Jacob Siegel on Disinformation, the 'Hoax of the Century' — Part 1

Mr. Siegel discusses disinformation and the 'whole of society' approach the State Department took to combat President Donald Trump's emergence.
Jacob Siegel on Disinformation, the 'Hoax of the Century' — Part 1
Jacob Siegel, a senior editor at Tablet magazine, in Washington on Aug. 21, 2023.( Alejandro Heredia/The Epoch Times)
Jan Jekielek

The hoax of the century is that there exists a great threat of disinformation that is “so grave that it justifies a state of emergency in which unelected regulators and national security officials can violate the Constitution to protect individual American citizens," according to a magazine editor.

Jacob Siegel, a senior editor at Tablet magazine, published “A Guide to Understanding the Hoax of the Century: Thirteen ways of looking at disinformation,” which documents these developments.
“It’s a hoax because this threat, quite simply, doesn’t exist,” Mr. Siegel said in an interview with EpochTV’s "American Thought Leaders."

He talked about a “censorship bureaucratic apparatus” that exaggerated this threat to such a degree that it eclipsed other legitimate threats from foreign actors, and uses this inflated threat to clamp down on the “constitutional protections afforded to Americans.”

“Disinformation is both the name of the crime and the means of covering it up; a weapon that doubles as a disguise,” he wrote in his guide.

“The crime is that disinformation is itself a lie," Mr. Siegel said in the EpochTV interview. "The supposed threat of disinformation which originally was supposed to be coming from Russia, but very rapidly evolved into [an] all-encompassing threat where supposed COVID misinformation was now part of the same category that once included deliberate, state-backed deceptions by the Russian government."

Military Origins

Disinformation originates from military warfare, and its goal is to sow confusion in a target populace, according to Mr. Siegel.

In America, recent disinformation fears started as overly inflated claims of Russian interference in the 2016 election, which have been discredited, and evolved into a threat of disinformation regarding COVID-19, vaccinations, and other issues.

“It is a powerful tool to make that claim, because it means that you can employ the weapons of warfare to your domestic political opponents," he said, referring to the claim that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help President Donald Trump. "That claim is the foundation of the war against disinformation."

The lead figure behind an online dashboard called Hamilton 68, which claimed to track Russian influence online when it launched in 2017, was a former army officer and FBI analyst by the name of Clint Watts, Mr. Siegel said.

Mr. Watts made the claim during the 2016 election period that the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts through its fake troll accounts and domestic political speech by President Trump’s supporters “converged to a point where they were indistinguishable,” Mr. Siegel said.

According to Mr. Siegel, the seminal official document that spread the idea of Russia collusion in the 2016 election was an intelligence community assessment in 2017, declassified by President Barack Obama and presented to the public. That document was presented as the official assessment from the American government saying that Russia had helped President Trump win the election.

This document was not objective, and was single-handedly the work of former CIA Director John Brennan, an Obama appointee, who handpicked the analysts that would produce it, Mr. Siegel said.

The declassification of this document by President Obama changed the political discourse in America for the next four years, according to Mr. Siegel.

"We now of course know that all of these claims about Russia's interference in the 2016 election were either invented whole-cloth or were so wildly exaggerated as to essentially be inventions," Mr. Siegel said.

This then lead to government agencies using this new narrative as an excuse to start policing speech in America, Mr. Siegel says.

For example, in a 2021 document from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency, director Jen Easterly was quoted as saying “one could argue that we’re in the business of critical infrastructure, and the most critical infrastructure is our cognitive infrastructure, so building that resilience to misinformation and disinformation, I think, is incredibly important.”

Monitoring Internet Use

Public and private internet use is also logged and monitored, and even the keystrokes are monitored and collected in a database which can be combed by algorithms when using a computer connected to the internet, according to Mr. Siegel.

The government is now saying that “anything that goes through your mind is now something that needs to be policed for public safety and national security reasons,” Mr. Siegel said.

