As we saw on January 6th, even though the 2020 election has ended, the U.S. remains strapped in for its four-years-long-and-counting rollercoaster ride. One of the defining features of this unending breaking news blitzkrieg has been the inherent inability to pause and substantively reflect on the grand “what just happened?” of it all. It’s rather difficult to meaningfully consider a historically dangerous ride that’s still going full throttle.

One way for U.S. political parties to learn what just happened after elections are through their post-mortems. While leadership typically conducts them in the immediate aftermath, this Republican party is foregoing any documentation that might lead to negative conclusions about their dear leader. In contrast, when Democrats write their report, they’ll likely start with the election’s most glaring takeaway. Namely, how 74 million Americans thought it in their best interest to vote for a blatantly racist president who spent four years, in lockstep with his party, pursuing his best interests above the nation’s. Even more disturbing is that these votes were cast after he spent the year playing political games with human lives, ultimately leading to unprecedented, preventable and ongoing mass death. We had to wait four years for the official results of disinformation’s potency and efficacy on the electorate and 2020 election. The results are in: it metastasized to failure-of-imagination-levels.

Re-framing The Questions About Disinformation’s Reach, In Light Of Election Results

One place to start is with some theoretical questions about the outsized role disinformation played.

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  • Of Trump’s 74 million voters, what’s the likelihood that most were primarily working off of fact-based information from legitimate news sources?
  • For Trump voters who combined reality-grounded reporting alongside propaganda platforms, what diluting effect did that have in drowning out the truth?
  • Where were the majority of Trump and GOP supporters getting their (dis)information each time he said or did “X” (i.e., any one of his thousands of self-created national security threats)?
  • Regardless of whether most Trump voters were getting some, or all, of their “news” from an alternative universe where Trump “defeated the virus” while a sick, dying Biden stole the election with radical socialist Kamala Harris – then why wouldn’t they vote for Trump?

None of this is to excuse, explain away, or (for the moment) explore why tens of millions of voters chose to limit their (dis)information stream to alternative facts. The “why” part can and should be explored for years to come. The idea is simply to isolate one variable, while acknowledging that countless factors affect how people vote.

Although we’ll never be able to fully quantify the exact impact that bad information had on Trump voters, we do know that it was a common denominator. It’s in light of this revelation that America is ripe for its own nationwide post-mortem; one that reckons with the disproportionate role that propaganda played in the election – and continues playing in our daily lives – sooner rather than later.

For four years, each time Trump’s latest scandal surfaced – cocktails of bleach injections and sunlight to stave off a virus, “Well, Bob, to be honest with you, I wanted to always play it down,” insulting the entire military community with a preference for war heroes “who weren’t captured,” bragging about sexually assaulting women for sport – the question for those following fact-based news outlets was the same: how could his base go along with this?

“It’s in light of this revelation that America is ripe for its own nationwide post-mortem; one that reckons with the disproportionate role that propaganda played in the Election – and continues playing in our daily lives – sooner rather than later.”

Post-election, we’ve now been given the kind of brand new information that forces outdated questions to evolve. Instead of “how could so many people have voted for him?”, the updated version becomes “how many people who voted for him have any idea that he actually said / did “X” (i.e. are receiving bad information in an impenetrable vacuum and voting accordingly)? It’s the kind of question not meant to elicit an actual number, but rather a way to readjust the framing. The sooner we pivot, the less surprised we’ll be that so many could vote so tragically against their interests.

Even The Seemingly Well Informed Can Be Misinformed

To be clear, this kind of overview isn’t overlooking the exponential moving parts that contributed to 74 million votes: apathy, “both parties are the same”, “because taxes”, paranoia towards socialism and communism, anti-abortion, “conservative” SCOTUS judges, anti-science, evangelical Christians, devout Catholics, anti-“big government overreach”, corporation-friendly legislation, offshore shell company tax haven protection, conspiracy theories, fever dreaming that COVID-19 is a hoax or Chinese lab-grown virus, anti-vaxx, equating masks with infringing on civil liberties, confusing gun regulation for “taking away our guns”, unfounded fear of open borders, racism, extremist white nationalism, civil war-obsessed accelerationists bent on nihilism, far right extremists, and/or just plain owning the libs.

