Barbara McQuade discusses how the current epidemic of disinformation is planting the seeds for authoritarian rule.

Producer: Grace Lovins and Michael Gordon
05/22/2024 • 03:34 PM EST

Barbara McQuade, former U.S. Attorney, professor of practice at the University of Michigan Law School, and author of the New York Times bestseller Attack from Within: How Disinformation is Sabotaging America, discusses how the current epidemic of disinformation exhausts the electorate, discourages civic engagement, and ultimately facilitates a gradual shift toward authoritarianism. She also explores legislative options to support local journalism and rein in disinformation microtargeting on social media.

0:00: Grace Lovins:

With us today we have Barbara McQuade, former US Attorney, MSNBC legal expert and professor of practice at the University of Michigan Law School. She's also the author of The New York Times bestseller Attack From Within, How Disinformation is Sabotaging America. Barbara McQuade, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:17: Barbara McQuade:

Oh, thank you, Grace. Thank you, Mike. Glad to be with you.

0:20: Grace Lovins:

So let's start with something that you end the book with. You write that the book is a product of your work in national security. Can you tell us a little bit more about this connection?

Barbara McQuade:

0:30: Yes. So I spent most of my career as a national security prosecutor, and I now teach National Security Law at the University of Michigan Law School. And during the duration of that work, almost 25 years, I have seen the threat to our national security really evolve, from, you know, when I first started in space , Al-Qaeda, and then it was ISIS and then it was China and Russia in cyber intrusions. And now I think the biggest threat to our national security is disinformation, coming from hostile foreign adversaries, but also coming from within our own country.

1:05: Michael Gordon:

Do you see a national awareness or a national effort, a federal effort to address some of this?

1:14: Barbara McQuade:

I've seen some effort to address this problem, but I think it is difficult for people to get their arms around. You know, the Biden administration set up this disinformation agency and it was quickly attacked as a censorship board. The executive director there, Nina Jankowicz, was attacked, threatened and resigned. And I think the whole organization was shuttered in about 11 days after it set up. There's certainly been academic efforts to research this area and share information, but it seems that whenever researchers pop up, they get attacked as being sensors or disinformers themselves. 

So I think it's a very difficult problem for people to get their arms around. But we are seeing some efforts. There is some legislation in Congress that is designed, I think, to protect the privacy of young people. But it may be a place to start to try to push back against some of the anti-regulation sentiments that we see both from big tech and others who exploit big tech to share their message.

2:19: Grace Lovins:

Could you mention a little bit more about that legislation. How would privacy kind of come into play in this?

2:26: Barbara McQuade:

I think one of the harms of social media is the way we are microtargeted based on our personal information. And so our data is scraped from social media platforms. Whenever we're there, whatever we like, whatever we share, whatever information we give, there is valuable data that is collected and then sold to data brokers, which in turn is sold to commercial enterprises and political consultants. And so they have all this information about us and because of that information, they are able to microtarget us with messages specifically tailored for us.

And so things that might hit our hot buttons in some ways are sent to us. And in that way, we're exploited and so I think that if we were protecting that data to some extent, it might be more difficult to microtarget us in that way and manipulate us with misleading ads designed specifically and individually to get us to have an emotional reaction. So even if the motivation is to protect kids from having their information taken online, if it has the collateral consequence of helping everyone, then I'm all for it. And I think there might be a starting point where there is bipartisan agreement of a need to get started on this work.

3:43: Michael Gordon:

Barbara, there's a great line in the book where you say, "if everyone is corrupt, then you might as well go with the leader that shares your vision." How is disinformation key to distilling this type of thinking?

3:56: Barbara McQuade:

Yes, and you know, this really comes from some of the research I did in Putin's Russia. Peter Pomerantsev writes about this. Ben Rhodes, the former deputy national security adviser in the United States, wrote about this concept as well. And the idea is that if I bombard the public with so much information, some of it true, some of it false, people don't know what to believe. They, in fact, attack truth itself. That truth is for suckers. Truth is for the naïve, who knows what's true anyway, there's no such thing. It's all PR. It's all spin, and all leaders are corrupt.

And so the real goal isn't to find someone who's truthful because they don't exist anywhere, but to find someone who either shares your vision or your identity or will make you the most profitable. And if you just do that and let the leaders worry about governing and you can worry about your family and your business, then that's the best scenario for you. And of course, that is the antithesis of democracy, because that seeds some of our power as the people to the authoritarian who leads us.

James Madison and others have said that an effective democracy depends on an informed electorate. And so the idea is to overload us with information that we become exhausted, and we're either cynical or we become disengaged from politics altogether, because we just throw up our hands and say, we don't know what to believe. We're just going to cede that to others. And I'm just going to focus on my family and my work.

5:30: Grace Lovins:

You mentioned local news deserts and the vast decline of local journalism. Why is local journalism crucial to maintaining a healthy democracy?

