No, you’re not ‘just asking questions.’ You’re spreading disinformation.

December 17, 2020 6:00 am

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Last week a state Senate elections committee held a hearing on the “security” of the 2020 election. Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, the Republican chair from Big Lake, said she wanted to address various “anecdotal reports of irregular election activities.” Kiffmeyer said that “the best way to get Minnesotans to have confidence in the result and the outcome is to respect those questions transparently and without accusation.” 

Then she did the opposite by giving a platform to multiple testifiers who repeated vague and sometimes factually incorrect allegations about the elections process. 

Secretary of State Steve Simon of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party noted during the hearing that it was taking place during a “tidal wave” of disinformation that endangered election workers and democracy itself. He said that anyone who even hinted at such conspiracy theories was “coating themselves in a shame that will never ever wash off.” 

In response, Kiffmeyer argued that senators should not be “accused of nefarious motives, just because [they were] asking the questions.”

Asking questions is encouraged to get new information or clarify existing information. Sometimes you might think you know the answer, but need it confirmed by an authoritative expert. Or, even if you already know the answer to the question, asking questions can help others understand the information, such as by using the Socratic Method. 

But right now a lot of people are weaponizing this notion of “just asking questions.” Framing it this way allows the person to make a wild accusation in question format, rather than phrasing it as a statement. Often either the questioner knows the truth and denies it for political reasons, or they are willfully ignorant. Conspiracy theorists and malicious actors who spread disinformation intentionally — such as propagandists or foreign adversaries — often favor this tactic. 

Doing so allows them to shift the burden of truth, then implicitly reject the truth, and finally legitimize the disinformation — all while maintaining an air of respectability. 

Shift the burden of truth 

A person “just asking questions” will set the stage by plausibly claiming he or she can be persuaded if you would merely answer the question. Rather than make the allegation and explain why it proves their point, they shift the burden to their opponent by asking a question with a vague reference to a story they heard. (“I heard this rumor, and if it isn’t true, you’ll certainly prove me wrong, right?”) But it’s difficult to respond to allegations that are vague or based on falsehoods. Likewise, it’s not possible to respond to a half-formed argument phrased as a question unsupported by evidence. There’s nothing substantive to respond to. But by being unable to “answer the question,” the person being questioned looks belligerent, unresponsive and evasive. 

For example, in her opening statement, Kiffmeyer said she was disappointed to see Simon state there was “no credible reports, no credible evidence” of election irregularities, which she called “very vague and pronounced without substantiating information.” 

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake. Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

Rather than provide any trustworthy evidence that there were irregularities, Kiffmeyer shifted the burden onto Simon to prove a negative, that there weren’t irregularities. 

Later in the hearing, Sen. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, asked Simon if he would commit to an “independent forensic audit of the system.” Simon asked for clarification: “Could you tell me a little bit more about what you mean? It’s a little bit hard to answer the question unless … I know the details about what it is.”

Howe replied without much further detail, only saying “computer experts” should “look at those SIM cards and those machines.” In turn, Simon could not give much of a response: “I’m afraid that doesn’t give me enough information to really understand the proposal. … I’d be interested in knowing … what kind of misconduct you think is happening that would merit this kind of thing.”  

Implicitly reject the truth

Next, a person “just asking questions” will implicitly reject the truth. Asking questions is good if you genuinely want the truth; but many people “just asking questions” simply won’t accept the answer. They don’t want to accept the evidence, yet also do not want to admit that they reject it. So instead, they “ask the question.” 

They frame the denialist talking point as a question, and if criticized for doing so, bemoan they are being censored for merely asking for “open debate” or “transparent conversation.” In fact, this has been the exact strategy of a Holocaust denial group, the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust. But it’s not possible to have a real and productive conversation or debate if one side simply rejects evidence. You’ll notice that even if they get a factual and direct answer, they dispute it or downplay it. Rather than move anyone’s understanding forward, the person “just asking questions” holds it back.

When Howe requested the audit, Simon again noted that there was no evidence of problems in Minnesota, and emphasized that even a Trump-appointed judge in Minnesota found that the level of fraud or misconduct since 1979 was .00004%. Howe did not acknowledge that fact, but instead replied, “I don’t think any of us have the answers.” Rather than accept the evidence presented, Howe rejected that it even existed.

Spread disinformation

Disinformation can spread not just by explicit statements, but also by mere suggestion and innuendo. (“Could it be true? I’m not sure, but maybe it is!”) 

After Howe asked for his audit, Kiffmeyer argued that two instances of human data-entry error over the past several years was evidence of a problem. Simon noted that those examples were “by far the exception, not the rule,” and that such few human errors — which were caught and corrected — was really a testament to the success of the system. Kiffmeyer cut Simon off and said, “How many other people might this have happened to, we just don’t know about it?” Kiffmeyer did not seem interested in hearing any evidence of the security and success of the system, but instead wanted only to sow unfounded suspicions about the integrity of it.

“Just asking questions,” to the uninformed observer, might seem serious, informed, or based in common sense. But in reality, the questioner simulates curiosity in order to plant seeds of doubt in the minds of others. The questioner provides an opportunity for uninformed listeners to be radicalized in pursuit of an ulterior motive. The conversation becomes a Trojan horse for spreading false information, rather than a method for fighting it. 

Maintain respectability

But the biggest reason that “just asking questions” can be so insidious is because it can go under the radar unchallenged. By smuggling the propaganda into the minds of observers in an open hearing, people who are “just asking questions” are wolves in sheep’s clothing. By not explicitly endorsing the disinformation, they can deny affiliation with it while still spreading it. This tactic is furthered by giving platforms to people who explicitly share falsehoods, and not proactively correcting them. 

For example, one testifier at the hearing argued that because some registered voters had birth years of 1850, it was clear that something was wrong with the system. Sen. Carolyn Laine, DFL-Columbia Heights, noted that this was intentional: Some voters had registered before the state required a birth date to register and then never needed to re-register. Therefore, the system inserted a placeholder year. 

Kiffmeyer, being a former secretary of state and having been chair of the elections committee for years, knew this. But she did not seem interested in countering that false information from the testifier. 

The real danger of ‘just asking questions’

“Just asking questions” can be dangerous, not because questions are bad, but because certain forms of questions in certain settings are used to muddy the truth, rather than bring it to light. And in crises or politically tense situations, such as an election where 38% of voters believe the presidential election was illegitimate, furthering disinformation will encourage conspiracies to turn from seemingly harmless rhapsodizing on Facebook into violence against individuals.  

How do we distinguish good questions from bad ones? First, the question should be based on some specific fact; questions divorced from reality are plainly unhelpful. Second, is the questioner interested in learning the answer? If not, then you likely have a case of “just asking questions” in bad faith. And finally, does the questioner already know the answer and use the question to cloud the truth, rather than elucidate it? If so, it’s very likely you have a malicious actor on your hands. 

The next time someone is “just asking questions,” ask a few of those questions to yourself first.

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Nick Harper
Nick Harper

Nick Harper is a voting rights attorney and civic engagement director for the League of Women Voters of Minnesota.