Analysis: The big lie. The Covid misinformation. It all comes back to Russia.

A version of this story appeared in CNN’s What Matters newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.
While Trump can’t spread misinformation on Twitter (ever again) or Facebook (at least for the next six months, we learned Wednesday), we’re starting to get a clearer sense of the line between misinformation in 2016, misinformation in 2020 and how it might look now that the majority of the GOP has decided to mainline misinformation going forward.
The 2016 version of misinformation came from Russia. Did Trump’s 2016 campaign interact with Russians and did those Russians send information back to the Kremlin? Yes. The Treasury Department made the revelation of Russia’s 2016 interference in April, announcing new sanctions for Russia’s attempted election meddling in 2020.
Read more about that revelation, buried in a Treasury release here.
It has long been suspected but never explicitly stated by the US government that Konstantin Kilimnik passed internal Trump campaign data from former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort to Russian intelligence services. The announcement Thursday establishes a simple and direct channel of communication from the upper echelon of the Trump campaign to the Russian agencies that were meddling to help Trump win.
Back to whether Trump’s actions may have been criminal. We were led by then-Attorney General William Barr to believe that they were not. But a remarkable critique by a federal judge this week and her decision that the Department of Justice must publicly release a highly redacted memo prepared for Barr makes it seem like the fix was in; Trump couldn’t be charged no matter what. Everything else stemmed from that. Barr slow-walked the release of the Mueller report and tried to blunt its effect after already deciding it would not allege criminal wrongdoing.
Read more about the Judge Amy Berman Jackson’s decision here.
Jackson concluded that the redacted memo showed that it was drafted even though the decision not to prosecute Trump had already been settled, suggesting Barr misled lawmakers and the public about the decision not to charge Trump with obstruction of justice. The opinion included emails showing that Justice Department officials were drafting the memo on obstruction at the same time as the four-page letter Barr sent to Congress summarizing Mueller’s findings.
“The review of the document reveals that the Attorney General was not then engaged in making a decision about whether the President should be charged with obstruction of justice; the fact that he would not be prosecuted was a given,” Jackson wrote.
Adjacent to Russia’s interference in 2016 is Trump’s attempt to dig up dirt on Joe Biden ahead of 2020. Despite Trump’s impeachment, we may still learn from the active federal investigation into what exactly Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani was doing for Trump in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Where the lies spread. Facebook, the simmering pot of misinformation from all sorts of sources on all sorts of topics, announced Wednesday that a specially convened board would punt for six months on whether to permanently bar Trump from the service.
Trump, Russia and other actors generally seek to polarize the country by spreading false facts.
That’s not going to stop anytime soon, regardless of what Facebook does to Trump or how many Russian misinformation efforts it takes down. The misinformation spreads to Covid, to vaccines, everywhere.
Learning from misinformation. I asked CNN’s Katelyn Polantz, who has covered the Mueller report and the Ukraine scandal for CNN, for her takeaway on the long tail of these stories. She drew a line from the Russian misinformation of 2016 to Trump’s misinformation during his presidency and about his election loss.
“If we think about what’s happening now, and we think about the sweep of history, one of the biggest lessons from the Mueller findings is, THIS is how disinformation works. The Russians did it so effectively in 2016 by harnessing social media to divide Americans and sway them toward Trump. US political voices, Trump included, embraced that type of propaganda and discourse and used the same tactics in 2020. Who needs Russia to do the social media trolling anymore when Trump and his supporters have taken up the task?”
Counterargument on misinformation: I enjoyed this CNN Opinion post from Christopher Bail, a professor at Duke who argues the problem is not social media platforms and misinformation, it’s polarization. I’d like to believe we’re overly concerned about misinformation because as a journalist I’m also always very concerned when people push the idea of cutting down on speech, even if it’s wrong.
Key line from Bail:
Most people don’t care very much about politics, and those that do usually have very strong views that are difficult to change. The small group of people who follow politics closely enough to erect strong echo chambers around themselves also see and share the vast majority of fake news.
Though we might like to think that Facebook, Twitter or other platforms could simply tweak some code to save us from our current predicament, these studies hint at a much more unsettling truth: the root cause of political polarization on our platforms is us. And it’s not going away until we find a way to solve it.
I can’t entirely buy into Bail’s argument since it feels like conservative partisan media, either taking cues from Trump or giving them to him, is actively pushing misinformation,
about Covid
turning everything into a partisan issue.
We can’t move on from misinformation. President Biden clearly wants to move on from the Trump era, which is probably the healthiest attitude. But it ignores the fact that misinformation is affecting policy, leading Republicans to excise people like Rep. Liz Cheney from their leadership and to push more restrictive voting laws in key states, and, arguably, affecting how some governors have treated Covid restrictions.
There’s also, crucially, the effect the Russian meddling and Trump’s Ukraine fishing expedition are having on US foreign policy.
CNN’s Matthew Chance has been watching the buildup of Russian troops on the Ukraine border and spoke to Ukraine’s foreign minister about both those troop exercises and the actions of Giuliani before the 2020 campaign. Read that here. He said Giuliani was “playing politics” but the Ukrainians did their best not to play along.
Both topics should be raised if Biden goes ahead and meets Russian President Vladimir Putin for a summit in June. Certainly that exchange will be different from the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, Finland, in July 2018, when Trump sided with Putin against US intelligence agencies.
It may be an opportunity for a reset between the countries, but it will be impossible to undo the era of misinformation that got us all here.
Posted in US