The United States is currently in the midst of an intragovernmental conflict that speaks to the core of questions about the proliferation of truth and facts in a democracy and about how disinformation can spread to corrupt the ordinary political processes that ensure fair and proper representation of citizens by government. The Trump administration, infamous for its strategy of communicating falsehoods and outright lies in an unyielding effort to smear any and all political opposition, nevertheless enjoys seemingly-unshakable support from a core constituency of voters who, while not representing the majority of American voices, enable largely unchecked majority rule in the federal government. The stability of this coalition speaks to the efficacy of disinformation campaigns, promulgated by the White House and repeated unquestioned by propaganda outlets including Fox News. The success of such campaigns affecting the US has resulted in similar strategies being tried in other governments, as the New York Times reports that at least 70 countries have had disinformation campaigns.
The article references a report conducted by the Computational Propaganda Research Project at the University of Oxford, which studied governments that spread disinformation “to discredit political opponents, bury opposing views and interfere in foreign affairs.” According to the report, the number of governments employing such tactics has more than doubled in the past two years, and manipulation of social media is a key factor in their expansion. Despite efforts from companies like Facebook, Twitter, and others to combat disinformation, colloquially called “fake news,” social media remains the primary avenue by which malicious actors spread deliberately harmful information, owing to the lack of journalistic standards inherent to the way information spreads on the medium. Governments use disinformation on social media to interfere not only in their own elections, but in the elections of other countries, as infamously exemplified by the Russian government’s successful effort to leverage their Internet Research Agency to improve Trump’s odds of being elected.
One notably prominent actor in the disinformation space is China, which has long been known to proliferate political lies and has expanded its efforts in the wake of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, leveraging technology in innovative and uniquely destructive ways. As time has progressed, disinformation campaigns have become more formalized and professional operations, as governments have recruited university students and others to create and spread disinformation on fake social media accounts. Generally, disinformation campaigns don’t produce news articles, which are easy to identify as disreputable, but instead create content like memes and videos, which are spread anonymously and for free and are difficult for social media platforms to spot. Given the fact that an increasing number of people get their information about politics from social media instead of traditional news organizations, the proliferation of disinformation via memes is particularly worrying.
The threat of disinformation is real, but it can be reduced by the development of a well-informed and thoughtful citizen population
Because of the awesome power of the United States on the world stage and growing concerns about the stability of its democracy, of particular concern is the integrity of the 2020 election. Given the success of their disinformation campaign in 2016 and the relative lack of consequences faced for having conducted it, Russia is likely to attempt to meddle in the election again, supporting the incumbent president over the democratic nominee. The incumbent party has additional advantages in the form of gerrymandered district maps, which have prevailed despite ongoing legal challenges, the gradual weakening of the Voting Rights Act, and the electoral college, which has allowed Republican candidates to win the presidency despite losing the popular vote on multiple occasions. And the incumbent party, having benefited from Russia’s interference, has already demonstrated a willingness to corrupt the country’s system of free and fair elections, most recently by actively soliciting the help of a foreign government to smear a political rival.
Given the threat of disinformation, it falls upon citizens to become extra vigilant in defending themselves against propaganda and false beliefs. The best way to do so is to maintain a skeptical yet inquisitive attitude concerning the validity of political information, and to develop a sense of news literacy to serve as a guide in navigating questionable and murky developments. To be well-informed, it is essential to understand why certain media outlets are trustworthy and why others aren’t, which comes from an understanding of how news outlets go about finding sources and verifying their reports, and to have the ability to separate facts from opinions and recognize bias when it’s present not only in the news, but in oneself. The threat of disinformation is real, but it can be reduced by the development of a well-informed and thoughtful citizen population, which starts at the individual level.