The Jan. 6 Select Committee & Disinformation: Start Pre-bunking The Lies Now

Reps. Liz Cheney and Bennie Thompson
(TPM illustration/Getty Images)

This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.

The U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol is likely to run headlong into the same kinds of high-volume, toxic disinformation that fueled the insurrection itself. Because fact-finding takes considerable time and resources, and lies are fast and cheap, the Select Committee’s work risks being submerged by a tidal flood of BS, jeopardizing any institutional impact its findings might hold, not to mention accountability for the insurrection’s ultimate ringleaders.

If the Select Committee is unable to get ahead of those lies, or fails to find its own voice, its work faces the worst fate of all: being ignored. Fortunately, the Select Committee has a ripe slice of history to learn from.

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While the 9/11 Commission, Ken Starr’s independent counsel probe into the Clinton administration, and Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation examined different problems in different administrations, each holds lessons for breaking through the noise and BS with an accurate and official narrative of events. The Select Committee on January 6th can look to its investigative predecessors as it works to understand and explain what led to that violent moment in our history and how we can avoid its repeat — all while leaning on the recent work of disinformation researchers studying how best to tackle lies aimed at our democracy.

Comprehensive fact-finding and truth-telling are essential steps towards preventing a recurrence of political violence. Attempts to derail this vital work by those scared of the truth, or trapped in wells of disinformation, will arguably pose the most corrosive challenge to this exercise in accountability. That’s why it’s so important for the Select Committee to immediately begin “pre-bunking,” or proactively framing its work against a predictable pipeline of lies. As any disinformation expert can tell you, waiting to debunk lies until after they’re told gives the falsehoods time to take root, making it far harder for the truth to prevail.

Pre-bunking will require that the select committee transparently and powerfully tell the story of its work. This in turn suggests a need to proactively translate fact-finding for the public. The 9/11 Commission, tasked with investigating al Qaeda’s coordinated attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, smartly hired a writer to help it make its work legible to all Americans. As a result, the commission’s report “won the respect of the American public as much for its literary qualities as for the findings of the 9/11 commissioners,” wrote Craig A. Warren, author of “It Reads Like a Novel: The “9/11 Commission Report” and the American Reading Public. The report proved to be a national bestseller.

Despite the body count of January 6th, and an absolute dearth of evidence that fraud marred the 2020 election, proponents of the Big Lie continue to lay siege to our democracy. From former president Donald Trump on down, the Big Lie is now a central feature of some Republicans’ political identities. This is evident in the discredited election “audit” in Maricopa County, Arizona, the efforts by a handful of states to hamstring nonpartisan elections administrators, and the ongoing comments by members of Congress like Rep. Madison Cawthorn, the North Carolina Republican who has threatened “bloodshed” around future elections. Others, like Rep. Andrew Clyde, a Republican from Georgia, compared the rioting on Jan. 6 to a “normal tourist visit” in a bald attempt to diminish its importance — or sweep it into the memory hole.

With the nation’s leading disinformers flooding airwaves with lies, it is not enough that the select committee conduct a thorough investigation and hope that it is well-received; it must make the results of its investigative work as accessible to the public as possible. In addition to hiring professional communicators to translate one of the most complex congressional investigations in recent history for easy public consumption, the committee should press forward with this translation work in real-time, not just after the conclusion of its efforts.

Which brings us to the Ken Starr investigation.

While then-Independent Counsel Ken Starr was hammered for running an investigation into President Bill Clinton that meandered around various allegations for years, and absorbed near daily criticism from partisans aligned with the Clintons, he also made considerable efforts to prevent others from characterizing his investigation. Starr held press conferences and regularly answered questions about the direction of his investigation, sometimes from the foot of his driveway. While he was criticized for self-aggrandizement, his communication efforts offer lessons for the Select Committee. It can take the good from Starr’s example (steady flow of information to the public) without the bad (making itself rather than its investigation the star of the story). In other words, in addition to scheduled public hearings, the Select Committee should prioritize regular news conferences to help the American public follow along with what it is learning, prevent disinformation from dictating the coverage of its investigation, and keep the focus on the events and causes of January 6th.

Failure to translate findings proactively and on an ongoing basis will put at risk the results of the investigation itself. The Mueller Report offers a forewarning.

In 2017, former FBI Director Robert Mueller was named a special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, and potential links between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. Some two years later, Mueller’s report was released. In the intervening time Mueller and his team avoided speaking about their work, and made little effort to counter disinformation.

Their silence, in effect, gave others the opportunity to mischaracterize their investigation, including a steady stream of detractors on cable news and, most destructively, then-Attorney General William Barr, who misrepresented the report before its public release and muted its devastating findings, including multiple efforts to obstruct justice.

In truth’s battle against lies, silence is disinformation’s best ally.

Jon Steinman is a communicator at Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit working to prevent American democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government.

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