DISINFORMATION: Going way beyond 2020

Foreign actors are insidiously interfering with public discourse in the U.S. It’s happening in a manner that’s far more profound than in 2016, when many members of our society first became familiar with the term “Fake News.” These malevolent agents aren’t just trying to impact the upcoming 2020 elections. The objective is far greater: to destroy democracy in the U.S. and in other nations.

This is a developing trend which the American population has sensed before journalism and political science professionals began sounding an alarm about disinformation. According to a Feb.-Mar. 2019 Pew Research survey:

  • 70% of Americans think false information online negatively affects their confidence in the government
  • About half said misinformation is among the biggest problems for the U.S., more than  terrorism and illegal immigration, and
  • 56% think that misinformation will only get worse over the next five years.

Lately, popular media has been paying greater attention to this topic. On November 21, a New York Times story explained how Google was attacking the wrong problem when it decided to ban micro-targeting advertising from its platforms. This move “…retains a system that hackers and trolls have proved adept at exploiting and that social media sites struggle to adequately police,” wrote authors  Matthew Rosenberg and Nick Corasaniti.

Here’s a link to the story:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/21/us/politics/google-ads-disinformation.html

Earlier this week, Rolling Stone published an article from Clemson University Professors Darren Linwill and Patrick Warren, warning about disinformation. Here’s the story: https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/russia-troll-2020-election-interference-twitter-916482/

A key quote from the story is this: “Russia’s goals are to further widen existing divisions in the American public and decrease our faith and trust in institutions that help maintain a strong democracy. If we focus only on the past or future, we will not be prepared for the present.” 

This blog space will contain much more in-depth details about disinformation in the months ahead. Since Spring 2018, I have been examining the sources and impacts of Disinformation (DI) Campaigns emanating from all portions of the globe, especially from Russia and China. Here’s a brief preview:


What is disinformation? How is it different from propaganda? How can we tell?

Perhaps the best way to explain disinformation is to share the latest definition of the word which its foremost practitioner – Russia —   presented. In its 2011 Draft Convention on International Information Security, Russia listed ‘disinformation’ as one of the main threats to international peace and security. It defined the term as “manipulation of the flow of information in the information space of other governments, disinformation or the concealment of information with the goal of adversely affecting the psychological or spiritual state of society, or eroding traditional cultural, oral, ethical and aesthetic values.”

Do not confuse a  DI campaign – a strategic and intentional effort – with misinformation, which can be defined simply as unintentionally incorrect information. The latter is unfortunate, the former is devastating in its impact. See my November 13 blog post (just below) and video for an example.

According for Professor Ronald Rychlak and Lt. General Ion Mihai Pacepa, a DI campaign employs the following pattern:

  1. Find and use a “kernel of truth” that will lend authenticity and/ or credibility to the DI campaign.
  2. Alter that kernel in a way so that it becomes negative and derogatory towards its target, and ensure that it receives a lot of publicity
  3. Continue spreading the false story until it is reprinted or even appears to come from respected and reputable sources in the U.S. or elsewhere in the West (Europe. For example).

An illustrative example of how this works comes courtesy of New York Times reporters Adam Ellick and Adam Westbrook who published an excellent three-part opinion video series last November titled Operation Infektion.  If you are interested in learning more, here’s a link to their work: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/12/opinion/russia-meddling-disinformation-fake-news-elections.html

Ellick and Westbrook cite the “AIDS came from the U.S. military” example in the opening of their video series. This false tale appeared in Soviet-supported media for years, until it popped up as a story on the “CBS Evening News” in the late 1980’s. From there it morphed into thousands of iterations in movies, books, and other stories. It’s all untrue.

INTERNET = STEROIDS for DI campaigns

What’s changed immeasurably since the former Soviet Union first began its aggressive DI campaigns in the 1940s and ‘50s is the Internet and social media. See Step No. 3, above? Now it’s no longer necessary to have a favorable media outlet publish a DI story. Instead, trolls on the Internet to the work instead. Dunwill and Warren point out how one Russian troll garnered  290,000 likes for a single Tweet.

In my upcoming monograph, titled “Disinformation: Destroying Democracies,” I will chronicle how DI campaigns have impacted elections and democratic governance in Germany, India, Japan, Canada, and elsewhere. Some of these nations have taken much more aggressive steps against DI campaign than has the U.S. This isn’t a criticism of U.S. policy; however, it’s all the more reason why it’s critical to sound the alarm, learn about this, and warn others.

And you can take steps to help stop the spread of disinformation. Double check EVERY STORY you see in social media before you hit that “Share” button on Facebook, Twitter, What’s App, TikTok, etc.  That’s the most important step.

Friends at Sage Publications developed this simple chart to help us be on guard against the spread of false information.  Copy this, keep it in your mobile device, and “think before you click” or share any social media story. In my talk, I provide a lot more “how to” advice to help you learn how you can help prevent the spread of disinformation.

FINAL POINT: The overall objective of many DI campaigns aimed at us is NOT simply to make you support or oppose “Candidate D” or “Candidate R.”  It is much more insidious than that. The real aim is to further drive a wedge, or widen differences which already exist among varying elements of our society. The more divided we and other democracies become, the more caviar and vodka Vladimir Putin enjoys in the Kremlin each night.

Kerezy is associate professor of Media and Journalism Studies at Cuyahoga Community College. He’ll be glad to speak to college and community groups about “Disinformation: Destroying Democracies” in the Spring 2020 semester. You can contact him at john.kerezy@tri-c.edu or via phone at 216-987-5040.

Published by jkerezy

I'm an associate professor of Media and Journalism Studies (MJS) at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, and have also had a "side job" as a high school speech and debate coach for the past 13 years. I also worked in journalism, public relations and marketing for many years before going into higher education. My professional email address is john.kerezy@tri-c.edu

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