All of the above listed reasons are obviously not isolated factors. There were, of course, people likely to vote for Trump and whose belief systems were reinforced by misinformation. Any combination can be mixed, matched and then some.

  • Citizens who sat out 2016 and had friends telling them about Facebook posts claiming Democratic Governors want to keep states locked down because of a plan cooked up by Kamala Harris.
  • Workers who were recently laid off and algorithmically recommended YouTube videos of Alex Jones describing Covid-19 as a Chinese government-produced bioweapon to “bring Trump down”.
  • Wealthy conservatives who typically vote Republican “because Democrats just want to raise taxesand are lied to by Newsmax about Joe Biden being a socialist who’ll raise every last American’s taxes to funnel money to his son, Hunter, so that they can pay off Ukrainian mobsters.
  • Rural Americans living in primarily white communities and receiving racist, micro-targeted dark ads on Facebook lying about Black Lives Matter being a terrorist group.
  • Americans skeptical of vaccines and seeking affirmation via Tucker Carlson about COVID-19 not being as dangerous as the entire scientific and medical community says.

It shouldn’t come as too big a surprise that a problem of this magnitude isn’t contained to social media and propaganda networks. Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Amazon, are all interwoven into the anti-reality ecosystem. From election fraud to COVID-19, an unregulated internet has inevitably nurtured and profiteered off of the latest conspiracy theories.

Searches on Pinterest yield posts on “stolen ballots”, not unlike in 2016 when the site was a sitting duck for Russia’s misinformation campaign. Instagram (owned by Facebook), has been hosting 2020 election misinformation, just as it did in 2016. LinkedIn connections share baseless articles and videos about a rigged election, devoid of attribution. Amazon hawks books on QAnon, COVID-19 truthers, and the deep state plotting to undermine Trump’s presidency. Spotify pays anti-vaxx proponent Joe Rogan $100 Million for exclusive rights to his podcast. Apple’s iTunes podcast store continues to host episodes of Steve Bannon who spreads dangerous conspiracy theories while calling for murder against public officials.

Several Groundbreaking Studies: Where The Majority of Americans Get “News”, The “Infodemic’s” Single Largest Source, and The Correlation Between Fox and COVID-19 Infections / Death

More than half of U.S. adults get “news” from social media often or sometimes. Photo: via Pew Research Center

An October 2019 Pew Research study established the stark milestone that Americans who get
“news” on social media tipped the majority scale. All of the stats listed below likely increased substantially after the pandemic.

  • More than half of U.S. adults get “news” from social media often or sometimes (55%).
  • About 3 in 10 Americans now get “news” on social media often (28%).
  • 52% of Americans got “news” on Facebook.
  • 71% of American adults used Facebook.

On September 30, 2020, Cornell University researchers reached a conclusion on the single largest source of COVID-19 online misinformation and falsehoods: the President of the United States. Analyzing 38 million web articles between January 1st to May 26th, they found that more than 1 million contained pandemic-related misinformation in English-language media throughout the world. Trump’s name was found in 38% of the overall “misinformation conversation,” rendering him the single greatest threat to spreading the “infodemic.

The effect of one Trump press conference or tweet in shaping opinions, even behaviors, can be monumental,” investigative researcher Aric Toler told The New Yorker’s Joshua Yaffa, also this past September. Exploring the real world consequences of sowing distrust during a pandemic, Yaffa’s findings showed frightening correlations. He dug into two studies; the first in May, (by the National Bureau of Economic Research) cross-tracked anonymized location data from millions of cell phones in locations known for heavy Fox viewership. The results showed the viewers were less likely to adhere to stay-at-home orders. The second study (by University of Chicago economists and others) revealed the health discrepancy between neighborhoods with Tucker Carlson viewers and Sean Hannity viewers. In March, as COVID-19 was beginning to take hold in the U.S., Carlson urged caution and spoke with urgency (he’s since gone back to rejecting science). Whereas Hannity dismissed the dangers from the very beginning. For those locales likelier to watch Hannity over Carlson, researchers found a 32% increase in infections and a 23% increase in COVID-19-related deaths.

Yaffa also explored Finland’s public schools vastly outperforming the U.S. on media literacy, spotting fake news and identifying reliable sources of information, noting “If you don’t know how government actually works, you’re more likely to believe in conspiratorial versions of its doings.”

See No Evil, Hear No Evil…The Omission of Information As Disinformation Tactic To Build Trump and The GOP Up

CNN’s Oliver Darcy consistently spotlights one of Fox’s more nefarious means of spreading lies: news by omission. On December 11th, the Supreme Court refused to take up the seditious effort by Texas’ Attorney General (co-signed by 16 state AGs and 106 GOP out of 170 Congressmen) to throw out the 2020 election results and magically hand Trump a second term. That day, Darcy tweeted, “Tucker Carlson, who has the highest-rated program on a channel that purports to be in the news business, did not mention the Supreme Court decision once tonight on his show.” Imagine receiving “news” solely from Fox and the like, where reality-grounded information (actual news) is either distorted or disappeared.

Dec 20: “Rupert Murdoch gets vaccine as Fox News pushes misinformation”

Dec 10: “Fox News largely ignores record single-day coronavirus death toll”  

Dec 7: “Fox ignores NYT report that Trump administration declined to purchase additional doses”

Oct 26: “One COVID-19 Story Fox News Can’t Ignore: Its Top Anchors Quarantining – The network, which has long downplayed the threat of COVID-19 in their coverage, is reportedly taking the pandemic more seriously now that their staff has been impacted.”

Oct 4: “Fox News largely ignores Trump’s disastrous Axios interview – The president declared of a thousand Americans dying per day: “It is what it is”

Sep 28: “Fox News Would Rather Not Admit Trump Is a Giant Crook – A massive NYT report on Trump’s   tax fraud was too big for even Fox News to ignore. Instead, they brought on Don Jr. to play defense.”

May 4: Study Finds More COVID-19 Cases Among Viewers Of Fox News Host Who Downplayed Pandemic”  

Similarly, in 2018, Vox crunched the data to create, “The stories Fox News covers obsessively — and those it ignores — in charts. Compare Fox News’s alternate reality to other cable news coverage.” In two interactive dropdown boxes, you can compare “Things Fox Covers Less” and “Things Fox Covers More” with each listing over a dozen topics. It’s one of the clearest distillations of this country’s parallel universes.

Image via Vox “The stories Fox News covers obsessively — and those it ignores — in charts”

See Conspiracy, Hear Conspiracy…Scaremongering to Tear Biden and the Democrats Down

Two New York Times journalists have synthesized the reach of social media in very different, yet equally effective ways. For years, columnist Kevin Roose has regularly posted the 10 top-performing link posts on U.S. Facebook pages each day, ranked by total interactions. Here’s December 10th:

  1. Dan Bongino                                                                                                                       
  2. Newsmax                                                                                                            
  3. Dinesh D’Souza                                                                                                            
  4. Dan Bongino                                                                                                                   
  5. Ben Shapiro                                                                                                                 
  6. CNN                                                                                                                            
  7. Donald Trump For President                                                                               
  8. Newsmax                                                                                                                    
  9. Ben Shapiro                                                                                                                 
  10. Fox News

For context, Roose noted in August, “Ben Shapiro had 56 million interactions on his Facebook page in the last 30 days: more than the main pages of ABC News, NBC News, The New York Times, The Washington Post and NPR combined. (Shapiro’s news outlet, The Daily Wire, was Facebook’s No. 1 publisher in July).”

