Disinformation, social media, internet
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An examination of the dark world of political disinformation and its peril to democracy’s future.

As a consistent MSNBC viewer, my wife regards Barbara McQuade almost as “part of the family.” Regularly tuning in, she values McQuade’s insights on pressing issues like disinformation and its tangible threats to democracy.

McQuade’s sharp observations on the precarious state our country finds itself in are valuable, and insights from the conversation we had recently were enlightening.

Every Election Day, voters are inundated with information. Campaigns, both local and national, unleash a torrent of truths, half-truths, and outright fabrications. The essential challenge lies in distinguishing the factual from the fraudulent, a task increasingly complicated by the proliferation of misinformation on a national scale that McQuade talks about. 

McQuade, a distinguished professor at the University of Michigan Law School, an analyst for NBC News and MSNBC, and a former US attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, offers many original perceptions in her new book, Attack from Within: Unmasking the Authoritarian’s Playbook. 

More than just an analysis, this conversation is a compelling call to action and vigilance. McQuade urges listeners to critically engage with the media landscape, armed with an awareness of the sinister tactics of political manipulation.

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Full Text Transcript:

(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you’ve ever been registered to vote, you know that in the weeks before election day, information pours in. There are endless mailers that fill your mailbox for even the most local race. TV and radio ads are the mother’s milk of politics and you see and hear them like it or not. The degree to which these mailers and ads are truthful is always the question that voters must try and ascertain. Sometimes, and admit it now, the look of the mailer or the candidate or claims that they make can sway your vote.

Now imagine this on a grand scale. 24/7 always on internet disinformation. Facts are false facts, not just in your mailbox but in your email, your Facebook and Twitter feeds, on Instagram, and TikTok, on the local news, the national news, cable news, and out of the mouths of the candidates and their surrogates with lots of fear that gets sprinkled around. It’s enough to make your head spin. And that’s the point. There is nothing new about misinformation in politics, but the sheer scale of it today is the stuff that lays the groundwork for authoritarianism. Which brings us to our guest today, Barbara McQuade.

Barbara is a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, a legal analyst for NBC News and MSNBC, and from 2010 to 2017, she served as the US attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. Her new book is Attack from Within: How Disinformation is Sabotaging America. In it, she examines how disinformation has become a powerful weapon to drive voters to extremes, disempower democratic institutions, and concentrate power in the hands of a few.

Barbara outlines the long history of authoritarians exploiting disinformation tactics like demonizing opponents, fanning nostalgia, and silencing dissent, but she also explores the realistic solutions that just might fortify America’s truth-based democracy against the disinformation fueling our toxic polarization. It is my pleasure to welcome Barbara McQuade here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast to talk about Attack from Within: How Disinformation is Sabotaging America. Barbara, thanks so much for joining us.

Barbara McQuade: Oh, thanks very much, Jeff. Glad to be with you.

Jeff: Well, it is indeed great to have you here. Misinformation, disinformation in politics has been with us for a long time, but something has changed in this country, and it goes beyond, I suppose, Donald Trump. There’s something that has changed to the way this is weaponized today and the speed at which it is constantly coming at us. Talk about that first.

Barbara: Yes. I think there are actually two things going on here, Jeff. One is, of course, the technology that allows propaganda, disinformation, whatever you want to call it to come at us at a pace never before seen. And so with the press of a button, what once took maybe months or weeks or years to disseminate through leaflets or word of mouth or planting a story in a newspaper can now be done instantly. And not only can it be done with a press of a button, but it can reach millions of people. So the technology certainly is one change, but I submit that there’s also another change afoot, which is there has been throughout history people who will use lies to manipulate other people.

But one of the things that’s happening now is because we are so polarized. In addition to the people who are duped by false information, there are a lot of people willing to go along with the con. And that’s where I think is the most insidious part of all of this. For example, when Representative Elise Stefanik refers to some of the January 6th defendants as hostages, I think she knows better, but I think she is willing to lean into a false narrative to advance her own political goals.

I think the same is true with regard to others who have tried to normalize the January 6th attack, for example, and suggest it was ordinary tourist activity or legitimate political discourse. We’re trying to engage in revisionist history to advance a political agenda, and I think that is where this authoritarian risk comes into play.

