Molly McKew

Knowing the Enemy of Truth

Air Date: March 30, 2020

Information warfare expert Molly McKew discusses foreign interference in U.S. elections and the future of political campaigns.


I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. My guest today is Molly McKew. As you can track on Twitter, she’s a leading and constant authority on information warfare. She served as advisor to Mikkheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia from 2009 to 2013 McKew is also CEO of Fianna Strategies, a consulting firm that advises governments, political parties and NGOs on foreign policy and strategic communication. Welcome Molly. A pleasure meeting you.


McKEW: Thanks for having me. Great to be here.


HEFFNER: You wrote to me, you said in our constant concern about this information insecurity, media literacy is not the answer and I don’t know if you mean that exclusively, but you write, “Fact checking doesn’t work. Raising awareness doesn’t work. Targeting individuals at scale is fantasy. We need to work on positive cognitive and psychological measures. When we talk about the Baltics and Finland being good at this, it’s not because they fact check. It’s because they know what’s targeting them and know that they’re the enemy.” You know, that there’s a clear enemy and in information warfare it’s harder to do that. What are these cognitive and psychological measures that you’re espousing?

McKEW: Well, I think since sort of 2014 was kind of this turning point for the majority of the West around the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea where everybody started paying attention more to the idea that information operations are kind of a critical front in everybody’s new influence strategies. Not that they’re new by any means, obviously, but the new, especially social media enabled information operations, which makes everything much faster and much more obtuse and sort of no one knows where anything is coming from or what it means that gets sort of posted very quickly. But I think that was really a turning point in 2014 when everybody started paying attention to this new, hey, what are we doing in this space? And we’ve really struggled particularly in the English language I think, to come up with measures to counteract the narratives and information architecture that’s been built online to influence us. And I think that sort of coming out of those discussions and the panic about what do we do since the platforms aren’t doing anything and government hasn’t figured out how to regulate any of this yet, was just sort of this, well, what can we do, I don’t know, let’s make people smarter cause people are just stupid. And if they could just figure stuff out, it won’t be so hard. And I don’t agree with most of those points, but it’s what you hear people say: that we’ll just have these great media literacy campaigns and people will know how to check sources and do things better and it will all be fine. And that’s fine, as one of many, many things that need to happen. But I think the research since 2014 has really showed that starting media literacy campaigns is really not effective at addressing the way that these, basically tools of war, in terms of weaponized narratives and information campaigns are being targeted against us as individuals, sort of bypassing the layers of protection that our states usually give us and going straight to us, the individual to try to figure out what is real or not. That doesn’t work. And in fact, in many cases, some of the newer academic research that’s been done shows by trying to expose disinformation campaigns, people start believing them even more, because you see that information again and you’re like, oh, that must be real. And that in fact, conspiracists in particular have really embraced the idea of media literacy in order to make people believe conspiracies more effectively by really picking at that question more, are you really sure there’s no proof of X? And so on the right for example, you see a ton of that narrative being used, of like, the idea that if you’re a truly good consumer of information, then you won’t believe any of it. Hence conspiracies must be the answer. There’s a little bit of that on the left as well, particularly in the weird anti-vaxxer space. But, it just, I think what we really see is if you dig into the quick cheap answer of media literacy, there’s nothing behind it that really shows that that’s actually an effective deterrent absent an understanding of sort of history and self-identity already.

HEFFNER: Those advocates of media literacy are suggesting that that is how you may ultimately depolarize that the toxicity of partisanship and ideological warfare to the point of having some normal boundaries that used to exist in understanding fact and fiction, and your partisan allegiance not preceding…

McKEW: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: …fact and fiction. So,

McKEW: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Is when you say exposing or misinformation is not necessarily at this stage going to be as helpful as doing what?