These insidious techniques may not have as damaging an effect if happening as isolated one-offs. However, when added up and weaponized, it’s worth asking: for those not accessing baseline-reality news, if critical news simply isn’t covered (Trump’s failures and all the ways COVID-19 has upended the world), then did they even happen?

Getting Under The Hood Of Facebook’s Black Box

Weeks after the election, on November 24th, another New York Times journalist, opinion columnist Charlie Warzel, tried to get under the hood of how Facebook targets baby boomers in his captivatingly titled, “What Facebook Fed the Baby Boomers – Many Americans’ feeds are nightmares. I know because I spent weeks living inside two of them. In October, he convinced two Facebook users (a 62-year old Arizona-based man and 55-year old Virginia-based woman) to share their passwords so he could view their feeds for three weeks before and after election Day. Both voted for Biden and neither are overtly political online.

The Arizonan’s feed quickly grew toxic: memes of Joe Biden next to a “for sale, for more information contact Hunter”; a meme from pro-Trump group Turning Point USA reading, “Your city on socialism”, with the requisite images of abandoned buildings, empty store shelves, bloodied people in dirty, makeshift, beds; an alleged screenshot form a local Fox affiliate in Detroit  with the chyron “Detroit Voter Roll Lawsuit(the segment was debunked by Snopes); claims of vote tallies in Wisconsin exceeding the number of registered voters, with no links to support the conspiracy theory. Warzel’s verdict: “Many examples of misinformation came from Facebook text posts created and shared by his friends repeating baseless voter-fraud claims …The feed [is an] infinite scroll of content without context.”

The woman from Virginia described seeing “disturbing, conspiracy posts” in her network in the run-up to the election. “I’ve watched people go from debating the issue to coming up with the craziest thing they can say to get attention. Take the whole anti-abortion debate. People started talking, then started saying ‘if you vote for Biden you’re a murderer.’ Now there’s people posting graphic pictures of fetuses.”

Warzel zeroes in on what makes Facebook so uniquely dangerous: since no two feeds are the same, no one has any idea what’s in anyone else’s feed. Because the platform is curated to each individual, Facebook has evaded regulation by relying on each user’s experience being hidden to the rest of the world. There’s simply been no meaningful oversight for users seeing distorted political content that intentionally lacks, citations or attribution. Warzel concluded, “The more I scrolled, the more comments felt like a central and intractable issue. Unlike links to outside articles, comments aren’t subject to third-party fact checks or outside moderation…largely invisible to those people who study or attempt to police the platform. No story is the same because no feed is the same.”

Trying to debunk each one is simply whackamole – at least under a Trump administration and Barr DOJ. This basic tenet of Facebook – a black box design with no two Facebook feeds being the same– is a problem that keeps popping up.

The New “Surgical Precision”: Microtargeted “Dark Ads /Dark Posts” Are Four Years Overdue For Investigation And Regulation

The architects of microtargeting profiles were Cambridge Analytica (CA), the analytics and marketing firm shut down in 2018, and current subjects of multiple investigations in multiple countries. They worked extensively on Brexit and the 2016 Trump campaign, building “psychographic” profiles to micro-target political ads on social media based on personality traits like “extroversion” or “neuroticism.” A former CA director testified to Parliament that the “methodology was considered a weapon, weapons-grade communications tactics”. In February’s prescient Atlantic feature, “The Billion-Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Reelect the President – How new technologies and techniques pioneered by dictators will shape the 2020 election,” a second former CA director went on the record. He’d recently explained to Congress, “with the right kind of nudges, people who exhibited certain psychological characteristics could be pushed into ever more extreme beliefs and conspiratorial thinking.”

Microtargeted “dark posts” or “dark ads” on Facebook are essentially disappearing political ads that vanish from users’ feeds once a campaign stops paying for them. The phrase, “target[ing] African Americans with almost surgical precision,coined by a North Carolina court in 2016 that struck down voter suppression efforts, is the closest parallel. This past September, a hair-raising story about the practice was drowned out of the newscycle. The UK’s Channel 4 produced a 20-minute documentary (Revealed: Trump campaign strategy to deter millions of Black Americans from voting in 2016) after receiving access to a leaked database of voter files belonging to the 2016 Trump campaign and CA.