Jeff: There has always been the sense that negative advertising, for example, which people constantly say they don’t like, at the end of the day, it works for politicians. And it seems that we have just upped the ante with that, with so many lies, so much misinformation, so many outlets as you’re talking about that it not only works but it works on steroids now and politicians have figured out how to do that.

Barbara: Yes. One of the things that I worry about is something that we see in Russia, where they refer to this as “the fog of unknowability.” And there is just so much information, some accurate, some false, coming at people that people begin to tune out. They sometimes refer to the liar’s dividend as the ability to say, “Well, there’s so much disinformation out there that you can’t rely on any of it. It’s all fake news.” So the idea that there really is no truth, that we can’t count on anything to be true. It’s all a big lie. And in fact, truth is for suckers. Everything’s PR, everything’s spin.

And since you can’t believe anything anyway, you might just as well choose the candidate that shares your values or will advance your own political or personal agenda. And when people, ordinary people see that, they become cynical, and then numb, and finally, they disengage from politics altogether. I’m going to worry about my family, my job, maybe a little celebrity gossip, some sports, some weather, and that’s about it because who knows what to believe anymore. That’s a really dangerous place for democracy because we need an informed electorate if we are going to be able to govern ourselves.

Jeff: As you look at it historically, talk about other times, either here and in other places, where societies and democratic societies have gotten to this point where there is this kind of cynicism, where there is talk of alternative facts, where people just want to disengage.

Barbara: Yes, well, I’d say right now in Russia, but I talked in the book about some of the history of the use of some of these tactics. Hitler used these tactics, Mussolini used these tactics, and they’re tried and true. The methodologies for delivering some of this false information may be different today, but the tactics really are the same. Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf about the importance of simple, repeatable slogans that people could hear again and again. And the more often people hear things, the more likely they would be to believe it.

So things like “stop the steal”, “lock her up”, “drain the swamp” all have a lie beneath them.

But with a simple phrase that you hear repeated, give it resonance that make it more believable. Another Hitler technique was to tell big lies because, ironically, ordinary people are more inclined to believe a big lie than they are to believe a small lie. And that’s because all of us engage in white lies from time to time. We might tell somebody you like their dress or, “That dress doesn’t make you look fat” as someone might say to me. Those are white lies that are said for kindness and courtesy. But what Hitler wrote is that what most of us cannot even imagine is that someone would have the audacity to tell a lie about something of great significance.

And so we project onto others that same moral ground. And in fact, it creates this situation where the bigger the lie, the more likely it is to be believed. And so talking about something as unbelievable as a stolen election, what could be more audacious than that? And so people say, “Well, who would lie about that? You can’t possibly begin to lie about that because it would be so easy to disprove.” But when people hear it again and again in their echo chambers, on their television news, among their friends, and from the former president, it has the ring of truth. And so going back to all of these techniques, we see echoes of them today.

And finally, I’ll just mention, Jeff, the idea of the media is the enemy of the people and that it is fake news is awfully convenient when the media might tend to criticize a candidate. Hitler referred to the press as the Lugenpresse, which means lying press. And so Trump might call it fake news, but the techniques are really the same as we saw in Hitler’s Germany.

Jeff: The other part of it is that there is something in democracy itself and in our particular system of democracy of this country that makes us particularly vulnerable to this.

Barbara: Yes. All of our strengths, our First Amendment, our open society are things that we would not want to live without, and so those are not going to change, but because of those cherished values, there are people who are willing to exploit them. For example, our right to free speech. We have some limits on our right to free speech, but with only some limits, we can say pretty much whatever we want. We can criticize others. And so if you are engaged in disinformation, you can take advantage of that legal protection by pumping out all kinds of misleading and false claims without any repercussions.

And so that is a way, I think, that we are vulnerable to disinformation. Anybody can say what they want, anybody can associate with whoever they want. And so all of those things lead us to dangerous places we now see because of our rights to bear arms. It is certainly a right guaranteed by the Second Amendment, but there are those who would go so far as to say that right exists because the founders wanted to empower the citizens to be able to overthrow their government. There is certainly no evidence that that is true.

