When I was in the 1st grade, this kid named Jonathan Elliot (and no I will not protect your name because this clearly left a lasting impression on me) told everyone in my class, and on the playground, that I was a werewolf.
Because I do, unfortunately, have pretty hairy (although, luckily blonde) arms.
Now that might not seem like a huge deal but when you’re in the 1st grade and someone starts a rumor like that: two things happen.
- A few kids start picking on you for having hairy arms (I did)
- A few kids start being afraid of you because they now think there is a small possibility that you are, in fact, a werewolf (I wasn’t)
This is smallest, purest form of disinformation.
But let’s break it down.
Disinformation, as a concept, is actually quite simple. It is the deliberate sharing of false or misleading information in an effort to bias, sway, or change public opinion.
What Jonathan did was share false information about me in an effort to turn our classmates against me because I did not like him (and because he was in the 1st grade and that’s how boys handle rejection – super well). While luckily this didn’t end up ruining my reputation for life, it was a simple, deliberate attempt to spread false information in an effort to bias the kids in our class to not like me, maybe even fear me.
K, but you’re fine now so why does any of this matter? Let’s try tweaking the scenario:
Instead of being 6, I am now 29 and running for office in a predominately conservative town. And Jonathan is my running mate. During one of our debates before the election, he comments that my arms are hairy. People laugh it off. But then, his campaign team finds that 78 percent of voters in our district, oppose abortion. So they hire a firm, who puts out a false story about the possibility of my recently having an abortion. How do they know? Because an unidentified source said she performed that abortion and another unverified pharmacist asserts that a common, noticeable side effect of medication taken after the type of procedure source one purportedly performed on me is (you guessed it): long, flowing arm hair. This unverified, story with two questionable sources, starts to make its way through our social media universe until my opponent retweets that story – adding in a clip of him at the debate pointing out my arm hair – demanding answers. And what started as unfortunate hairy arms has lost me 6 points in the polls because the citizens of our town (falsely) believe it is possible that I not only had an abortion, but am now lying about it.
This is how disinformation works. One tiny well thought out seed of doubt, exploited to make you start questioning: what is real and what is fake?
Add a multi-billion dollar industry, advanced technology, a society with 24-news cycles, a population enamored with social media, sprinkle in political motivation and America has the werewolf scenario on steroids.
Let’s rewind a bit. Where did disinformation come from? Well, as I pointed out earlier, it comes from the pretty basic idea that human nature can be exploited through deception. And no one has done it better than the Russians.
In 1923, a special disinformation unit was setup at the behest of Soviet Union leadership to conduct active intelligence operations. The office, under the order of Joseph Stalin – the former ruler of the USSR – was designed to cause diversions by creating and distributing misleading information through the media of open societies (aka democracies, like America). And they have been mastering this ever since.
It is important to note that Russia approaches war much differently than open, democratic countries. To Russian doctrine, nonmilitary instruments (like disinformation) can rival the effectiveness of conventional weaponry. Valery Vasilyevich Gerasimov, Russian Army General and currently Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia (what a mouthful), said once, “The information space opens wide asymmetrical possibilities for reducing the enemy’s fighting potential.” To make it simple – what someone lacks in beauty (advanced military technology), they can make up for in book smarts (disinformation).
The United States’ first major brush with disinformation was called Operation INFEKTION (or FORWARD II or DENVER), a 1980s campaign by the KGB to plant the idea that the United States had created and spread HIV/AIDS as part of a biological weapons research project (similar to a disinfo campaign now about COVID). OPERATION INFEKTION involved “an extraordinary amount of effort — funding radio programs, courting journalists, distributing would-be scientific studies,” according to journalist Joshua Yaffa.
The goal of this campaign by the Soviet Union, according to the U.S. State Department, was to undermine the United States’ credibility, isolate Americans at home and abroad, and cause problems for us in countries who hosted our military bases. Some analysts believe the intent was also to distract from the Soviet’s own offensive biological warfare program, or retaliate against accusations the United States had made for what was later called the yellow rain incident. Because, like Jonathan, even grown men don’t always handle things maturely.
Okay, so Russia started it but what does it mean for America now?
Well as many of you know, there have been multiple reports of ongoing disinformation campaigns to influence more than just the U.S. election, and not just by Russia anymore but also by China and Iran (although less so). The goal of disinformation by those countries right now being threefold, to 1) influence votes, 2) cause internal divisions and chaos in the United States, and 3) shake the confidence of the American electorate in their political leadership and government. Now, some experts are saying the threat is moving closer to home – with disinformation being formulated and pushed domestically. Several different reports and U.S. officials have called disinformation one of, if not the top, threat to U.S. national security.
“Putin, sadly, has got all of our political class, every single one of us, including the media, exactly where he wants us. He’s got us feeling vulnerable…on edge, and he’s got us questioning the legitimacy of our own systems.”Fiona Hill author of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, and famous for her time in Trump’s Administration and testimony in his impeachment hearings, said in a CBS 60 Minutes interview.
According to the State Department,
On average, a false story reaches 1,500 people six times more quickly than a factual story. This is true of false stories about any topic, but stories about politics are the most likely.U.S. Department of State Report, WEAPONS OF MASS DISTRACTION: Foreign State-Sponsored Disinformation in the Digital Age
And it matters. Because the American people are finding it harder and harder to spot disinformation when they see it. For example, you can read articles about real disinformation here, here, here, here, and here,. Perhaps you remember the controversy of Kendall Jenner holding up a “Black Lives Matter” sign – a picture that went viral and was later proven to be photoshopped.
To show you how advanced disinformation technology is already, take a peek at this website which shows you, every time you refresh the page, a person who very much looks real but is not! How? The site uses a complicated algorithm to produce computer-generated faces that we recognize as human when none of those people are real.
Are you looking to test how well do you would do when confronted with disinformation? This guide to election security and disinformation gives you plenty of tools/skills/info to help you spot the nasty junk, then gives you a chance to check your skills in their VERIFY game.
Maybe instead you need some quick, easy tools to fact check information? Try:
- Snopes – a quick way to search an issue and see if it’s real
- MediaBiasFactCheck.com – a website that shows you the media bias of the outlet you are reading
- Bot check – if seeing something on social media, double check that the original poster of that information is not a bot by seeing how often they are posting information (is it all day even in the middle of the night – probably a bot); do they have a real picture of themselves (if not – might be a bot); does their profile username make sense or does it have a bunch of random letters or numbers (if the latter – bot).
- Verify – try to find another tier 1 source (of a different political view) reporting on a controversial issue; if you can only find one outlet talking about it then it’s likely unverified and doesn’t fit most editors’ source requirements
Disinformation might be fake news, but it is a very real weapon being used to target all of us everyday in big and small ways. It’s extra important to remember, that none of us are immune to weapons of mass distraction and all of us are likely already victims (insert girl raising hand emoji – it happens to me too!). As technology advances and the outcomes of disinformation grow is efficacy, it will only become increasingly more pervasive and difficult to spot. The best thing we can all do is practice objectivity and verify before we trust.
And that’s all for this one, babes.
No pressure. No bullshit. Just, THE BABES BLUF.