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Disinformation is a concept that on the surface seems simple, but once you dive in quickly becomes complicated, the kind of complicated that can break your brain. In my work I find that there are three main hurdles people come up against when trying to understand it:
- Disinformation is one tactic used in a broader information warfare AKA strategic information operations. In my trainings, I use First Draft’s terminology: misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation to breakdown tactics and how most hostile actors will use more than one in a campaign. But those categories are broad and I struggle with the correct terminology for the 102 version of my training.
- The goal of disinformation isn’t literal. Hostile actors are often looking to create confusion and ambiguity. What you believe is true matters a whole lot less than your ability to discern truth from fiction. This is why fact checks and media literacy alone won’t solve our disinformation problem. No one understands this better than President Trump who often starts sentences when he’s spreading disinformation with “people are saying” or some variation.
- Bots and trolls alone aren’t enough to make an information operation successful. They need willing participants to give their work oxygen. Yes, bots can do a lot of damage spreading disinformation but they need dupes for a successful campaign. This includes media outlets, influencers, and Internet users who consume and share content.
Kate Starbird, whose research I often cite in the newsletter, has published a new paper: Disinformation as Collaborative Work: Surfacing the Participatory Nature of Strategic Information Operations, where she and her colleagues attempt to address some similar concepts. The audience for the paper is academics but I found it especially helpful in thinking about how to talk to progressive groups and activists. Starbird also has a Twitter thread if you’d like the Cliffs Note version.
The news cycle these past few weeks has me thinking about disinformation a lot. Starting with the latest Proud Boys event in Portland, the latest of several events they’ve held there. I’ve always seen these rallies as the Proud Boys looking for a fight, but I’ve come to realize that part of Proud Boys’ strategy for these events is an information operation to spread disinformation. For starters, they billed their event as a rally to “End Domestic Terrorism,” claiming that their villain du jour, Antifa, were domestic terrorists. Leading up to the event they went into overdrive with their messaging about Antifa as domestic terrorism. That effort worked like a charm and President Trump tweeted calling Antifa an “organization of terror” in all caps a few hours before the event. Someone even made a fake Antifa Twitter account that was amplified heavily on right-wing media and social before Twitter removed it for violating the site’s TOS.
After the event, Andy Ngo, who didn’t actually attend, attempted to spread disinformation about supposed Antifa violence. Huffington Post Reporter Christopher Mathias, in a lengthy Twitter thread debunking Ngo’s claims, outlines the strategy Ngo has used multiple times. Mathais later pointed out that this strategy also true for President Trump:
“I’m sure people have identified other distortions he’s made, but at any rate, Andy Ngo has found a lucrative far-right grift amplifying anti-antifa propaganda.
It’s a project with a few goals:
1) it wants government repression of leftist movements
2) it wants to portray leftist movements as somehow just as violent as far-right ones, which is a blatant lie.
3) it seeks to both obscure & distract from deadly white nationalist violence”
Even if you don’t identify as right wing this information operation might have worked on you. Ask yourself what your associations with Antifa (short for anti-fascism) are. Consider how many left of center folks in your life have denounced Antifa and expressed concerns to you about Antifa’s tactics without knowing what Antifa actually is. For some counter-programming, I’d encourage you to watch this video explainer from Vox’s Carlos Maza. Will Bunch’s column in the Philadelphia Inquirer this week is also excellent.
It’s insane that as America is in the middle of a mass shooting/domestic terrorism crisis, concern about so-called Antifa groups is getting so much oxygen in the media. But that’s how optimized information operations are. The right keeps doing them because it keeps working.
This week Facebook and Twitter also announced that they’d both removed accounts run by the Chinese government that were spreading disinformation and propaganda about the protesters in Hong Kong. Twitter also removed at least one account that appeared to be linked to China was geared towards Americans and even promoted the #QAnon conspiracy theory. (Two extremism researchers I talked to were skeptical of this claim but I’m inclined to take Twitter’s word here.)
NBC News’s Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins also had a big story about the Epoch Times, a media outlet run by Falun Gong, a cult that originated in China and opposes the Chinese government, which has spent “more than $1.5 million on about 11,000 pro-Trump advertisements in the last six months”. YouTube channels run by Epoch Times employees frequently promote conspiracy theories including #QAnon.
Yes, in a span of less than 24 hours, both the Chinese Government and an organization opposing the Chinese government made news for boosting #QAnon as part of their broader disinformation strategy. And yes, I’m already working on how to incorporate this as a case study for my next training.