In the Face of Trump’s Misinformation, Warnings Emerge

[EMMA WENNBERG, October 30, 2019]

From exaggerated voter fraud to depictions of migrant caravans to stories of his own sexual prowess, Donald Trump propagates lies seemingly constantly. The Washington Post reports that from several examples of speeches and interviews, he has said up to one false or misleading claim per minute. Since the beginning of his political ascendance, Trump’s unusual diction––rambling speech patterns filled with half-truths or blatant falsehoods––have separated him from other political figures and attracted a base of listeners. 

Trump’s manner of speaking and disregard for accuracy appear to be part of a pointed strategy, and while this style may seem novel in the American political sphere, it prompts concerns about Trump’s similarity to leaders around the globe who use similar strategic forms of speech and lies to manipulate citizens. 

In a recent visit to Penn, journalist Aaron Short discussed his book The Method to the Madness, which examines the extent to which deliberate calculations have guided Trump’s career path and behavior. In conversation, Short described his belief that there indeed exists a “strategy” to the way in which Trump rambles: he believes it reflects not sloppiness, but rather a plan to inundate viewers with excess, half-true information.

Even prior to Trump’s inauguration (but prompted by his campaign), news outlets reported on the effects of constant misinformation on the brain. As described in a January 2017 Politico article, when faced with such a high volume of lies, audiences become less equipped to determine true from false, and the repetition of misinformation also subconsciously reinforces the falsehoods’ perceived accuracy. 

Such effects may explain why leaders globally have engaged in strategies similar to Trump’s and find success in doing so. 

Scholars from the RAND Corporation identified a process of propaganda called “the firehose of falsehood” to describe Vladimir Putin’s behavior of spouting high volumes of obvious lies. Christopher Paul, a co-author of the report, described how Putin’s public remarks make no commitment to reality: “much of [Russian] propaganda is either completely false or has a kernel of truth.” Later stories have drawn comparisons between Trump and Putin’s firehose behavior, connecting the American president to broader global sociopolitical trends. 

In the recent “Sharpiegate” incident, Trump propagated misinformation about Hurricane Dorian and refused to admit that he’d been wrong about the hurricane’s trajectory (which he claimed would head toward Alabama, contrary to reports by the National Weather Service). Causing perhaps even more alarm than the president’s words themselves, NOAA released a statement backing up Trump’s false claim, provoking panic from scientists and the media alike about the manipulability of supposedly apolitical agencies. 

Columnists including Paul Krugman from The New York Times have used the incident to warn about the downfall of democracies, connecting Trump to autocrats such as Turkey’s Erdogan, and Hungary’s Orban. He argues that threats to democracy arise when leaders quell opposition to their statements from other governmental bodies, warning of a “slide into autocracy.” 

In discussing Putin’s blatant lies, Christopher Paul described that “[his success] is counterintuitive. I come from a background that says ‘credibility is king’ and the ‘truth will always win.’” The diminishing value of truth is not isolated to Russia, however, and as the role and importance of the truth in our national conversation continues to change––and if global trends are any indication of what’s to come––misinformation by our political leaders may seem less and less out of place.

Warnings such as Krugman’s re-emphasize the need for news organizations to be vigilant in fact-checking the president and the need for citizens to ensure the accuracy of information from even government officials. Even if Trump has built a fan base that likely won’t listen anyway, it is our role as civically engaged citizens to use the warnings from abroad and prioritize truth from candidates and elected officials. For the health of our democracy, we must ensure that the other levers of government do not defer to his misinformation. We cannot let the pattern seen abroad dictate our future as well. 

This post reflects the opinions of the author and is not necessarily representative of those of Penn Democrats.