Countering Disinformation: Fighting a Firehose of Falsehood
By Robert Grupp
While a host of traditional cyber threats remain critical, certainly one of the biggest threats today is from manipulation through cyber-enabled disinformation campaigns.
Although Russia is the poster child for aggressive use of disinformation, it is not the only player. Numerous state and non-state actors have used various forms of state-sponsored internet trolling to mobilize publics against dissidents or specific policies, or to intimidate or undermine political opponents.
At the 2019 National Summit on Strategic Communications, Dr. Christopher Paul, senior social scientist at the RAND Corporation and professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School, shared insights about the power of disinformation and propaganda.
Dr. Paul said that everyone, whether private citizens or government or military personnel, are potentially vulnerable to disinformation. Russia and other state and non-state actors are becoming increasingly more aggressive in the information environment, and the amount of money and resources spent on disinformation-based propaganda is enormous. As the more disinformation is shared, the harder it is for even a discerning member of the audience to identify what is true and false.
Unfortunately, disinformation is more powerful and effective than many people would imagine. Dr. Paul said organizations should do more than just watch for possible threats, but prepare to respond and warn their personnel about the possibility of attempts to manipulate them.
In his plenary session, Dr. Paul defined disinformation campaigns as “a form of social engineering that seeks to intentionally change people’s attitudes and behaviors over the long term.” Traditional cybersecurity warns of “social engineering,” the use of deceptive messages or communications to get people to divulge sensitive information that can then be used for fraudulent purposes (unwarranted access, identity theft, etc.). However, the same concept is used to manipulate their perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, intentions, and ultimately… behavior.
Many of the disinformation tactics employed by Russia first emerged during the Cold War and have continued to develop as more outlets and opportunities for persuasion emerged.
One of the most salient characteristics of Russian propaganda is that the disinformation is high volume and multi-channel. The information is available across a multitude of channels, and it’s produced incredibly quickly, often with little to no factual basis.
The second characteristic of the propaganda is that the information is rapid, repetitive, and continuous. Since fact-checking is not important, there’s an opportunity to be nimble, creating the ability to be the first to publish information about a topic or event. Oftentimes, the information might be based on a small kernel of truth, but this isn’t always the case. The goal is to describe something plausible or at least something that’s consistent with the expectations of a particular audience.
Conversely, in the West, multiple layers of approval often constrain an Information Operations officer’s tactical agility: By the time a given message is approved, the opportunity it presents may be lost because the information environment already has changed. Bureaucracies create bureaucracy but the speed of news and information is minute-to-minute. Consider, too, that when messages are debated, the offensive capability of information gets muted. This can earn information-based disciplines, particularly StratComm, a reputation as defensive or responsive because messages cannot be delivered on time.
The final characteristic of Russian disinformation is a total lack of consistency. As many as a dozen seemingly plausible explanations might be provided for the same issue over a 48-hour timespan.
The ultimate goal of the propagandists is to produce as much content as possible because quantity has a quality of its own. The more an audience hears something, the more familiar and believable the information becomes. Unfortunately, people are more likely to believe something they’ve heard reinforced from several different sources than something they’ve heard once from a credible source.
This leads to a challenge for professional communicators since it’s difficult to compete with the volume of content produced by disinformation-based sources.
Communicators are challenged to establish a good impression to have the “first mover” advantage. Social psychologists have found that once an impression is made, it’s very difficult to change or manipulate. If the audience is presented with information that conflicts with the initial impression, their world view is attacked and compelling facts are required in an attempt to change their minds.
“If you get a false factoid and you embrace it, when someone comes along and says that wasn’t true, your cognitive antibodies are mobilized because they’re not just asking you to discard one fact, they’re attacking your world view,” Dr. Paul said.
Finally, Dr. Paul reiterated the importance of the power of familiarity.
“If you see something lots of times and if you hear it repeatedly, you’re going to remember it.” This is the challenge that strategic communicators face. How can someone battle against a fire hose of disinformation? Though it seems like an uphill battle, with preparation, knowledge, and willpower, communicators can succeed.
Dr. Christopher Paul spoke in April 2019 in a plenary session at the annual strategic communications summit in Washington, D.C. See the speakers featured at StratCommWorld 2020 on June 1-2 at the National Press Club. Visit www.stratcomm.world for details about this unique global event that identifies strategies to enhance engagement and share methods to improve communications in corporations, the military, government agencies and nonprofits.
ABOUT THE summit speaker
DR. Christopher paul
Dr. Christopher Paul is a senior social scientist at the RAND Corporation and professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Grupp is Director of StratCommWorld, and Adjunct Instructor and Director of a Global Strategic Communication Master’s Degree Program in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida.