Digital disinformation campaigns, leveraging behavior profiling and social media, are on the rise — and causing harm.
President Trump’s constant mislabeling of mainstream news reports he doesn’t appreciate as “fake news” has done much to muddle the accurate definition of this profound global force – and obscure the societal damage this rising phenomenon is precipitating.
Fake news is the willful spreading of disinformation. Yes, much of political propaganda, as practiced down through the ages, fits that definition. But what’s different, as we approach the close of the second decade of the 21st century, is that it is now possible to pull the trigger on highly-targeted, globally-distributed disinformation campaigns – by leveraging behavior profiling tools and social media platforms.
Like seemingly everything else these days, this is a complex issue, and it takes effort to decipher the bottom line. Here are three things it is vital for every concerned citizen to grasp about disinformation campaigns in the digital age.
There are plenty of factual articles about how “fake news” influenced the 2016 U.S. presidential election. What many citizens still don’t realize is that this was just one of the major elections jarred by this potent variant of disinformation spreading. This includes England’s Brexit vote and very recent cases in Brazil and India, where disinformation campaigns fueled some tragic outcomes.
In the 2016 US elections, Russia targeted Facebook users to receive incendiary ads and bogus stories, and used botnets to facilitate intelligence gathering and distribution. And human “supersharers” – mostly Republican women older than the average Twitter user – got into the act, as well, Tweeting stories from ideological websites at a furious daily pace, according to a study by Northeastern University in Boston.
Meanwhile, in January 2016, during the heat of the presidential contest, some 39 percent Trump's Twitter followers were faked. A tally by Twitter Audit showed Candidate Trump with 22.7 million Twitter followers - 16.6 million real, and 6.1 million fabricated.
Fast forward to Brazil’s presidential election last October. WhatsApp was flooded with fake news about both of the leading candidates. And in India’s national elections, which are underway right now, disinformation has stoked emotions tied to India’s conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir. Faked news about child abductions, spread via WhatsApp, has been connected with at least 30 incidents of murder and lynching.
Take a closer look at Mark Zuckerberg’s recent epiphany that Facebook needs to make a shift toward privacy. There’s a lot to read in between the lines.
Facebook owns WhatsApp. WhatsApp has now become the social media platform of choice to meddle in elections. This is because WhatsApp encrypts postings, so you can’t tell who sent what to whom. And WhatsApp can argue that it has no legal liability for anything that appears on its platform.
So now Zuckerberg has decided Facebook will adopt WhatsApp’s practice of encrypting all postings and messaging. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, he says this demonstrates Facebook’s new commitment to privacy.
Congress is unlikely to do anything about this. U.S. political leaders seem unable to grasp the fact that encrypted Facebook postings will make it nearly impossible to track and deter hate speech and election meddling, while letting Facebook off the hook, legally speaking.
Each of us has the power of one. As individual citizens, we can all do our small part to defuse this. First of all, let’s stop calling it “fake news,” which only adds to the confusion. Explain this to your friends and family as digital disinformation. This is the modern, super-charged iteration of propaganda.
It’s what the British media did when it exaggerated stories of the rape of English women to put down the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and maintain colonialism. And it’s what the Third Reich’s Ministry of Propaganda did to demonize and exterminate Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and Bolsheviks.
Be on high alert for obvious disinformation and do what you can to stop its spread. Verify the source; question the veracity of headlines; watch for obvious attempts to play to one’s fears or reinforce known falsehoods.
If in doubt, check the item on reputable sites like factcheck.org, which are dedicated to debunking internet falsehoods. And, as always, be careful what you click on. Make a conscious effort not to become part of the spreading of viral memes, retweets and Facebook shares that are obvious lies. Talk more soon.
Byron Acohido is a guest blogger on the Avast Blog where you can catch up on all the latest security news. Avast is a global leader in cybersecurity, protecting hundreds of millions of users around the world with award-winning free antivirus and keeping their online activities private with VPN and other privacy products.
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