Four years ago, the campaign, (exploiting illegally obtained data which CA obtained from millions of unwitting Facebook users) micro-targeted voters by segmenting everything from behavioral proclivities to personality traits, as well as race. The list, compiling personal information on 200 million American voters, explicitly laid out persuasion plans for Black voters. They micro-targeted 3.5 million African American voters in swing states with disinformation-fueled dark posts and dark ads about Hillary Clinton being secretly racist. Because the Trump campaign knew it couldn’t win over Black voters, 3.5 million were categorized as “deterrence” which the campaign “hope[d] don’t show up to vote.” Some categories from Trump’s campaign database labeled voter types as “deadbeat.

Channel 4 describes the lists broken down into, “16 key battleground states, millions of Americans separated by an algorithm into one of 8 categories, also described as ‘audiences’, so they could then be [micro]targeted with tailored ads on Facebook and other platforms… the Trump campaign spent nearly $50 million on Facebook ads alone during 2016, posting almost 6 million different versions of highly targeted messages that were pumped directly into the feeds of target voters across America, helped by a Facebook employee embedded within the Trump campaign.”

Here’s where that lack of accountability for Facebook comes up again: since most of the ads were “dark posts”, there had been no complete public records of them or the audience lists used to micro-target voters. Until the Channel 4 exposé, there had been no way to know precisely how the Trump campaign was exploiting their “deterrence” strategy.

Despite Trump campaign denials, “Channel 4 has uncovered evidence that the campaign did target Black voters with negative ads designed to crush Clinton’s turnout. These included videos featuring her referring to Black youths as “superpredators” [decades ago] which aired on television 402 times in October 2016 and received millions of views on Facebook. In one confidential document seen by Channel 4, Cambridge Analytica admitted the Trump campaign did target “AA” (African Americans) with what it called the “Predators video” – spending $55,000 in Georgia alone.”

This wasn’t a standalone for Channel 4, which went on to air a Part 2. The follow-up documented how the same 200 million voters were being unknowingly experimented upon by the Trump campaign in the 2020 election. The title summed up what sounds like the campaign’s evergreen white voter strategy, “How Trump campaign targets millions of white voters – and activates fears over rioting.”

The Redacted Mueller report and Senate Intel report exposed how Russia employed these racist disinformation campaigns. Unless it exists under the redactions, there’s no way to know exactly what ads these voters saw since Facebook won’t release this information – until legally compelled. Hopefully it won’t take until 2024 to learn of the scope that dark ads played in the 2020 election.

How Trump and The GOP Microtargeted The Latinx Vote With Lies And Fearmongering

In the November 7th CNN article, “How social media posts in Spanish are sowing doubt over the election,” Janet Murguía, CEO of UnidosUS, told reporters, “You cannot underestimate the level of micro-targeted disinformation sent into Miami-Dade County and across certain targeted areas across the country.” In the months leading up to the election, Florida advocacy groups were seeing a proliferation of scare tactic posts in Spanish designed to exploit Latinx voters’ fears by painting Biden as the kind of radical socialist leader that these microtargeted American voters may have fled (Cuba, Venezuela).

After the election, the chaos-sowing shifted to Biden as a Communist strongman committing voter fraud and stealing the election. Democratic operatives were seeing misleading messages in Spanish starting in (Facebook-owned) WhatsApp chat groups, then spreading to Facebook posts before jumping to radio commentary. Democratic strategists believe that falsely comparing Biden to authoritarian leaders overseeing oppressive communist governments likely helped deliver Florida to Trump.

Knowledge Is Incredibly Expensive To Produce” vs “The Truth Is Gonna Be Really Expensive”

Within a two-week span in May, two interviews articulated the kind of insight showing it’s possible to slow the rollercoaster, assess the ride and see where it’s going. Both explored the idea of truth as-commodity.

