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What the Elections Taught Us About Disinformation

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Pro Trump protesters

What is new is the speed disinformation travels, and the number of bad actors or chaos agents responsible for the manipulation.

We will remember 2020 for a lot of things, and disinformation is one of them. Leading disinformation researcher Dr. Joan Donovan describes this year as “challenging, not only because of the pandemic, but also because a sitting president has refused to accept the outcome of the election.” From Trump’s false claims of voter fraud to conspiracy theories about deep state pedophilia, from disinformation about COVID origins and cures to white domestic terror groups blaming racial justice activists for violence, we know that rising disinformation can be a life or death matter.

Disinformation spiked heading into the elections. Some of it was designed to dissuade people from voting and some was targeted specifically at Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Much of it targeted Black, Latinx and other communities of color, and aimed to cause racial discord among them.

As organizers we know that disinfo isn’t new. It has been called by other names: propaganda, opposition attacks, stereotypes triggered by dog whistles. We also know that disinformation relies on age-old narratives to spread in new ways. For example, voter fraud disinfo relies on old narratives about Black and brown criminality. Birtherism disinfo about Harris leveraged narratives of white nationalism, anti-Blackness, misogyny, and the essential foreignness of Asians to stoke fear among the electorate. Socialism disinfo piggybacked off both recent experiences with authoritarian leaders in Latin America and Cold War-era narratives that equate government regulation with dictatorship and nationalization of the economy. Narratives like these – entrenched for decades if not centuries – help explain why more than 72 million people voted for Trump after four miserable years under his administration.

What is new is the speed at which disinformation travels, and the number of bad actors or chaos agents responsible for the manipulation.

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This is the playing field on which disinformation and misinformation is spreading. So how do we combat it?

Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

We need to treat disinformation as a form of social control

Our analysis of power needs to incorporate disinformation as a form of soft, decentralized power and social control.

Disinformation now travels at the speed of the internet, and with governments, corporations, and new generations of digitally skilled chaos agents jumping on the bandwagon of data and information manipulation, we have to face disinformation as a rising form of social control. The pandemic has put more and more people across the globe online for more hours in the day, and has limited our access to trusted community sources of information that relied on in-person connections, such as church gatherings and neighborhood meetings.

In this context, disinformation is becoming more effective at generating chaos and seeding doubt in reality.

As a form of social control, disinformation is especially dangerous for three reasons: (1) unlike the disinfo or propaganda of the past, it can be difficult to determine the source of a particular stream of disinformation. For example, when Democrat-registered voters in Florida began receiving threatening emails from a Proud Boy account, speculation flew as to whether the emails were actually from the Proud Boys, or whether they were a hacker hoax. There is not always a clear adversary, and the adversary is not always part of a larger organized force. Today’s disinformation climate is one in which a multitude of chaos agents and bad actors operate. Regardless of the independence, affiliation, or intent of the source, most disinformation supports right-wing racist, misogynist, homophobic and xenophobic agendas. (2) The internet creates algorithm-driven echo chambers which track people into entire worlds of disinformation, where the majority of the material  in their feeds or in the groups they join might be false. (3) These disinformation echo chambers play a rising role in radicalizing the populist right wing – including its armed factions – and in recruiting unorganized people into its ranks.

We need new tools to neutralize new threats

We need new technology and infrastructure to support organizing-driven disinformation inoculation and larger narrative change.

While disinfo may be a new form of soft power, the battle against disinfo remains just one part of the larger battle for narrative change. Grassroots organizations and movements have long been drivers of forward-thinking frames like just transition and living wage. But we often wield these frames in our campaigns without much knowledge of how much traction they are gaining beyond our own echo chambers.

We need technology that helps us understand the larger picture of narrative battles in real time, and the role of disinformation within them.

