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Intellect

Challenges and myths: How do we combat disinformation?

Haroon K. Ullah, Chief Strategy Officer for the United States Agency for Global Media, spoke at BYU on Monday about the online information battlefield.

Speaking of disinformation, Ullah said, “This has become the main way to influence, control public opinion, undercut movements. It is to maintain power.”

Ullah’s lecture addressed that power, debunking three common myths about how and why disinformation is spread.

Myth #1: Extremists that use social media to spread propaganda are using disinformation to sell a dark narrative.

Contrary to what many in the West believe, extremists do not primarily use social media to share negative messages, Ullah said.

Western audiences believe this myth because extremist groups use sophisticated audience segmentation. English-speaking audiences hear one thing, while other audiences hear another, said Ullah.

Up to 80% of content shared by groups like ISIS is positive. They ask questions like “How do we improve governments?” and then drive wedges around legitimate grievances their audiences already have.

Myth #2: Both state actors and non-state actors are creating a market for disinformation.

They are not creating a market for disinformation, Ullah said. The market already exists and these actors are exploiting existing demographics and existing grievances.

Ullah shared some demographics vulnerable to disinformation, which includes populations with low media literacy; youth under age 25; ethnic, language or religious minorities; supporters of far-right ideologies; army and former military; and elderly people nostalgic for “the great past.”

The goal of sharing disinformation with these groups is to drive behavioral change, said Ullah. The process starts online, but the action moves offline into protests, votes, etc.

Myth #3: More technology is the solution to disinformation.

While technology can be positive, it isn’t necessarily the solution to disinformation, said Ullah.

“Social media in a lot of ways is a neutral platform. It can be used by any side,” he said.

One reason technology cannot provide solutions is that the most influential people online are not posting extreme content. They do not violate terms of service. They post messages that are subtle and contain disinformation in their subtext.

Countering Disinformation

There are solutions to disinformation. The United States Agency for Global Media is working on a variety of ways to combat it. The three most effective ways Ullah has seen are:

  1. Live news reporting in small markets. In places where disinformation flourishes, they don’t have live news. Everything is tape-delayed, often for translation. That’s how information is controlled. To combat that, stream live reporting. It will undercut narratives.
  2. Establishing news integrity. People become disengaged because they become overwhelmed by what to do about fake news. People are hungry (especially in small language markets like Armenian) for news integrity, so if they can trust news sources, disinformation is less likely to spread.
  3. Language-based models for news. Most news models are country-based, but looking at language abilities changes the maps and changes how to approach markets. If media outlets look at language strategies, they can realize new ways to segment audiences.

Ullah concluded by saying, “It’s our job to educate ourselves on disinformation and then enter the arena [to fight it].”

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