Stengel is the former Editor of TIME, an MSNBC analyst and the author of Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation.
We’ve become so familiar with the idea that during the 2016 election thousands of Russian trolls—with very poor grammar—pretended to be Republican voters in Tennessee, Black activists in Michigan, and Trump supporters in Palm Beach that we think of disinformation as a foreign problem. I have news for you: the majority of disinformation is domestic, most of it is made right here in the USA. Focusing on Vladimir Putin’s troll army is something of a distraction from the seeming endless supply of homegrown conspiracy theories, fake local news sites, alt-right message boards, clickbait, and Donald Trump’s daily Twitter megaphone of rumor, misinformation and outright lies.
Yes, disinformation comes from both the right and the left, but research shows that highly partisan conservatives are far more likely to share disinformation than partisan liberals. A 2018 study by Oxford University researchers divided Twitter users into 10 different groups, including Democrats, progressives, traditional Republicans, and Trump supporters. The Trump supporters, they found, shared more junk news than all the other groups combined. As Steve Bannon so eloquently put it, “Flood the zone with shit,” and Trump supporters, alt-right groups, 4chan, Gab, and sites like Infowars and Breitbart do just that, putting out a tidal wave of junk news to overwhelm the traditional stuff. Then, in the disinformation ecosystem, it is picked up on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter—and by your Uncle Milton who informs you that George Soros secretly hatched COVID-19. A Knight Foundation study revealed that 65% of junk news and conspiracy theories on Twitter traced back to the 10 largest disinformation websites, which included Infowars. The even darker side of Trump’s attack on traditional media is that he empowers the 80% of Republicans who do not trust mass media outlets to become vectors of unchecked and unsourced information. Foreign disinformation is a distraction, New York University scholar Paul Barrett writes in his recent study, Tackling Domestic Disinformation. He urges the platform companies to take down provably false information, wherever it comes from
I’ve been thinking and writing about disinformation for a while now, but the other day on Twitter, someone stumped me with the following question: “Do you think the ratio of disinformation to true information is different now than at other times in human history?” Our instinctive reaction is, Hell, yeah, of course it is, we’re overwhelmed with disinformation. But the answer is not so simple. First, disinformation has been around for as long as we’ve had information. Second, it’s awfully hard to measure the supply, scale, and scope of disinformation. It’s also not always easy to spot. Plus, nobody that I know of really quantifies it.
Let’s first answer the easier denominator question: has the supply of information increased? It has. In 2010, Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, said we create as much information every two days—about five exabytes—as all the information created from the dawn of civilization until 2003. Various scholars have disputed this, but even if it’s every month rather than every two days, the scale is mind boggling. Just one individual example: more than 500 hours of video are loaded to YouTube every minute. So, even if the ratio of disinformation to true information has remained constant (that’s the numerator), there’s a heckuva lot more disinformation in absolute terms than ever before.
The scale of disinformation is mind-boggling. Facebook announced that it had removed more than three billion fake accounts in 2019—yes, that’s billion with a b. One study suggested that 15% of Twitter’s 330 million monthly users are bots. Bots have a massive multiplier effect on disinformation because they are far more prolific than humans, tweeting hundreds of times a day. Some studies estimate that more than 60% of Trump’s 80+ million followers are bots.
But the reason it seems like there’s a tsunami of disinformation is not because of how much there is, but how available it is. What’s new is the ease of access, which can make it seem more abundant. Once upon a time you had to work hard to discover conspiracy theories—find and check out obscure books from the library, look up old newspaper clips on microfiche. Today, conspiracy theories and disinformation are an instant Google search away—or, disinformation finds you, through microtargeting or recommendation engines or your third cousin on Facebook. And, of course, if you search for disinformation or conspiracy theories on Google or read them on Facebook, you can be sure you will get a lot more of them from those same platforms.
Disinformation is also opportunistic. Topics in the news are lightning rods for disinformation. Illness and disease are laboratories for conspiracy theories. The World Health Organization has declared there is a “infodemic” about COVID-19, that’s an epidemic of disinformation. And when the president of the United States is a peddler of disinformation, it increases exponentially. And now new state actors are getting in on the act. China has now entered the disinformation game in a big way, aggressively seeking to fix blame for the epidemic on the U.S. and it has been regularly highlighting American missteps in coping with the virus. This has been complemented by domestic actors promoting quack cures, fake medicines, and COVID-related investments.
Another traditional vector of disinformation is division and protest. The George Floyd demonstrations have occasioned another epidemic of disinformation. White extremist groups are creating disinformation around the protests, and what they are calling “professional protesters” and “antifa terrorists.” This disinformation is once again aided and abetted by the president of the United States, who is the biggest promoter of the idea of “antifa terrorists.” Another nefarious actor, QAnon has tweeted that the protests are the work of George Soros. In many ways, this wave of disinformation around the protests is a continuation of what the Russians did in 2016 when, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Internet Research Agency created a number of false sites that pretended to be related to Black Lives Matter—“Black Matters,” “Blactivist” and “Black Guns Matter.” Their goal was to increase division and decrease African-American voter turnout.
Over the last few years, according to McKay Coppins in the Atlantic, right-wing activists have been trying to hijack the credibility of local news outlets. They have created dozens of websites with credible-sounding names like The Kalamazoo Times and the Arizona Monitor to make people think they are genuine local news organizations. But they have no editors or reporters or even an address, and are organs of Republican lobbying efforts and conservative extremists. This was a technique used by the Russians in 2016 which has now become a Made-in-the-USA phenomenon.
The Super Bowl of disinformation will undoubtedly be the 2020 election. All of the malign actors, the Russians, white extremists, China and Iran will get in on the game. What’s new this time are the potential use of deep fakes; the use or renting of actual American identities; coordinated bot attacks; phony local-news sites; anonymous mass texting; the professionalization of disinformation, with firms selling such services. The Trump campaign is likely to use many of these techniques, including the weaponization of micro-targeting, as pioneered by Cambridge Analytica in 2016. They gave some of it a trial run during impeachment, where the Trump campaign ran more than 10,000 different ads about impeachment on Facebook and on the web. The tactics can be used all across the ideological spectrum: Twitter suspended 70 bot-like accounts created by Michael Bloomberg’s short-lived campaign.
Disinformation created by American fringe groups—white nationalists, hate groups, antigovernment movements, left-wing extremists—is growing. These groups have a big advantage over foreign groups—they have built-in domestic audiences of their fellow travelers, plus a better understanding of colloquial English and American pop culture. Disinformationists supporting presidential candidates are hard at work. We tend to under-estimate the supply of domestic disinformation because it has always been part of our information ecosystem. It’s hidden in plain sight.
So, yes, the supply of disinformation is growing, but that’s in part because the demand is also growing. The tendency to see conspiracy theories is in our genes. The ontological problem of disinformation is that it gets in the way of us seeing reality for what it is. Of course, no human being sees reality exactly the way it is—we all have prejudices and biases. But disinformation exaggerates those prejudices and biases and accentuates our divides. The truth is, disinformation doesn’t create divides between people, it widens them. One reason it’s easy to amplify division is that we have so much of it. That’s the ultimate goal of the disinformationists—not so much that we believe them, but that we question those things that are demonstrably true.
Adapted from a new preface to the paperback edition of Richard Stengel’s Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation & What We Can Do About It
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