This Tuesday, voters in California’s 1st Senate District will cast ballots in a special election to replace Ted Gaines, a two-term Republican senator who gave up his seat after being elected to the California Board of Equalization. At first glance, the two candidates appear to have much in common. Both Kevin Kiley and Brian Dahle represent “safe” GOP Assembly districts. Their voting records aren’t that different. Kiley ran on his record; that is, when he wasn’t refuting Dahle’s misinformation about that record. Dahle’s candidacy was less a textbook example of retail politics than a master class in demagogic propaganda.
No, Kiley’s old law firm didn’t represent Russia or Iraq. I practiced law with Kevin from the time he graduated Yale Law School until he entered public service. As near as I can tell, during my 30 years at Irell & Manella only one of my colleagues had anything to do with Iraq – as a U.S. Army intelligence officer on active duty during Gulf War II.
No, Kiley didn’t work for Kamala Harris. Dahle’s campaign mailers showed a doctored photo of Kiley standing next to the Democratic presidential hopeful. Kiley has never met Senator Harris.
No, Kiley did not “oppose giving prison time to landlords who cooperate with ICE.” The bill in question, AB 291, did no such thing. Never mind that Kiley didn’t vote for this legislation.
Making up a lie – and these are only a few of the whoppers manufactured by the Dahle campaign or its surrogates – doesn’t take much imagination. It’s the audacity with which these lies were disseminated that deserves as much attention as the lies themselves. Examples:
Astroturfing – disguising a misinformation campaign initiated and controlled by the candidate or his paid consultants as a spontaneous, grass roots movement. That’s a perfect description of something called the California Republican Taxpayers’ Association, which appears to be a one-man show run by a hired political gun by the name of Brandon Gesicki. The Dahle campaign not only pays Gesicki for political consulting; it also funded a hit piece sent out on his organization’s letterhead which, among other things, falsely accused Kiley of voting “to help let illegal immigrant criminals stay in the US.”
Laser phishing – the targeted dissemination of false but believable images by manipulation of publicly available data, i.e., grafting together two photographs of Kiley and Kamala Harris to suggest that Dahle’s opponent was an ally of the Democratic senator. The fake does not need to be 100 percent convincing; just convincing enough to make people who want to believe the falsehood to also want to share it because it engages their antipathy toward Senator Harris.
False flagging – a covert operation designed to create the appearance of responsibility for some activity that disguises the actual source of responsibility. This took the form of dozens of defamatory posts by a tabloid-style blogger paid by Dahle’s campaign, or a letter claiming Kiley would be responsible for future wildfires from a couple who say they lost their home in Paradise — but who are Dahle’s paid political consultants.
The “let them deny it!” gambit used by LBJ, who knowingly propagated an outrageous falsehood in order to force his opponent to deny it. Among the more incendiary charges was the demonstrably false claim that a Kiley-sponsored bill aimed at getting veterans better access to care “sold out cancer victims.”
“Spiritual terror,” a term coined by Hitler in Mein Kampf to describe a “veritable barrage of lies and slander against whatever adversary seems most dangerous, until the nerves of the attacked persons break down.” Whether the Dahle campaign’s misinformation barrage achieved this result is secondary to its immediate effect – to compel Kiley to spend time, money, and his finite ability to play the endless game of reputational whack-a-mole in order to unpack and debunk his opponent’s lies.
These are blunt-force attempts to manipulate democracy. Imagine when the deception becomes more sophisticated, less easy to detect, and is combined with yet unknown technological advances that render it near impossible for the truth to catch up with the lie.
The result, according to Aviv Ovadya, the chief technologist for the University of Michigan’s Center for Social Media Responsibility, is what he calls “reality apathy.” Democracies, explains Ovadya, become unstable “when people no longer can function at a fundamental level of informedness.” Faced with a deluge of misinformation, people become inured to their inability to separate fact from fiction. When that happens, they lose interest in trying to discern the difference. Paul Newman’s washed-up lawyer in The Verdict explained in human terms what happens once we tire of hearing people lie. “We think of ourselves as victims and we become victims. We become weak. We doubt ourselves, we doubt our beliefs. We doubt our institutions. And we doubt the law.”
How has that grand old institution, the California Republican Party, responded? “Voters are going to decide which candidate they want,” said Matt Fleming, a spokesman for the CA GOP. “Either way, we’re going to have a great senator.” It didn’t have to endorse Kiley or disavow Dahle. But doesn’t it have a responsibility to at least acknowledge the deception played on these voters?
“Falsehood flies,” Jonathan Swift once wrote, “and the truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late.” Tuesday’s special may well test whether truth can even get to the starting gate. Let’s hope that the voters are able to discern what the California Republican Party has chosen to ignore: the difference between truth and falsehood.