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Disinformation is intentionally false information spread with the purpose of deceiving its recipients.

This differs from misinformation, which is false information that is spread without the intention to deceive its recipients. Though the intent is different, the results are often similar.

Disinformation is not a new problem, but it has become more prominent with the speed and reach of social media platforms. Additionally, the large number of information outlets available, including cable/satellite channels, websites, and social platforms, allows for greater access to and easier dissemination of false information than in decades past.

Why is disinformation a threat to U.S. national security?

Sound decision making relies on the ability of an individual to analyze the facts at hand and come to a rational conclusion about the best course of action based on those facts. If the individual is making decisions based on information that is false or otherwise unreliable, then those decisions may not be in the interest of that individual, or the institution for which they work.

This applies to those working in government, who are tasked with making decisions and setting policies that directly affect the national security of the United States. If those decisions and policies are based on false information, they could be contrary to the national security interests of the country. If disinformation is being promoted by a foreign adversary, it may lead to action that not only benefits that adversary, but also works to weaken the United States or its allies.

The public can be deceived through disinformation as well, resulting in action that is contrary to public health and safety, or even action against the government itself. A misinformed public can place pressure on policy makers to undertake decisions based on false information as well.

Disinformation is exacerbating partisan divides and eroding public faith in American institutions, threatening the core of American democracy. If this disinformation is successful in severely eroding that faith, the American system of government risks failure.

What forms does disinformation take?

Word-of-mouth rumor, memes, manipulated videos, speeches, doctored photos, group text messages, news/opinion programming, and nearly any other form of material can be used for the purpose of spreading disinformation. Disinformation is platform agnostic and can take almost any form of communication.

Of particular concern, the emergence of deep-fake technology will pose significant challenges in determining the origin and truthfulness of videos. This technology allows another person’s face to be digitally grafted onto another person’s body in videos, allowing for content featuring politicians, celebrities, and others that can significantly impact events.

Rapidly advancing technology is making it easier to produce disinformation that appears legitimate. The costs of production have decreased considerably, enabling more people to both produce and distribute disinformation quickly, cheaply, and efficiently, with few barriers to entry.

How does disinformation spread?

Though disinformation can be spread by bots and through the actions of nefarious actors using fake accounts, the tendency for regular people to spread this info is of greater concern. When considering the target of disinformation, this amounts to co-opting the audience into carrying the message, thereby achieving a primary goal of increasing a malign messenger’s reach.

Disinformation often spreads rapidly and with deeper penetration than true information. Even when accounting for bots, the true spread of false information is dependent on the decisions of individual users to share it. Every decision to share false information grants it greater access to a network.

The successful spread of disinformation is often dependent on the access it has to large networks. A public personality or other individual or organization with a large following, whether by broadcast or social media, has extraordinary power to amplify and spread false information by granting access to their network. This can exponentially increase the reach of disinformation.

How do we combat disinformation?

Unfortunately, there is no certain or proven method that works in all cases for defeating disinformation. One size does not fit all.

There are various reasons for why disinformation is appealing, and the methods for negating these reasons vary appropriately. It is helpful to have a variety of tools with which to respond.

In the long term, societies must be ingrained with an inherent resistance to disinformation. Some type of information inoculation, in the form of knowledge and skills, will be a necessary component for continuing a viable civic society. The goal is for people to generate a ‘cognitive immune response,’ by which they instinctively engage in a process to determine whether the information they are being exposed to is legitimate.

Critical thinking skills and media literacy are important components of addressing susceptibility to disinformation. Early education, beginning in middle school, is important for increasing long-term societal resilience to disinformation.


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Protecting Yourself from Disinformation in 2020

The Disinformation War

Flashpoint Podcast: Foreign Disinformation and Covid-19 with Jed Willard

Event Recap: Facing Russian Propaganda and Disinformation

With Fake News, Knowledge is Power – The Case for Media Literacy