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Author: Lincoln Zaleski

What is Disinformation?

The battle against disinformation is global - Alliance for ScienceBetween the COVID-19 pandemic, the upcoming presidential election, and the Black Lives Matter protests, disinformation campaigns have run rampant throughout American society. False and inflammatory rhetoric about wearing masks, paid protestors, the dangers of mail-in voting, and even the existence of COVID-19 have spread across social media, echoed by mainstream media and elected officials. However, despite the amount of false information circulating around our democracy in 2020, not all fake news is disinformation. This prompts some questions: what is disinformation, where does it come from, why is it dangerous, and how do we combat it?

At its core, disinformation is the intentional spread of false information. The intent to disseminate contrasts disinformation with misinformation, the spread of false information without malicious intent. Misinformation has always been an aspect of our democracy; we often hear about “uninformed voters” in our elections, as it is easy to misunderstand the nuances of our complex political structures and policies. While misinformation muddies the waters of our political society, disinformation weaponizes false information and uses our own pre-existing biases against us.

Disinformation is similar to spreading a rumor. By targeting those that would be most interested in the false information, actors can spread disinformation quickly. For example, recent rumors about “paid protesters shipped into major cities to increase looting and violence” resonates with those that tend to view the protests as negative. When those individuals read posts that confirm that the protests are bad, their pre-existing belief that “Black Lives Matter protests are bad” is strengthened and a confirmation bias is created based on false information online. The confirmation bias encourages those individuals to continue to share the disinformation, further spreading the false information and perpetuating the confirmation bias.

Where do these false rumors come from? Much of the disinformation surrounding major events in our democracy originates in authoritarian regimes that seek to exploit inherent democratic vulnerabilities. Actors such as Russia, China, Iran, and Venezuela have built or funded armies of trolls to spread disinformation online and created automated social media bots to further the spread of disinformation. Wealthier countries, such as Russia and China, also utilize their economic might to pay for advertisements that perpetuate false information, hire journalists and political influencers to spread false messages, and even purchase radio stations and news outlets to broaden their control over American information.

However, not all disinformation comes from abroad. Some politicians and organizations here in the United States seek to manipulate the American people through disinformation. Despite clear warnings from the CDC, multiple academic research reports, and clear anecdotal evidence that masks are helpful in reducing COVID-19 cases, many organizations are spreading disinformation about the dangers of wearing masks and the existence of COVID-19, with some going as far as to say that COVID-19 is merely a government-created news story. While much of our disinformation comes from malicious actors abroad, many actors within American society still perpetuate disinformation for their own personal gain.

Why is disinformation dangerous? While the messages themselves are often dangerous, such as disinformation surrounding COVID-19, the real danger lies in the ability of disinformation to polarize our country and break our democracy. As disinformation influences actors on both sides, confirmation biases prevent any collaboration in the center, as society becomes so polarized that right-wing and left-wing individuals begin to shun those that cooperate with the other party. Progress and legislation becomes based on the members of the ruling party rather than the will of the people. Further polarization leads to politically motivated violence, the increased role of conspiracy theorists and bigots in our society, and no clear “American identity.” If we continue to allow disinformation to run rampant in American society, there will be nothing “united” about the United States.

With that grim warning, how do we combat this threat? The United States government, civil society, and the American people must work together to eliminate the power of disinformation. The government must punish countries that attack us through information warfare and crack down on domestic perpetrators of disinformation. Civil society must create frameworks to educate the public on the threat of disinformation and increasing media literacy. Most importantly, the American people must work together to identify false information online and mark it as false to prevent further spreading.

At Renew America Together, we launched a campaign to identify disinformation on Twitter. To help us combat disinformation, follow these simple steps:

  1. Ask yourself a few questions: Is this post providing evidence from their personal experience or is it an “I heard from a friend” article? Is the post from a reputable organization or individual? How many followers does the person posting this have?
  2. If the source seems legitimate and the evidence seems reputable, now it’s time to put on your detective caps. Do a quick search online for other reputable sources that support the claim.
  3. If there’s sufficient evidence to support their claim, look at their account and see if there’s anything strange: many bots are recently created but have hundreds of tweets already. If the account was created last week, but there are hundreds of posts, this is likely not a reputable source.
  4. If the account seems legitimate, the sources back up the claim, and the intent of the post seems genuine, this is not disinformation. Otherwise, congratulations! You’ve found a threat to our democracy. Please comment #usvsdisinfo under the disinformation to report it to us.

