The term disinformation is often used to denote news that is unpopular or jarring, sometimes used synonymously with the label ‘fake news’ to indicate anything in the media the audience disagrees with. The truth is more complicated. Disinformation is increasingly a tool being used by states and the proxy groups they support to shift perceptions, draw attention to hot-button issues and exacerbate division on political issues. The war in Ukraine has shown the importance of disinformation in theatres of war and for countries supporting Ukraine and the need for NATO members to take a broader approach in addressing disinformation.
What is Disinformation?
Disinformation does not happen by accident. Disinformation is the deliberate and organized activity of presenting manipulated and altered media content to shape perceptions to drive opinions on political issues. Disinformation is not simply a body of lies, and often relies on a few carefully selected facts before being transformed into something very different. Disinformation exploits emotional perceptions of issues, presenting a narrative the target audience wants to hear and wants to believe. Those developing and spreading disinformation know their audiences’ worldview and biases, and craft their disinformation campaigns accordingly.
Disinformation is different from misinformation, which refers to people presenting incorrect information believing it to be real. Traditional media outlets issue retractions and corrections when they make a mistake and misinform their audiences. Those who traffic in disinformation never publish corrections and rarely relent, even if their messages are proven false. Even if disinformation can be factually disproven, the emotional impact has likely already been achieved by the time it is debunked.
How is Disinformation Used?
The world is more connected now than ever before. A smartphone allows the user to consume media content from traditional and social platforms from around the world in real-time. A smartphone also enables any user to contribute to social media platforms, either through comments, their own website, or presenting their own video content. The barriers to global access have been effectively erased. Messages can be used to target populations near the violence or the domestic publics in allied nations far from the fighting.
Disinformation is typically used to either discredit inconvenient truths or to present alternatives truths. Disinformation is typically targeted at existing social fissures or divisions in the target society. As refugees began leaving Syria in the wake of the war in that country, disinformation was presented about refugees committing assaults against women in Germany where they were living under asylum. This story was highly divisive, and also false. The purpose of the disinformation was to inflame the political division created in Germany about accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees and was then amplified specifically to stoke the same divisions in the rest of Western Europe and North America.
Disinformation stories are deliberately amplified from fringe or state-sponsored media into the global mainstream through social media platforms. Stories are developed with the intention of being re-broadcast by other, more trustworthy outlets. Social media bots amplify the story—often in multiple languages—with the specific intent of catching the attention of other media outlets (sometimes fringe themselves) in the hopes of amplifying the story. With each successive amplification, the story moves further from the false source and closer to the mainstream.
Disinformation can be directed at any political issue—war, taxes, social policies, political campaigns, crime and justice, environmental policy—to achieve the desired effect.
Why Does it Matter Now?
The ability to confuse public perception and undermine a shared understanding of what is true and what is not is why disinformation matters now. Without a shared understanding of facts, governments face major challenges in rallying public support for policy decisions and to defend those decisions through democratic processes. Disinformation challenges truth itself and limits the policy choices a government can make. This is vitally important when it comes to questions of global peace and security.
This is the context through which we should view news about the war in Ukraine. There is a lot of information that is true. Videos of combat action, alleged human rights abuses, people fleeing violence and statements made by world leaders are all supported by genuine video—either from those experiencing it or from news media crews. These things can be verified by viewing the source video and comparing them to public statements. However, there is a great deal of disinformation in the media ecosystem. Old videos re-labelled as new, violence attributed to a different party than the one that actually committed it or allegations that are not supported by evidence are all intended to distract from other material. This kind of material is used to confuse the issue by providing a cacophony of other material to distract from factual reporting.
What Can We Do About it?
Disinformation relies on our assumption that the media tells us the truth. This is not a new tool in international politics, but it has been accelerated by the growth of digital technology. NATO national security and defence organizations already view disinformation as a threat; though doctrine, training and capability development is not keeping pace with the threat. Training on information operations should focus on understanding how adversaries use disinformation, who they are targeting, with what messaging and what effect they are trying to achieve. As mentioned earlier, disinformation is a deliberate process. Training for disinformation can help us unravel the intention, target and likely outcomes the authors and spreaders of disinformation are seeking to achieve.
Calian develops and delivers large-scale, multi-agency exercises for miliary, public safety and utilities operators. We have delivered disinformation components for military exercises, for domestic major event security and for nuclear power generation exercises ranging from coordinated campaigns across all media channels to limited disinformation activities on key issues. Exercising the information domain provides a highly realistic simulation of the contemporary information space for exercise participants.
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