Interview with Sasha Issenberg about Disinformation

by Elizabeth Rowe (She/Her)


7 Questions with Sasha Issenberg about Disinformation

Sasha Issenberg is a journalist, and author. Throughout his career, he has written for Slate, Bloomberg Politics, The Boston Globe, and Business Week. Sasha has written five books, including The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy, The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Elections, Outpatients: The Astonishing New World of Medical Tourism, The Engagement: America's Quarter-Century Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage, and his most recent book, Lie Detectives: In Search of a Playbook For Winning Elections In the Disinformation Age. This week we asked him questions about his life and career.

You and I both got to know Hal Malchow, and I was really moved by your article about him. How'd you get to know Hal?

My journey into the world of political campaign research began with an article I wrote for the New York Times Magazine, which ran just before the 2010 midterm elections. The piece delved into the Analyst Institute and its growing reliance on behavioral science to inform campaign strategies. Initially, I stumbled upon this intriguing subject and pitched the story to the magazine. What followed was over a year of in-depth research, numerous interviews, and navigating the tentative cooperation of the Analyst Institute.

The process was not without its challenges. I faced multiple rounds of cold feet from various sources and hesitation from the Institute's board about having any written exposure. However, amidst these hurdles, I connected with Hal, who would become a central figure in the article. His insights were invaluable, and he was instrumental throughout my reporting.

Interestingly, as the article was about to be published, Hal made a significant decision to shut down MSHC, his firm. This transition was unfolding as I visited him shortly after the piece ran, likely during the first weekend of November. Seeing him clear out his office and , winding down the firm, marked a pivotal moment for both of us.

The publication of this four-page magazine article ignited a deeper interest in me. I realized there was so much more to explore about behavioral science experiments and their application in political campaigns. This revelation led me to conceptualize a book that would delve into these topics more extensively. Many of the pioneers I had encountered during my initial reporting had also been at the forefront of using data for targeting and analytics. Hal was again a central figure in this broader narrative.

In the months following the article's publication, I sold a book proposal that would eventually become The Victory Lab. Hal's role was pivotal, and he emerged as the closest thing to the main character in the book. Over the next year, I spent considerable time with him, reporting and writing, piecing together the intricate tapestry of behavioral science and its impact on political campaigning.

This journey from a magazine article to a full-fledged book was both challenging and immensely rewarding. It not only deepened my understanding of the subject but also highlighted the transformative power of behavioral science in modern political campaigns.

Did you keep in touch with him after Victory Lab?

Back in 2013, I left Washington, DC around the same time Hal did. While I moved that year, he relocated to New Mexico the following year. During our overlapping time in DC, we managed to grab lunch a few times, and I was fortunate enough to be invited to parties at his house. Even after our moves, we stayed in touch, albeit less frequently. This January, through a mutual friend, I learned that Hal was at the end of his life—a revelation that came as a complete surprise to me. Although we had exchanged some emails in the past couple of years, we hadn't spoken for many years, certainly not since before the pandemic.

Reconnecting with Hal was both heartwarming and poignant. As we caught up, we eventually delved into his medical condition and his end-of-life decisions. It was mid to late January when he told me that March 21st would be the end of his life. I asked him how he planned to spend his remaining weeks, and his response was quintessentially Hal: "Promoting my book." His book had just been published, and although I hadn't read it yet, his determination to share his work was the most characteristic thing about him.

Hal's approach to his final weeks was not just about how he would die but a testament to how he had lived his life. He was passionate about sharing knowledge and ideas, and always enthusiastic about making sure people heard what he had to say. This outlook shaped my thoughts on how to write about him. I realized that his story deserved more than just an obituary or retrospective. It needed to capture the essence of his life and the remarkable way he processed his imminent death.

I spent a day with Hal outside of Santa Fe, where he lived. From the moment I met him, Hal had been eager to share his knowledge. In an industry where people often guard information for competitive or business advantages, Hal stood out for his willingness to share his discoveries and ways of thinking. This generosity extended even to those who could have been his competitors.

Over the years, I heard from numerous people, including Republican consultants, about Hal's readiness to engage in discussions and exchange ideas. Despite being a partisan Democrat, he valued learning and improving over mere competition. This openness made him an exceptional person to converse with, as he was never driven by what he should hold back but by what he was excited to share.

Reflecting on my relationship with Hal, I can confidently say that he was not only a source of invaluable insights but also a true friend. His enthusiasm and willingness to share made our conversations enriching and memorable. As I write about him, I hope to honor his legacy and the remarkable way he lived his life.

