Disinformation is not new, but the internet is making it worse, writes Alex Romero, CEO and Founder of Alto Analytics.
The use of disinformation as a strategic weapon is nothing new. Julius Caesar recounts how he suffered the effects of fake-news in his epic Commentaries on the Gallic War. After Caesar’s assassination, disinformation was also used blatantly in the resulting power struggle. It helped propel Octavian to become Rome’s first emperor, Augustus.
Nearly 2,000 years on, disinformation has been weaponised as part of our digital age and for many, it’s the latest threat to democracy.
The Edelman Trust Barometer in 2018 reported that nearly seven in 10 respondents among the general population worried about fake news or false information being used as a weapon partly driven by the ubiquity of social media and digital platforms. Edelman report shows that 59 percent of respondents said that it was getting harder to tell if a piece of news was produced by a respected media organization.
Much of the current debate around disinformation focuses on the content – the lies and disruption manifested in fake news. In my view, this problem needs to be redefined. In Julius Caesar’s time, disinformation was spread by messengers on horseback ahead of an advancing army. After his death, his self-styled successor Octavian had fake propaganda slogans stamped upon coins.
Today’s digital ecosystem enables the possibilities and incentives to lie at scale with lightning speed. The issue here is not fake news, it's the whole digital ecosystem. Too often, an impression is created that social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, are the issue and once they are “fixed” the problem will go away. It is not that simple. The internet as a communications platform was not designed to be used with malignant intent. The past few years have shown it to be an incredibly effective environment through which disinformation can be embedded into the public digital sphere. Once content gets into the digital ecosystem it is highly likely that it will be circulated over and over again, like the slogans stamped on Octavian’s coins.
Having analysed several social, political and economic debates in Europe and the Americas over the past few years – including May’s European Parliamentary Elections, I would categorise four building blocks which, like Roman pillars, play an important role in supporting disinformation in the digital sphere.
The first is the soft underbelly of liberal democracy. Freedom of debate and expression is a core value enabling and encouraging anyone and everyone to contribute views and debate on the broadest of political, social, economic and cultural issues. In our European elections research, we collected hundreds of millions of data points across five countries in just over five months.
This vast data set was a powerful proxy of the public debate and free expression in the digital sphere. Our research discovered how less than. 0.1% of all users created more than 10% of the public digital conversation. And it identified which social issues and vulnerabilities were exploited by those users with disproportionate abnormal activity who focused on a number of polarizing issues such as migrants and the role of multi-lateral organizations like the UN and EC.
Disinformation works effectively in vulnerable and fast changing contexts and if you can’t trust content on the internet then one of the key goals of disinformation warfare has been achieved - confusion. Finding or artificially creating a social or economic vulnerability through active polarization of the debate is just the first stage.
Standing next to the identification of a vulnerability pillar, is the need to frame certain narratives and issues to suit particular viewpoints, often within localised or cultural contexts. This can range from genuine discussion and exchange of opinion to strategically reframing or distorting views or reality. The recent European elections research shows how anti-migrant and immigration themes were relentlessly exploited to spread disinformation as a way to attack those classed as political elites and the wider EU establishment.
A key tool for framing the narrative, and the third building block, is the multitude and diversity of digital publications and sites – these range from government-backed media houses to emerging start-ups and local sites. Such sites are often designed to look like established media outlets, but upon closer inspection they are actually content blocks aimed at distortion.
Our European analysis uncovered a list of influential sites aimed at polarising an issue or spreading disinformation. Some of these were not familiar to journalists covering the EU elections at the better-known media brands in the countries analysed. They were out of sight to the mainstream media because they proliferated with high intensity within siloed digital communities where most political reporters are not present, and sometimes not even aware of.
These sites are funded through advertising networks that rely on programmatic advertising, algorithms decide which ads go to which sites in real-time. In our research, we found out how both global and local companies are unknowingly funding the sites that create and spread disinformation. In other cases, the sites heavily rely on traffic from social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook or get funding from legitimate although opaque crowd-funding platforms. In other words, the full digital ecosystem, with all its click-incentives, is leveraged.
Finally, the fourth building block, and the most visible one, is the massive coordinated distribution across numerous digital touch points that helps create the siloed digital communities which propagate disinformation. This incorporates an array of digital tools from automation, targeted advertising, algorithmic gaming, Facebook, WhatsApp or Telegram Groups, or alternative social networks such as Gab.ai just to name a few.
Techniques such as these are being used to exploit the digital ecosystem and shape the public agenda. Just as importantly they are destroying the concept of a common shared reality. Due to the ecosystem’s inherent vulnerabilities and the current composition, digital disinformation presents a powerful set of possibilities with multi-level incentives and is now a real threat to everyone who values democracy.
Only if we understand these constantly evolving vulnerabilities and tactics in the digital age can we hope to respond effectively. This is especially the case for regulators and politicians who often struggle to stay up to speed with the technologies being deployed. While there are no easy fixes, there are many opportunities to mitigate and build resilience against digital disinformation. It will undeniably require Herculean efforts from politicians, regulators, tech companies and everyone who enjoys the freedom and convenience of the digital universe.
About the author
Alex Romero is CEO of Alto Data Analytics. Previously, he was Vice President of Viacom for Southern Europe, Turkey, the Middle East and Africa, and led development of Yahoo business in Southern Europe. He has worked in digital strategies in over 20 markets worldwide.