McKEW: So it is important I think to expose these campaigns and explain the narratives that they contribute to. But when you, when it’s specific bits of information, a lot of the research has shown you’re just putting the story back out there. So it’s giving it more amplification. So it’s making it more of a thing. There’s been way too much research done in a variety of venues, not just about social media, but on about how humans accept information in general and whatever the first thing we see we’re more likely to believe is true even if we’re shown another thing showing it’s not true. So it’s just sort of this, we all have social sort of cognitive and now algorithmic bias, biases that are in our information environment. And I don’t think we realize how those sort of interact with us and how information fits into those spaces more to sort of confirm our own bias than it is to disrupt any of them.

HEFFNER: So how, from the American perspective, do you, can we once again together as one nation understand the enemy or the enemy philosophy here, targeting us in a way that’s going to override those individual instances or incidents of disinformation or misinformation?

McKEW: Think of the American context, we have this real challenge that is somewhat talked about but, but not enough. And part of the reason that the, for sure foreign backed influence campaigns in 2016, so the ones that have been very specifically identified as Russian-directed Kremlin-directed the reason they gained more traction on the right and there’s good analysis of those data sets now that show that yes they were working on the left as well. But the ones on the right sort of gained more amplification. It was because that environment, that information environment was already more predisposed to believing certain ways of thinking, to believing certain narratives and had already sort of started self-reinforcing identity with the right media ecosystems, specifically sort of how conservative talk radio became Fox news became Breitbart and Infowars, these like cascades of looking for a better high of crazy radicalized extremist news over a period of 20 years that really just started decaying the cognitive abilities of half of the information consumers in the country. And now we’re at this point where very well intentioned people that I know in DC who are Republican staffers sit in their offices all day on the Hill and Fox news is on the TV and you know, we’ll be talking about anything relating to the Russia investigations or Mueller or these ongoing trials or the hearings on impeachment or whatever and there’s just whole pieces of information that they are not aware of, not because they’re bad people or don’t believe it or are stupid, but because they never see it. It’s never in their information domain at all. Just whole things that on in other networks or in other news sources you would have already been immersed in, and they’ve just never even heard of it. And in the same way if you talk to people are relatively normal on the left who don’t study conspiracies, or disinformation for a living, they will have no idea what you’re talking about if you mention QAnon or some of the many related conspiracies in the QAnon universe. And yet I’m pretty sure if you actually did a survey of it at this point, somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of America believes at least some piece of the QAnon conspiracy is actually a thing and that’s just bonkers. And, but we live in these totally siloed places of information. The one side of which has been in long-form using the same psychology and tactics that our foreign adversaries have used targeting their population creating these sort of tactics of how we consume information and making them more radicalized and extreme in the narrative sense. And I think that’s really a challenge where it’s not just the Russians made us bonkers, which obviously no one believes, it’s that they just sort of slid into the information environment that already existed. That in terms of how conservatives have been consuming media in this country, have not been great. Fox News has done a real disservice to true red-blooded conservative Americans, slowly shifting narratives over time to these things that are just not in our own interest. And it’s really hard to call it anything except subversion.


HEFFNER: Right. And I think that subversion is different from the illiteracy narrative.


McKEW: Absolutely.


HEFFNER: That media literacy can cure the problem. You know, I’m afraid as we’re having this conversation that we are giving too much exposure to the problem, but it is a problem and what tactics are you employing, or do you suggest with your own clients that you are employing as strategies in this year of 2020 in this presidential election year to try to insure that that is not the modus operandi of Twitter is not integrated even more so now into the way that we are campaigning, or governing, or thinking?


