Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Help us celebrate 50 years of NPR by supporting WESA. Become a member today.

Troll Watch: Disinformation Around Impeachment Hearings


The first two public hearings in the impeachment inquiry this week generated a lot of online response, as you might expect. But we wondered if the hearings also generated a new round of online disinformation. That is today's topic for our regular segment we call Troll Watch.


MARTIN: We're joined now by someone who is always on the lookout for the spread of misleading information on the Web. She is Karen Kornbluh. She is a senior fellow and director of the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative at the German Marshall Fund. She's based here in Washington, D.C.

Karen Kornbluh, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

KAREN KORNBLUH: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Are you seeing any sort of disinformation activity specifically related to the impeachment hearings this week?

KORNBLUH: Yes. What's been so interesting is how much the classic disinformation playbook is at work but also how we're seeing how the playbook is being rewritten for disinformation. The most prominent aspect was the merging of the digital world and the physical so that tweets were playing a role in the hearing.

Notably, the Republican members blew up a tweet by the whistleblower's attorney saying that the coup has begun. But airbrushed out of that tweet was the fact that he was talking about Sally Yates' firing not about the whistleblower - and, of course, the president tweeting in the middle of the hearings. So you saw that merging of the digital and the physical. And then you saw the central role of conspiracy theories. So you see a lot of these classic aspects of disinformation.

MARTIN: Was the activity directed at one side or the other? Was most of it directed in a pro-Trump direction? Or was most of it directed at an anti-Trump direction? Or was it about equal?

KORNBLUH: The alt-right has definitely perfected the disinformation techniques. One of the aspects that's been really interesting to follow is the development of these networks that are called MAGA trains or Trump trains on Twitter. And they are real people who work hard at building these incredibly intricate and long follower trains on Twitter. And so they are very hard to distinguish from bots, but they're real people, real Americans coordinating in a way to appear to be growing a viral enthusiasm. But it's really very orchestrated. And it's really a new frontier in disinformation.

MARTIN: Do you think that this kind of disinformation activity is having an effect on the political debate? - I mean, because, as you said, the alt-right has become very adept at this. Do you think that it's putting a thumb on the scale of public debate?

KORNBLUH: I think that's such an interesting question. I think people are becoming a lot more sophisticated, and it may be that the disinformation is really targeted mostly at the true believers, and so it's not winning any new adherents. The goal, however, in part, is to confuse. So where once disinformation might have been to convince people of an alternate narrative, now it's really to stir up so much confusion that people tune out.

And so that's the one way in which it could have an impact. It's not that it's going to convince anybody that the people testifying are lying. It's just that people will turn off their television sets, will throw up their hands and just say, I'm so tired of all the bickering. I can't make sense of it all. It's almost like a post-modern kind of approach to disinformation.

MARTIN: And what about on the other side, though? I mean, it just seems clear that there are two different tactics at work here. And one of the arguments that the Democrats are making is that these are the facts, and the facts must matter. A factual basis for decision-making is fundamental to a rules-based world order. I mean, this is their argument. But even having said that, have you detected disinformation campaigns against President Trump or in support of impeachment?

KORNBLUH: So I think the Democrats are still holding onto the old norms and the old ways of presenting information. And they haven't, to the same extent, employed these new techniques. But they're starting to understand them, and they're starting to experiment with them. And what we don't want to see is a disinformation arms race, where both sides are employing these same tactics, and nobody's appealing to the truth.

MARTIN: That is Karen Kornbluh. She's a senior fellow and the director of Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative at the German Marshall Fund here in Washington, D.C. She studies disinformation. I do want to mention she's also a former ambassador to the OECD, appointed in the Obama administration.

Karen Kornbluh, thank you so much for joining us.

KORNBLUH: Thank you so much, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.