In fact, the Constitution provides just the opposite of that and yet we see advocates for gun rights take that right and really push it to laws that allow people to match the firepower of the US military with assault weapons, which is certainly, I believe, creating a very dangerous situation in this country.

Jeff: The other overlay to all of this is the tremendous amount of change that is taking place today. You talked about technology before, certainly, that’s part of it, but change in general in society and the culture, the demographics, the inclusion, it is all the kind of stuff that can be used to create this desire for a different time, this nostalgia that is so much a part of this.

Barbara: Yes., I think this is, again, something that we have seen throughout history and that is at moments of change or moments of instability, people are fearful and people are afraid of a future that is unknown and afraid of change that might leave them in a less desirable situation. And so that is a time when strong men come to power like Hitler and Mussolini and others, and people prey on that fear. Donald Trump talks about American carnage, we’re in the state of decline, and then points to change, others in his party, as things to be fearful of.

We’re living in a time when LGBTQ rights are on the rise and more recognition for rights and there are those who want to stop that from happening, and so they make false claims that members of the LGBTQ community are pedophiles who want to groom your children for pedophilia or turn your kids gay. Which, of course, could not be further from the truth and yet we hear those things, or the need to ban books about history of our country’s involvement in slavery or books about the LGBTQ community or books about African American history because those books will make people hate America.

They want to preserve this idea of America as a white Christian country, which, of course, is not what our founding documents set out to create, but it is based on this fear that, there’s some demographic studies that say by 2045, we will be a majority minority country. And that is frightening for some people. There are refugee crises, there’s climate change, there’s changing economies that render some jobs obsolete like coal mining jobs, and people don’t want to hear that their jobs are going to be rendered obsolete. Those jobs have been in their families for generations and they want them to continue to be.

And so for people who are willing to come in and lie to them, it’s a very comforting narrative, and it’s why people fall prey to it, but it is certainly not based on truth. It is based on lies and manipulation.

Jeff: There is also a vicious cycle going on in that all of these things and all of this behavior increases polarization. And the more polarized we are, the more we look for confirmation bias and we look for those demagogues that tell us what we want to hear, that we are in this cycle now that seems particularly difficult to break.

Barbara: Yes, I agree with that. When we are so polarized, it makes it very difficult for us to really govern ourselves and solve problems because solving problems requires compromise. People have to meet members of the other party halfway, you can’t get a full loaf. You might have to give up some things that you want. And maybe the pace of change is not as fast as everybody would like it to be, but if you insist on political purity, then nothing at all will get accomplished. And we are living in these times of great division.

Robert Mueller in his report on the 2016 presidential election and Russian interference concluded that Russia’s goal was to saw divisions in society, to push us apart, to look for cracks on issues, whether it’s immigration, race relations, abortion issues, guns, wherever there were divisions in society to get out there on social media and really stoke the anger and the vitriol there. And to a great degree it’s worked. And what I argue in my book is that it’s not just Russia anymore, it’s all of us who are virtue signaling to others that we are on the side of the most extreme branch of our own parties and that we are going to own our opponents and expose them as fools.

And so you see all of this hateful rhetoric online that only drives people further apart and causes people to dig in their heels and not want to compromise. One of the things I write about, you talk about confirmation bias, there is another cognitive bias that we all have. Some scientists refer to it as my side bias, that we are stubborn and once we have formed an opinion on something, we will just keep digging in deeper and deeper. And the reason for that is that we are wired to win arguments. We are not wired to use logic to solve problems. In society, the one who gets to argue loudest and be the biggest bully is the one who gets all the stuff- the cave, the meat, the whatever it is.

And so we are not wired to say, “On further reflection, I think you’re right. I’ve reconsidered and your arguments are valid. And I’ve reconsidered and I now agree with your position.” That is just all too rare in society today. We know we’re right and we’re going to argue with the other side, and not just argue about the facts but we’re going to insult them personally. And so when we are engaging in this kind of behavior and there are manipulators who want to polarize people for their own political advantage, it makes it very difficult for us to reach common ground, which is what is necessary for self-governance.

Jeff: And political parties are an important part of this. There’s a reason why the founders were suspicious of political parties. [George] Washington himself thought it was a terrible idea.