You have this latest book now that you've come out with that's about people taking on disinformation. Do you see parallels with some of the people you've profiled in this book, like Hal?

I've always seen my new book as a sequel or follow-up to The Victory Lab. Since around 2016, I've been in an ongoing conversation with a book publisher who expressed interest in a continuation of that work. Initially, I was hesitant. The innovations I covered in The Victory Lab, which spanned from 2000 to 2010, felt like a complete narrative when the book was published in the fall of 2012. Since then, developments in these areas seemed incremental. While there have been interesting findings, none seemed to warrant a book-length narrative or had significant conceptual weight.

However, a few years ago, I recognized a new challenge that merited exploration: the asymmetric communications environment. Unlike before, your opposition might not be another candidate or party committee operating under the same constraints. It could be an anonymous person anywhere in the world, a foreign intelligence service, or someone exploiting the election for advertising revenue. Traditional communications strategies no longer seemed relevant.

Previously, there were clear rules about when to engage with stories, shaped by a media landscape dominated by a few major newspapers, three national television networks, notable radio stations, and two prominent newsweeklies. These rules no longer apply in the age of the internet and social media, where misinformation can spread rapidly and unpredictably.

Revisiting the sphere of innovation I wrote about, I noticed some familiar faces. For instance, Laura Quinn, a significant figure in The Victory Lab, played a pivotal role in developing Catalyst, the voter file and founding the Analyst Institute. Now, she is involved in building a common infrastructure on the left to monitor and track online disinformation. Alongside these familiar figures, there's a new generation tackling these contemporary challenges.

Interestingly, The Victory Lab had very little about the internet, reflecting its time. This new book delves into how the digital age has transformed political campaigns, addressing the complexities of modern communication and the strategies required to navigate this landscape.

In writing this sequel, I aim to capture the ongoing evolution of campaign strategies in a world where the rules are constantly changing. The insights from both old and new innovators provide a rich tapestry of how political campaigns must adapt to remain effective in this new era.

How did your experiences with Hal in the early 2000s shape your understanding of the importance of data and digital strategies in political campaigns, and what are your thoughts on the role of the internet in amplifying disinformation, which has been an issue for years?

Absolutely. Politicians have always lied, and rumors or word-of-mouth have always influenced public opinion. However, social media has transformed the scale and scope of how lies can spread. Today, misinformation can go viral without any financial backing, organizational support, or regulatory oversight. This new landscape allows anyone, anywhere, to disseminate false information without the constraints that once provided some transparency and accountability.

The main characters in my new book represent a younger generation grappling with this new communications environment. One central figure is Jory Craig, who, if there's a Hal Malchow of this book, it is she—albeit with a very different origin story.
In The Victory Lab, I wrote about Hal Malchow's rise through the ranks of campaign management and his early involvement in the direct mail business. Jory Craig, on the other hand, grew up in Illinois, passionate about international affairs. She was a Model UN nerd in high school and, after college in 2011, landed a job at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner (GQR). GQR, through a twist of fate, oversees the consulting practices of numerous Democratic firms in Washington. Stan Greenberg, a notable figure in political polling, had an extensive client list that included Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Tony Blair, and Ehud Barak.

At just 22, Jory became a junior digital strategist at GQR, traveling to Moldova to help a parliamentary candidate get on Facebook. Her work took her to Ghana, the Philippines, Panama, and The Bahamas. By 2016, while observing events from abroad, she, like many others, was stunned by Trump's victory. This shock led to intense scrutiny within Democratic circles, seeking to understand every possible reason for the unexpected outcome.

Some of this introspection focused on strategic decisions, demographic insights, and polling errors. However, a significant area of inquiry was the unrecognized impact of internet activities during the election year. Senior officials, including Mike Podhorzer, a major character in "The Victory Lab," were bewildered by terms like bot networks, troll farms, and hack-and-dump operations—concepts that were foreign to traditional political campaign strategies.

Podhorzer and others began investigating these new phenomena. Even experienced American campaign staffers, including digital experts, were unfamiliar with these tactics. This curiosity led them to Jory Craig, then a 25-year-old with extensive experience in international campaigns but none in the U.S. Despite her inexperience with American politics, she understood dynamics familiar in global politics, such as foreign interference and ideologically motivated media, which had resurfaced in the U.S.
Jory's international background was crucial. She recognized how rumors, conspiracy theories, and partisan media shaped political ideas worldwide. Starting in 2017, she applied this knowledge to American campaigns, developing a framework for tracking and responding to disinformation. Her work has become instrumental in creating strategies to combat the spread of false information, making her a pivotal figure in adapting political campaigning to the digital age.

