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Friendly Sirens and Deadly Shores: How Disinformation Works

The outcome of the upcoming high-stakes U.S. election is likely to be influenced by a third party – Russia – but only if Moscow succeeds in beguiling a part of the electorate with disinformation. To preserve the integrity of the 2020 election, greater societal investment will be needed, along with a rapid response mechanism to blunt the effects of disinformation and restore voter autonomy.   

Ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, there were frequent mentions of Russian interference, but its possible impact was generally dismissed. Democrats were convinced their candidate would win, and Republicans treated Russia as a side issue. The outcome jolted everyone. No one is discounting the threat this time around. But the underlying factors that helped Russia influence the process have grown deeper. 

In the myriad investigations, few stones have been left unturned about the methods and scope of Russia’s intervention. But while Russia has shown ingenuity in using digital propaganda, its success derives less from methodological sophistication than from structural vulnerabilities. To have any hope of countering Russian “active measures,” it is important to understand how propaganda is received. Propaganda, ultimately, is a cooperative enterprise. That is why any discussion on how it functions needs to begin with why it works.

To understand human susceptibility to malicious messaging is to recognize the multi-dimensional challenge that disinformation poses. Digital literacy can only partially mitigate the problem; the solution must involve the media, state, and society.

The media have already put renewed emphasis on fact checking. But the distinction between fact and opinion needs to be more strictly enforced. The expansion of the media ecosystem with dedicated fact-checking organizations is a welcome development. Little of this will matter, however, until social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter show greater willingness to police malicious content. The state can demand greater responsibility from social media giants by classifying them as publishers instead of tech companies. But this requires political will.

In 2016, the United States had the means to thwart Russian interference but underestimated the significance of that interference and thus took no action. In 2020, there are no doubts about disinformation’s potential to influence the election’s outcome, but the will to counter it remains absent in an administration that benefited from it the last time. The society, then, must foment intolerance for disinformation, treating its purveyors with prejudice and imposing a reputational cost. In the longer term, our education systems will need to include digital literacy as a requirement.

As individuals, we may not be able to shed our biases, but we can certainly do more to resist being manipulated through them. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman makes a distinction between two types of thinking: fast, reflexive, intuitive; and slow, reflective, deliberative. If the aim of disinformation is to appeal to our intuition to short-circuit careful reflection, we will have to learn to slow down and scrutinize our intuitive responses to new information and to verify sources and claims. In Homer’s Odyssey, when the eponymous hero is warned of the Sirens whose song leads seafarers to shipwreck, he has his shipmates cover their ears and tie him to a mast so that he can resist their enchantment. As we get closer to November, like Odysseus, we’ll have to fasten ourselves to our slow, deliberative, skeptical minds so we can resist the sirens and avoid the rocks.

As Odysseus and his shipmates collaborated to overcome their vulnerabilities, so must the U.S. government and public. A dedicated agency, modeled along the lines of EUvsDisinfo, but less hampered politically and more aggressive operationally, will be needed to combine specialist knowledge, open-source investigations, media monitoring, and social network analysis to identify and map disinformation threats. Such an agency could, using a Snopes type database, create a resource for citizens where they can check the veracity of claims. The operation will need to be transparent and non-partisan, its purpose clearly defined as the defense of democracy, so that it can benefit from the goodwill, discipline, and ethos of citizen journalists who have turned OSINT into such a rich and reliable field of journalism. Only through timely exposés of disinformation operations and case studies of propaganda methods can a public be created that is skeptical without being cynical and that withholds its cooperation from purveyors of malice. 

Dr. Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is the Director of the Postgraduate Programme in International Journalism at the University of Stirling. He is a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. He writes for various publications, including the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy and Times Literary Supplement. He tweets at @im_pulse.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not an official policy or position of the Center for Global Policy.