WASHINGTON ― It started with an unusual email Friday afternoon: “Is this article true?”
The attached JPEG resembled a Defense News story complete with my byline, but instead of my work, it was a cocktail of lies and paranoia. There was the layout of one of my stories about the new defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, but some of the words matched a Washington Post article ― and it included both a false headline about Austin “defunding and dismantling” the U.S. Army and an equally false quote about America looking to China for its national defense.
Over the next few days, I received more than five dozen emails from strangers, most of them fearful this viral fake news was true. Meanwhile, I watched the meme stubbornly spread on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and maybe most of all Telegram, a chat app popular with QAnon adherents that was first developed in Russia.
“Did you in fact write this article? If so is there some back up for it? I am a retired Marine and frankly this scares the shit out of me,” one man wrote.
For the first two days, I alerted the trickle of Facebook users who’d reposted it. But a search of Facebook on Sunday revealed a soul-crushing cascade: The image had been reposted dozens of times.
Weeks after a disinformation-fueled siege at the U.S. Capitol where lawmakers were confirming the national election results, this was an uncomfortably close look at a threat that has long worried national security experts and scholars. The disinformation crisis will be a challenge for President Joe Biden, who called out the “attack on democracy and truth” in his inaugural address by saying: “We must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.”
Expect an uphill fight. A 2018 study of Twitter by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that false news travels faster than true stories, and not due to bots programmed to disseminate inaccurate stories but rather because of people retweeting them.
False news stories are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories, the study found, and it takes true stories about six times as long to reach 1,500 people as it does for false stories to reach the same number of people.
According to Benjamin Decker, the founder and chief executive of the digital investigations consultancy Memetica, the Austin image and some associated text seemed to have first appeared on the online forum 4chan on Jan. 20, two days before a reader emailed me and before it jumped to multiple platforms and message boards. Decker has likened the authors of these sorts of memes to brushfire arsonists who want sparks to jump firebreaks into more mainstream platforms, where others will fan the flames.
Where did this one come from? That’s unclear.
Authorities have warned that Russia, China and others are using cyber-enabled information operations to exacerbate existing tensions within the United States and between it and its allies. Some of the clumsy language in the fake Austin quote — “We are looking at China to rely on regarding our national defense” — suggested to Decker the meme may have been developed overseas. He noted it received some “suspicious amplification” from the “Republicans Worldwide” Facebook page, which has previously carried Russian-made memes.
One of the Telegram accounts that posted the piece is attributed to retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, an 83-year-old former Fox News analyst and military adviser for the Trump campaign known for making debunked claims about voter fraud. The account has an incredible reach with more than 80,000 subscribers.
But when I called the real McInerney, he told me it was not him.
“I’m not on any social media, so someone is trying to discredit me,” McInerney said. “I’ve sent at least four emails to Telegram to ask that my name be removed. Others have called me, and it’s obvious Telegram is complicit.”
What about the premise that Austin might end the U.S. Army and outsource the country’s defense to China?
“Ridiculous,” McInerney said, adding that Austin was the best appointment Biden has made. “Austin is a general officer I have great respect for, and I’m actually surprised he would want to work in this administration.”
President Donald Trump’s departure has left the pro-Trump and QAnon communities disillusioned, fractured and flocking to alternative platforms such as Gab and Telegram after mainstream sites banned them. As these communities look for new narratives, account holders purporting to have served in the military can lend credibility to fake conspiracy theories.
“In the post-election era of QAnon, they need some sort of validation or verification, and what there’s been recently, especially in the run-up to Jan. 20, are these new QAnon channels on Telegram impersonating senior military officials,” Decker said.
Impersonating a media brand can do the same. “You’re kind of hijacking the brand in order to push a certain narrative, and that’s something that we’ve seen time and time again,” Decker said.
Fighting brush fires
What I learned while alerting those Facebook users was depressing but also reassuring. After finding the images by searching for keywords, I was sometimes parachuting into threads where debates were already happening about the meme’s veracity. Many concluded it was fake after searching for the nonexistent story itself, and one QAnon thread even hosted a version of the meme emblazoned with big red letters: “FAKE!!”
“I haven’t seen this anywhere,” one Facebook user replied to another. “Trust me I have some concerns about the ‘new admin’ but I do want to make sure I get info from various sources.”
One woman I alerted was embarrassed, but I offered that the item was crafted to be deceptive and that she and I were its victims.
I work hard to provide accurate information, with context, to educate the public, and the meme was upsetting to me because my name had been used to do the opposite. Not only was it damaging to my credibility, but political lies ― as shown by the deadly insurrection at the Capitol ― damage our democracy.
It was dispiriting that my flagging of several dozen individual posts as “false news” through Facebook’s own notification system had no immediate effect. Only after Defense News and Memetica contacted Facebook did the memes disappear en masse.
For its part, Facebook said its team determined that the posts violated its policies toward digitally altered images leading to disinformation, that it deleted them and that similar posts should be automatically screened in the future.
Several users I contacted acknowledged the meme was false but stubbornly left it up because, to them, it showed larger truths about the new Biden administration.
“Not as farfetched as you think,” one man replied with regard to Austin. “What do you know of his past? Why was he chosen? Why did Biden already move in Syria? Why did he just make us dependent on foreign oil? Why is he against jets just sold to UAE? Why did he support past funding for Iran? Why did his past administration take out Seal Team Six and not lend aid to Bengahzi? Not farfetched at all. Corruption runs very deep with this guy.”
But anyone with an internet connection can watch Austin’s confirmation hearing and get the facts.
The headline falsely stated: ‘Lloyd Austin, Biden’s nominee to lead the Pentagon, is considering “defunding, maybe disbanding” U.S. Army.’ Another lie was that Austin was asked how the U.S. would counter foreign threats, and he replied, “We are looking into having China to rely on regarding national defense.” If Austin had said either, it’s unlikely he’d have been confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 93-2.
Yes, some lawmakers have argued Austin lacks sufficient China experience, but Austin used his confirmation hearing to call China an adversary and note on the record the Defense Department’s “pacing” challenge. Asked how he would maintain a competitive edge against China, he gave a predictable answer: “We will present a credible deterrent to China and any other adversary that looks to take us on.”
Far from dismantling the Army, Austin ― who is a retired four-star Army general and former Army vice chief of staff ― had to reassure a skeptical Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., during the hearing that he would not show favoritism toward the Army over the other services.
Claims that Austin, the country’s first Black defense secretary, was considering defunding the Army echoed the “defund the police” slogan that became common during the George Floyd protests this summer. However, Biden’s campaign platform has promised $300 million for police departments to hire more officers, and he’s rejected the “defund police” label.
In the end it was just a slapdash mix of issues on America’s political fault lines, and it might have taken somebody 15 minutes to assemble. But that’s all it needed to catch fire online.
Joe Gould is the Congress reporter for Defense News.