In summary, the evolution of campaign strategies reflects a shift from traditional methods to addressing the complexities of modern digital communication. The lessons from both Hal and Jory illustrate the ongoing need for innovation and adaptability in political campaigning.

As we approach the 2024 election cycle, we're seeing an amplification of disinformation. What steps do you think journalists, operatives, and average citizens should take to address this ongoing issue in such a polarized environment? What are your recommendations for tackling disinformation effectively?

As we head into the 2024 election cycle, the amplification of disinformation remains a significant challenge. The key for everyone—journalists, political operatives, and average citizens alike—is to maintain a sense of proportion when dealing with misinformation.

Offline, we have a natural sense of proportion. When encountering a conspiracy theory or outright lie in everyday life—say, from a person rambling at the end of a bar or an eccentric uncle at Thanksgiving—we generally know how to respond. We either ignore it, dismiss it with a chuckle, or at most, share it as a joke, but we don't give it undue weight or attention. Similarly, we wouldn't take graffiti scrawled in a bathroom seriously, and certainly not report it as news.

However, we are still in the novelty phase of online disinformation, where the response often lacks this sense of proportion. Journalists, with good intentions, have created disinformation beats and teams within newsrooms. While this has led to some valuable work, it has also resulted in some perverse incentives. By highlighting and reporting on obscure, fringe conspiracy theories from the internet, journalists can inadvertently amplify these lies, giving them more attention than they would have otherwise received. For example, I had no idea about the existence of porn deep-fake videos of Taylor Swift until I read about it in a major news outlet.

Journalism about disinformation often ends up promoting the very lies it aims to debunk. If a handful of people in a bar were spreading a rumor, it wouldn't be considered newsworthy. Yet, similar online whispers can mistakenly be treated as significant stories. The distinction needs to be made: if every person in bars across the country were discussing the same falsehood, it might warrant attention. If thousands of people are protesting in a major city, it deserves investigation. But often, online disinformation doesn't meet these thresholds.

Political professionals must also apply this sense of proportion. Campaign strategies shouldn't be swayed by the digital equivalent of a ranting bar patron. Overreacting to online disinformation can have significant costs. Not only does it draw unnecessary attention to falsehoods, but it can also amplify them through algorithmic promotion. Moreover, constant reaction to online rumors distracts from a campaign’s primary goals—communicating with persuadable voters, motivating supporters, and engaging donors.
The challenge is identifying the 1% of online disinformation that requires a response and addressing it effectively without feeding the systems that perpetuate it. Jory Craig, a prominent figure in this field, has spent the last several years training Democratic communicators on how to discern and tackle these issues smartly. By maintaining focus and proportion, we can navigate the complexities of disinformation in the digital age while keeping our primary objectives in sight.

I do think there is an opportunity for us to educate folks to be like, “Hey  you also individually have a responsibility now since there's so much of communication is very spread out that people are passing things on that frankly amplify messages that shouldn't be out there also.”

In the current digital age, disinformation is rampant, and it's crucial for everyone—journalists, operatives, and laypeople alike—to handle online information responsibly. Here’s some practical advice for laypeople on how to navigate this complex landscape:
First and foremost, remember that there's hardly anything on the internet that demands an immediate retweet or share. If you come across something that sounds too good to be true, especially if it flatters your biases by saying something terrible about someone you dislike or something wonderful about someone you support, take a moment to verify it.
News organizations have invested significantly in fact-checking. A quick Google search like "Is [X] true?" will often lead you to reliable sources like Snopes, the Associated Press, or PolitiFact. These resources can help you discern the truth behind the claims.

Once you’ve verified the information, it’s important to share the correct information as well. The impulse often is to share exciting, provocative content, which has a higher chance of being false. If you come across a fact-check that debunks a false claim, don’t just keep it to yourself—share it within your networks.

Think of it like this: if you’re going to risk spreading something from the “crazy guy at the end of the bar,” also bring home the librarian and the civics teacher to correct the misinformation. If you find a fact-check, make sure to distribute that information as widely as you can.

