By Dr. Greg White, Professor of Computer Science at UTSA, Executive Director for the CIAS-ISAO
Fake News. Disinformation. Misinformation.
These are terms we hear frequently in today’s mainstream media, as well as in social media. The problem is rampant and is helping to divide our nation, which is making it much more polarized than it has been for decades. Most individuals see this as an individual problem and not a community concern.
The Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security (CIAS) at The University of Texas at San Antonio has frequently used disinformation and misinformation in its community cybersecurity exercises to impact the ability of first responders to accomplish their mission. Consequently, it is our recommendation that communities need to be prepared to counter disinformation attacks that may occur in the community.
Additionally, taking a look at nationwide protests, often as a result of preliminary but Incomplete reports found in mainstream and social media, it is important for communities to have the ability to provide the facts on nationwide events that may result in local activities disrupting the community.
Disinformation and misinformation are not the same thing.
Disinformation is the use of intentional deception and false information to convince individuals that the false information is actually factual in order to influence individual perception of events and to potentially influence individual actions. Misinformation, on the other hand, is false or misleading information that has inadvertently been spread without an intent to deceive because it was spread without the understanding that it was incorrect.
Unfortunately, the media has not always been entirely impartial and depending on what news source an individual pays attention to, the information they may receive generally is not presenting a complete picture. For example, I conducted a search for information on “Arizona Voter Fraud” and received a number of hits including articles with the following titles:
- New Arizona ‘Voter Fraud’ Report Turbo Charges the Crazy
- Trump loyalists echo false Arizona fraud claims
- Arizona’s election ‘fraudit’ and Trump’s ‘big lie’ are still inspiring copycats
- Yes, there was fraud surrounding Arizona’s election
- Data Expert: Up to 300,000 Fake People Voted in Arizona Election
- Election fraud Bombshell: Significant discrepancies discovered during audit of Arizona Ballots, including DELETED election data
As an individual, how do you determine which of these to believe, whether voter fraud occurred or not, and, if it did, was it significant enough to alter the results of the election? The press is important, and it is well understood the power that the press holds.
Disinformation and misinformation in the press is not new. The term “Yellow Journalism” was used to describe journalism that was based on sensationalism and exaggeration and has been applied to the circulation war in the 1890s that occurred between the Hearst and Pulitzer publication empires. With the sinking of the battleship Maine, an opportunity was provided for both sides to exploit the event in order to increase their circulation. Sensational headlines were commonly used to entice the public to purchase a paper to learn more. This same tactic is used today where headlines are designed to draw readers to an article. This is often referred to as clickbait.
The importance of the press has long been understood by world leaders. Two quotes have been attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that would indicate his understanding of the importance of the press:
- If I were to give liberty to the press, my power could not last three days.
- Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.
An interesting example of the power of the press and how it can influence public perception of an individual or an event is related to a well-known fact about Napoleon himself. It is commonly understood that Napoleon was short, but was this true? In fact, due to a difference in the way an inch was measured, the French reported him to be 5’2” tall, but that would have been the equivalent of 5’6” in England. This was at a time due to the general nutrition and health of individuals the average man in France was between 5’2” and 5’6”, which would mean Napoleon was on the high side of average. In England, however, the press and political cartoonists portrayed him as short and of diminutive stature to impact the perception of the public. The effectiveness of this can be seen today as most individuals still think that Napoleon was short. In fact, the “Napoleon Complex” is the term used to describe shorter men acting more aggressively than taller men to make up for their lack of height.
In the world today, we are inundated with examples of attempts to manage our perception of items, events and people. “Nine out of 10 experts agree that…” is a common tactic used in advertising, which is actually all about managing the public’s perception of a product. The entire cosmetic industry is centered around the desire of individuals to appear a certain way thus managing the perception others have of them. The first down line displayed on a football field on TV during a game is actually not there, but it appears to be and it is designed to help the viewers of the event to better understand where the team needs to be in order to obtain a first down.
A theme we have seen numerous times in war is the attempt to portray the opposing side as less than human in order to justify going to war and to encourage citizens and soldiers to support the conflict. One example of a theme often used is the “baby killer” ploy.
In both WWI and WWII, stories of German atrocities against babies were seen when, outside of the concentration camps, the military was not engaging in such atrocities. During the Gulf War, a 15-year-old girl spoke in front of a Congressional Caucus and stated she had been a witness to Iraqi soldiers entering hospitals, taking babies out of incubators, putting the babies on the floor to die and removing the incubators to be sent back to Baghdad. After the war, investigations showed there was no evidence to confirm this and in fact evidence to refute it. Additionally, the girl was found to be the daughter to the ambassador and was not even in Kuwait at the time the events supposedly occurred. Interestingly enough, during the Vietnam war, the baby killer approach was taken by Americans opposed to the war and was used against U.S. soldiers in an attempt to sway public opinion.