Thank you for your help in fighting the greatest threat to our democratic system. Together, we can overcome disinformation.

Recap of College of William & Mary Event with Gov. Ridge and Gen. Clark

On May 19, Gen. Clark and Gov. Ridge held a discussion at the College of William and Mary, discussing the need for American leadership, civility and unity in order to overcome the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and our polarized American society.

With the rise of Russian and Chinese illiberalism, the danger of a deadly pandemic, and a slowing of the American economy, many nations look to the United States for guidance and leadership. During the discussion, Gen. Clark remarked on the American political system, “it may not be a perfect system, but there is no better system that mankind has devised,” emphasizing the need for all politicians, regardless of ideological differences, to strengthen and utilize our political structure to protect democracy around the world.

Gov. Ridge also emphasized the need for bipartisan cooperation, saying “problem-solving normally requires the best thinking, multiple experiences and a general dialogue for all those that we pledge as officeholders to serve.” Gov. Ridge also highlighted the importance of civil discourse, emphasizing that his job as a governor was not to serve his party, but rather to determine the best solutions to the problems of all of his constituents. Bipartisanship drives better policy-making through a diversity of thought, experiences and backgrounds.

Moderator Liz Rosen kicked off the QA with questions about government responses to the pandemic. Gov. Ridge highlighted the need for bipartisan cooperation, noting “This is no time for politics. This is a war against Mother Nature.” He also discussed his role in creating the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, where Republicans and Democrats worked together to establish policy solutions to protect Americans from bioweapons and biological agents. Gen. Clark discussed his concern about the separation of state policy decisions from the policy decisions of the federal government in response to COVID-19, highlighting the need to strengthen the relationship between governors and the federal government.

In response to a question on the role of institutions operating past their duties, Gen. Clark compared the highly resourced nation-building efforts in Vietnam to the poorly resourced missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Clark emphasized the need to use American talents and institutions, not the military, to strengthen democratic values abroad, “We don’t really understand how to reform anybody else’s country. We can’t. That’s their job. Our best talent is education and that’s what we should be doing more of and more graciously.” Gov. Ridge discussed the importance of allies and globalization, emphasizing the need to support our allies and combat American isolationism.

A key takeaway from the discussion is the highlighted concern of President Trump’s pandering solely to his base. Both Gen. Clark and Gov. Ridge emphasized the necessity of promoting solutions that benefit all Americans, not solely the partisan base, and warned that these actions are not the norm and should not become the norm of an American president.

Finally, Gov. Ridge discussed the role of the university in shaping the next generation of American leaders. Gov. Ridge emphasized the importance of a diversity of thought and ideology, for students to maintain an open mind and grow their intelligence and knowledge base through reasoned debate and discussion.

As a student virtually attending the discussion, I wanted to offer some thoughts on the excellent civil discussion between a life-long Republican and a proud Democrat. Firstly, one point by Gen. Clark rang true for me: “You can’t have global leadership if you don’t want to lead.” America must reassume responsibility for the global order that we created. The American global order protects self-determination, human rights, globalization, and democracy. It emphasizes the need for cooperation and collective problem-solving. As Americans, it is our responsibility to protect these ideals and the order that we established from illiberal actors, the economic lies of isolationism, and the dangerous precedent of polarized democracy that we have experienced in recent years.

Secondly, hearing a civil discourse between two life-long public servants that deeply care about our country is heartening. Much of American politics today is a partisan blame game, filled with “what-aboutism” and an inability to admit fault. Gov. Ridge and Gen. Clark admitted past faults, what they learned from them and how, through collaboration, better policy emerged from the ruins of failed policy. Gov. Ridge discussed cleaning the Great Lakes and the responsibility of Republicans to environmental stewardship, rather than denying science or attacking environmentalists on the left. Gen. Clark discussed the failures of nation-building in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and how the military learned to support international development aid. These discussions of learning from failure to promote better policies at home and abroad show the damage to our system under the current toxicity of the political environment is temporary. As Americans, by admitting fault and learning from failure, we can greatly improve our society.

In conclusion, the event was wildly successful. As a student, I learned a lot and appreciated hearing from experienced policymakers. As an observer, I felt as though Gov. Ridge and Gen. Clark discussed incredibly important issues in a serious and civil manner and I hope to continue to see these events and discussions in the future.