According to recently uncovered emails, former President Donald Trump called Karen Fann, the Republican president of Arizona’s state Senate, personally thanking her for ordering a recount of the state’s 2020 presidential votes and “pushing to prove any fraud.”
Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s aide de camp, called her at least six times, or so she said in one of her emails. That may help explain why a partisan company with zero relevant experience is conducting a dubiously competent and seemingly interminable recount of Maricopa County’s votes inside Phoenix’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Here is a puzzle. What do Trump and his allies hope to accomplish? The partisan recount lacks all credibility. The county’s Republican recorder and all five of its supervisors, four of them Republicans, have denounced it as a sham.
It is unnecessary.
The Maricopa vote had already been checked twice, then independently audited twice, then certified by the Republican governor. The investigators are reportedly pursuing laughable conspiracy theories, such as looking for bamboo fibers in case fake ballots were smuggled from China. And even if the partisan audit finds serious errors, they would not change the 2020 election result.
Why go to so much trouble to stage a three-ring circus? Answer: the real goal is to manipulate public opinion, not the election.
How Arizona’s audit is spreading disinformation
The best way to think of the Arizona audit is as an example of what Russian intelligence operatives – masters of the dark arts of disinformation – call “active measures.” Their goal is to manipulate the social and media environments and thereby divide, disorient and demoralize a target population.
As Yuri Bezmenov, a Soviet intelligence defector, explained in a chilling 1983 interview, “What it basically means is to change the perception of reality of every American to such an extent that despite the abundance of information, no one is able to come to sensible conclusions in the interests of defending themselves, their family, their community and their country.”
This kind of propaganda attack is nothing new; Lenin, Hitler and many other dictators and demagogues have used it. What is unprecedented is the deployment of Russian-style disinformation tactics against Americans by other Americans: namely, Trump, his supporters and their partisan enablers.
Right now, they are using three main techniques to infect and infest our minds, and the Arizona recount demonstrates all of them.
1. Use trolling to hijack attention
First, trolling. When outraged, humans rush to defend our cherished groups and beliefs; exploiting this impulse, trolls use outrage, insult, harassment and other flagrant norm violations to hijack attention.
One politician who understood the psychology of trolling was Adolf Hitler. “Who cares whether they laugh at us, treating us as fools or criminals?” he wrote. “The point is that they talk about us and constantly think about us.”
Another master of trolling is Donald Trump. When a Twitter user called him “the most superior troll on the whole of Twitter,” Trump replied: “A great compliment!” He deserved the honor. His streams of slurs and insults ensure no one could stop talking and thinking about him.
The Arizona recount may be a partisan stunt, but its very outrageousness and weirdness have guaranteed national headlines. Now it is inspiring copycats around the country – and thus going viral, the goal of trolling.
2. Seed and spread conspiracies
Second, conspiracy bootstrapping. Seed and spread a conspiracy theory, then use the fact that some people believe it to demand an investigation, and then claim a coverup. In the form of so-called “birtherism,” this tactic put Trump on the map, and he used it liberally throughout his presidency, for example with a completely made-up murder charge against one of his critics.
Conspiracy bootstrapping is especially insidious because it traps its target in a trilemma. Ignore the bogus claim, and you are covering it up (what have you got to hide?). Debunk it, and you repeat it, giving it further currency. Investigate it, and you bolster its credibility.
That is the trap set by the Arizona recount. Its supporters say they are merely trying to uncover the truth and check every allegation. After all, is it 100% impossible that fake ballots came in from China? No? Then we must investigate! Never mind that there was nothing to investigate in the first place.
3. Swamp the system with lies
Third, the firehose of falsehood. This is a favorite Russian ploy: use every available channel to swamp the system with partial truths or outright fictions, never mind how outlandish, inconsistent or self-contradictory.
The media and the public can’t hope to keep up with the tsunami of nonsense. Trying leaves them confused, cynical and mistrustful – and thus soft targets for a dictator like Russian president Vladimir Putin or a demagogue like Trump. As Trump’s strategist Steven Bannon said, “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with s—.”
This technique was behind Trump’s unprecedented record of lying, outrageously and transparently. It was why he lied about everything from the weather during his inauguration to the reliability of voting by mail. It is why he did not shrink from blatant inconsistencies, such as asserting on one day that impeachment was hurting the stock market, and then the next day bragging that the market had reached a record high.
And it is the backbone of the #StopTheSteal campaign, which threw up masses of absurd and incoherent nonsense (somehow a dead Venezuelan dictator was in on the plot!) and pushed it out through the White House, social media, conservative cable TV and talk radio, and frivolous lawsuits.
As a result, most Republicans think Trump won the election, and many other Americans are unsure. The Arizona recount is part of this multifront confuse-a-thon.
Why playing mind games is so dangerous
Information warfare, as refined by Putin and applied by Trump, is psychologically sophisticated. It targets and jams the mental wiring that makes us rush to protest outrages, dig to seek explanations and listen to what we hear.
The best defense against tactics like trolling, conspiracy bootstrapping and disinformation is for politicians not to use them in the first place. That Maginot line, alas, is shattered. Russian-style propaganda has come to U.S. politics, possibly for good. In that respect, we are all Russians now.
With our cognitive walls breached, responding will require all kinds of adjustments: everything from changing social media platforms to teaching students media literacy; from monitoring troll networks to voting out politicians who use “active measures” against Americans.
But the predicate for all forms of defense is to understand and recognize the powerful mental manipulations being deployed against us. A prepared population is not immune to information warfare, but it is more resistant.
Honest recounts tally votes. The Coliseum recount is playing mind games. A lot rides on distinguishing the difference – in Arizona and everywhere else.
Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the author of “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.”
Originally Appeared Here