Disinformation in the Digital Age

Chaos, Confusion, and Lack of Stability.


Tracy Le Blanc via Pexels

Disinformation has run rampant across all forms of social media, including Facebook.

Delnaz Kazemi, Reporter

Disinformation is the greatest threat to our nation’s stability. Looking at the origins of conspiracy theories and how they have spread, it always has lead back to manipulated information. It becomes far more sinister when a foreign adversary sees an opportunity to sway public opinion and takes it.

The 2016 presidential campaign season was intense, but one aspect of it that was overlooked, ignored, and quickly forgotten, was the large number of disinformation campaigns found everywhere, reaching people through social media platforms, especially Facebook.

Looking back, experts have agreed that they underestimated the power that disinformation during the digital age can have. An individual, group, or government could create some sort of campaign filled with fear tactics and false claims. That information could reach millions within minutes. It’s terrifyingly easy.

‘The Great Hack,’ a Netflix documentary about Cambridge Analytica’s role in collecting people’s data in enormous amounts, and how that data assisted them in electing certain candidates and leading certain campaigns, describes clearly a couple specific campaigns that were aimed at swaying people’s opinions. Not just any people, though. They are called “persuadables,’ people who may have voted sometimes, but don’t have strong stances and could be easily swayed through manipulation or through emotional triggers. Cambridge Analytica, using the Facebook platform, could decide who is a persuadable and who isn’t, through behavioral data by tracking user’s activity.

When targeting persuadables, there were a few deciding factors: how they voted, how strong their opinions were and how much they paid attention to current events were all considered. They also predicted how likely a group of Facebook users were to believing, or even becoming slightly interested in, conspiracy theories.

That belief may have been the ultimate decider of whether to classify a user as a “persuadable.”

Cambridge Analytica was only one entity that assisted in spreading false claims that would have an effect in the outcome of the presidential election. Numerous campaigns and individuals participated in this constant flow of false information leading up to the 2016 election.

Certain campaigns were targeted toward minority groups who their system guessed could be persuaded. The campaign essentially told them not to vote by pushing the narrative that not voting would be a symbol of protest against the so-called “corrupt system.”

U.S. officials have also found that Russia’s Internet Research Agency was involved with spreading similar disinformation during the 2016 campaign season, with goals to sway public opinion. Russia directly targeted minority groups with bogus campaigns filled with lies and baseless claims that were being thrown at the targets on a regular basis.

The IRA was indicted by the US in 2018 due to their efforts to manipulate election results.

According to the indictment, the IRA was tracking trends in the U.S. dating back to 2014. Two of the defendants mentioned also travelled to states such as Nevada, California, and New Mexico. Another defendant travelled to Atlanta. They claimed that they were traveling for personal reasons.

Another part of the indictment states that the IRA began create social media accounts, mostly on Twitter, claiming to be a legitimate person or organization. One account went by the handle, @TEN_GOP. This account appeared to be run by Tennessee’s Republican Party. In reality, it was being run straight from Russia by the IRA and reached about 100,000 followers. (These claims are mentioned on #36 in the report)

In the indictment, it is mentioned that the IRA, through their online social media operations, “tracked the size of the online U.S. audiences reached through posts, different types of engagement with the posts (such as likes, comments, and reposts), changes in audience size, and other metrics.” They also “received and maintained metrics reports on certain group pages and individualized posts.” (These claims are mentioned on #37 in the report)

The 2016 campaign season was a perfect example of what some would call a “disinformation op,” when looking at the way that false claims were so quickly spread on the dates leading up to the presidential election.

Very similarly, false claims were spread during the 2020 campaign season as well. This time, it came straight from political figures, including former President Donald Trump. The attempts of spreading disinformation were much less discreet, simply because it was easier to grasp voters, after years of continuous lies. Claims about how votes would be counted, lies about opponents, about how international relations would look like if one side wins and more. With these false claims hanging over voters’ heads, fear and hate were at a high point.

Another example of disinformation twisting facts during a crisis is the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost immediately, conspiracy theories began to spread from powerful people, to bots on social media. These conspiracy theories completely distorted the facts put out by officials and experts. Conspiracy theories all have one thing in common. They feed into people’s fears. Some may already be concerned about government interference. With that, those with bad intentions can use that concern to their own advantage and create distrust within communities and the nation.

Similar conspiracy theories were going around in African nations during the Ebola outbreak.

Although disinformation on digital platforms is more recent, similar tactics and strategies have been used for years – just in other forms.

After analyzing history and recent reports (or even after just keeping up with current events), we can determine that the attack on the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 was also the result of years of disinformation.

Chaos, uncertainty, and lack of stability. That is what citizens of a nation experience when disinformation is flowing through easily accessed ports, such as social media.


Further Reading:

Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election

The Great Hack: The Film That Goes Behind the Scenes of the Facebook Data Scandal

The Great Hack Documentary | Netflix

Internet Research Agency Indictment (DOJ) 

AP FACT CHECK: Trump’s vote falsehoods, into day of defeat

Trump’s lies about the election show how disinformation erodes democracy – The Conversation

Disinformation and Disease: Social Media and the Ebola Epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – Council on Foreign Relations

Russian Efforts Against Election Infrastructure

FRONTLINE: Ebola Outbreak