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The danger of disinformation in a time of crisis

The danger of disinformation in a time of crisis
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During my tenure working for several U.S. intelligence agencies, I’ve dealt with a plethora of state-sponsored disinformation and misinformation campaigns. As an analyst, separating fact from fiction and illuminating the truth is one of the most difficult challenges — especially when dealing with the accuracy of reporting within a big data environment. The variability of collected data, as well as originator biases, are things an analyst must account for when assessing the effects of a disinformation campaign.

Disinformation, what is it?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, disinformation is “false information which is intended to mislead, especially propaganda issued by a government organization to a rival power or the media.”

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Nowadays, propaganda isn’t as overt. Social media has provided an excellent opportunity for foreign intelligence agencies and entities to covertly inject disinformation through the use of highly searched hashtags, keywords and precise timing.

In some instances, the goal of disinformation campaigns is to amplify false facts anchored by a credible fact to make the amplification believable. Disinformation campaigns are most effective when the public, hungry for more information, isn’t easily able to search for it (because it doesn’t exist...).

What’s the difference between disinformation and misinformation?

The main difference between disinformation and misinformation is intent.

Misinformation is (usually) unintentional. While it may contain some accuracies, misinformation is often the result of a dearth of extant information or someone’s (inaccurate or faulty) assessment of a situation. For example, there is currently a great deal of misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. In this case, both conditions exist — a lack of factual information (COVID-19 is new) and wildly differing assessments — often based on fear, xenophobia and/or ignorance — leading to misinformation spread across social media, news and blog outlets.

Rumor mills and misinformation

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The more Americans stay at home during mandatory quarantines — affixed to their social media interfaces — the more likely they are to be confronted with misinformation through the “rumor mill.”

As anxiety levels soar, so do the number of news articles published and posts by social media influencers — both factors that can potentially fan the flames. Social media influencers thrive on the ability to “influence” their audience. Although they may intend to be genuine, they may be misinformed, which can significantly add to the problem.

As an experienced big data analyst, I firmly believe in corroboration of fact through multiple sources, as well as collaboration with other informed analysts, to distinguish the difference between disinformation, misinformation or verifiable truths.

The challenge is authenticating information from different sources that stems from a potentially misinformed origin.

Truth in volume?

It’s tough to ignore ads that are continually presented to you with purpose. Dr. Jeffrey Lant’s “Rule of Seven” argues that it takes a brand a minimum of seven points of contact with a prospective buyer to get them to purchase a product. There are other factors that contribute to purchasing decisions, but the more you see something, the more you are susceptible to making a purchase — or likely to be influenced in a certain way.

However, truths aren’t usually presented this way, so analysts must be discerning and cognizant of their data sources, biases and relative facts (both supporting and contradicting) as it relates to the theme being considered.

Bots and data diversity

The successful insertion of disinformation can be a long-term process, as most disinformation operations require the use of fake accounts. This allows for the appearance of special access to information or legitimizes the persona as an influencer.

Bots also contribute to disinformation, but through the use of several factors and attributes (a trained eye can easily identify a generic bot account). It is common to utilize bots as a secondary element to disinformation campaigns — by contributing likes, shares and reposts — which can give the consumer a false sense of credibility for a given post.

A great way to identify and measure the effects of disinformation is to search for it by exploring several data sources, such as social platforms, news sites, blogs, consumer message boards and even the deep and dark web.

I would argue that looking at a singular data source is the wrong approach as it severely limits perspectives and inputs. It is challenging to find confirmatory information based on one source and it curbs your ability to measure the spread of disinformation if it’s shared to multiple social platforms or picked up by global news sources.

Don’t fall victim to disinformation

Understanding and exposing disinformation is a complex process that requires access to data residing in multiple sources. Now more than ever, both disinformation and misinformation are widespread and often seen as accurate and credible in the sea of available information.

Fear, anticipation, popularity and anxiety over key global events like COVID-19 are breeding grounds for disinformation and misinformation. Know the warning signs, check multiple sources, and make logical conclusions before assuming a key piece of information is reliable.

Be critical in your assessments and keep in mind the speed at which current events are being reported to keep a firm pulse on what may or may not be truthful.

Andres “Dre” Fournier is the Director of Special Programs for Babel Street, Inc., providing advanced training, tradecraft development, and enhanced product support to a diverse Department of Defense (DOD) portfolio. His expertise spans over 10 years within the Publicly Available Information (PAI) collection and exploitation domain, mainly supporting Joint Special Operations. Fournier is a decorated U.S. Army combat veteran with a collective 13 deployments both as a soldier and U.S. government contractor. He holds a Master of Business Administration with a concentration in Project Management from Saint Leo University and has been at Babel Street, Inc. since 2017.