Mr. Siegel talked about his past as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, deployed in Afghanistan in 2012, where he observed that the U.S. Army had no reason to be there as the Al Qaeda terrorist forces could be fought remotely, similarly to what was being done in Yemen, he said. The training given to the Afghans was also not amounting to much, and Afghan security forces were making deals with the Taliban as they were preparing for peace.

However, he noticed that the U.S. Army, which was saying that the war would end that year, was collecting huge amounts of biometric and geographic data, “as much data as ever existed in the library of Alexandria times 1,000,” he said.

After returning home the same year, he got his first job as a journalist at the Daily Beast, which became “sort of ground zero” for a lot of the Trump-Russia collusion claims, he said.

“At that time I was trying to make sense of my experiences in a framework of still believing that the system was essentially sound and had been manipulated, and if only I could get the truth out to the American people, that would have some kind of sanitary effect. And working through democratic processes, understanding what lost cause Afghanistan was, we could, through public will, affect some kind of change.”

The first article he wrote for the Daily Beast was about the state of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

"What I observed was that by 2015 and 2016, the sort of mania over Donald Trump and the Russian collusion claims and the sheer force, the sheer intensity of consensus manufacture around those claims, astonished me,” Mr. Siegel said.

"Once you realize the Steele dossier was not a tragic error of assessment, you know, a mistake made, not an intelligence failure, but was a paid-for political product coming out of the Clinton campaign, once you start to realize that, you have to reexamine some of your foundational assumptions."

Mr. Siegel said he gradually began to put the pieces together.

"It was some years later, probably around 2017, when it really began to click for me," he said.

A Common Enemy

Mr. Siegel said that a coalition of forces opposing President Trump formed without the need of strict planning or a conspiracy, because all of these parties shared a common task and purpose to try to stop President Trump from continuing his presidency. It was a ruling class that already shared “cultural assumptions, certain guiding principles,” and “even cultural tastes,” Mr. Siegel said, and “they had a very clear sense of who their common enemy was and what the stakes were.”

Mr. Siegel said that there was a "whole of society" effort in this reaction.

First, there were the government agencies, and Mr. Siegel talked about the State Department.

"The lead organization in this whole of society effort is the Global Engagement Center in the State Department," he said.

The Global Engagement Center (GEC) was originally formed to combat ISIS messaging. It already had a mandate focused on information operations, and it was headed up by a former Navy SEAL and counterterrorism official named Michael Lumpkin, Mr. Siegel said.

This organization was given a new mission in late 2016 by President Obama as the lead government agency to fight disinformation, Mr. Siegel said.

The term disinformation barely existed in common discourse until 2015, Mr. Siegel said, and no one in Washington’s agencies could talk about it. But now, there are dozens of people who talk about it in “every room” in Washington’s government offices, because there is a lot of money and government power behind it.

The GEC became the coordination hub for the counter-disinformation effort.

Intelligence Community Efforts

Secondly, Mr. Siegel talked about how the government wanted control over social media, as the Democrats blamed Hillary Clinton’s election loss on Facebook disinformation. The FBI then moved to establish a task force inside Twitter, “essentially conquering this key terrain,” Mr. Siegel said.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), social media companies, and other agencies were thus involved, as the latter passively accepted the situation, according to Mr. Siegel.

DHS and the FBI both belong to the U.S. Intelligence Community, together with many other government agencies.

The other big piece is the narrative-forming and decision making actors, which includes the news media, universities, and nonprofits, according to Mr. Siegel.

Their motive was both money and their already formed concepts of defending the official narrative.

And when all of these parts cooperate, it becomes a “unified body” that achieves not only a “whole of government effort,” which the GEC said will not be enough, but a “whole of society effort,” according to Mr. Siegel.

This is not a conspiracy, as this is what the GEC itself called for, Mr. Siegel said.

“In wartime, we expect to see industries nationalized,” he said. "We're seeing effectively the same thing, except that the war itself is a ruse, essentially. Rather than nationalizing physical production, what's being nationalized is social media, opinion production, perception production.”