Views expressed in this blog are mine alone and are not intended to represent Williamson County policy nor intended as legal advice.
Disinformation - from the Russian dezinformatsiya. The intentional use of false and misleading information to deceive public opinion, usually through the media. Propaganda. Fake news.
It’s not a new tactic by any means. The Romans used it, so it’s been around awhile, but the Soviet Union perfected it. Today it flourishes on social media and is still used to devastating effect by the Russians
Indeed, the Internet and Social Media have increased the use of disinformation geometrically. Before the Internet, it took time to plant a false article, have it picked by another outlet before making its way to a mass publication. Now, when media consumers can easily be media producers and anyone with an internet connection, a computer, and a little skill can build a website, it’s harder than ever to parse the truth from the avalanche of information available to us. Social Media acts as an amplifier, taking a simple story from a homemade website and turning it into international news within hours.
Rather than a few newspapers and 3 broadcast TV stations, we now have an uncountable number of “news” sources. No matter our political persuasion or interests, we can find news tailored to us. Sources that confirm our biases and rely on our preconceived notions and knowledge to limit our imaginations, understanding, and empathy. Social Media increases this phenomenon to such a degree that determining truth from fiction takes special effort. Effort many have no desire to expend or even awareness of the need.
The Long Con
In this hyperintense media landscape, new methods of disinformation have taken root. While we’re bombarded with a deluge of information, memes, websites and more, our adversaries have paid attention. Our attention spans have grown smaller as the amount of information reaches overwhelming levels. What better way to catch our attention than with video? Something we can process visually and that requires little to no translation.
The subject matter in these videos is mind-bogglingly mundane - craft ideas, how to use household objects in new and inventive (and sometimes ridiculous) ways, DIY science experiments and more. You bolster your subscribers and followers with a few tens of thousands of bots, pay for monetization to improve your views and before you know it you have legitimate subscribers in the hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions. Your videos are entertaining, if somewhat lame. No need for high production values or numerous actors. What you want are those shares and likes. Once you’ve got them hooked on your silly videos, you can begin the next phase.
You toss in a few “historical” videos. No need to worry about accuracy because your audience has already shown they have no need to confirm the reliability or usefulness of your product. When someone inevitably calls you on its inaccuracies, you pull the video down. But it’s done its damage. Your hundreds of thousands or more of loyal followers have seen it.
Sounds unreal, right? It’s not. Just one company, TheSoul Publishing, has done all this and more. It has dozens of Facebook pages and groups and YouTube channels. It makes videos that they cross-posts across multiple platforms about crafts and household tips. Amongst their hundreds of videos, it floated two with decidedly pro-Russian views. They were pulled in a matter of days but not before being seen and shared by thousands.
They’re just getting started. They’ve positioned themselves as a provider of innocuous entertainment as we head into the 2020 election. They've tested their followers with outright propaganda and found them relatively undiscerning. Now, they merely have to wait. They have an audience. Now they just have to “educate” them.
Here are just a sample of their Facebook and YouTube identities:
Now I’ve Seen Everything
Smart is the New Sexy
For a full rundown on ownership of TheSoul Publishing and more information on their posts, check out this article on Lawfare (https://www.lawfareblog.com/biggest-social-media-operation-youve-never-heard-run-out-cyprus-russians).
It takes less than five minutes to determine where a company is based on Facebook. Just click on the company name in blue on the post. That will take you to the poster's Facebook page. From there, you click on the about link in the left sidebar. This should show you the company webpage. Click on that link and then check for an About, Privacy or Contact link. For example, The Dodo posts a lot of videos about animals. Clicking on their name takes you to their page where you can find their website with a few clicks. Once on their website, you scroll to the bottom and find their Privacy link and find out they are owned by Group Nine based in New York. Group Nine also owns NowThis, Pop Sugar, Thrillist, and Seeker.
In fact, this is a best practice everyone should employ on Facebook whenever they come across something that seems questionable, appears to be clickbait or inflammatory. Sure, it’s easier just to react with a like or a share when something outrages you or otherwise hits your buttons, but those are absolutely the articles, memes and videos that need vetting the most. Take a few minutes to see where the poster resides, what other pages they run and what they have to say about themselves. Look at the websites that post news articles – are they satire, do they have not much more than an outrageous headline with no substance in the article? If the headline seems too good to be true or particularly outrageous, throw it into a Google search bar. If it’s legitimate news, legitimate sites will carry it. If only two or three obscure sites have the story, it’s probably best not to share it.
Finally, if you determine that a Facebook page is questionable, you can always block it. It won’t stop your friends from sharing it, but it will keep it from popping up organically on your feed.
In the end, we must understand that we’re living through a period of massive information output. We can no longer rely on just a few vetted producers and their ethics and standards. We have to do the vetting ourselves. We have to become discerning, educated media consumers. Failure to do so risks us becoming perfect candidates for disinformation.