Misinformation and disinformation are different words for false information.
While misinformation may be passed along without malice, or many times by accident, disinformation is the evil cousin. Many have weaponized information to sway beliefs, thoughts, and alter electoral politics, and by doing so have taken part in a disinformation campaign.
Purposely spreading false information on social media is a practice implemented for many reasons, but the one most are familiar with is to help a political party during an election cycle. This isn’t new, and it wasn’t hatched on social media. It’s been happening in newspapers, ads, radio, and television forever.
Fergus Bell, Owner, and CEO of fathm, a London-based company that helps journalists understand these types of campaigns, says these efforts are all too common. “Disinformation campaigns around the world, that for a number of reasons it is cataloged that they are there to disrupt elections. It doesn’t actually have to be very direct. So if you cause division between people, or if you can change someone’s mind on one tiny thing that might make them vote differently, you can push an election," Bell said.
Bell says the precision behind these campaigns is astounding. Some campaigns narrow down to specific details that will appeal to a certain group of people, and although that group may be small, it can change their minds, and maybe they will help to change other’s minds as well.
In the Northwest of the northwest is Western Washington University, which is where Ira Hyman Ph.D. works in the psychology department. He and his peers have been discussing the issue of disinformation, “there’s definitely active people intentionally spreading disinformation as part of campaigns with some goal in mind.”
Hyman says people are working hard on political disinformation campaigns and that this isn’t the first time, “our intelligence agencies came to the conclusion that the Russians manipulated information flow in the last election of the 2016 election. There’s evidence that they are actively engaged in that again.”
The really scary part is that our intelligence knows about past indiscretions and knows the same perpetrators are at it again, and it seems they still can’t stop them.
Subsequently, Russian bots have been a topic in social forums since the last election, and apparently for good reason. It’s easy to believe that we get the worst of the disinformation here in America, but Bell would tell you otherwise, “Everyone, everyone thinks that they’re worse, everyone thinks that they’ve got the biggest problem. It’s difficult to tell. The same techniques and tactics are used in different places all over the world. And one of my parts of my job is to work on elections all around the world. And we learn from the previous election to take those lessons into the next one, wherever it might be. Because actually, the symptoms and the problems are remarkably similar.”
Bell says one area of the world is highly regarded when it comes to their political practices, but no country is without its problems, “Just to put it in context, I did some work in Sweden, they have a very trusted election system, no problems at all. They said nothing was going to be going wrong until we started looking. And we found things that we found in all places.”
Both Hyman and Bell say you need to double-check your sources. It’s better to take the extra moment to get it right than pass along harmful information that could be damaging.
Disinformation about COVID-19
When it comes to disinformation, the news that’s being passed around about COVID-19 might be the largest problem we have. Hyman says there’s a biggie out there now, “There’s the current one out about only 6% of the COVID deaths are actually COVID deaths. And that’s a serious, false bit. It’s actually a serious disinformation campaign.
Many death certificates associated with COVID-19 note that people had underlying health issues or other problems that when they die, but COVID is what killed them. And the goal of sort of decreasing the deaths to make it look less hazardous is really problematic because it can lead people to not protect themselves and their families.”
Hyman uses the fight over COVID information as an example to illustrate the types of campaigns on social media. He says the trick is, they take a little bit of the truth and tweak it just enough, “They twist it in a way to make it look like it’s less risky. And then a lot of people are adding in a nice little conspiracy theory, you know, twist at the tail end of that by pointing out that hospitals get paid more if it’s a COVID death, and does they’re just falsely reporting the data on your thing? Well, actually, they get paid more because COVID cases are actually frickin' complex, and they cost more and so it’s appropriate.”
Hyman says it’s important to remember that information like this is put out for a reason, “There’s a goal for this information campaign of getting you to believe that this is less risky, less problematic, it’s safe, you’re fine. And there’s a political motive there. So that’s an example of a classic disinformation campaign that is playing out now.”
Both Hyman and Bell say they think social media can be used for good. They both use it and enjoy using the platforms for their intended use.