“Name calling” is a common form of disinformation frequently used. “Spike Lee compares Donald Trump to Hitler.” “Ron Johnson called Joe Biden a ‘liberal, progressive, socialist, Marxist.” Both of these headlines and the articles that accompanied them were designed to incite specific feelings in readers in order to sway their opinion. Whether they are true or not is not necessarily of concern to the writer.
Attacks on individuals, instead of on events or arguments, has its own term associated with it – ad hominem attacks. Articles using this approach can generally be ignored entirely unless they have supporting evidence to actually back up the claims. Once again, the purpose is to not only manage the perception of readers and listeners but to gain quick attention so that individuals will continue to listen to the broadcast or continue reading the article. We hear the term “sound bite” used today to describe the desire of an individual to come up with a short statement that can be quoted to attempt to engage an audience.
Walter Cronkite was a TV Anchor for the CBS Evening News for 19 years. He was not considered to be “middle of the road” but generally “leaned to the left”. Even with this, a 1973 poll indicated that he was “the most trusted man in America.” People would listen to him and believe what he was saying – from both sides. Art Buchwald stated he was “the only honest face on TV.” What journalist today could be said to hold either of these accolades? We simply don’t have a Walter Cronkite in today’s environment – and this is a problem.
An article on mindful.org laid out five actions individuals and organizations can take to fight fake news. The first is to find your blind spots. We all tend to utilize the same media outlets to obtain the news of the day, but it has been shown time and time again that the media is NOT unbiased and there are companies that play to both sides of the political spectrum. Even the search engine that we use impacts what we read.
In a simple search for “Covid vaccines killing people” using Google, the topmost articles included titles such as “10 types of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation swirling online” and “Infectious disease expert says Covid vaccine misinformation is…”. The articles generally referred to information on the subject as misinformation. The same search conducted on DuckDuckGo yielded titles such as “More Evidence That They Know the Covid Vaccine is Killing and Maiming People and Yet They…” and “Federal Judge Claims the COVID Vaccine Kills More People Than Mass Shootings Do.” The two sites return hits for articles that are totally different in their basic premise. If you as an individual are using the same search engine every time you conduct a search, you are “in a bubble” which will result in a blind spot. We need to “pop our bubble” and to learn to “disagree with ourselves” – looking at the arguments that oppose what it is that we believe so that we can get closer to the truth and not be so polarized.
The second suggestion is to determine if what we are reading is fake news or not. This is harder to do than one might think as some of the fact checking sites have been shown to also be biased and to slant responses to manage our perception of a topic. There are three things we should do when reading an article.
1) Check the author. What other articles has the individual written on the subject or similar subjects? What is the background of the author; does the author show a predisposition for one side or another?
2) Check the date. Is the article based on recent statements or events? Sometimes the statement may not be fake, but it may be outdated. Is what is being reported actually related to current events?
3) What’s the support – what is the source of the information being reported? Is it anonymous? Can the source be trusted? Is a source even provided?
Third, try doing those things that will bring folks together and not increase the polarization of the nation. We should explore the beliefs of opponents. Facts are great, but if we want to work towards a common goal, we need to determine what that common goal is and what the core beliefs are of our opponent. Often, we will find there is a common point that can be agreed upon by both sides. It is how to address the point where the polarization takes place. Work to find the common ground and then work out from there to find a solution.
Fourth, don’t play to the trolls that exist. There are some individuals on the Internet who post comments and articles to deliberately provoke individuals and there is always somebody that will become caught in this ploy. This same tactic is used by nation states to increase the division in the citizens of a country. We need to support individuals who are the target of trolls and work to help everybody remember that behind every target is a real person who we may actually have much in common with if we get past the comments designed to elicit a specific response from us.
Finally, the fifth point is to use social media wisely. Don’t just blindly repost or comment on articles which may not even be true. Don’t feed the trolls. Work toward calming situations down instead of fanning flames. Before you post or repost something, ask yourself three things: 1) Is it true? 2) Is it necessary? 3) Is it kind?
All five of these points were designed for individuals, but they all apply equally to grassroot organizations designed to fight disinformation campaigns.
A possible step in this direction is to establish a community anti-disinformation group designed to help the citizens of a community fight disinformation and to provide a trusted site that citizens can turn to in time of turmoil and when disruptive events occur. What is needed are local Walter Cronkites for communities that citizens are aware of and that they turn to in order to learn the truth about local and national events. These entities can work to address local issues and can work with other communities, possibly in a hierarchical structure, to post information on national events. This will not overnight solve the problems with disinformation, but it can at least start a local entity that can address local issues and events.