Posts Tagged ‘propaganda’

What to Do About Disinformation

December 3, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in Richard Stengel’s informative work, Information Wars. This book is highly informative and provides information not only about the State Department, but also about the actions Rick Stengel took performing his job. But the most useful part of the book is this section, What to Do About Disinformation. Several posts are needed here, and even then, they cannot do justice to the information provided in the book.

When the Library of Congress was created in 1800 it had 39 million books. Today the internet generates 100 times that much data every second. Information definitely is the most important asset of the 21st Century. Polls show that people feel bewildered by the proliferation of online news and data. Mixed in with this daily tsunami there is a lot of information that is false as well as true.

Disinformation undermines democracy because democracy depends on the free flow of information. That’s how we make decisions. Disinformation undermines the integrity of our choices. According to the Declaration of Independence “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” If that consent is acquired through deception, the powers from it are not just. Stengel states that it is an attack on the very heart of our democracy.

Disinformation is not news that is simply wrong or incorrect. It is information that is deliberately false in order to manipulate and mislead people.

Definitions of important terms follow:
Disinformation: The deliberate creation and distribution of information that is false and deceptive in order to mislead an audience.
Misinformation: Information that is false, though not deliberately; that is created inadvertently or by mistake.
Propaganda: Information that may or may not be true that is designed to engender support for a political view or ideology.

“Fake news” is a term Donald Trump uses to describe any content he does not like. But Trump did not originate the term. The term was familiar to Lenin and Stalin and almost every other dictator of the last century. Russians were calling Western media fake news before Trump, and Trump in his admiration of Russia followed suit. Stengel prefers the term “junk news” to describe information that is false, cheap, and misleading that has been created without regard for its truthfulness.

Most people regard “propaganda” as pejorative, but Stengel believes that it is—or should be—morally neutral. Propaganda can be used for good or ill. Advertising is a form of propaganda. What the United States Information Agency did during the Cold War was a form of propaganda. Advocating for something you believe in can be defined as propaganda. Stengel writes that while propaganda is a misdemeanor, disinformation is a felony.
Disinformation is often a mixture of truth and falsity. Disinformation doesn’t necessarily have to be 100% false to be disinformation. Stengel writes that the most effective forms of disinformation are a mixture of information that is both true and false.

Stengel writes that when he was a journalist he was close to being a First Amendment absolutist. But he has changed his mind. He writes that in America the standard for protected speech has evolved since Holme’s line about “falsely shouting fire in a theater.” In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the court ruled that speech that led to or directly caused violence was not protected by the First Amendment.

Stengel writes that even outlawing hate speech will not solve the problem of disinformation. He writes that government may not be the answer, but it has a role. He thinks that stricter government regulation of social media can incentivize the creation of fact-based content and discentivize the creation of disinformation. Currently big social media platforms optimize content that has greater engagement and vitality, and such content can sometimes be disinformation or misinformation. Stengel thinks the these incentives can be changed in part through regulation and in part through more informed user choices.

What Stengel finds most disturbing is that disinformation is being spread in a way and through means that erode trust in public discourses and democratic processes. This is precisely what these bad actors want to accomplish. They don’t necessarily want you to believe them—they don’t want you to believe anybody.

As has been described in previous healthy memory blog posts, the creators of disinformation use all the legal tools on social media platforms that are designed to deliver targeted messages to specific audiences. These are the same tools—behavioral data analysis, audience segmentation, programmatic ad buying—that make advertising campaigns effective. The Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia uses the same behavioral data and machine-learning algorithms that Coca-Cola and Nike use.

All the big platforms depend on the harvesting and use of personal information. Our data is the currency of the digital economy. The business model of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple, among others, depends on the collection and use of personal information. They use this information to show targeted advertising. They collect information on where you go, what you do, whom you know, and what your want to know about, so they can sell that information to advertisers.

The important question is, who owns this information? These businesses argue that because they collect, aggregate, and analyze our data, they own it. The law agrees in the U.S. But in Europe, according to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, people own their own information. Stengel and HM agree that this is the correct model. America needs a digital bill of rights that protects everyone’s information as a new social contract.

Stengel’s concluding paragraph is “I’m advocating a mixture of remedies that optimize transparency, accountability, privacy, self-regulation, data protection, and information literacy. That can collectively reduce the creation, dissemination, and consumption of false information. I believe that artificial intelligence and machine learning can be enormously effective in combating falsehood and disinformation. They are necessary but insufficient. All three efforts should be—to use one of the military’s favorite terms—mutually reinforcing.”

The Terrorist Mind

May 11, 2013

The recent terrorist act at the Boston Marathon has been difficult for many Americans to understand. To understand it, you need to try to understand the terrorist mind. We read that they were upset about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Drone killings. This is but a part of a larger narrative that the United States is at war with Islam. This larger narrative ignores disturbing facts such as the efforts the United States took to protect Muslims in the former Yugoslavia. It even includes a belief that 9/11 was self-inflicted, even though Al Qaeda took credit for the terrorist acts. Unfortunately, our minds are good at ignoring negative evidence and for compartmentalizing information.

Even if you grant militant Islamists their beliefs, one can still ask, do they merit the indiscriminate killing and maiming of innocents? What does the Koran say about that? The argument would be that they are at war and that war justifies the killing and maiming.

But then, one can ask, how do you think you will win? If terrorist attacks increase, the response against them would also increase. The consequences would be dreadful, but it is difficult to see how radical Islam would prevail in the west. Osama Bin Laden thought that because they were able to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, they would prevail against the west. He forgets that the victory was largely due to American aid and technology. The Soviets concluded that Afghanistan was not worth the loss of human life, and that it was not worth exercising the nuclear option.

The response of the West in dealing with the irrationality of Terrorism is the use of kinetic events. There are large scale kinetic events, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and small kinetic events such as drone strikes. The question is, do they work? Are they decreasing the number of terrorists, or increasing the number of terrorists? If it is the latter, then we are adding fuel to the flames rather than extinguishing the fire.

So what is the alternative to kinetic events? It goes by a number of terms, information warfare, propaganda, psyops (psychological operations). Unfortunately, these terms have negative connotations. Nevertheless, I would argue that they provide the only alternative. The problem is that they are not very sophisticated, and that we do not know how to target them at either the militant Islamic or potentially militant Islamic mind. Much research needs to be done.

Unfortunately, there was a natural laboratory for conducting this research that was overlooked, and that is the infamous facility at Guantanamo. The inmates could have been used as subjects to try to understand how their minds worked, and what potential arguments or information could possibly change their minds. They could have released inmates if they thought their interventions had been successful and then tracked them after they left. It is likely that some, perhaps, many would just have told the researchers want they wanted to hear, so that they would be released. Others might have changed their minds in the facility, but then reverted to their old ways of thought upon returning to their environments. There was this risk, but I think an argument could be made that it would be worth it. There might have been successes.

It needs to be remembered that the terrorist threat goes well beyond radical Islamists. Remember Timothy Mcveigh. Unfortunately, there are many more Timothy Mcveighs in the world. Their narratives and belief systems also need to be studied and countered.

In any case, this an area of research that needs to be vigorously pursued. I believe that the Saudi’s have done some research in this area that has met with some success. Memetic Theory along with the memetic analytic framework holds promise. Terrorist minds are full of dangerous, erroneous memes that must be destroyed and corrected. New conflicts, both international and domestic, must increasingly be met by changing people’s minds. Historically, humans have resolved conflicts by kinetic events. Human history is largely a history of human wars. But if kinetic events work to exacerbate rather than to resolve conflicts, then I see no other path to pursue.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.