The remainder of 2020 will be challenging for Americans as we seek to be better informed about the November 2020 elections and the coronavirus pandemic that is impacting our politics, economy, communities, and families. It is vital that we have a clear perspective on these events, but disinformation and malign influence campaigns are already working to distort those perceptions. It’s frustrating to navigate these currents when the stakes are so high. But each of us has a role to play in being a better information citizen in a highly-connected digital world.
How did we get here?
A series of events led to the moment when Americans were forced to become aware of “disinformation” — that there are those who use purposely false or deceptive information and narrative to try to shape our perceptions of our communities, our nation, the world, and the relationships that connect us in specific ways.
After the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, there was more attention to the idea that malign foreign state actors like Russia view information warfare as the first line of attack abroad and the first line of defense at home — an essential component of their military, economic, and geopolitical agendas. The Kremlin used disinformation to shape international perception of the protests in Ukraine, and then to delay the international response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea until the illegal annexation was complete.
In the subsequent years, the same analytical expertise that documented how the Kremlin used information warfare against Ukraine began to expose how disinformation campaigns are used in other European nations to shape domestic political perceptions and views on Europe, America, and alliances. In elections and referenda, these campaigns became common and expected.
In summer 2016, the Brexit vote — the decision for the UK to leave the European Union — demonstrated that foreign and domestic disinformation campaigns are often integrated, sharing goals and tactics and narratives if not always coordination. The stakes were getting higher.
A few months later, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States — and we’ve spent almost 4 years picking apart the foreign and domestic disinformation campaigns that targeted both sides of the political spectrum and ultimately helped him win this prize. Many of these networks and narratives are still active, and the American information environment erodes further every day under the weight of a president who believes perception is everything. He regularly traffics in lies to capture attention and sculpt perception, and amplifies a network of bad information actors that share goals with our foreign adversaries. The goal? To divide us, to distort how we see ourselves and our choices, to encourage us to act against our own best interests and to see the choice to engage in this behavior as an act of defiance so the cycle continues.
Across the American political spectrum there are those who now believe this is just the way it is: that data-driven disinformation is a necessary tool to capture the American political mind. This is a dangerous and cynical idea — one that will have lasting consequences for our nation and society that go far beyond any electoral result.
What we too often ignore when discussing disinformation campaigns is that they are not just about information, but that they aim to achieve behavioral outcomes — to change the way we act. That might be something small: to post a piece of content or follow an account. Or it might be something big: to vote or not vote; to attend a protest or rally or not; to take actions that will keep us safe in a public health crisis or not.
The COVID-19 pivot
The coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally altered how we as Americans must see and understand disinformation. The stakes were already high, looking ahead to the most consequential US election in more than a half century — an election in which increasingly sophisticated disinformation was already playing a central role.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added a physical dimension to the hazards of sharing bad, false, and malign information, making the consequences of those actions much more tangible than for the sharing of political disinformation. One person spreading disinformation on this public health crisis can put a whole community or city at risk.
But the pandemic has also shown the benefits of engaging with and sharing better information: improving our preparedness; increasing our ability to protect our families and others around us; strengthening the values and communities that we sometimes take for granted; showing us how our actions as citizens contribute to the overall goals of our nation in the time of crisis.
We’ve embraced how good information can alter our behavior in positive and beneficial ways. We can apply what we are learning to political information and our overall information environment, as well.
It’s time to learn how to be better information citizens — and how to teach others to be so too.
What does it mean to be a better information citizen?
- To acknowledge that disinformation and online influence campaigns are increasing in frequency and importance because they effectively exploit elements of human psychology, media feedback loops, and the algorithmic/engagement architecture of information networks on the internet. In short, we must accept that disinformation campaigns work in altering perception and behavior, including our own, which is why foreign and domestic malign actors invest time and resources into deploying them
- To consciously evaluate how you act as a citizen in a connected, digital world facing crisis; to understand that how you engage and amplify information shapes the overall information environment for you, your community, and your nation; and to choose to be a better consumer and purveyor of information in that landscape
- To scrutinize both the sources of information in front of you and the conduit for how it reached you. Is the origin of the information documented, verified, and trustworthy? Do you know the poster/amplifier of that information or understand their motivations?
- To be constantly vigilant not just about the veracity of the information before you, but the purpose of it. Why is it in front of you, why now, and what does it aim to achieve?
- To understand how the tactics and narratives of disinformation target us, work on us — all of us — and how we, as individuals, can alter those outcomes, limit their reach in our communities, and disincentivize investment into future disinformation campaigns
- To endeavor to positively engage others to encourage the habits of good information citizenship
Over the coming months, this blog will explore how disinformation tactics and narratives work on us, how we can be better prepared to lessen their effectiveness, and how each of us can be better information citizens when so much is at stake.
Molly McKew (@MollyMcKew) is a senior adviser to the Stand Up Republic Foundation. She is a writer and lecturer on Russian influence and information warfare. She advised the Georgian president and national security council from 2009 to 2013, and former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat in 2014 and 2015.