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Analysis: Trump may be gone, but the instruments of information warfare that empowered him remain

CNN logo CNN 1/22/2021 Analysis by Oliver Darcy, CNN Business
Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump board Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) © Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump board Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Donald Trump might no longer be in office, but the information infrastructure he exploited to ascend to the Oval Office and then exert a firm grip over the Republican Party is still largely in place. During Trump's 2016 run for office and throughout his presidency, the focus was mostly on spotlighting the lies he told and the conspiracy theories he promoted. And to be clear, that was important work.

But the conversation should — and, frankly, needs — to go deeper than that. Trump was only one person who took advantage of the existing instruments in place to wage information warfare on his political opponents and critics in the media. Yes, he's now out of office. But those instruments he used to amass power still remain out on the battlefield ready for another aspiring candidate to come along, pick up, and use for their own benefit.

These tools include right-wing cable channels, talk-radio, hyper-partisan news websites, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. In the wake of the domestic terrorism that took place on Capitol Hill earlier this month, some of these platforms have made some tweaks that have helped curb the spread of disinformation. But if you speak to experts, most aren't convinced that these tweaks are enough. And elsewhere in the information economy, such as on Fox News, nothing has fundamentally changed.

The country saw earlier this month what can happen when these tools are wielded by a political leader with no shame and only ambition. And it saw over the last few years how these instruments can be used to launch an unrelenting assault on the truth. Focusing on individual politicians who use these instruments to lie and mislead is important, but it misses the larger issue. And until that issue is addressed, and a serious national conversation is had, we should fully expect to see what happened earlier this month and over the last few years repeat itself in the future.

"It will be a bigger story"

Over at Vanity Fair, Joe Pompeo's latest story was all about the news media's shift toward covering domestic extremism. Pompeo pointed out, "The radicalization that was laid bare at the Capitol two weeks ago isn't going to just disappear. There will be more demonstrations, more violence, more conspiracy theories coursing through the dark corners of the web. Homegrown extremism, catalyzed by the hypernationalistic and reality-resistant fervor of the Donald Trump presidency, has effectively gone mainstream, and the media is confronting that reality head-on."

"It's a big story, and it will be a bigger story," WaPo managing editor Cameron Barr told Pompeo. "We've seen rising momentum. We've seen that these issues, and in some cases these actions, have gained urgency and much greater prominence." Pompeo also spoke with CNN's Elle Reeve. "I can't predict the future, I can only tell you when I feel like things are significantly escalating," she said, adding that she does believe extremism has gone mainstream.

Big Tech facing heat from Capitol Hill

"Only hours after gaining full control of Congress, House Democrats are going after Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube for the platforms' perceived roles in inciting violence at the Capitol earlier this month," The Verge's Makena Kelly reported Thursday. "In letters addressed to the chief executives of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, Reps. Anna Eshoo and Tom Malinowski, along with dozens of other members, called for the companies to make sweeping changes to their platforms to curb violent and extremist activity on their networks."

Others shouldn't get a pass

While Big Tech certainly deserves to face questions for helping to radicalize untold numbers of Americans, other platforms that disseminate disinformation and conspiracy theories for profit really shouldn't be left without scrutiny. That includes channels like Fox News, Newsmax, and OAN. But it also includes TV providers that willfully deliver such channels into the living rooms of millions and companies such as Premiere Networks that distributes shows from dishonest talk-radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh.

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