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We barely are into 2020, but already discoveries in late 2019 point to a dangerous year of disinformation ahead of us. We will need to be sharp and careful readers not to fall prey to deliberately false information — messages designed to misinform, divide and distract us.
Take the case of TheSoul Publishing as revealed by Lisa Kaplan on Lawfare last month. She noted the firm is behind a number of innocuous arts and crafts videos, but also at that time offered “pro-Russian versions of histories that contain inaccurate information.” She also wrote, “Measured in terms of views and subscribers, it had the third-largest reach of any group of entertainment channels on YouTube in November — outranked only by Disney and WarnerMedia. It is run by Russian nationals and based in and managed from Cyprus, with U.S. operations housed in a shared work space in New York. It funds itself with ad revenues from YouTube and Google worth tens of millions of dollars. And in 2018, it purchased a small suite of Facebook advertisements targeting U.S. citizens on political issues — and it made those purchases in rubles.”
TheSoul now says it will suspend its histories; it is worth watching what becomes of both this provider and its content. Another large provider of concern is The Epoch Times, a Chinese-American offshoot of Falun Gong, a pro-Trump outlet also opposed to the Chinese government. Its politics are not a problem; its penchant for misinformation-laden claims is what got it banned from buying ads on Facebook.
The fact-checking organization Snopes has shown links between The BL (The Beauty of Life), an operation with an immense Facebook presence, and Epoch Times. As 2019 drew to a close, Facebook shut down more than 900 fake accounts, groups and pages, many with artificial intelligence-generated profiles. Epoch Times, as noted by National Public Radio, was “behind the sophisticated misinformation campaign.”
Facebook, owner of Instagram, in October shut down 50 Instagram accounts it had linked to a Russian influence campaign from the Kremlin-linked troll factory, the Internet Research Agency. Viral video memes, harder to trace than text disinformation, may be the forum of greatest concern for 2020.
Disinformation purveyors do not have to be foreign-backed nefarious actors. The most disturbing disinformation campaign this campaign season is coming directly from President Trump, his administration and his congressional acolytes.
Former National Security Council official Fiona Hill explained the lie most dramatically in her congressional testimony. She testified, “Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”
She declared, “I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternative narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016.”
Hill reminded all listening that, “The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016. This is the public conclusion of our intelligence agencies, confirmed in bipartisan Congressional reports. It is beyond dispute, even if some of the underlying details must remain classified.”
“In the course of this investigation,” Hill concluded, “I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”
Disinformation multiplies when everyday Americans are duped and pass along false information mostly by using social media. So, what can we do? We can avoid being part of the problem by rigorously fact checking before we echo, cite or like information received. Here are some very good fact-checking sites, all with established reputations for neutral and thorough investigation of claims:
• Factcheck.org, an award-winning project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
• FlackCheck.org, a political literacy companion to Annenberg’s FactCheck; it has particularly good critiques of political ads and other material on deception and incivility in political rhetoric.
• Snopes.com, started in 1994 by investigating urban legends, hoaxes and folklore, but now also has valuable political fact checks as well.
• The Washington Post’s weekly fact checker offers a compelling critique of checkable claims across the political spectrum.
• Politifact has won a Pulitzer Prize for its work. Launched in 2007, it is now owned and housed at the nonprofit Poynter Institute for Media Studies.
• images.google.com is a good place to start to seek the origin of images, indirectly helping to discover frauds and hoaxes.