U-M law professor Barbara McQuade fights against disinformation in her new book


Barbar McQuade and her book Attack From Within

When Barbara McQuade, a University of Michigan law professor and MSNBC legal analyst, prosecuted a doctor who “cured” cancer in patients who didn’t have cancer, some victims refused to believe they’d been duped. They had trusted their doctor, after all, and how could they have been so wrong?

In her new book, Attack From Within: How Disinformation Is Sabotaging Americawhich she will discuss at the Ann Arbor District Library on March 7, McQuade uses many examples from history, here and abroad, to show us just how disinformation works. 

In her comprehensive page-turner, McQuade also pulls theories from top political scientists, stories from FBI agents and other experts, and even Greek mythology, weaving them into a coherent argument that just may save our democracy. 

Appointed by President Obama, McQuade served as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan from 2010-2017, the first woman in that position. Earlier work included positions in journalism and law. After 9/11, she often dealt with national security in her teaching and practice.

“I watched the threat evolve from al-Qaeda to ISIS to cyber-attacks to Russia,” she says, adding that in one of her U-M courses, she assigns the Mueller report, which she explains deals more with Russia than with Trump. 

Domestic terrorists have not been taking down planes or shooting (mostly). Words and images—lies—are the weapons. And they, too, can be lethal.  

McQuade reminds us that nine people died as a result of the January 6, 2021, insurrection in Washington, D.C., because some believed the election was stolen. People who refused to mask or get inoculations because they believed COVID wasn’t serious died, too. Hate speech also kills. Poll workers, health, school and court officials, and government leaders have required protection after death threats. 

Disinformation kills. 

It also subverts democracy, driving laws that suppress votes, eroding the rule of law, and destroying community. 

In short, it kills democracies, too. 

In her book, McQuade shows how those who spread disinformation rely on techniques from the playbooks of Hitler, Stalin, Putin, and their ilk. 

Authoritarians will repeat simple slogans (think “stop the steal”) so, after a while, people believe it to be true. They don’t deal in little white lies we might spot but in lies so big we can’t imagine anyone would float them. They emphasize emotion over reason and stoke violence. They try to make us question what we see and mock experts, so we rely on them for interpretation. McQuade says that doesn’t just leave us ill-informed but disinformed. 

Emerging technologies facilitate the spread of disinformation, especially when bots duplicate fake news exponentially. 

Among the many solutions McQuade suggests are to exercise control over social media companies so bots and anonymous users can’t spread lies and sponsored stories don’t look like real stories; strengthen local journalism; train people to recognize fake news by teaching history, civics, and media literacy as well as the history of disinformation; reform campaign finance; restore the ban on assault weapons and stop vigilante justice; and strength the rule of law. 

She says she hopes that by exposing some of the tactics used against the truth, we can resist them. 

McQuade may be more optimistic than some of us, as we watch basic rights. erode. “I take the long view,” she explains. “We take steps back, and we make progress forward. It only happens when we fight for our rights and take charge of our democracy.”

That may be as simple as telling friends and neighbors that the election wasn’t stolen and Mexico isn’t sending us criminals and rapists. It also means being careful not to share a story online unless you’re certain it’s true. “Journalists and lawyers have to point to evidence,” and we must, too. 

She points out the importance of compromise and communication. “What I really hope to do [with this book] is invite national conversation about the importance of choosing truth over tribe.”

But will those who watch Fox News be as ready to engage as those who watch MSNBC and read The Washington Post?

“It’s not easy, that’s for sure,” she concedes but urges us to resist the temptation to view those who have been duped as bad people. "There’s room in the middle. ... For instance, on the issue of immigration, we might agree that we can’t feed the world but that there are lots of unfilled jobs that immigrants could do” to our benefit.

”Look for common ground.”  

Davi Napoleon, a theater historian and freelance writer, holds a BA and MA from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. from New York University. Her book is Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theatre.

Barbara McQuade will talk about "Attack From Within" with John U. Bacon at the Ann Arbor District Library, 343 South Fifth Avenue, on Thursday, March 7 at 6:30 pm.