Since the establishment of “Fake News” as a global outcry, a tendency has developed to automatically claim state broadcasters are “disinformation outlets for the government” and to brand all media outlets and journalists for established outlets as “the biased MSM.”
In some cases, this is true. For example, Russia Today is an acknowledged and admitted cog in the wheel of Russia’s foreign policy machinery. Similar can be said of China’s tightly controlled state news operations. However, governments and populations must be mindful that hostile influence operations and efforts which form part of broader hybrid warfare offensives are reliant on creating domestic distrust in target nations and in increasing their own access to populations. Subsequently, attacks on domestic media must be viewed with caution, in particular where it is accompanied by an increase in “alternative news” providers.
"Often, disinformation actors will use the access route of alternative media to gain a foothold in populations. They are unbound by the quality regulation of the established news operators and almost always have a strategic objective for each operation – for example, negatively impacting the ability of a government to control COVID19 spread."
There are also domestic profit and political reasons for creating audience segmentation through the disassembly of existing media structures and, at international exchange events such as CPAC, long-term plans have been made over several years to create new information ecosystems to help secure votes in the future.
A common domestic assertion is that state broadcasters are purveyors of “disinformation for the government.” This type of allegation – though it is now amplified by social media – has always existed. When a liberal government is in power the allegation is made by the right, when a conservative government is in power, the allegation is made by the left. Often, depending on news events, the allegation is made by both sides at the same time about the same piece of coverage. This cycle exacerbates and perpetuates the wider problem, introducing a political imperative to reduce future capacity of an election-winning opposition to undo any perceived advantages created by media reforms. These nuanced issues are pervasive and make the perfect wedge for external actors to drive so they can foster distrust and division in line with strategic objectives.
This leads directly into the area of disinformation – the creation, sharing, amplification of deliberately false information. Often, disinformation actors will use the access route of alternative media to gain a foothold in populations. They are unbound by the quality regulation of the established news operators and almost always have a strategic objective for each operation – for example, negatively impacting the ability of a government to control COVID19 spread by creating myths about wearing masks, in turn causing the overstretching of resources while reducing capacity elsewhere; public health, economy, defence.
Several years ago, such campaigns needed to be accompanied by largescale bot and troll operations on social media, driving users to the information on sites they had never heard of to create trust from scratch. Now, however, there are several factors at play which have driven fringe concepts such as Qanon into the international consciousness, even though it should easily have been dismissed.
The basic function of social media platform algorithms plays one part, Search Engine Optimisation another. But two further factors have contributed more heavily in a new way, highlighting the danger of technology-led responses to technology-created problems, and underlining the validity of the old saying about knee-jerk reactions.
"By largely misunderstanding the nature of a whole problem and focusing on a solution to one part of it, current efforts are boosting disinformation narratives and easing the workload of the actors behind them."
The first is the “fact-checking” industry, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of amplification while removing the need for disinformation actors to do as much heavy lifting on message boards and social networks in order to seed their content and extend its reach. The second factor is the media at large, victim to its own digital success and increasingly reliant on revenue generated by content read online. Not only does it perform the same seek and expose function as the “fact-checking” industry to generate content, but it feeds on the reports of the same to maintain 24/7 output.
In plain terms, two of the primary mechanisms which should be preventing the damage caused by disinformation actors are assisting through their own monetisation of it.
By largely misunderstanding the nature of a whole problem and focusing on a solution to one part of it, current efforts are boosting disinformation narratives and easing the workload of the actors behind them. In terms of response cycle, the action is best described as processing the crime scene and selling the photographs to reporters, rather than solving the crime itself.
"Technology alone is not the answer and the time has come for people to take responsibility for what is a very human problem."
These practices drive key messaging of disinformation campaigns into search results and timelines globally, creating a normalisation impact and shifting the Overton Window. The phenomenon of “collective common sense” described by Serge Moscovici outlines the heart of the problem: as people our goal is not to advance knowledge but to be “in the know.” This psychology not only continues to redefine our shared values, incorporating disinformation into our talking points and group behaviours, but profits the whole sector which both feeds upon and drives it. This is Disinfonomics.
There must be an immediate cessation of reporting in such a way that article content distributes disinformation straplines and allows volume amplification to occur across platforms – including an end to backlinking practices which drive web traffic to disinformation sites and channels. This must be accompanied by a policy level review of the evidently counterproductive strategies and tactics currently being deployed.
Technology alone is not the answer and the time has come for people to take responsibility for what is a very human problem.