Attack from Within: How Disinformation Is Sabotaging America

Attack from Within: How Disinformation Is Sabotaging America

by Barbara McQuade
Attack from Within: How Disinformation Is Sabotaging America

Attack from Within: How Disinformation Is Sabotaging America

by Barbara McQuade


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An urgent, comprehensive explanation of the ways disinformation is impacting democracy, and practical solutions that can be pursued to strengthen the public, media, and truth-based politics

MSNBC's legal expert breaks down the ways disinformation has become a tool to drive voters to extremes, disempower our legal structures, and consolidate power in the hands of the few.

"One of the most acute observers of our time shares . . . a compelling work about a challenge that—left unexamined and left unchecked—could undermine our democracy." —Eric H. Holder Jr, 82nd Attorney General of the United States

American society is more polarized than ever before. We are strategically being pushed apart by disinformation—the deliberate spreading of lies disguised as truth—and it comes at us from all sides: opportunists on the far right, Russian misinformed social media influencers, among others. It's endangering our democracy and causing havoc in our electoral system, schools, hospitals, workplaces, and in our Capitol. Advances in technology including rapid developments in artificial intelligence threaten to make the problems even worse by amplifying false claims and manufacturing credibility.

In Attack from Within, legal scholar and analyst Barbara McQuade, shows us how to identify the ways disinformation is seeping into all facets of our society and how we can fight against it. The book includes:

  • The authoritarian playbook: a brief history of disinformation from Mussolini and Hitler to Bolsonaro and Trump, chronicles the ways in which authoritarians have used disinformation to seize and retain power.
  • Disinformation tactics—like demonizing the other, seducing with nostalgia, silencing critics, muzzling the media, condemning the courts; stoking violence—and reasons why they work.
  • An explanation of why America is particularly vulnerable to disinformation and how it exploits our First Amendment Freedoms, sparks threats and violence, and destabilizes social structures.
  • Real, accessible solutions for countering disinformation and maintaining the rule of law such as making domestic terrorism a federal crime, increasing media literacy in schools, criminalizing doxxing, and much more.

Disinformation is designed to evoke a strong emotional response to push us toward more extreme views, unable to find common ground with others. The false claims that led to the breathtaking attack on our Capitol in 2021 may have been only a dress rehearsal. Attack from Within shows us how to prevent it from happening again, thus preserving our country’s hard-won democracy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781644213636
Publisher: Seven Stories Press
Publication date: 02/27/2024
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 3,058
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Barbara McQuade is a professor from practice at the University of Michigan Law School, her alma mater, where she teaches courses in criminal law, criminal procedure, national security, and data privacy. She is also a legal analyst for NBC News and MSNBC, and a co-host of the podcast #SistersInLaw. From 2010 to 2017, McQuade served as U.S Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. Ms. McQuade was appointed by President Barack Obama, and was the first woman to serve in her position. Earlier in her career, she worked as a sports writer and copy editor, a judicial law clerk, an associate in private practice, and an assistant U.S. attorney. She and her husband have four children and live in Ann Arbor.

Read an Excerpt

Diagnosing the Problem

I wrote this book hoping to spark a national conversation about the danger of disinformation, and how we can defeat it. Throughout history, authoritarians have used disinformation to seize power from the people. As a former national security prosecutor, I see self-serving forces sabotaging our country. Manipulators are using disinformation to poison discourse and stoke divisions in society. False statements on social media, posted under fake personas and amplified by automated accounts, can make some people believe ridiculous lies, such as claims that Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS or that school districts were putting kitty litter in restrooms for students who identified as cats. Disinformation is designed to evoke a strong emotional response, in order to push us toward more extreme views. And our outrage is not confined to digital spaces—our communications online drive animosity in real life. Our country’s constantly changing demographics naturally bring differences of opinion, but the bitter divides are not the inevitable result of a pluralistic society with diverse ethnic, racial, religious, and social groups. They are the product of a deliberate attack through disinformation. Lies are becoming increasingly normalized, and our democracy is in peril. The conversation I propose is not a debate about Democratic and Republican politics. It is about the essential need for truth in self-governance. 

Throughout our history, America has been targeted with disinformation from hostile foreign adversaries such as Russia, long the master of propaganda. In 1923, the young Soviet Union set up is first office for dezinformatsiya, or disinformation. Intelligence operatives crafted communications designed to deceive Western intelligence agencies by exaggerating Soviet military strength, and then sent them through the Estonian mission in Moscow, where the operatives correctly predicted the letters would be opened and read, and the false information shared with allies. In the early 1980s, at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, the Soviets propagated the false story that the US government had created the virus in a lab as a biological weapon.

Ironically, one of the factors that makes us susceptible to disinformation is our nation’s fundamental value of free speech. Federalist Paper No. 63 warned of the risk of being “misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men.” Since the days when people began telling the fable of George Washington confessing to his father about chopping down a cherry tree because he could not tell a lie, Americans have engaged in the spread of mythology and propaganda. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s lies pushed the Red Scare. The invasion of Iraq was based on false claims about weapons of mass destruction, later blamed on “faulty intelligence.” 

