Advice for Successful Influence Operations: Recruit the Discontented

A recent IMF note stated that “discontent with state institutions among marginalized groups is a key driver of unrest.” This sounds obvious, but it is too often missing from the discussion of disinformation. The IMF report is about Africa, but it could be usefully applied to the discussion of disinformation in United States.   

To understand disinformation and how to counter it, begin by examining the counternarrative that informs dissent. This description of a populist counternarrative is based on media reporting, interviews, and surveys and while it may offend some, it reflects beliefs that no matter how irrational, are widely held in communities susceptible to disinformation. 

The counternarrative begins in 2000, with the decision to let China enter the WTO.  Incorporating China into the Western economy made many rich, but it also impoverished a significant number of Americans – some estimates say 10 million jobs were lost.  Some towns and cities never recovered, creating a permanent underclass.

At the same time, this new wealth was not equally distributed.  This largely reflects both a distorted Federal tax system and a failure of American social policy.  The increase in the number of billionaires was accompanied by a rise in homelessness and drug use.  The political effect is not just with the impoverished but with what used to be called the lower middle class or the working class.  These people, while themselves not impoverished, fear impoverishment and that their children will not have the same opportunities that they did. 

Government policies can seem to be indifferent to this.  In the 2008 financial crisis, for example, the United States bailed out banks but not people – a simple compensatory measure would have been to require banks receiving federal assistance to postpone foreclosures of family homes. 

The perception of an uncaring elite is reinforced in the minds of this audience by glaring incongruities created by the tensions in the discussion of race or class as the source of American inequality. There is a palpable sense of despair and anger, and these are the people who voted for Trump or stormed the Capitol.   

Media narratives unintentionally reinforce this by confirming beliefs that call into question expertise and impartiality. The decline in the authority of experts reflects larger social trends best exemplified by the anti-vax movement.   Elite media outlets are seen to exhibit biases that undermines their position as arbiters of truth – a former NY Times editor put this as “America’s progressive elite talks to itself about an America that does not really exist.”  Social media erodes curation and provides alternative narratives, reinforcing the outlines of conspiracy and disrespect that can appeal, in current circumstances, to a significant minority of the population.  

Some use a historical analogy, calling this a new gilded age and it is useful to remember that the last gilded age in the United States was accompanied by bombings and assassinations, riots, violence, populism, racism, and attempts at revolution.  If anything, the current populist phase seems somewhat tame in comparison.   

This is a distorted narrative of course, cherry picking facts or inventing them to support its theses, but the story of an uncaring elite plotting in secret to repress citizens in an unjust system remains powerful.  One comment frequently heard among supporters of Trump (that erratic populist) is that he alone hears them and speaks to their concerns. 

This narrative shapes populist discontent and are the sort of beliefs that an astute influence operation would seek to exploit.  Populist sentiments have always existed to some degree at the edges of society.  Economic hardship and social media brings them to the fore. Countering such operations requires undercutting the populist narrative through demonstrable improvements, not appeals to reason. 

An effective response to disinformation requires countering this narrative. Many responses to disinformation ignore the counternarrative (as if class and inequality have no role in politics), or proffer solutions, such as more civic education, which do not address fundamental discontents.  People who are susceptible to disinformation do not need a better understanding of the benefits of American democracy – they need to see those benefits in their lives if they are to reject disinformation. 


NB. The share of wealth held by the top 1% is now about 26%, up significantly but still less than the 35% reached in 1848, the year the Communist Manifesto was published.

James Andrew Lewis
Senior Vice President; Pritzker Chair; and Director, Strategic Technologies Program