For example, ReFrame and its sister c4 This is Signals are building new technology-assisted infrastructure to support organizing-driven narrative change. The approach is like doing a one-on-one organizing conversation on a giant scale. Adapted from Upwell, it combines machine intelligence with human intelligence to monitor the “narrative weather” and to track conversations over time. The tools used for machine intelligence scrape data from different platforms (for example: YouTube, Twitter, reddit, news sites, etc.) to yield broad trends such as spikes in conversation on topics like “police” or “socialism”. Then researchers apply human intelligence to hone in on the content of these conversations among specific audiences (for example: what Black elders 65-80 years old were saying about police after George Floyd was murdered, or what Venezuelans on the right versus the left were saying about socialism in the month before the presidential election). Taken together, these methods let us aggregate what people are saying and where they are saying it. This helps us identify what is resonating and what isn’t with different audiences in moments across time.

Just like in any good one-on-one we listen 70 percent of the time and inject content to test 30 percent of the time. The ultimate goal is to equip organizers with the research they need to respond to conversations in real time, to help our messages break out of our small echo chambers and into wider public debates.

Florida was one of the battlegrounds that tested this technology and infrastructure during this election season. You name the disinfo stream, it was probably circulating in Florida. Organizers were particularly worried that disinformation that labeled Biden’s platform as socialist would suppress votes from Cuban, Venezuelan and Colombian communities or would turn undecided voters over to Trump. They were also worried about disinformation targeting the integrity of the voting process. They believed that disinfo about vote by mail fraud would keep Black voters, familiar with targeted voter suppression, from exercising their right to vote. Florida voters were also the first targets of the email hoax that threatened Democratic party voters with violence if they didn’t switch their votes to Trump – voter intimidation initially pegged to the Proud Boys but found to be caused by Iranian hackers.

This is Signals set up a narrative command center for Florida organizers to identify and track disinfo and other narrative trends, and provided them with information on how big or small a storm was brewing. The narrative command center integrated research briefings and strategy clinics into existing statewide organizing and communications infrastructure, which groups like New Florida Majority, Central Florida Jobs with Justice, Dream Defenders and others had been building for more than two years.

As Jonathan Alingu of Florida for All explains, “We weren’t thinking about disinfo until October, but we needed to be thinking about it much earlier. We had a system in place and were ready to go, so it was easier to integrate narrative research and disinfo into this.”

Alingu and others helped feed the narrative weather information provided by This is Signals to the different constituency tables that made up the Florida for All campaign. Through those tables, narrative research could be translated into constituency-specific messaging and content.

Natalia Jaramillo, communications director for Florida for All, said the real-time narrative research was critical to the way that content got developed for specific constituencies. Both Jaramillo and Alingu lift up the interface of tailored narrative research and constituency tables as a best practice.

“Yes let’s have our content banks and messaging guides, and in real time we need the ingredients to adapt and tailor messages in real time to different constituencies,” Alingu says.

“We tried to feed the research into spokesperson prep and media appearances,” says Jaramillo. “We have to invest in infrastructure that allows us to be more spot on and respond to the emerging conversations, and that doesn’t treat communities as a monolith.”

Florida did not turn blue this election, and Jaramillo attributes some of this to disinformation. “In Latinx communities, disinformation absolutely had an impact on voter behavior. Equis Labs research has shown that a lot of Latin American voters were afraid of the socialism disinformation. It’s a conversation that we lost.”

But not all was lost, says Alingu. “We actually prevented a landslide for Trump. There

were a lot of circumstances out of our control including the Democratic Party not doing anything to push back against all the claims of socialism.”

This an example of how we need all hands on deck to push back on high-traction disinfo in order to create new narrative space. By neglecting to confront widespread disinformation about socialism head on – by not “poking the bear,” so to speak – we lose no less than the opportunity to name the progressive economy and governance that most people actually want.

Bring disinfo awareness into organizing

We must integrate disinformation awareness into ongoing organizing work. Disinformation is here to stay, and it will continue to affect our communities and campaigns. Rather than fight it in bits and spurts, or after damage is already done, organizers can mount a steady pushback against disinformation using tools that already exist.

In Minnesota, ISAIAH and Faith in Minnesota are taking a “strong offense is the best defense” approach to disinformation. Communications Director JaNaé Bates says they first and foremost train staff and members to use their own “spidey senses” and deeply held values to detect disinfo designed to harm their communities. Specifically, ISAIAH and Faith in Minnesota have used the race-class narrative to train organizers, influencers and member leaders in how to recognize racist dog-whistles, and how to subvert and respond to them effectively. They also teach stakeholders how to not unintentionally spread disinformation.

