The Proliferation of Disinformation

Article 5 min
Discover how disinformation and misinformation are amplified and carried through the information environment.

Personally and professionally we are experiencing an onslaught of false and misleading information.

What is disinformation? What is misinformation?

Wayne State University describes disinformation as a method for intentionally disseminating false information. It can be most powerful when coming from news sources. It’s designed to manipulate the audience by either discrediting conflicting information or supporting false conclusions. A common tactic of disinformation is to mix truth with false conclusions and lies. The nuggets of truth make the lies seem more believable.

Misinformation is arguably the most difficult information to look at and diagnose. It’s defined as the action of misinforming, giving erroneous or incorrect information. It is false or inaccurate information that is spread unintentionally, which is in direct contrast to disinformation, which is an act of deception to convince an audience of something.

Disinformation is intended to mislead; misinformation is not.

Who is creating and promoting the disinformation?

While it is not all Russian in origin, the Kremlin does have a highly-organized strategy in place. While the United States DoD was traditionally using social media platforms as soapboxes to spread information, the Kremlin was leveraging the platforms as arms of influence and manipulation.

Click a target to reveal more in-depth information.

Disseminators of Disinformation

A diagram showing the hierarchy of disseminators. The orderer of disinformation is at the top. Creators are next. Bots, trolls, and sockpuppets follow on the same level. People are at the bottom.

Orderers of Disinformation

Organizations or Countries

The orderers of disinformation are those that have something to gain from sowing discord and creating doubt and chaos. They typically do not create the false narrative themselves to maintain deniability.

Creators of Disinformation

Organs and Proxies

The creators of disinformation are those hired by the orderers of disinformation to actually produce the narrative that will sow discord. They're given the instructions and they create believable news articles on websites that look like established news organizations. While they look real and sound believable, the articles push a false narrative and are riddled with disinformation.

Bots

Bots (AIs/machines)

Bots are programmed to feed a certain line/narrative. They saturate the information environment and make it so truthful information cannot get out because the information environment is so saturated with false information.

Trolls

Disrupters

Trolls are people sowing discord. You'll see them in comments. They jump into content, post a comment of negativity and leave. Their arguments are often straw man, whataboutism, Kremlin narrative.

Sock Puppets

Fake Personas

Sock Puppets pretend to be a whole different person and construct a false narrative around views they are allegedly aligned to. Sock puppets sow discord that leads to tangible action and makes people question what they believe. Sock puppets usually have empty profiles that do little more than stoke flames.

People

Useful Amplifiers

These are the people sharing and spreading the disinformation that supports their emotional state and beliefs. They believe the information being passed on from the bots, trolls and sock puppets and they share it themselves. Not only do they believe it, but they perpetuate the false narrative. At this point, disinformation has successfully taken over the information environment.

Throughout social media, there are billions of bots, trolls and sock puppets waging Gray Zone Warfare. While it may not be directly targeted at your unit, it does have a corrosive impact on your ability to successfully craft and amplify a narrative.

Social media gives people the ability to choose exactly what content they consume, engage with and amplify. While Russia is publishing false stories at an alarming rate, the real danger comes from the bots, trolls and sock puppets who are undermining factual narratives through inflammatory conversations. When people begin believing and distributing the disinformation, the information environment becomes contaminated.

Why is disinformation so effective and quick to spread?

Disinformation travels a lot farther and a lot faster than factual information by flooding the information environment until the false narrative takes over and appears true.

Shifting the narrative is easier if the groups are already divided. Take this 2020 story from The Daily Beast for example.

"Bill Crews is a PR official at the National Institutes of Health. But he also has another job: an anonymous RedState editor who rails against the agency for which he works. The managing editor of the prominent conservative website RedState has spent months trashing U.S. officials tasked with combating COVID-19, dubbing White House coronavirus task force member Dr. Anthony Fauci a “mask nazi,” and intimating that government officials responsible for the pandemic response should be executed."

Disinformation leverages an emotional state that encourages the viewer to share and align themselves with a false narrative. The goal of a troll, bot or sock puppet is to get trusted sources to pick up the disinformation. In the above-referenced story, those whose beliefs aligned with conservative messaging, anti-mask, anti-science would have picked up the story and shared it. The fact that the author worked at NIH meant the story had enough elements of truth to make it believable and feel trustworthy.

What can you and your organization do to limit the spread?

There is a way to combat this, without having to extensively engage a seemingly-endless army of disinformation agents. These agents are limited in how much they can engage. They post an inflammatory comment and then move on to the next target. They are literally counting on people to swarm around the comment and amplify the false narrative, with little-to-no additional influence. It is up to you to stay informed and stay engaged. Do so by:

  • Knowing and owning your place in the information environment
  • Understanding platform algorithms to know whether you're helping or hurting the spread of disinformation
  • Establishing trust with your audience, so they believe the information you're putting out
  • Creating dynamic and engaging content that creates an emotional reaction or attachment with your audience, so that that they want to come to you for information
  • Elevating your organization's digital literacy, so they also understand what's true what's false
  • Having a comment strategy in place to foster conversation and keep your content at the top of the platform's algorithm

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