Disinformation campaigns and public mistrust

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By 2017-12-14

By Andres Ortega

We are not in a military conflict, nor even a cold war, but there is a profusion of so-called disinformation wars. Fake news – stories that are purposely fabricated – and its dissemination is part of this.

But in the face of these disinformation attacks – which have been waged in the United States, France and Germany and now also in the debate surrounding Catalonia – Western countries, both individually and jointly, are in a position of weakness. They lack the necessary instruments to defend themselves.

The importance of trust

First among these is trust. Mind you, the issue here is the spreading of fake news by conventional and social media. That is a different matter than Russian hackers stealing campaign information from the Democrats in the most recent US Presidential Election, and then making use of it. Such actions clearly fall under the ambit of cyber security.

The same applies to the way in which the US National Security Agency monitors foreign individuals and governments, or the collecting of secret information by companies and States, as well as cyber-attacks against critical infrastructure.

News manipulation and disinformation is quite distinct from this, whether the product of algorithms (bots) designed for such purposes or of people dedicated to these tasks. The security of the Internet of things is not the same as that of the Internet of ideas.

And if the West were at war, it would be able to respond with weapons similar to the enemy's, as it has done in the past with other instruments, but we are not at war, even if all this turns out to be part of the theory of the Russian hybrid war, as Mira Milosevich-Juaristi has ably explained in referring to the 'combination.'

The theory of inoculation – using disinformation to combat disinformation – does not work in peacetime. One of the strengths of the West is its media freedom, even if one of its greatest weaknesses is its citizens' loss of trust in quality media outlets.

Asymmetrical conflict

The upshot is that the conflict is asymmetrical: Open societies pitted against more closed and controlled ones. Their capacity (whoever they may be) to influence us is greater than ours to influence them.

It is owing to the internet and social media that we live in information bubbles, in echo chambers. The fact that people isolate themselves within these bubbles and receive only opinions that fit their ideology or prejudices nurtures credulity and their vulnerability to manipulation.

It does not matter in that regard whether it emanates from within or beyond their countries' borders, using manipulative media like the Russian RT, thereby achieving a greater impact.

Social media is more permeable to undesirable and directed influence, increasingly accompanied by visual images, whether real or fake.

This capacity is even greater given that lying has no cost on the social media; such media are now more prevalent than ever (just consider that 44% of Americans now rely on Facebook for their news), as well as a potential money-spinner. Many fake news stories are certainly lucrative for their creators if they reach a wide-enough audience.

The real impact of fake news is debatable, however. They may be effective, but not decisive. Nevertheless, what is undeniably true is that they stoke anger.

Denouncing fake news

One line of defence against fake news stories consists of actively denouncing them. Russia and its Foreign Ministry are highly energetic in reporting what they deem to be fake Western news.

The EU has a unit geared essentially towards Russia (East StratCom), but it is not enough. NATO's Allied Transformation Command, based in Norfolk, Virginia, has developed new strategies in this regard, and by the end of 2018 is due to propose a Communications Strategy.

It is worth recalling that Alexander Hamilton was already warning about the need to protect the American electoral process from foreign interference in The Federalist Papers. Not everything is new, even if the instruments and the speed of operations may have changed. The age-old arts of deception have gone digital.

Disinformation needs to be tackled from below, by individual members of the public, by the social media companies themselves, like Facebook and Twitter, which have not yet managed to rise to the challenge, and by governments, despite their lack of credibility.

It involves improving the culture of social networks and the security that is wanting in our societies, where everyone is competing for that scarce commodity that is users' attention.

The importance of high-quality journalism. Disinformation is a phenomenon that needs to be studied more in journalism training courses, and even at the level of basic education where future citizens – not simply users – may be taught to be prepared for such potential manipulation.

Another part of the answer is high-quality journalism. But such outlets, regardless of the platforms they use, suffer their own problems. Almost all are beset by a lack of money and a lack of credibility, fewer specialists, fewer correspondents, less capacity for investigative journalism and fact-checking, as well as less independence.

Conclusion

The debate about post-truth, fake news and manipulation favours the manipulators. Mistrust cannot simply be offset by more information.

As the German philosopher of Korean extraction Byung-Chul Han says, "an accumulation of information cannot generate truth."

He adds that "transparency is only required as a matter of urgency in a society where trust no longer exists as a value."

In other words, our weakness resides in our own mistrust. And, as already pointed out, we find ourselves in a time of general distrust, distrust in the institutions and in the media, which is exactly what the manipulators are exploiting.

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