For example, Faith in Minnesota along with statewide partners started a newsletter called Repugnant, which features a pug dog who alerts members to disinformation and racially coded dog whistles. One of the issues was called “Don’t use the F word” and advised readers to avoid repeating the word “fraud” at all costs when talking about voting, even when trying to debunk claims of voter fraud.

In Florida, Natalia Jaramillo explains how Florida for All integrated disinfo listening and response into canvassing and phone banking: “We created a channel in Slack for messaging and this became a direct line for volunteer phone bankers to report on disinfo they were hearing from the people they called and texted. Then we did in-depth work with canvassers to provide them with fact-based talking points for one-on-ones.”

And here’s the way Jonathan Alingu is thinking about future integration: “We need to incorporate disinfo research into opposition planning and support members in critical thinking. We also need to look at information voids and make sure we’re communicating with people to fill those voids, because otherwise what fills those voids is disinformation.”

In Arizona, where decades of organizing against right-wing anti-immigrant policies helped lead to the surge that turned the state blue, organizers at LUCHA are planning for the long haul. As LUCHA Democracy Director Randy Perez puts it, “With so much manufactured disinformation coming from the right targeted at Black, brown, indigenous communities to suppress our voices and votes, we know that the fight against disinformation is long term and requires thoughtful organizing, relationship building, and identifying which tools are best to combat these attacks.”

A first step is for organizers to build a foundation of disinfo literacy among the base like Bates is doing in Minnesota. You can do this by incorporating tools from the Disinfo Defense Toolkit, and other tools from any of the contributing organizations, into your member meetings and trainings. Another first step is to begin integrating disinfo listening and response into your campaigns, as Jaramillo and Alingu are planning to do. You can use this START tool to help.

Tell stories that engage feelings

We need to up the emotional content of our storytelling. While we can’t just fight disinformation with content, no matter how constituency-specific it may be, we can make sure that the content we do create has more impact. Disinformation travels faster than factual information in part because of sensationalism, which activates people to share out of deep emotional impulses like fear and excitement. Disinformation streams give new emotional urgency to old narratives and thrive in voids of clear, factual and equally emotional information. So our content must engage feelings, focusing on movement-building emotions like joy, rage, humor and pride. Examples of this include the Movement for Black Lives’ GOTV content and victory video.

It takes a movement

We need a movement approach to combatting disinformation. While we integrate the fight against disinfo into organizing, we also need to combine forces with others: those who are running large-scale campaigns to hold platforms like Facebook and Twitter accountable, educating and organizing journalists, and building networks of trusted messengers, disruptors and meaning makers across all sectors of society (see our Movement Framework for Disinformation Response). It will take a whole ecosystem response, as well as implementing visions for community controlled platforms, to combat disinfo in more than just the whack-a-mole or “the more you know, the more you know” approach that dominates now.

As Dr. Joan Donovan says, “While I know the pandemic will end, or at least we will manage it through treatment and vaccines, I do not know how misinformation-at-scale will be slowed without a similar whole-of-society approach.”

The Disinformation Defense League has been a source of many of these lessons. The League was started earlier this year by The Media and Democracy Action Fund to fill a void in the larger disinformation field, and to focus specifically on disinfo targeting communities of color heading into the 2020 election. This formation is an important one for organizers to learn from and through which organizers can help develop a movement response that situates disinformation within a larger understanding of power.

“The great thing about an election is it forces you to look with clear eyes at the country you’re living in. It brings every social force out into play,” Max Elbaum said in a recent interview on KPFA. “We just got a good hard look at the country we’re living in. And if we’re going to change this country, we have to understand it.”

The same goes for combatting disinformation and shifting narratives toward a new common sense based on justice. If we’re going to neutralize disinformation and change the conversation, we have to understand both terrains – not just through an information-gathering approach, but through the lens of power-building.

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