#ReleaseTheMemo and the New Politics of Disinformation

The disinformation business is booming. Last year’s main product line, breathless speculation that Donald Trump was the instrument of Vladimir Putin’s conquest of the United States has given way to absurd conspiracies about the FBI and secret societies and insurance policies. And then there’s House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes and his secret memo purporting to expose an FBI conspiracy against President and its forthcoming counter-point from Rep. Adam Schiff which will purport to expose the opposite.

Rep. Nunes’ memo unexpectedly created a sensation on social media, complete with a trending hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo. Thousands of Trump supporters, most of whom were under the impression that the memo was some sort of revelatory Deep State manifesto, as opposed to a document concocted by Nunes, have demanded its release. Not to be outdone, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff is working on a memo of his own that promises to be no less of a pile of garbage.

The dueling memos are exercises in partisan perfidy that have less to do with getting to the truth than the choose your own reality politics of political partisans.

I suspect that the Nunes memo finds something related to the dossier that was part of the Carter Page FISA warrant application and spins a pretty good yarn of it while glossing over the more credible basis for the FBI’s interest in Page.

The Democrats’ memo will presumably do exactly the opposite. Instead, it will hype out of all proportion the more damning elements to paint Carter Page as a super spy (he’s not) and Trump Moscow’s Manchurian candidate.

The truth is that the FBI was plenty familiar with Carter Page long before Trump was in the picture. Russian intelligence tried to recruit Page back in 2013. But, the Russians judged him to be a buffoon.

Anyway, the FBI has all that from wiretaps in the 2013 NY Russian spy ring case and Page doesn’t deny it. Page ended up being a cooperating witness and wasn’t charged.

After Carter Page was named a foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign in the spring of 2016, it’s reasonable to suspect that the Russians would make another run at him.

If might have started as a soft approach from someone who represented themselves to Page as a businessman or academic, something like that. Spies don’t wear name tags after all and it might have looked innocent enough to Page. But, to the FBI, which perhaps was aware of the interlocutors’ ties to Moscow, it would have looked more troubling. And there’s a good chance the FBI had signals intelligence on the Russian side to corroborate.

Whether or not the Dossier had anything to do with it, between Page’s history with Russian intelligence and his continuing interactions with Russians, some of whom may have been associated with Russia’s intelligence services, the FBI likely had enough other reasons to suspect suspect something was fishy with Page to convince the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) that there was sufficient probable cause to justify a surveillance warrant.

Of course, this is all speculation. We don’t know what the memos actually claim. Nor do we know on what basis the FBI sought permission to surveil Carter Page. But, we can be reasonably certain that neither Nunes’ “memo” nor Schiff’s are any kind of revelatory expose, and it’s a fair hunch that the real purpose of both to fire up their more credulous partisans and score themselves some hits on Fox News, or MSNBC, as the case may be.

The memos are but two examples of an emerging sub-genera of partisan disinformation in which something secret and nefarious is hinted at, but cannot be revealed and the imaginations of conspiracy theorists and partisans are expected to fill in the blanks. “Oh, it’s classified,” they say, “but I assure you it’s absolutely shocking, worse than Watergate, and/or traitorous.”

Text messages between two FBI agents, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who were involved in an extramarital affair. Their texts, which show a deep disdain for Donald Trump, have proven a treasure trove for Deep State conspiracists. Vague, out-of-context references become thread from which vast conspiracy theories can be spun. An analogy Strzok made to buying an “insurance policy“ becomes code for a plot to destroy Trump.

More recently, Rep. Ron Johnson and Rep. Trey Gowdy electrified conservative conspiracy media with claims that they had seen a text message referencing a “secret society” to take down Trump at the FBI. What is meant by that, no one knew. Johnson and Gowdy refused to release the text message itself. We might suspect that this could be because when viewed in context, it isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. It turns out that’s exactly right.

After ABC News got a hold of the text infamous “secret society” text and released it Wednesday night, it looked an awful lot like simple gallows humor.

The messages, which were sent from Strzok to Page the day after the election, lamented Trump’s victory. “Omg I am so depressed,” he wrote. In another, “Are you even going to give out your calendars?” Strzok asked Page. “Seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society.”

Whether the texts, the memos, or any of it is meaningful or not matters little. The thrill of forbidden knowledge and the giddy excitement of an imminent revelation under the weight of which political adversaries will crumble feeds a political base that is evolving to subside almost exclusively on nonsense.

And the conspiracies have fueled a ratings surge for the increasingly conspiratorial partisan media outlets that amplify them too. Fox News’ Sean Hannity and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow have struck ratings gold by catering to credulous partisans on the right and the left respectively.

But, all this comes with potential peril. What happens if the campaign to #ReleaseTheMemo actually succeeds? It risks exposing the real secret: the conversations animating partisans is mostly based in disinformation propagated by self-serving politicians and partisan media.

So sure, release the memo. But, release the FISA warrant application and underlying intelligence too. Maybe transparency will save us. At least until there’s a conspiracy for that too.

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