On May 14th, NBC News posted,These disinformation researchers saw the coronavirus ‘infodemic’ coming”.  Joan Donovan, director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media Politics and Public Policy, explained, Information is extremely cheap to produce…That’s why misinformation is a problem, because you don’t need any evidence, you don’t need any investigation, you don’t need any methods to produce it. Knowledge is incredibly expensive to produce. Experts are sought after, and they aren’t going to work for free. So platform companies can’t rely on the idea that the web is something we build together.”

On May 29th, restauranteur David Chang interviewed Westworld co-creator Jonathan Nolan. They discussed how the lack of regulated online information was already distorting what we were learning about COVID-19. This was Nolan’s take: “Now we have a couple of massive companies that have come in, harvested all of our data, and are beginning to use it to propel political outcomes and societal shifts in changes. Consider how complicated it is to figure out, in the pandemic, if something you’ve read online is true…We were joking that in 10 years, absent any kind of intervention, the truth is gonna be really expensive. Like, if you want the truth, you’re gonna have to be wealthy, you’re gonna have to subscribe to a service that tells you what the fuck is actually happening, and helps you sift through all the lies. There needs to be some regulation of the information we’re finding online. Not a lot of it, just a little bit, just enough so that you can sift through the bullshit.”

While Nolan’s example was focused on an imminent dystopian version, Donovan’s was grounded in a less nightmarish present. Contrast their “knowledge-as-commodity / truth-as-luxury” concept alongside Steve Bannon’s 2018 admission of Trump’s messaging strategy, “flooding the zone with shit. What is the disinformation ecosystem if not a shit-flooded zone in need of an expensive cleanup job?

The Biden Administration And The Gamechanger: Criminal Liability

On November 16th, President Obama’s first post-2020 election interview was posted in The Atlantic. The former President’s typically omnipresent optimism was notably tempered. When Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg referenced Bannon’s “flooding the zone with shit”, Obama described what’s at stake in the starkest possible terms, “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis…Without this common narrative, democracy becomes very tough.”

When asked by Goldberg, “Is this new malevolent information architecture bending the moral arc away from justice?”, Obama responded, “I think it is the single biggest threat to our democracy.”

Obama on the distortion of Joe Biden and the Democratic party: “Large swaths of the country genuinely believe the Democratic Party is a front for a pedophile ring. This stuff takes root. I was talking to a volunteer who was going door-to-door in Philadelphia in low-income African American communities, and getting questions about QAnon conspiracy theories. There’s still a large portion of the country that was taken in by a carnival barker.”

Shortly after the 2016 election, Obama directly confronted Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook’s then-underestimated role in the outcome. On November 10th, just two days after Trump’s win, Zuckerberg said, “I think the idea that fake news on Facebook…influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea.” Later that week (November 19th), during a meeting of world leaders in Peru, Obama spoke privately with Zuckerberg about the urgency of taking political disinformation much more seriously and how the problem could drastically exacerbate come the next presidential race. The Washington Post reported, “Zuckerberg acknowledged the problem posed by fake news. But he told Obama that those messages weren’t widespread on Facebook and that there was no easy remedy.”

While Facebook has taken full advantage of the four-year run that a Trump-Barr DOJ and toothless FTC afforded them, the incoming Biden administration should be giving Zuckerberg existential pause. After months of Facebook defying Biden’s demands to take down demonstrable lies and deepfake videos of him, social media’s wild west phase is about to enter an accountability period. The two words that tech companies fear most, and have long been able to outrun, may be coming to a head: criminal liability.

Months before Biden secured the Democratic nomination, the aforementioned Charlie Warzel interviewed him in January 2020 for The New York Times. They discussed a recent ad lying about Biden blackmailing Ukrainian officials to not investigate his son, Hunter. Facebook refused to remove it, even after Biden’s campaign wrote to them.

