The Age of Disinformation

Rob Bole

There is no silver bullet to stop the rising tide of commercialized disinformation, but Signal is working with clients to help them prepare, react and stay above the water.

In a past role, I was part of the U.S. government response to Russian disinformation operations, an effort to counter the online influence of ISIS and other violent extremist groups. That experience allowed me to see up-close Russia’s tactics of using popular sentiment to undermine facts and using disinformation to blunt the power of U.S. and European policymakers. I saw first-hand how ISIS combined data-driven misleading imagery and messages to fish for potential recruits, and then activated an extremely effective human-based recruitment process.

What I saw was well-summarized by Peter Pomerantzev as “the weaponization of information.” Today, what was once the domain of sovereign states and sophisticated global actors is now within the reach of anyone with a credit card and shaky moral compass. The growth of shady companies offering on-demand bot farms and gig-trolls (real humans for hire) has led to “the commercialization of disinformation.”

We see the evidence of this every day in the headlines. Stories from just the past few days include: 2020 Campaigns Throw Their Hands Up on Disinformation (NYT, Dec 15) Who’s Spreading Disinformation in U.K. Election? You Might be Surprised. (NYT, Dec 10) Arizona Now Has a Task Force Focused on Countering Disinformation (Slate, December 18) Pro-Indian ‘fake websites targeted decision makers in Europe’ (BBC, December 16), Census Bureau Works to Combat Disinformation About 2020 Count (WSJ, December 17)

And it is not just the media recognizing this problem. A March 2019 poll of over 2,200 Americans documented that nearly “two out of three Americans think the spread of ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’ is a major problem in the country.” Sixty-five percent (65%) said that misinformation is a major problem, putting their concern “on par with gun violence (63%) and terrorism (66%.)”

Today, there is not a clear solution to this problem, or rather more accurately, those key actors – government, technology platforms, Internet companies – have not come together to develop a collaborative solution. In addition, we as fallible humans have not yet developed the media literacy necessary to realize what is real and what is suspect.

The result is that the challenge of disinformation is only rising and will continue to become an unwanted actor in how we debate and inform public policy and conduct business.

Signal understands the growing threat of disinformation and how it is skewing our political and policy debates, undermining brands and distorting financial markets. There is no single solution, no magic bullet. However, there is a strong framework for helping decisionmakers cope with the rising tide.

In subsequent posts we will dive into specific tactics, but our starting place is:

  • Monitor – leverage data-driven analysis through AI, machine and deep learning platforms to process potential disinformation threats in real-time. We work with data scientists, like our partners at Blackbird.AI, to train models of detection for disinformation before the wave breaks, giving precious time to formulate and implement a response.
  • Report – while Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms struggle to regulate their platforms against synthetic disinformation, they have all set up processes to respond to credible, documented disinformation campaigns. We work closely with the platforms to identify and report bot nets, sock puppets, and other forms of disinformation early and often.
  • Respond – monitoring and reporting can temper the rise of disinformation, but companies and advocacy groups need a game plan for getting ahead of the disinformation and even turn it to their advantage by using forensic tools to analyze the origins and intentions of the disinformation campaign.

We are only at the dawning of an Age of Disinformation and clients’ most important move is to understand the potential impacts of disinformation on their business. Signal’s role is to leverage advanced data-science and experienced, modern public affairs know-how to turn a really bad day (week, month) into an opportunity to advance the goals of our clients.