Disinformation is one of the most pervasive yet most nebulous threats facing government today. To be clear, disinformation is not the same thing as mere misinformation. Misinformation is false, but it does not necessarily have malicious intent. Disinformation is created specifically to mislead or manipulate people on the receiving end – whether that’s an individual, an organization, or an entire country.
Looking to the year ahead, federal agencies should make combating disinformation a key goal, particularly in the wake of COVID-19 along with a government leadership in transition. There has been tremendous disinformation around the virus, and more is likely as vaccine distribution commences worldwide. Across the pond, Boris Johnson has already highlighted the need to combat disinformation related to both the vaccine and BREXIT. While the Labour party has suggested emergency laws to penalize social media platforms that do not remove false content, a similar level of vigilance is required here at home.
Combating disinformation is challenging, though, because it’s so pervasive and the most effective form of disinformation is woven with factual data, making it difficult to authenticate accurately. Here are some steps that federal agencies can take, including awareness campaigns, outside partnerships, and continued technological innovation.
Agencies need to continue to encourage the public to question what they see and read online. Awareness is already much keener than it was just a few short years ago. DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has prioritized communications that aim to build greater awareness. CISA, for instance, released a disinformation toolkit specific to COVID-19. The toolkit highlighted the most reliable resources for pandemic-related information and called upon state and local officials to directly reach out to their constituents to help stop the spread of false information.
Last year, CISA also released an evergreen infographic demonstrating how foreign influences stoke division between Americans through information campaigns. This infographic used pizza in its example, but the tips could apply to any disinformation campaign. The tough reality is that in an age of social media, there is no silver bullet. Everyone must be diligent about questioning what they see and read online, as opposed to simply taking information at face value. Federal agencies should target their awareness efforts accordingly.
The government has rightfully turned its attention to the regulation of big tech, which the majority of Americans now support. The Honest Ads Act, for example, would mandate the same transparency with regard to social media advertising that’s required of traditional advertising. But federal agencies shouldn’t feel like they have to work alone. They should consider partnering with tech companies as well.
Public-private partnerships may be crucial to combating disinformation – particularly in the U.S., where open standards can leave organizations more vulnerable to attack. The Carnegie Endowment, for example, recently suggested the formation of a consortium that bridges the public-private divide with an eye toward ramping up disinformation research. More specifically, the consortium would ideally bring together academics, large social platforms, and commercial tech companies to tackle the threat together.
The threat of disinformation has undoubtedly been fueled in part by technological innovation; it’s easier to create and disseminate deepfakes and malicious bots since the tools behind them have been democratized. Over the years, a tremendous amount of innovation has been driven by necessity. While disinformation is a large and growing threat, it could potentially spur the creation and implementation of next-generation technologies to combat it. It’s becoming increasingly clear that social media needs to evolve to meet this urgent challenge.
Federal agencies must recognize that as important as awareness is, it’s also the starting point for combating disinformation – not the finish line. The reality is that we require tangible and technical advancements in order to rein in this problem. This means installing staff and brainpower behind potential solutions and innovations, as well as continuing with education, awareness, and partnerships. It means being the authority in areas that your agency represents and ensuring that it’s easy to determine facts from fiction.
The bottom line is that disinformation is so difficult to control and manage precisely because it’s everywhere. The same internet that allows us to communicate effortlessly also allows disinformation to be spread just as easily. While federal agencies cannot tackle this problem alone, they should play a leading role in combating disinformation, as it represents a fundamental threat to our country and its democracy.
This is an all-hands-on-deck issue – and one that’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
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