Barbara: Yes. The Federalist Papers refer to them as factions, and talk about how they will be making decisions that are in the best interest of the faction and not in the best interest of the people. So it’s really interesting. I think we’re not close to being at a point where we would do away with political parties. Imagine what a world would look like – I can’t even imagine – where we’re just electing individual candidates who we think were best for the job. That would be a really amazing thing, but instead, we have formed these alliances to amass political power, and I don’t think they’re going away anytime soon.

And it’s been really interesting to watch the evolution of the Republican Party. I try to be nonpartisan, and I think there are plenty of people who are Republicans or former Republicans who do have a view about smaller government or lower rates of taxes and individual responsibility that they consider to be the core values of conservatives or the Republican Party, which now looks nothing like that. The MAGA extremist right is really about Christian nationalism and political power for power’s sake, it seems to me, or low taxes for corporations even when it is not in the self-interest of some of the very people who are voting in support of it.

I believe that one of the tactics that we see by people like Donald Trump to be so divisive is an effort to divide lower socioeconomic whites from minorities, because if they ever got together, those groups would have incredible power. And instead, stoking the divide, saying racist things that might get people on your side is an effort to divide people who might otherwise form alliances that would take down powerful interests.

Jeff: I guess the real concern is whether the system that we currently have, the governing system, [the] software that we currently have is capable of dealing with information at the speed with which it comes at us today and the extremism that we see today. Is there something inherent in the system that we need to change when we look at things like the Electoral College and the geographic balance of the country and the influence of certain states, whether or not there’s just a fatal flaw built into the system?

Barbara: Yes, I think some would argue that the Electoral College has been rendered obsolete with the way the country has grown up around it, so that a voter in, say, California has much less power than a voter in Wyoming who has far more influence. And so that leads to some skewed results into who actually gets to control elections. Elections are now determined by a handful of swing states because of the Electoral College, and so there’s certainly an argument to be had about reexamining that, I think.

I also think one of the big flaws in our system is campaign finance. And as a result of the Citizens United decision from about 10 years ago, we have so much now dark money in our campaigns it allows large special interests to have undue weight in deciding elections because of the huge amounts of money they can put into it. I don’t think we can overturn Citizens United, it’s decided by the Supreme Court, but I do think we could make some changes to the law to require disclosure of who’s behind those things. The court held that corporations and other organizations have no limits on the amount of money they can put into campaigns because money is speech, but we could require disclosure of who that is.

And so I think that kind of transparency would go a long way to removing dark money because we would at least be able to see who is behind some of these efforts. So there are flaws to be sure, but we have the ability to fix them.

Jeff: One wonders if it’s not even too late for that when we look at the Supreme Court itself and the way money has been handed out there and fully disclosed at this point, thanks to the media, that it still seems to make no difference.

Barbara: Yes, that’s such a good point, isn’t it? We’ve seen some really great work by ProPublica about some of the financial benefits that Clarence Thomas has received, and yet, he’s still there. There is a certain segment of the electorate who is outraged by it and others who shrug and say, “We don’t care.” And that is disheartening, isn’t it? Because judicial ethics are what keep judges, not only free from undue influence but keeping the perception that they are free from undue influence. And I think that’s so important when we are thinking about the independence and credibility of the judiciary to think that they are not owned by anybody, that they’re not getting paid off by anybody.

They earn a modest but respectable salary, they have a job for life, but their job is to decide cases as they see them and not to benefit anybody who might be lining their pockets.

Jeff: When we look at this whole situation that we’ve been talking about here, one wonders if there is a way out or whether there is also something cyclical to American history as we’ve seen it unfold that we will just naturally move away from this situation that we’ve gotten ourselves into right now.

Barbara: I don’t think we’re going to naturally move away from it. I think we have to be intentional about moving away from it. And I think there are things we can do. I don’t think that we’ve reached a point that’s too far from recovery, but I do think that we need to care about facts and truth. And I think that we’ve reached a place now where people are so cynical that they don’t care about what’s true, they just care about winning. And that is a terrible thing when it comes to the best interest of the country. And so that’s what I hope my book will prompt a national conversation about truth, about why it’s so important.