5:39: Barbara McQuade:

Yeah, and I do you think this is something that is contributing to the demise of local communities and community building. There was a time when I think it was Tip O'Neill who said, all politics is local. And it seems to me that our political discourse now is focusing much more on national politics than ever before. We talk about what's going on in Washington. We talk about immigration and gun control at a national level, and much less about what's going on locally. And maybe that's just my perspective, but I talked to people about that, and I think it's true and I think one reason for it is the demise of local journalism. 

And that, I think, is a result of capacious capitalism. You know, I'm a capitalist, I'm selling books, I'm happy to make a profit on that. I think we are a capitalist society and I accept that. I like to buy shiny things. I like my Apple iPhone and all of the other great things that we can buy in a capitalist society. But there's capitalism and there's capacious capitalism, which in my view, is squeezing out every last profit that we can from all of society, and not to the betterment of society, but to the profit of those who are engaged in profiteering. And so one of the things we've seen is hedge funds coming in buying up failing newspapers, consolidating as best they can, and liquidating others. And so as a result, we have newspaper chains, we have local news, television stations within Sinclair TV and some of these others, and not as many Mom and Pop newspapers that we used to have that provide information to local communities.

And so when we don't have reliable reporting about what's going on at the school board meeting or the county road commission meeting, it lends itself to reading online where we hear things by the self-anointed political activist who says our school board is trying to impose the 'woke' agenda of our kids by talking about slavery or the Holocaust and they must be stopped. And so you know, beginning crusade about banning books and other kinds of things.

And so when we lose those credible, trained ethical voices, instead they get replaced by the single gadfly who is telling us what we ought to believe. And I also think the absence of local journalism also means we don't give those public interest stories that might bring us together as a community. You know, the stories about the local Lacrosse championship, or basketball championship by the local high school, or the story of the kid who won the science fair, or the kid who against all odds overcame a disability and had some great achievement.

Those are the stories that bring communities together that we can talk about and help us, even though we might have differences and reminds us to have more in common than we have differences. And so we're losing that in society. And I think that is contributing to this problem of living in our own echo chambers and getting our news from social media where we only see the like-minded, where because of this effort to divide and conquer, we see the world as an us vs. them, instead of talking to people in society about all those things that we have in common.

So I think we need to do something about that because I think local journalism is a really important feature of a healthy thriving society. And I don't think we can leave it just to the private market, because we're going to see as we're seeing in every facet of life, healthcare, banking, law firms, people are just consolidating and getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And so I think we need to intervene in that space. If we're going to preserve local journalism. And I think that's essential to a healthy community. And I think we do need to do some things to preserve and boost local journalism.

9:42: Grace Lovins:

I know you've proposed a solution to kind of help out with local journalism, but could you talk about your proposal to kind of subsidize some of these local papers on a federal level?

9:53: Barbara McQuade:

Yeah, I think we need to do a number of things. One is I think our foundation communities can do a lot of good work here. I serve on the board of the foundation that actually does some funding of local journalists. It's at a small level, though, and I think if we could do more of that at scale, that would be helpful. I think we should think about funding credits for people to use for news. In the same way we give food stamps to people who can't afford it for food, I think everybody should get a certain number of credits that we can use for our news consumption. Because I worry that what we see now is that a lot of good journalism is behind paywalls.

And so we have an information gap between those who can afford those subscriptions and those who can't. And I think if people have the ability to use those credits, we could use them to fund local journalism as well. And people could use those credits. Maybe there's a national allocation and a local allocation. And so by using those credits, they could pay for journalism. Because, you know, it used to be an advertising model that paid for journalism and now, because we don't see that same advertising model with all of the information that's online, people expect to get their content for free. And you know, the locals can't compete with all of that. And so those that can, you know, the big names, again, this consolidation can get those credits.

And I think we also ought to think about nonprofit funding and federal grant making. I don't think we want to tie the government directly to the news outlet, because I think that creates a conflict of interest. We want news to be able to speak back against the government and criticize the government. So I think we need an intermediary there so that grants are given to newspapers who are engaged in ethical journalism, but without direct accountability to the government. So there could be a grant making authority. You know, the same way National Public Radio and PBS are funded but not funded directly. There's a corporation for public broadcasting and maybe a corporation for local journalism that funds them without regard of whether they're criticizing the government or not.

12:09: Grace Lovins:

Can you share more about your experience in Ireland in 2018? And what factors do you think kind of created this environment of civility on a controversial issue like abortion?

12:19: Barbara McQuade:

Oh yeah, thanks for asking about that. So I talk in my book about a trip I took to Ireland in 2018 when Ireland was having a national vote on whether to repeal their ban on abortion. Now this is a Catholic nation. It is their official religion. And I imagined that this would be incredibly controversial. So as we were planning our trip, and we learned that this would be voted upon while we were there, we thought, wow, should we go, there might be civil unrest in the streets as a result of this. This is the biggest issue to face Ireland in its history. But we went on the trip and to my great surprise, the discussion around this issue was incredibly civil. 