McKEW: It is an important point that the world on Twitter is not the world, particularly in the United States. I think social media more broadly as a different story. And I think in that sense, Twitter is sort of a good tip of the iceberg of what’s happening in other social media domains. But by far the most destructive social media platform is YouTube, when it comes to radicalizing content. And the way that the algorithm sort of feeds back into these terrible cycles. And there’s again, great research that’s been done on this that like YouTube should basically just be wiped from the face of the earth. But so that is true. But I think the way that we, if we look at how media is sort of driven now in these sound bite moments, in the quickness of, oh my God, Bernie just tweeted something, or his campaign person said something nuts or Biden posted something or Trump said something. Real media is constantly running to catch up to these dumb battles that are happening on social media. And it subsumes real news. And it’s great when you’re watching the actual news on a day when it’s a holiday or something. And there’s like long foreign stories about what’s happening in Syria or in China that would otherwise not be on the news cause it would be, well Trump tweeted something and his hair is funny today and it’s just bonkers. So I think what we try to do in, in terms of what can you actually do about X, it has to be focused on narrative. What is the story you’re telling? How are you reaching people with that story and understanding that for all of us even those of us that want to be open consumers of information and really believe in challenging ourselves in our own preconceptions, we are more likely to reject information that challenges ourself or our sense of self identity or our definition of how we see ourselves than we are to consider mind changing or attitude changing information. And I think where, in particular, if you look at the Kremlin directed campaigns and why they were so successful in targeting conservative Americans is they targeted things that were already a core part of the identity. You know, conservatives are tough freedom loving, we’re fighting terrorism. Like all the things that had been sort of in the ephemera already. Russia has done a really good job of getting in there. Just sort of twisting those things a little bit, making them more pro-Putin, you know, more pro weird white nationalism in some cases. I’m more pro our view of the world. A lot of its isolationist, whatever it might be. But Russia has been very smart about sort of being in the conservative identity and changing a little bit, and the left is much more diverse in terms of what is the core identity. So it’s been harder for them to gain traction in a broader way on that front.


HEFFNER: So is there a way that we can model whatever the opposite of the warfare is? So information integrity you know.


McKEW: Yeah.


HEFFNER: We’re, we’re not taking cues from Jack Dorsey and


McKEW: No. We’re not, no.


HEFFNER: Steven Wazniak,


McKEW: I think it would certainly be better if the platforms would actually do something helpful in terms of how their algorithms work and they won’t. And we know that for now. So …


HEFFNER: And, and of course they have a complicit ally in this administration. And that’s really the problem. At the moment,


McKEW: I think there was more news that came out today that the Trump Campaign has rehired secretly one of the original Cambridge Analytica team to run the exact same kinds of operations for them in this election cycle. I think we know that part of the reason we know this stuff works is more than Trump, but you know, parties writ large are using this tool in elections.


HEFFNER: So when we’re not as desensitized to information warfare is when something like Coronavirus happens, what is your interpretation of counteracting the information warfare when really it’s no longer the information that’s the war. It’s, it’s what’s happening in real life that, whether it’s affecting people’s health, a viral pandemic or you know, geopolitical clashes and, and often those kinds of things are connected in terms of health and human safety and, and war. So how do you deal with that right now? Maybe that is the riddle undoing the harm of the information warfare?


McKEW: Well, those two things are a little bit separate and I think that’s an important distinction. But in terms of warfare, you know, physical conflicts annexation campaigns, invasions, et cetera, information warfare is always the first line of what that war looks like. And it was in Georgia in the war in 2008, it was in Crimea in 2014. You know, the, the information campaigns began before the physical boots on the ground part of those invasions. And in those cases it is so important to show the narrative Russia is setting is not true. And whether it be Russia or someone else doing that type of campaign, but to push back on these narratives where they’re trying to say, we have to invade this because you know, something crazy is happening and we’re just making it better. It’s important to do smart, effective counter-narrative immediately. On things like coronavirus it’s actually really interesting because in particular in China, totally different way of information management, like the Russians sort of have this toolkit that they developed that now everyone emulates including domestic and other foreign actors. But they’re very crude with it. It’s sort of like just every problem is a hammer and they just whack it with a rock. And the Chinese have really honed that and made it much more sophisticated. Internally they understand everything, can’t be arguments and fear. It’s all about sort of diversion and distraction. There’s lots of cheerleading if they’re worried about it’s the anniversary of Tiananmen Square, two days before there’s some giant like, hey, look at this cute cat on the Internet. Everybody loves the cat. They’re really good at diverting people’s attention. When that fails, is things like coronavirus where the 3 percent of Chinese who usually you know, sort of go against the friction created by the government firewall, use a VPN to gain access to outside information to block sites and things that are censored inside China. It’s usually only three, somewhere between three and 15 percent, but probably on the low end, of people who actually bother to get around the firewall. When it is times of crisis, when people want information, when there’s something happening and they know they’re not getting the truth from their own information space, then they will go outside that and look for other sources of information. But it’s also an environment ripe for obviously fear-mongering. There’s been a lot of conspiracy spread in relation to coronavirus. And China’s made that worse in this particular example by providing no reliable information that anyone has any confidence or trust in.


HEFFNER: Right, right, exactly. Because there is not a factual narrative of fact-based narrative being presented as an alternative.


McKEW: And no one knows if it’s true.


HEFFNER: And there are researchers who are posting on Research Gate a study like real academics about an alternative theory that is not animal market transmission. And then it’s removed within 24 hours. But there were actually two scientists at a technology university who published that and then it was retracted 24 hours later. But what it doesn’t seem like America is prepared not just in terms of a health epidemic or pandemic outbreak, but the information question here. So in terms of American’s handling of, you know, crises, I think of it in terms of 9/11, or in terms of the American counter-offensive to the post World War II cold war narrative. We did try to model the opposite of information warfare.


McKEW: We were really good at it.


HEFFNER: So the social companies are, are just either, you know, they’re completely in over their heads, but they don’t recognize what we may be facing if they become that you know, that majority transmission hub, you know, the gateway to a, you know, just outright confusion, pandemonium, information pandemonium.


McKEW: Yup.


HEFFNER: You know, so in the absence of an American government that wants to try to model information integrity, where does that leave us? The government’s not acting the way that it can be helpful here. The social media companies are not acting the way they can. It seems like, frankly, philanthropists have stepped up in some measure with information integrity, but what can be done at least now, you know, through the end of this year of 2020?


McKEW: I think individually we as consumers and propagators of information can have better, I mean, hygiene is a terrible term, but better like our own tactics can be, you know, don’t rage tweet, never retweet the president if you know something is fake, don’t repost it. You know, if you’re basically, if there’s something you don’t think should spread, don’t touch it, don’t put it online, that’s the best way to not spread it. And we can all have better individual habits in terms of how we consume and post information. Absolutely. And I think that then sort of amplified times a hundred if you are an elected official or political candidate or a person working for one of those people in the current campaign environment. Unfortunately we see the opposite I think in many cases where the sort of like, let’s get in and create, you know, inflaming narratives that then get amplified and accelerated is like everybody’s tactic now. Well, shouldn’t we all just have our, there was a really, you know, there’s been a lot of discussion about the Bernie Bros, the sort of online army, however you want to define it, of check-mark folk who support Bernie. And the sort of bot-like activity that surrounds that. Many of it is real people who just sort of react to these things, but there’s been a lot of discussion about it. And then sort of the second wave of that was people saying, well, maybe this is just how you win now, and maybe it’s just really effective and maybe everyone should just have their own. And that’s exactly the wrong thing. The like cognitive impact on consumers of information, in this case, American citizens and voters, of being constantly bombarded by lies, disinformation, misinformation things that are meant to mislead you or inbreed you or make you afraid. It has a real cognitive impact that over time is really bad for us. And I just think there’s been no accountability for this thing. That you’re putting these things out there that are meant to make people crazy. What happens when something goes wrong. You know, QAnon again is this sort of good small example of that where there’s domestic terrorist attacks that are being inspired by a crazy conspiracy. People have accountability for making things up and putting it online or should at any rate. So I think that there’s sort of this, there is a real impact of doing these things that I think everyone engaged in the space who doesn’t want to be Donald Trump should be better about and aware of.


HEFFNER: It’s not entirely clear yet whether Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee is going to play by Putin’s rules and not fair democratic rules. Right? I mean, it’s, the verdict is out.