There’s some truths that can’t be known, like what is the meaning of life and certain things that can never be known, but there are plenty of facts that can absolutely be known. Did people attack the Capitol on January 6th to try to stop the certification of the vote? Absolutely. Those are true facts. Was the election of 2020 stolen by Joe Biden? Absolutely not, and we know that from judicial proceedings that were held. I come from a background of law where we go into court and before you can make an argument, you have to have evidence that is admissible under rules designed to assure their reliability. You can’t just make stuff up.

You have to have attribution to either a piece of evidence or witness testimony that they said they observed something firsthand before you can call it a piece of evidence. And it’s discouraging to me to see how many people out in the world don’t care about facts. They just want to know which side you’re on, and then they’re going to make assumptions about your arguments based on their assumption that you’re going to be arguing in favor of your side. And I think we need to remember we’re all on the same side. We’re on the same side of America. And if we’re going to solve any problems, we have to work together using facts and truth.

Jeff: One of the frustrating things is that there was a time, even as we were moving into this extremism that we see today and that we’ve been talking about, that local politics and that local issues were separate and apart from this kind of partisanship, but even that’s changed today. It has filtered down even to the most local level. You talk to candidates running for city council or school board today, and they tell you that when they go knock on doors, one of the first questions they’re asked is, “What party are you part of? Who are you for?” It’s not like, “How are we going to fix the roads?” which it used to be.

Barbara: Yes, I think we’ve reached this place in politics where we care more about tribe than truth. Are you on my team? That’s all I really care about. And I think one of the things we have seen, and part of this I think is the demise of local media, is there used to be a time when we said all politics is local. And now it feels like all politics is national. We’re not paying enough attention to our local city councils and the budget and how the garbage is picked up and the streetlights are kept on and we’re dealing with affordable housing in our communities. Instead, we’re all focused on national issues. What’s going on with gun rights, abortion rights, immigration?

These are huge issues, but in terms of our ability to actually solve them and address them, we can have far more impact at the local level than we can at the national level. And yet, because I think of the demise of local media, we’re less informed about what’s going on at the local level, and so the only thing that we can debate about is what’s going on at the national level. And I think that is to the detriment of the way we live our lives because the greater impact on our ordinary lives comes from our local government.

Jeff: We know that certainly it is leaders that can prove to be authoritarian and that can tell these lies and that are so dangerous as we’ve been discussing. How important is leadership or charismatic leadership to getting us out of this?

Barbara: I think leadership is really important. I don’t know about charismatic leadership because sometimes I worry that the leader with charisma just dazzles people with their personality or their willingness to say things without any real substance there. But I think television and social media has rewarded those who do have charisma as opposed to those who might be most effective leaders. But speaking of a leader with both charisma and effectiveness, I read and cited in my book one of the books by Doris Kearns Goodwin. She writes about in her book, Leadership During Tumultuous Times, she writes about the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt and compares his time to our time.

We talked earlier about fear and how changing society can create fear and how leaders can prey upon that fear. And what she said is the turn of the century when he took office was another time of great change. We were evolving from an agrarian society to the Industrial Revolution. People were moving to cities. There was a new flux of immigrants coming from Europe. Newspapers now had the ability to tell us about frightening things occurring on the other side of the world, wars, and other kinds of things. And it could have been a very frightening time.

And instead, Theodore Roosevelt seized the opportunity and said, “This is an exciting time. This is a moment when we can do a lot of really great things. We’ve got all this talent coming into our borders. We’ve got all of this technological innovation when we can make life easier for people. We can now afford to treat kids in the labor market much better with child labor laws. We don’t need children under the age of 10 working in sweatshops. We can bust up unions and still thrive in this country. We don’t need to have monopolies.”

And so that kind of optimism and faith in the potential of America, I think could go a long way toward helping us to achieve goals and advance society instead of leaders who talk about American carnage and how we’re a country in decline. To be sure we have problems, but the only way we can solve those problems is by working together.

Jeff: Barbara McQuade, the book is Attack from Within: How Disinformation is Sabotaging America. Barbara, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Barbara: Thank you, Jeff, for obviously doing so much homework to be so well prepared. I really appreciate that.

Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to


  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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