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Troll Watch: Impeachment Inquiry Unleashes U.S.-Driven Disinformation


We want to get back now to the week's top story, the impeachment inquiry unfolding in Washington, D.C. A lot of disinformation has been swirling around the probe, which as you know, focuses on President Trump's dealing with Ukraine. So we're gonna take a closer look now at that disinformation in our regular segment called Troll Watch.


MARTIN: Foreign trolls, domestic partisans, the president himself - they have all made false or misleading claims in the parallel information war playing out online all week, as NPR's Hannah Allam reports.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: The impeachment inquiry has unleashed a torrent of half-baked claims and conspiracy theories every single day this week. It's been relentless. So let's hit pause and look closer at one day - Wednesday. That was the day the State Department inspector general presented Congress with information that was billed as urgent, sensitive. Inside the briefing, Democrats later said that urgent matter turned out to be debunked stories and Russian propaganda about players in the Ukraine affair. Here's how Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin described the materials.


JAMIE RASKIN: It's essentially a packet of propaganda and disinformation, spreading conspiracy theories. Those conspiracy theories have been widely debunked and discredited.

ALLAM: On the same day as the briefing, Trump's reelection team released a campaign ad. There's ominous music, Trump cast as the victim of Democrats who just can't get over 2016, and then this line about the impeachment inquiry.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's nothing short of a coup, and it must be stopped.

ALLAM: That word - coup - in bold red is inflammatory and inaccurate, given the facts of the inquiry. And yet that's the description used by Trump on Twitter, repeated by right-wing pundits on TV and reinforced by an army of bots and trolls across social media. One day, two examples of how the conspiracy talk that typically swirls on the fringes is now front and center.

JOHN KELLY: That is real power. It's not about fake news. It's about gaining power in the 21st century, whether it's doing this internally so that your team wins an election or during this on the world stage so that your enemies' alliances come apart at the seams without you having to fire a shot.

ALLAM: That's John Kelly, founder and CEO of Graphika, a top social media analysis firm. He was speaking generally about disinformation campaigns, but he said the whistleblower controversy is a good illustration of what a political fight looks like in the digital age - Americans in their partisan corners, slugging it out over false claims pushed to them by bad faith actors here and abroad. Left unchecked, Kelly says, it weakens U.S. democracy by chipping away at Americans' trust in their institutions.

KELLY: There's no magic bullet to deal with that, but it requires a lot of different solutions on different levels that have to start with people taking it seriously.

NINA JANKOWICZ: We're seeing two different versions of reality.

ALLAM: Nina Jankowicz is at the Wilson Center think tank. In recent years, she served as a communications adviser to the Ukrainian government. That was through a Fulbright program. Now she's back in Washington, tracking what she calls influence operations. Basically that's the manipulation of information by governments, political actors. The operators seize on hot button issues - the 2016 election or police brutality. Then they use automated and human systems to amplify viewpoints that further their own agendas.

Jankowicz again.

JANKOWICZ: You take a fissure in society, whether that's economic, racial, political, and you just drive that deeper and deeper to kind of split society at the edges.

ALLAM: Case in point - the Ukraine affair. The Internet is awash with stories about whistleblower rules that supposedly changed just before the complaint against Trump or backroom deals struck by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his family. There is no evidence for any of it, and most of the claims have been knocked down - doesn't matter. To those in the disinformation business, controversy is opportunity.

BRET SCHAFER: This is a sort of a dinner bell for them to work overtime.

ALLAM: Bret Schafe tracks Russian and other information operations through a program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He says most of the disinformation he sees these days isn't manufactured in a Russian troll farm. It starts as partisan spin or conspiracy theory on American sites.

SCHAFER: We're doing all of the work for them. They are just, again, turning up that volume and making some of these kind of extreme talking points seem like they're a little bit more mainstream.

ALLAM: In other words, Schafer says, those cracks in American society that Russia took advantage of in 2016 have now widened. Disinformation campaigns no longer need to create the polarization, just exploit it, which they do every single day. Hannah Allam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hannah Allam is a Washington-based national security correspondent for NPR, focusing on homegrown extremism. Before joining NPR, she was a national correspondent at BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslims and other issues of race, religion and culture. Allam previously reported for McClatchy, spending a decade overseas as bureau chief in Baghdad during the Iraq war and in Cairo during the Arab Spring rebellions. She moved to Washington in 2012 to cover foreign policy, then in 2015 began a yearlong series documenting rising hostility toward Islam in America. Her coverage of Islam in the United States won three national religion reporting awards in 2018 and 2019. Allam was part of McClatchy teams that won an Overseas Press Club award for exposing death squads in Iraq and a Polk Award for reporting on the Syrian conflict. She was a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard and currently serves on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation.