The memo, the dossier and the political weaponization of misinformation

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There are few things that warm the cockles of President Trump’s most ardent opponents like the Steele dossier. Right there on paper is the alleged Russia conspiracy they had convinced themselves existed, complete with salacious scenes from Russian hotel rooms and shadowy meetings between Trump allies and Russian officials.

But as we’re finding out this week, while spreading unverified information that conforms to your preexisting beliefs may be cathartic, it can also be weaponized against you. And that is exactly what’s happening with the impending release of the Nunes memo.

At Politico, Marcy Wheeler makes the case that Democrats have embraced “a flawed dossier” that allowed Republicans to argue that the Russia investigation is a witch hunt. She points to Rachel Maddow devoting an entire show to it and to some prominent Democrats emphasizing that information contained within the dossier has proved to be accurate.

I think that misses the point somewhat; the official Democratic Party hasn’t pushed the dossier terribly hard. But it didn’t really need to, either. The mere publishing of the document — a controversial decision by BuzzFeed News in January 2017 — caused a feeding frenzy among liberals anxious to prove the worst about Trump. It was the equivalent of tossing a porterhouse in the direction of some starving wolves. There was just no stopping its spread, regardless of how much Maddow or Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) talked about it or how many context-rich explainers were written.

BuzzFeed has stood by its decision and reasserted the justification behind it — that people deserve to decide for themselves and that more transparency is better than less. This was a memo floating around behind closed doors for a long time, the logic went, so why not let it be vetted publicly?

The problem is that people are not nearly as judicious in their consumption of news as we’d all like them to be, as evidenced by the spread of the birther movement on the right about a decade ago. If the dossier contained information that confirmed people’s preexisting beliefs about Trump, they would sure find a way to believe it — or at least feel good enough to pass it along.

And pass it along they have. The huge public interest in the dossier understandably led to news organizations digging into its origins. We soon found out that the man behind it, former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, was funded by Democrats during the 2016 campaign. Then we found out those Democrats happened to be the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign. Further digging revealed that it was used as part of the justification for surveillance of Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, and that the FBI reached a later-aborted agreement to work with Steele.

It didn’t take long for Republicans to lodge conspiracy theories alleging that law enforcement was effectively working with Democrats to monitor the Trump campaign — a conspiracy theory Trump had seeded by baselessly accusing former president Barack Obama of wiretapping him during the 2016 campaign. And not even Attorney General Jeff Sessions publicly pooh-poohing that idea was going to stop it.

Which brings us to today. Republicans are preparing to release a memo Friday that points to alleged abuses by law enforcement in the surveillance of Page. The memo, crafted by aides to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), seems likely to suggest or imply that the Steele dossier was a major justification — if not the justification — for the warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, also known as a FISA warrant.

It’s unclear how close to the whole truth the memo will be. The FBI has raised “grave concerns” about it. And as The Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky notes, standards for FISA warrants are rigorous and almost certainly required lots of evidence beyond the Steele dossier. But Zapotosky also notes that combating misinformation or key omissions in the memo could be difficult for the FBI and even Democrats on the Intelligence Committee, because although the Steele dossier is known publicly, other justifications offered in the FISA application may be too sensitive to disclose.

(In other words: Law enforcement has to protect its information and methods in a way news organizations don’t.)

What’s pretty clear, even without seeing the memo, is that no matter how hard news organizations try to apply justifiable skepticism to it, Republicans will surely gobble it up just like Democrats gobbled up the Steele dossier. And we probably never would have gotten here if the unproved and in some cases dubious information contained within the dossier hadn’t been released and gone viral in the first place.

I’m not even arguing that the dossier shouldn’t have been released — perhaps it will eventually result in the whole truth coming out — but it gave Republicans something to latch on to and believe that the president they voted for and supported was being unfairly persecuted. It gave Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) the tools to argue, in what probably will be a compelling way for his fellow partisans, that the basis for law enforcement’s handling of the Russia investigation was faulty. And that’s the opposite of what Democrats would have hoped.

It seems a process that began with dubious, incomplete and unverified information that cheered Democrats may end with dubious, incomplete and unverifiable information that cheers Republicans. And we’ll be as divided as ever over it with no real attainable resolution in sight.



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