Undeniably, the United States also engages in information warfare, using psychological operations (psyops) to manipulate foreign populations for strategic advantage. Although little is written about psyops in the public domain, according to the US Army’s website, the American military “uses psychological warfare to deliberately mislead enemy forces during a combat situation.” The military also uses communication strategies “to influence the emotions, motives, reasoning, and behavior of foreign governments and citizens.” An important caveat of US psyops, however, is that they are not to be used on the American people. 

The current strain of falsehoods is altogether different. As a tactic relentlessly used today by a shrinking American political party to maintain a popular base, disinformation in the United States defrauds the American people. The profound damage it causes is not part of some far-off dystopian future. The harm is apparent here and now. 

This is a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, and the stakes could not be higher. Legislation in a number of states is harming democracy by making it increasingly difficult to cast a ballot. Election suppression laws create obstacles to voting, such as limits on early voting, prohibitions of third-party assistance for delivering ballots, restrictions on voting by mail, and limits on the number and locations of ballot deposit boxes. These restrictions have a disparate impact on communities of color, young people, and the economically disadvantaged—not coincidentally, all likely Democratic Party voters—leaving some of them effectively disenfranchised. Election deniers serving as secretaries of state, canvassers, and poll workers are endangering the integrity of our electoral process. Political violence has become a reality, as public officials face threats, harassment, and attacks. In 2020, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer was the subject of a plot to kidnap her and put her on “trial” for objections to her stay-home orders during the Covid-19 pandemic after Trump called it a hoax. Two years later, an intruder broke into the home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and brutally attacked her husband in a twisted act of political protest. In 2023, Solomon Peña, a Republican candidate for the statehouse in New Mexico who refused to concede defeat, was arrested on charges of orchestrating shootings into the homes of four elected officials, all Democrats, narrowly missing a ten-year-old girl asleep in her bed. 

In addition to elected officials, members of the public are at risk. Lies scapegoating people of color, immigrants, Asian Americans, Jewish people, and the LGBTQ+ community have coincided with increases in hate crimes. Claims that the FBI is a “disgrace” and that the government has “weaponized” criminal investigations are eroding public faith in law enforcement. When people are led to believe that police officers and federal agents are corrupt, they become reluctant to provide tips and information that officers need to solve crimes. Jurors tend to distrust the testimony of federal agents when they have been told the FBI “plants” evidence, as Trump claimed following the 2022 search of his Florida home for classified documents after he had left office. A diminishing ability to enforce the law reduces public safety and cultivates corruption. 

A lack of trust in the criminal justice system also fosters vigilante violence, a direct assault on the rule of law. Untrained civilians are taking up arms to right perceived wrongs, leading to the kind of destruction wrought by teen gunman Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 2020 and more than one thousand insurrectionists in our nation’s capital on January 6, 2021. Much of the American right glamorizes assault weapons, based on the absurd claim that the Second Amendment protects not only the right to bear arms but also the right to overthrow our government, insisting that ordinary citizens must be able to match the firepower of the US military. Flamethrowing congresswoman Lauren Boebert (R-CO) has said the Second Amendment “has nothing to do with hunting, unless you’re talking about hunting tyrants, maybe.” Promoting assault weapons ownership has become a membership ritual in the far-right wing of the Republican Party, even though these are the very same kinds of guns that have made mass shootings an American epidemic. 
The threat to our safety extends to our national security. Once the model democracy for the world, the United States is now ridiculed for its dysfunction. Enemies of democracy point to the chaos that followed the 2020 election as proof that our system of government is a failed experiment. Since World War II, our foreign policy has centered on spreading democracy, which advances international peace and American interests abroad by reducing military threats, creating trade partners, and preventing refugee crises by promoting human rights and political stability. Our surrender to disinformation tarnishes the reputation of democracy on the world stage. Our critics have a point—the attack on the peaceful transfer of presidential power is stark evidence that disinformation threatens our form of government. 

It is easy to take our civil rights and freedoms for granted. Most of us assume that American democracy will always be here. We have lived through challenging times before—the Civil War, two world wars, the Great Depression, Jim Crow, the civil unrest of the 1960s—and we have always endured. But democracies are not invincible. As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write in their book How Democracies Die, some democracies collapse in violent coups, such as those that have occurred in Argentina, Chile, Greece, Nigeria, Thailand, and other countries where government takeovers were achieved with military force. But other democracies have faltered through the abuse of democratic norms, such as Adolf Hitler’s Germany, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. Democracies have recently suffered backsliding in Hungary, the Philippines, and Turkey, among other countries. As Levitsky and Ziblatt describe these silent coups: “There are no tanks in the streets. Constitutions and other nominally democratic institutions remain in place. People still vote. Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance.” 
America is experiencing a similar attack from within, and disinformation is the weapon of choice. If the attack succeeds, elections will be decided by manipulators, unjust laws will be enacted by the puppets those manipulators install, and political violence, corruption, militia activity, and vigilante violence will likely become widespread and routine. When power is acquired through disinformation, coups can eventually be accomplished without bloodshed. Disinformation operations turn us on ourselves. As a result, we become outraged or fearful, then cynical, and finally numb and apathetic. It is not an overstatement to say that disinformation threatens to destroy the United States as we know it.

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