Disinformation spreads rapidly because it’s often more appealing and sticky. To counteract this, those committed to the truth must be proactive and aggressive in using their networks to disseminate accurate information. This way, we can ensure that the truth has a fighting chance against the proliferation of falsehoods.

By taking these steps—pausing before sharing, verifying information, and actively spreading correct information—we can all contribute to a more informed and less misled online community.

You have written about some pretty great and varied topics in your books. Talk to me a little bit about the books you've written and how you've chosen the book topics, from sushi to medical tourism, political testing, and misinformation. It's a pretty wide variety. Talk to me about how you made those decisions on those books.

A couple of my books, like The Victory Lab and my sushi book, originated from magazine articles. Tackling a big subject for a magazine piece often brings waves of self-doubt. You make grand promises to an editor to get the assignment, and then you grapple with whether the story will actually come together. Sometimes the challenge lies in completing the reporting, and sometimes it’s about constructing the story effectively.

For both of these projects, I had a moment towards the end where I realized there was much more to the story. Some of this additional content got cut by my editor or didn’t fit the piece’s scope. Occasionally, there were entire storylines I didn’t pursue because they were beyond the article’s narrative.
Take The Victory Lab, for instance. I constantly encountered the theme of microtargeting data, which was part of a larger culture of skepticism, innovation, and empiricism. It dawned on me that I had only scratched the surface of a much larger story. My sushi book followed a similar pattern.

I enjoy uncovering hidden worlds and understanding the minds of people solving intriguing problems. This fascination drove my interest in writing The Lie Detective. In contrast, my book on same-sex marriage battles was different. While parts of it involved in-depth polling and opinion research, similar to The Victory Lab, it struck me around 2011 as the most significant shift in American politics on a single issue in my lifetime.

Polling research suggested that this shift was unparalleled on any domestic issue in the years of polling. This was a big, generational topic that nobody had pieced together coherently. I had covered politics during the height of this conflict and witnessed firsthand the assumptions at both Republican and Democratic conventions in 2004 and 2012.

In that book, I was influenced by the monumental works about the civil rights movement, primarily written by journalists using their skills to create historical works. By 2011 and 2012, I realized I had lived through the entire life of same-sex marriage as an issue. I ambitiously thought I could use similar tools to write a definitive history of the political and legal conflicts around same-sex marriage.

This approach differed from my other books, where I defined the story and set the parameters. For instance, in my book about globalization and sushi, I chose to focus on tuna, not salmon. In The Victory Lab, I concentrated on experiments, testing, data, and microtargeting, deliberately excluding internet aspects that didn’t fit my narrative.

Similarly, in my book on medical tourism, I focused on people seeking dental care worldwide, which I found fascinating, rather than wealthy individuals flying globally for plastic surgery. However, with the same-sex marriage book, the narrative existed outside my mind. There were court cases and statewide policy conflicts that I had to synthesize into one narrative, making it an anomaly in my work.

Despite its challenges, it’s the book I’m most proud of, and I hope it will be the most enduring. I believe it captures a crucial period in cultural conflict in the United States.

What inspires you? Do you have any books, TV shows, or podcasts that you think this is amazing work that listeners should be watching, listening, or viewing?

One of the books that stands out in my memory is Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade by Daniel K. Williams. It’s been a couple of years since I read it, but as we were discussing this topic, it came to mind.

The book offers a fascinating look at the anti-abortion movement before the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. There’s often a perception that the pro-life movement was unified in its stance against abortion after 1973, but Williams provides a broader picture by examining the movement’s earlier phase. One of the book’s central points is that prior to Roe v. Wade, the pro-life movement was primarily Catholic-driven, without significant involvement from evangelical communities.

Williams offers a detailed account of how the landscape changed in the years leading up to 1973. The analysis highlights the intricate dynamics and shifting coalitions that shaped the conversation around abortion during this period. It’s particularly insightful to see how politics and coalition-building played a role in influencing public opinion and policy.

One of the aspects I appreciated about Defenders of the Unborn is its nuanced portrayal of the pro-life movement and how different factions within it engaged in shaping political stances on abortion. Williams’ work provides a comprehensive understanding of the complexities involved in the movement and the diverse interests that drove its evolution.

If you’re interested in a deeper dive into the history of the pro-life movement and its intricate relationship with politics, this book offers an excellent resource. It’s a compelling reminder of how social movements and political coalitions can have diverse origins and how they evolve over time to adapt to shifting public sentiments and legal precedents.
Thanks Sasha!

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