Biden explained, “I’ve never been a fan of Facebook [or] Zuckerberg…he’s a real problem…he knows better…[We should be worried] about the concentration of power…lack of privacy and them being exempt…[The Times] can’t write something you know to be false and be exempt from being sued. But he can…It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false, and we should be setting privacy standards like the Europeans…You guys still have editors. There is no editorial impact at all on Facebook. None whatsoever. It’s totally irresponsible.”

Warzel went on to ask about the potential for Facebook, and specifically Zuckerberg, being on the hook for criminal penalties. Biden’s response reads very differently today than it did months before he became President-elect:

“He [and Facebook] should be submitted to civil liability just like you’d be here at The New York Times. Whether he engaged in something and amounted to collusion that caused harm that would in fact be equal to a criminal offense, that’s a different issue. That’s possible it could happen. Zuckerberg finally took down those [Russian-run ads of Biden blackmailing Ukraine]. All those bots about me.…He was getting paid a lot of money to put them up…It’s a responsibility of government to make sure it’s [the media landscape] not abused…I think it’s being abused. For example, the idea that he cooperates with knowing that Russia was engaged with their platform to try to undermine American elections. That’s close to criminal.”

Warzel: I think he would argue that he didn’t know about that at the time and ——

Biden: He’d argue it and I don’t believe him for a second.

Warzel: You don’t believe that?

Biden: No, I don’t. Nor do you, in your heart. [LAUGHS]

The Potential For A Better Informed Electorate

Despite no easy fix or silver bullet, we’re about to see how a presidential administration should have tackled this crisis after the 2016 election was attacked. The Biden administration has ample creative ways they’ve likely been working on and planning for during the transition. An easy start is reintroducing the 2017 “Honest Ads Act”. Miguel Cardona, the nominated Education Secretary, can begin reimagining how civics is taught in our schools. The success of digital media literacy programs for older adults like the Poynter Institute’s MediaWise for Seniors can be replicated on a much larger scale. The creation of a new federal department or agency focused on news and media literacy has become a necessity, as would an arm focused exclusively on combatting disinformation. Forcing social media platforms to ban bots, remove anonymous accounts and take accountability for the content they stream (just as every other media outlet has for decades) is only the start.

“The creation of a new federal department or agency focused on news and media literacy has become a necessity, as would an arm focused exclusively on combatting disinformation.”

Although incoming AG Merrick Garland is going to be leading a DOJ with very different priorities than it was expecting before January 6th, there’s something that cannot afford to get lost amidst this new crisis. In a way, it’s inextricably linked with January 6th: the country deserves to learn what became of the Mueller / FBI investigations into the unholy trinity that was Cambridge Analytica, Facebook and the 2016 Trump campaign. None have been confirmed as closed cases, even if they may well be. In 2018, the Redacted Mueller Report included an index referring 14 redacted criminal referrals for outside prosecution to other law enforcement agencies (two became public – Michael Stone and Greg Craig). We have no idea if any of the 12 remain active. During Mueller’s investigation, Facebook turned over detailed records about Russian ad purchases only after a search warrant was served. These were records that the company refused to turn over to Congress. A Biden DOJ that’s looking to be careful about how it investigates the previous administration should, theoretically, have less reservation about sharing what turned up before they got there. Either way, a Biden presidency brings the promise for a reset. We’ll just have to wait to find out how many of the 74 million will see and hear what he actually says and does.


Brent Korson
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Brent Korson is a writer / documentary producer living in NYC whose work runs the gamut from environmental justice to spotlighting corruption. His production experience includes projects for PBS, NBC, Nat Geo, The History Channel, MoveOn.org, The Sundance Channel and Pennebaker Hegedus films. Editorial and writing experience includes work with Interview, Time Out NY and AV Network and Zoetrope: All Story. He’s known for his passion towards climate-related issues, interest in seeing journalism and news continually course correct itself and belief that Damon Lindelof is the premiere storyteller of our times.