An Evolving Global Threat
Disinformation Toolkit 2.0
Disinformation is not a new phenomenon.
Governments, non-state actors, and influential individuals have used disinformation campaigns to spread false information deliberately, influence public opinion, or obscure the truth throughout history. While 20th-century Soviet propaganda—dezinformatsiya—is commonly cited as the origin of disinformation, this phenomenon is as old as human ambition itself. Prior to his coronation as the first emperor of the Roman Empire in 27 BCE, Octavian carried out a disinformation campaign against Mark Antony, his opponent in the last war of the Roman Republic, by circulating coins with defamatory slogans. Much later, Gutenberg’s printing press democratized access to information and dramatically increased the spread of disinformation across Europe and eventually the world.
While Octavian’s coins and Gutenberg’s press required planning, resources, and physical distribution networks, disinformation today is distributed far more efficiently. The recent growth of global internet infrastructure, mobile data networks, and social media has created an information ecosystem that includes more than half of the world’s population. No fewer than 4.2 billion people are active social media users, a full 54% of the world’s population. Sixteen years after it was created in a college dorm room, Facebook connects 2.7 billion people, while WhatsApp connects 2 billion people only 11 years since its launch. According to marketing and research firm We Are Social, global social media adoption has nearly doubled in the past six years.
The scale and the velocity of this mass, rapid evolution in human communication has by no coincidence come at a moment of generational distrust in traditional democratic institutions. From government to the private sector to mass media, the digital space has exacerbated the destabilization of democratic society’s guardrail institutions. For example, in the information sphere, newspaper, TV, and radio editors were once the primary gatekeepers of what appeared in the headlines and what appeared in the back-pages, balancing shock value with newsworthiness. Today, machine learning algorithms perform this task, with a clear preference for the type of shock value that disinformation campaigns are often designed to elicit. This transition has contributed to the development of an information ecosystem in which lies and disinformation spread at least six times faster than the truth.
“Lies and disinformation have been shown to spread at least six times faster than the truth.”
– Vosoughi, Roy, and Aral, Journal of Science
To understand why shock value has been so prioritized, one must understand the business model of the most popular social media networks, which use machine learning algorithms to perform billions of empirical tests on users daily, determining precisely the mix of content and format to keep each individual user scrolling and engaging as long as possible. In a way, the erstwhile TV news mantra “if it bleeds, it leads” has been re-validated, and the commercial logic remains the same—the more shocking or divisive the content, the more engagement it generates, and the more ad revenue it creates for platforms. Disinformation campaigns represent a key component of this shock value economy.
According to disinformation researcher Dr. Joan Donovan, “the business model for today’s social media giants, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter has been to pursue scale… shareholder KPIs [key performance indicators] were pegged to expanding the user base. This approach has a significant weakness: when a platform’s growth depends on openness, it’s more vulnerable to malicious use.”
“When a platform’s growth depends on openness, it’s more vulnerable to malicious use.”
– Dr. Joan Donovan, Harvard Shorenstein Center
While certain platforms have launched crowd-based initiatives to respond to the rise of disinformation on social media, such as Twitter’s new “misleading post” feature, relying on users themselves to identify disinformation campaigns ignores the fact that it is the unfettered openness of such platforms that has incentivized the growth of high shock-value content—including disinformation—capturing users’ eyes and advertisers’ wallets. These business models have flourished in a political environment that has eschewed digital rights legislation, permitting the harvesting, manipulation, and sale of personal and behavioral data to third parties without the awareness or consent of the vast majority of users.
Around the globe, the rapid growth in social media adoption has accelerated mass confusion about COVID-19, antipathy about migration, and denial of climate change, widening societal fissures and granting mass influence to anyone with a few thousand dollars and a goal in mind. “With the right message, a fringe organization can reach the majority of a nation’s Facebook users for the price of a used car,” says Zahed Amanullah, a counter-terrorism expert at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, who has proved this point by reaching a full two-thirds of Kenyans on Facebook for only $10,000.
“With the right message, a fringe organization can reach the majority of a nation’s Facebook users for the price of a used car.”
– Zahed Amanullah, Institute for Strategic Dialogue
Equally troubling is the trend of governments using disinformation to impact elections, dodge accountability, delegitimize democratically-elected leaders, attack civil society and NGOs, and shield their patrons and supporters from accountability. Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report highlights recent examples of this trend from a wide range of countries, including Brazil, China, Syria, Ethiopia, Venezuela, the Philippines, Turkey, Sudan, and Vietnam. This challenge has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has provided a window for autocratic governments to close civic space further, cracking down on civil society and dissent. At the same time, some governments have deployed disinformation campaigns against marginalized groups, scapegoating them for COVID’s impact, fueling discrimination and violence against already vulnerable people.
In line with the clear threat disinformation presents to the dignity, health, and livelihoods of people around the globe, disinformation represents a significant threat to international CSOs and NGOs, and to the people they support around the globe.