Incoming: Fake News or Information Warfare?

July 1, 2020
By Maj. Gen. Jennifer Napper, USA (Ret.)

Whether it’s propaganda that has a grain of truth, or it’s more deliberate disinformation that adversaries distribute to alter public opinion and gain an advantage, deceptive content and easy access to the mass population via social media pose a high threat to institutions and democracy. Intentionally or accidentally, groups and individuals have the ability to quickly promote falsehoods, making it difficult for governments, businesses and citizens to take corrective action.

But this isn’t the first time in history that society has been a victim of a biased view of events. News stories in the late 19th century often were sensationalized to increase newspaper sales. Drawing from a pejorative comic strip character run by the newspapers, this led to the coining of the term “yellow journalism.” In the 20th century, changes in communications law introduced a period of consolidation among media companies, so much so that one source found that 90 percent of broadcast and print media is now controlled by only six companies. Today, algorithms within social media platforms focus on getting users to click on revenue-generating, sponsored content based on preconceived interests and online behavior. Targeted information placed in users’ news feeds reinforces the message.

So what’s the harm in creating and directing specific content for receptive audiences in this way? A recent example shows the danger that can happen when people are presented dubious information that fits their own biased viewpoint.

Earlier this year a YouTube blogger claimed that a U.S. Army reservist was a central figure in the advent of the coronavirus in China. By naming this individual in a fabricated story, the blogger incited followers to share the content and thereby encouraged them to threaten the reservist. Abundant sharing by different outlets made the story seem valid, and the soldier’s life was disrupted despite CNN running a story with sources that proved the falsehood. When the soldier turned to law enforcement for help, she was told there was nothing that could be done.

Free speech advocates would say the blogger, YouTube or those who shared that content did not break any law, and they are right. But, there are limits on freedom of expression. Just as no one can yell fire in a crowded theatre, as the U.S Supreme Court ruled in 1919, false narratives cannot be allowed to place anyone in danger.

Courts generally have sought to balance privacy and freedom of the press, and cases such as Toledo Newspaper Co. v. United States in 1918 placed a limit on the press and helped lift the country above yellow journalism. Another lever to counter misinformation was the media industry’s adoption of a code of ethics that called for the press to embody truthfulness, fairness, integrity, independence and accountability.

Sure, there are differences between traditional media and social media platforms, but the similarities are greater. Knowing the media industry’s experience, social media companies can build on the strides they’ve made in policing content. For example, they can deploy more fact-checking technology, show users the sources of content and their credibility level, improve the ability to report problems and highlight opinion vs fact-checked content.

Consumers of social media stories also need to be more responsible themselves. To be fair to them, particularly in the case of COVID-19, it is difficult to know what to believe and how to distinguish fact from fiction with so many opposing story lines. But what is certain is that blindly clicking and sharing unverified content amplifies disinformation. In the case of the Army reservist, what started as a simple YouTube blogger’s post turned into information warfare.

In the yellow journalism era, the majority of readers eventually became fatigued of the exaggerations and falsehoods. Fewer newspapers were sold, and the publishing model had to change. Citizens today have to develop a similar distaste for disinformation. They have to know when they are being manipulated by noncredible influences peddling bad information and not engage with them.

It’s not just a matter of selling content and ads. Nation-states take advantage of the trust that users have shown with content, especially against citizens in countries with more freedoms of speech and access to the Internet. How many of those actors are watching the current chaos in the information sphere and honing their skills for future warfare campaigns?

Trusted sources of information are a foundation for the basic freedoms enjoyed in the United States. The trust that takes so long to build can go away in a click, so it is in everyone’s best interest to have a guarded approach when consuming and distributing information on social media.

Maj. Gen. Jennifer Napper, USA (Ret.), is a vice president in Perspecta Inc.’s defense group. She previously served as director of cybersecurity plans and policy for the U.S. Department of Defense Cyber Command, and she led the U.S. Army’s Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM). 

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