Between 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:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.