Nature has an essay up by a disinformation researcher, who wants us to know that disinformation is usually partially true, and mostly spread by people who don’t realize it – even me, even you:
Perhaps the most common misconception is that disinformation is simply false information. If it were, platforms could simply add ‘true’ and ‘false’ labels, a tactic that has often been suggested. But disinformation often layers true information with false — an accurate fact set in misleading context, a real photograph purposely mislabelled. The key is not to determine the truth of a specific post or tweet, but to understand how it fits into a larger disinformation campaign.
Another misconception is that disinformation stems mainly from agents producing false content (paid ‘trolls’) and automated accounts (‘bots’) that promote it. But effective disinformation campaigns involve diverse participants; they might even include a majority of ‘unwitting agents’ who are unaware of their role, but who amplify and embellish messages that polarize communities and sow doubt about science, mainstream journalism and Western governments.
This strategy goes back decades. It was laid out most explicitly by Lawrence Martin-Bittman, who defected from Czechoslovakia to the West in 1968 and became a prominent academic (L. Bittman The KGB and Soviet Disinformation; 1985). Historically, manipulating journalists was a primary strategy. Now, social-media platforms have given voice to new influencers and expanded the range of targets. We see authentic members of online communities become active contributors in disinformation campaigns, co-creating frames and narratives.
Perhaps the most confusing misconception is that the message of a campaign is the same as its goals. On a tactical level, disinformation campaigns do have specific aims — spreading conspiracy theories claiming that the FBI staged a mass-shooting event, say, or discouraging African Americans from voting in 2016. Often, however, the specific message does not matter. I and others think that the pervasive use of disinformation is undermining democratic processes by fostering doubt and destabilizing the common ground that democratic societies require.
Perhaps the most dangerous misconception is that disinformation targets only the unsavvy or uneducated, that it works only on ‘others’. Disinformation often specifically uses the rhetoric and techniques of critical thinking to foster nihilistic scepticism.