Vaccinate Against Disinformation

8 mins read

Foreign interference and domestic politics use disinformation to divide, incite and manipulate. It’s cheap, effective and hard to counter. Learn how to spot it and inoculate others against it too.

This blog includes insights from:
1. U.S. Department of Homeland Security – THE WAR ON PINEAPPLE: Understanding Foreign Interference in Five Steps
2. Center For International Governance Innovation – Influence Operations and Disinformation on Social Media
3. Misinformation Review / Harvard Kennedy School – The Different Forms of COVID-19 Disinformation
4. PLOS ONE – Neutralizing misinformation through inoculation

Understand the five steps in foreign disinformation campaigns.

Adapted from DHS datasheet

How disinformation campaigns work

Christopher Krebs, The former DHS Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Director explained how Russian interference in US elections often works. Take a simple issue such as whether pineapple should be a pizza topping, use that to divide people to get them to fight each other. Wearing masks, racism and immigration are even more inflammatory issues that have been used to divided Americans. Read the full DHS explanation.

Krebs said his agency is trying to strengthen the national immune system for disinformation. “How do you take the tactics, techniques, and procedures of the bad guys, and educate the American people? How do you explain, ‘This is how you’re being manipulated, this is how they’re hacking your brain?’” – NBC

Influence operations

“Foreign state actors have been spreading disinformation on social media about COVID-19 and the virus that causes it – from its origin to potential cures, or its impact on Western societies. States such as Russia and China — have taken to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to create and amplify conspiratorial content designed to undermine trust in health officials and government administrators, which could ultimately worsen the impact of the virus in Western societies.

Adversaries increasingly use the internet to pursue political and military agendas through cyberattacks and online propaganda campaigns. These “hybrid methods” often make use of the spread of disinformation to erode the truth and undermine the credibility of international institutions and the liberal world order. Social media provides a quick, cheap and data-rich medium to use to inject disinformation into civic conversations. Algorithms that select, curate and control our information environment might prioritize information based on its potential for virality, rather than its grounding in veracity.

Behind the veil of anonymity, state-sponsored trolls can bully, harass and prey on individuals or communities online, discouraging the expression of some of the most important voices in activism and journalism. Sometimes the people behind these accounts are not even real, but automated scripts of code designed to amplify propaganda, conspiracy and disinformation online. Social media (like Facebook and WhatsApp) enhance the speed, scale and reach of propaganda and disinformation, engendering new international security concerns around foreign influence operations online.” – CIGI (paraphrased)

Image: Paul Weaver on Flickr

Countering disinformation by vaccination

“In polling Americans about beliefs we observed clear groupings of beliefs that correspond with different individual-level characteristics (e.g., support for Trump, distrust of scientists) and behavioral intentions (e.g., to take a vaccine, to engage in social activities). Moreover, we found that conspiracy theories enjoy more support, on average, than misinformation about dangerous health practices. Even though the mass public tends to follow leaders who share partisan and ideological labels, there are limits. This is especially evidenced by the lack of relationship between Trump support and beliefs about the power of consuming disinfectant, which Trump publicly proposed during a press conference and later backtracked.

Statements regarding medical misinformation find less support. Dubious ideas about disinfectants, hot/humid climates, and hydroxychloroquine are believed by few Americans. Despite President Trump mentioning each of these, they have not received widespread support, suggesting limits to the spread of misinformation.” – Misinformation Review

Results of Misinformation Review about public opinions on COVID-19

SHORENSTEIN CENTER ON MEDIA, POLITICS, AND PUBLIC POLICY

How Misinfo is spread on Facebook

“The false information was posted on January 21, and was still up a week later on a public page, despite being linked to in a story by the Factcheck.org about it and other posts spreading inaccurate information on Facebook. The post has been shared 4,800 times, and has 432 comments. One comment to the false Facebook post includes a link to a website that calls the coronavirus itself is hoax and suggest that drinking Corona beer alone will cure the virus.” Newshubz

Inoculation against misinformation

“Misinformation is information that people accept as true despite it being false has significant consequences. People do not and cannot assess every piece of information on its merit. Mental rules-of-thumb—are frequently applied when evaluating claims and evidence: Have I heard this before? Does it fit in with what I already know? What do relevant others think about it? 

This approach is prone to bias, especially when particular myths are frequently encountered, when existing knowledge is incorrect, and/or when one’s social neighborhood shares or even identifies through false beliefs. Individuals do not seek and interpret information in a neutral, objective manner—rather, people tend to favor information that confirms existing beliefs. Challenging people’s “worldviews” (fundamental beliefs about how society should operate) with facts often backfires. Ironically their beliefs might be strengthened despite the evidence.

Inoculation theory provides an answer. Prepare people for potential misinformation by exposing some of the logical fallacies inherent in misleading communications in advance. This pre-exposure “inoculates” people so they will subsequently recognize flawed arguments and dismiss them as deceptive.” – PLOS One (paraphrased)

Benefits:
– effective among conservatives given their belief in individualism and free-market by emphasizing the dubious practices of an information source impinges on their freedom to be accurately informed- reduces the influence of conspiracy theories by increasing the degree of skepticism towards conspiratorial claims
– effective with people possessing different pre-existing attitudes—a situation particularly relevant to the climate change issue
– more effective at conveying resistance to misinformation than supportive messages (i.e., messages that promote accurate information without mentioning the misinformation)

Learn new strategies to counter hybrid forms of warfare including misinformation.

Eurasia Daily Monitor

Take Away

The battlefield has shifted. It isn’t about which side has more yard signs or runs more emotional ads. Learn to guard against misinformation campaigns designed to manipulate public opinion and sow discord.

Deepak
DemLabs

Image credit: Vitalii Chernopyskyi on Unsplash
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