McKEW: There are many things that trouble me about the way that, his folks operate online. But one of the things I still have the hardest time with is the Mueller Report and the Senate reports that were done on the Kremlin information operations targeting the United States in 2016 were very clear that there were two primary beneficiaries, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. And the support for Sanders was very much because it was creating these divisions, particularly within the Democratic Party to weaken Clinton further. But that whole lane of Bernie’s the best just don’t vote if, you know if he’s not on the ticket or whatever was very real. Sanders has never talked about it, he’s never been confronted about it in the 95 debates we’ve now had leading up to the 2020 election. And I just, he had an opportunity to sort of talk about it the other day when he was asked about it in Town Hall and just like, you know, evades it. And again, I’m saying…


HEFFNER: It’s the way that Tulsi Gabbard responds to the questions about Assad for example.


McKEW: Yeah. So, so I’m not saying he was coordinating with the Kremlin, but he should absolutely own up to the fact that he was supported by these information operations. And what that means.


HEFFNER: When you’re accused of that, you give a speech or you give an interview and you, you know, bring your bonafides and say, you know, this is not who I am. This is the position I’m going to take on Russia and Russian aggression. And he hasn’t done that yet. But he could, I mean, theoretically and he could


McKEW: It would be really easy.


HEFFNER: And in the process he could mitigate the anxiety and trepidation people have that he is no different from Trump in that respect.


McKEW: But he won’t. And when he was asked about this at a town hall, I mean, I really don’t think he will when he was asked about it in a town hall the other night specifically about the Bros, like the angry online, in relation to Nevada now in this targeting of a union by all of his angry bros who were, who didn’t endorse him because they don’t like, they don’t want to give up their healthcare plan. He was sort of asked about this, will you reign in your angry online bros? And his answer was, well, yeah, I condemn bullying of any kind. However, the worst thing is how my campaign is bullied by all of you. And it was just sort of like, what a great moment to have sat there and said, no, obviously I don’t support this. And you know there’s been a lot of discussion about how angry narratives have supported me in the past. Just he didn’t, he won’t, he doesn’t believe it. Frankly I don’t think he uses Twitter himself. So I don’t really think that he actually understands it, but he knows what those reports said in terms of the Russia reports that have been written and has never addressed this issue and never addressed the, I mean, again, I don’t think he’s coordinating with the Kremlin, but I think he really needs to address the fact that his rhetoric is so divisive and that is why he has done well. And what that means that Trump wants him to win, that Kellyanne Conway is promoting polls that show that he’s doing well, that the Kremlin has people on talking about Bernie all the time on their Kremlin state media. Like what does that mean, Bernie? Why are they supporting you so much? What is the piece of what you’re doing that they find so valuable in their own narrative?


HEFFNER: Look, I think that the divisiveness in large measure, at least upfront is attributable to a really unfair economy that’s ripped off Americans and you know, the most enormous concentration of wealth and disconnect between Main and Wall Street.


McKEW: Yep, absolutely.


HEFFNER: I mean, and so that’s the front of house, so to speak, behind the scenes is what’s concerning people and especially if there’s dishonesty, because if there is dishonesty, then that’s no different from Trump campaign tactics. I mean, in the seconds we have left is there a way in this climate to show that you don’t have to play by Putin’s playbook to win?

McKEW: Absolutely. And I think we see it in some of the other candidates. I think Mayor Pete, Amy Klobuchar. To some extent Joe Biden, have been in this like, here’s the honest truth of what we’re facing. Here’s what this actually looks like space. That is how we need to engage voters better, to give them real information, their policy interpretation of what to do with that without sort of, and again, I understand the economic anxiety in this country but we’re not really going to set the rich on fire and like roast our new bug protein over the fire.


HEFFNER: Well a very sensible alternative to Bernie Bros is a 2 percent wealth tax. And of course it’s been a tragedy of this campaign that Elizabeth Warren has not been taken seriously. If there’s anyone who’s had a media blackout, it hasn’t been Andrew Yang and it hasn’t been Bernie Sanders. It’s been Liz Warren.


McKEW: Left off all the polls that they show online now, right?


HEFFNER: And who knows when this is going to air. But our viewers may have a greater sense of what’s happening. And I very much hope that we highlighted the imperativeness of this moment in terms of information warfare and corrective measures. Molly McKew. Thank you for your time today.


McKEW: Thanks for having me on.


HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.