People were very active in the issue, just about every street corner during the time we were there, you would see people promoting either the nay or the yay position. They had pamphlets and signs, but they could not have been more polite. And they would engage with you and say, you know, excuse me, would you like to hear more about the issue? And if you said no, they'd say, Have a nice day. And if you said yes, they would very politely engage with you. Ask if you'd like materials, ask if you have any questions. And I was so surprised. And it was really interesting to me to see how this could exist in the world. And I thought of a great model for how it could exist in our country.

And I thought to myself, this is what civil discourse looks like when you don't have hostile Russian interference going on, when you don't have disinformers pushing an agenda or stoking division in society, when you have people trying to reach mutual understanding and engaging in forbearance and tolerance and understanding and grace. And I thought it was a great blueprint for how we in society could engage with each other in an effort to advance societal issues without being at each other's throats.

14:18: Grace Lovins:

You wrote, in a democracy, a government of the people, we need responsible leadership not just from elected officials, but from our citizenry. So what does this leadership from citizenry look like when we talk about combating disinformation?

14:32: Barbara McQuade:

Yeah, thanks for that question. I think two things. One is this idea of rejecting the con, rejecting the idea that it's all about winning, that it's all about my team or another team. And you know, I see this, certainly, I think that when we see Donald Trump talk about hostages and not losing any voters but shooting people on Fifth Avenue, we certainly see that in the far right, but I think we see it on the far left as well. About us vs. them, our team vs. their team. And the far right will talk about owning the libs and winning and dunking on their opponent, but I see it the same way. There's a certain belief in defeating one's opponent and maybe that comes from, you know, our inner Alpha on the playground of wanting to win and dominate our opponents.

But I think that being a responsible citizen means rejecting this idea of winning or losing, it means understanding that we resolve our differences in this country at the ballot box and in courts of Law. And that process matters more than winning all the time. I mean, like in any family, we have to care more about the relationship and preserving the relationship than about winning the argument. Because if all we care about is winning, ultimately we're going to defeat our country. We need to have the rule of law. We need to have fair elections and fair processes. And if we put winning above all else, it means that ultimately, we will allow vigilante violence to be the rule of the day.

And that is a society where power is the ultimate coin of the realm instead of democracy, instead of allowing the power of the people and the power of process. And so we need to take back our power by revealing and exposing this idea that winning is the coin of the realm. What matters more is truth. What matters more is fair process. And I think a way we do that is through what two Harvard political scientists refer to as mutual tolerance and forbearance. And that means you have to accept that, if you're going to have elections, it means sometimes you're going to lose elections. Mutual tolerance means there's another party out there and sometimes their ideas win. And if your ideas don't win, it means you have to regroup and try to win hearts and minds next time. And that you have to accept defeat.

Forbearance means just because you have power doesn't mean you ought to use it. It means not demanding political purity, but accepting compromise from time to time. The way to advance social policy is not all or nothing. You know, we can't solve immigration problems right now, because I think both political parties would rather use it as a political pawn than to actually solve problems. We have to compromise if we actually want to solve problems. And citizens, I think, need to stand up for that, as opposed to demanding this idea that we're going to win at all costs.

17:35: Grace Lovins:

On the warning color spectrum of the authoritarian playbook, how far along would you say the US is right now?

17:42: Barbara McQuade:

How far along are we on the spectrum of the authoritarian playbook? I think that we are seeing a lot of these techniques. I think that there are some people who have fallen for these lies. Just today I was talking to someone who believes dead people voted in Michigan in 2020. When in fact, you know, all of those myths have been debunked. So I think there are people out there. I worry more about this idea of going along with the con. But I think you know, we the people can come back from it. What I think we need to do is have people like you help us. So if I could put a number on it. Oh, I don't know 33 and a third percent.

So I don't think we've reached a point of no return. But I do think we're in a danger zone. And I think that we need to remind people how important it is because I see two things. One is people who've fallen for the con, and I guess three things, and people who are falsely believing these things, but I also see people who are exhausted. And I worry about these people too, who say, you know what, I don't know what to believe. I have become cynical. I think they're all a bunch of crooks and so I'm just not going to vote anymore. I worry about those people because we need people to be engaged in politics.

But I am hopeful. I've been meeting a lot of great people doing book talks all over the country who are engaged. And I think there are more of them than there are of the disengaged. And so what I'm hoping for is, webinars like this one, or the work that you're doing, or perhaps people who will read my book, will understand how important it is that, not only they get all the information to be informed voters, but they bring along some friends and family for the ride. Because it really is important that we hold on to our power as a democracy and not cede that power to those who are seeking to exploit us and pit us against each other.

19:37: Grace Lovins:

Okay, it looks like we're out of time for today. We've been talking to former US Attorney Barbara McQuade and author of Attack From Within, How Disinformation is Sabotaging America. Barbara McQuade, thank you again for joining us today.

19:49: Barbara McQuade:

Oh, thank you both for having me. It was my great pleasure.