Information warfare abounds, and everyone online has been drafted whether they know it or not.
AdvertisementDisinformation is deliberately generated misleading content disseminated for selfish or malicious purposes. Unlike misinformation, which may be shared unwittingly or with good intentions, disinformation aims to foment distrust, destabilize institutions, discredit good intentions, defame opponents and delegitimize sources of knowledge such as science and journalism.
Many governments engage in disinformation campaigns. For instance, the Russian government has used images of celebrities to attract attention to anti-Ukraine propaganda. Meta, parent company of Facebook and Instagram, warned on Nov. 30, 2023, that China has stepped up its disinformation operations. Disinformation is nothing new, and information warfare has been practiced by many countries, including the U.S. But the internet gives disinformation campaigns unprecedented reach. Foreign governments, internet trolls, domestic and international extremists, opportunistic profiteers and even paid disinformation agencies exploit the internet to spread questionable content. Periods of civil unrest, natural disasters, health crises and wars trigger anxiety and the hunt for information, which disinformation agents take advantage of.
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AdvertisementIt’s just a joke Hahaganda is a tactic in which disinformation agents use memes, political comedy from state-run outlets, or speeches to make light of serious matters, attack others, minimize violence or dehumanize, and deflect blame. This approach provides an easy defense: If challenged, the disinformation agents can say, “Can’t you take a joke?” often followed by accusations of being too politically correct. Shhh … tell everyone Rumor-milling is a tactic in which the disinformation agents claim to have exclusive access to secrets they allege are being purposefully concealed. They indicate that you will “only hear this here” and will imply that others are unwilling to share the alleged truth – for example, “The media won’t report this” or “The government doesn’t want you to know” and “I shouldn’t be telling you this … .” But they do not insist that the information be kept secret, and will instead include encouragement to share it – for example, “Make this go viral” or “Most people won’t have the courage to share this.” It’s important to question how an author or speaker could have come by such “secret” information and what their motive is to prompt you to share it. People are saying Often disinformation has no real evidence, so instead disinformation agents will find or make up people to support their assertions. This impersonation can take multiple forms. Disinformation agents will use anecdotes as evidence, especially sympathetic stories from vulnerable groups such as women or children. Similarly, they may disseminate “concerned citizens’” perspectives. These layperson experts present their social identity as providing the authority to speak on a matter; “As a mother …,” “As a veteran …,” “As a police officer ….” Convert communicators, or people who allegedly change from the “wrong” position to the “right” one, can be especially persuasive, such as the woman who got an abortion but regretted it. These people often don’t actually exist or may be coerced or paid. If ordinary people don’t suffice, fake experts may be used. Some are fabricated, and you can watch out for “inauthentic user” behavior, for example, by checking X – formerly Twitter – accounts using the Botometer. But fake experts can come in different varieties.
- A faux expert is someone used for their title but doesn’t have actual relevant expertise.
- A pseudoexpert is someone who claims relevant expertise but has no actual training.
- A junk expert is a sellout. They may have had expertise once but now say whatever is profitable. You can often find these people have supported other dubious claims – for example, that smoking doesn’t cause cancer – or work for institutes that regularly produce questionable “scholarship.”
- An echo expert is when disinformation sources cite each other to provide credence for their claims. China and Russia routinely cite one another’s newspapers.
- A stolen expert is someone who exists, but they weren’t actually contacted and their research is misinterpreted. Likewise, disinformation agents also steal credibility from known news sources, such as by typosquatting, the practice of setting up a domain name that closely resembles a legitimate organization’s.