

This trip, as you might have guessed it, was nice. However, it had the unintended effect of removing me from the normal, narrow rhythm of daily news. We didn’t really have a TV or a good internet connection, and we were about 6 hours outside of our usual time zone.

Out of sync is the perfect way to describe my relationship with the news during the week we were away. I was vaguely aware that things were happening, but they lacked the sting of immediacy, the urgent existential dread borne of relentlessness.

In other words, they lacked the terror to which I’ve grown accustomed.

Since we returned home, everything has had a slow-motion quality to it, an inexorable sense of unfolding which is both surreal and makes perfect sense. Last year I wrote that the United States government was no longer a reliable source of information. In that work, I pointed to active disinformation campaigns originating directly within federal agencies. Since I have been de-synced from the daily speed of news, from the pace and inertia of the utter daily insanity of the epoch in which we live, I have been able to observe just how much of a risk this propaganda truly represents, due largely to the specific environment in which it is occurring.

I am not the first or the only person to see this, and I am only the most recent in a very long line to write about it. But these daily attacks against norms and institutions happen so much and so fast that we, as people living in this environment, fall into the rhythm of disbelief – the trap of reality apathy.

I know this. I understand how people receive information and construct interpretations of that information. I know how the brain works when it comes to cognitive bias and evaluating risks and probabilities. I have also been fully immersed in how both the American polity and the American media have tried and failed to really grasp the challenge and danger presented in the current state of our politics.

So it is not immediately apparent to me, in this space on the other side of the release of Attorney General Barr’s summary of the Mueller report, why I thought we would all see that for what it is, and that the media narrative would reflect the truth.

It is known and understood that Attorney General Barr was in the bag for this result before he was confirmed: he told us as much, and his memo to that effect certainly had some bearing on why he got the job for which he auditioned. But even outside of that fact, the summary he released wasn’t the report, but rather his interpretation of the report. Even so, his hot take is being largely reported as the findings of the report itself. The result: an emboldened Trump administration, making ever more confident strides towards real authoritarianism, the effects of which are turbocharged by a real and demonstrable disinformation campaign from the highest levels of government.

Being out of sync helped me see this in a way that is different and more alarming than I’ve experienced before. The detachment brought everything into sharp relief, and in a slow and deliberate moment, removed from terror and panic, I see that our present situation is everything I thought it was, but worse.

We are still living in an environment thoroughly defined by risk, comprised of foreign interference in our politics, business, and infrastructure by way of ongoing disinformation campaigns; the domestic adoption of those same tactics by political organizations and operatives; and now the full-fledged embrace of real propaganda efforts from the leadership of an entire branch of the federal government. Campaigns and political organizations still have time to combat this risk ahead of the 2020 election cycle, in as much as the sphere of influence for their campaign or region allows, with effort, planning, and discipline. These efforts are likely to be blunted by moves from the top of our national political order, though, as well as the reticence and resistance of top Democratic organizations and national campaigns.

Things will move faster now. The technology and methods deployed for disinformation purposes will continue to evolve. Any true effort to mitigate the very real risk of a majority of Americans being unable to understand objective reality will require bold moves, comprehensive public education efforts, and a real disciplined commitment to acknowledging and operating in the world as it truly is.

I am writing this ahead of the scheduled release of the redacted Mueller report because I think you need to hear it. A real domestic information war is now underway. That war will only get more intense and loud and damaging and insane from now on. You will want to tune it out. You shouldn’t. There’s no shelter or respite in doing that anyways, so you might as well pay attention.