The Threat of Disinformation
By Benny Lamanna, M.S.
As the world faces various perils, one of the most subtle — yet serious — threats to our data-driven global environment comes from the inundation of deceitfully manipulated information. Perhaps better known by the term disinformation, this deliberate production of self-serving, misleading, and biased information poses several threats that we need to acknowledge and act upon to protect ourselves. This is especially important because our society is highly vulnerable to the plethora of erroneous information delivered via mass media sources (e.g., social media, podcasts, websites, apps, written word, radio, and television) that easily influence us.
Disinformation appears at every level of society, ranging from local to international communities — it entangles businesses, communities, and governments by contaminating inner beliefs and ultimately manipulating behavior. The targeting of controversial hot spots, including politically, socially, and economically charged issues, further exacerbates the problem because it needlessly agitates people, fosters disharmony, and instigates chaos.
Public safety agencies are thrust into confrontations (e.g., riots, civil unrest, and displaced anger aimed at emergency service personnel) over disinformation because they are entrusted with maintaining order and ensuring the safety and welfare of the public. This unnecessarily endangers members of these organizations and unsuspecting innocent people.
Determining why purposeful deception is produced proves critical to understanding how it jeopardizes reliable and honest information. Once we start to understand what is behind a disinformation effort, we begin to unravel the destructive trance it holds over us. Disarming these efforts starts by questioning a person’s motives and what they hoped to gain.
The main reason disinformation is so extremely dangerous is it provides a fictional report that is purposefully difficult to recognize as deceptive to confuse, mislead, and paralyze people. Escalating the issue is the fact that it is subtle, persistent, and easy to produce and spread, resulting in overwhelming fallacies. Overall, we are at great risk of being targeted without ever knowing it, recognizing the attacker, or detecting what is behind it all.
False propaganda often succeeds, at least initially, because it is not bound by reality or reason. This absence of accountability or immediate repercussions is perhaps the greatest threat that disinformation presents because it breeds distrust and animosity that inhibits safeguarding our communities. No person, establishment, or worthy cause is immune to the harm disinformation sets loose.
entangles businesses, communities, and governments by contaminating inner beliefs and ultimately manipulating behavior.”
The success of disinformation campaigns can also be attributed to unsuspecting victims falling for deception because they are not accustomed to scrutinizing and assessing data before accepting it as true. This happens because of the instantaneous speed of information sharing; it leads to circumventing fact-checking and background research. Once people read something untrue, they formulate inappropriate decisions that take considerable time to realize. Changing this blind-faith mentality typically requires an experience of personal loss based upon trusting erroneous reports designed to mislead.
Ethical and honest people do not worry about purposeful deception because it is bizarre and foreign to them. To most, it does not make sense to spread lies to trick people because that is an act of contempt and viewed as disgraceful conduct. This mental blind spot helps empower disinformation purveyors who enjoy misleading others, causing confusion and achieving manipulated outcomes.
Not much is needed to mislead society beyond forging a well-placed comment on the internet — perhaps a social network. Often, the more outrageous the statement, the greater the attention and enhanced propagation of the malicious scheme. This happens because people enjoy escaping the tediousness of everyday life and feeding their need for excitement with shocking news.
Typically, disinformation efforts focus on wrongfully blaming organizations for administrative, legal, or societal issues outside their control. Misdirected claims impede the duties of these agencies instead of empowering them for success. Trust and respect for public safety organizations vanish when they get blamed instead of justified for their good faith interventions during adversarial situations. The onslaught of unrealistic expectations thrust upon public safety organizations is multiplied by efforts to vilify their every action. False or misleading reporting undermines positive efforts and daily interactions with communities and fosters disharmony.
Disinformation most often is produced at a nominal cost, making it convenient for deception. Traditionally, the only expenditure associated with it is the time spent fabricating the destructive gossip. While difficult to quantify the resulting damage, loss of time and focus results in enormously wasted resources, opportunities, and positive outcomes.
The uncertainty and doubts provoked from disinformation bring about the loss of hope, trust, and personal involvement in vital matters. The aggravation and stress generated drives people to abandon causes that desperately need attention and engagement. For these reasons, we cannot afford to dismiss or merely hope that dishonest news production will disappear solely because it lacks any real substance. Until society appreciates the costs and losses brought about by disinformation, honest people will continue to suffer needlessly because of inaction toward this ignored adversary.
False propaganda extends its influential and destructive reach by polluting free-flowing, fast-moving, and plentiful information that circulates and is trusted worldwide. To make matters worse, it victimizes critical on-hand resources by unnecessarily devouring them or advocating their misuse.
People who believe fabricated stories refuse to consider different viewpoints once they are locked into their rhetoric. They embrace destructive agendas that misdirect blame, stubbornly ignoring facts and devising an alternative story they prefer to believe. Disinformation enablers latch onto self-serving concepts that absolve them of life’s issues and target culprits they believe are responsible without a factual basis. These unsuspecting individuals favor a narrative that best suits their wants and needs with a complete disregard for others or the truth. It is vital to overcome the instigation of these concepts at the onset before they become ingrained and spread unchallenged.
The potential long-term damage to a community from malicious false narratives requires a collaborative and determined response based on the pursuit of truth so that disinformation purveyors do not continue to inflict negativity upon society.
A potential antidote to overcoming this corruption is by openly exposing the myriad lies to reality and facts that disprove them. Public safety members are ideally suited to take on this difficult endeavor because of their dedication and selfless service to protecting the public and their ability to uncover and assemble the truth, which is a foundation and everyday element of public safety work.
Emergency service departments must engage the public with a continuous, meaningful dialogue to maintain relevant communication and counter the ever-present flow of disinformation. To assist these efforts, communities need to be proactive and determine trustworthy sources that provide important facts to protect society.
“False or misleading reporting undermines positive efforts and daily interactions with communities and fosters disharmony.”
To encourage legitimate data sharing, public safety agencies must emphasize the need to promote transparency, honesty, and collaboration through trusted relationships with their communities. This is especially important for “bad news”; it must be immediately debunked in a clear, respectful, and heartfelt manner. Public safety departments need to lead efforts to contain disinformation and work with community members to recognize its negative consequences.
Because false reports spread rapidly, promoting early detection and exposing them is critical to mitigating their dangerous effects. Once they are detected, determining the full range of damage and ramifications goes beyond merely realizing that disinformation has prejudiced people in a manner it should not have — we must identify problems to overcome and the recovery actions needed to minimize harm.
The following recommendations for sharing and validating data, detecting and countering disinformation, and preserving an agency’s image provide individuals and organizations a starting point to help address and fight the threat.
- Share and validate data
- Only distribute confirmed news (not opinion or conjecture) in a direct, timely, honest, and clear manner
- Select a representative to be the point of contact
- Verify information reliability (i.e., credibility scoring) via trusted resources
- Acknowledge trusted sites that enhance honesty and accuracy
- Detect and counter disinformation
- Pursue education and training on disinformation, the techniques used to spread it, and how to identify and counter it
- Publicly expose corrupt information resources to neutralize risk and damage
- Pursue appropriate actions to hold disinformation generators accountable
- Encourage data evaluation to routinely detect fabrications and rate all information
- Take ownership of mistakes, explain them, and take corrective steps to fix them
- Identify and discuss common target issues that elicit disharmony, bias, and controversy
- Preserve agency image
- Establish and maintain a trusted, interactive relationship with the community, organizations, and local leaders to promote legitimate information flow
- Respond with empathy while handling controversial issues
- Avoid confrontations and attempts to persuade disinformation enablers with reality because they will not listen
- Recognize that false propaganda prevents constructive discussion and meaningful information exchanges
Law-abiding citizens do not consider that they are exposed to purposeful deception in varying forms each day and tend to believe everything at face value. Until we can find a way to stop this exposure, we will have to change how we obtain and use information by corroborating it against multiple, unrelated sources to ensure it is fair, honest, and valid. We must adopt a cautious and skeptical mindset, verifying everything to avoid information contamination and its consequences.
To protect our safety and integrity, we need to acknowledge disinformation and act decisively.
“The potential long-term damage to a community from malicious false narratives requires a collaborative and determined response based on the pursuit of truth so that disinformation purveyors do not continue to inflict negativity upon society.”
Mr. Lamanna is an instructor with the FBI National Academy and an adjunct professor with the University of Virginia. He can be reached at email@example.com.