November 16, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Normalizing Misinformation on Social Media

• While the use of misinformation as a weapon is nothing new, the speed and breadth of current misinformation operations through social media is unprecedented.

• These misinformation operations are both state-sponsored or encouraged, as well as grassroots in nature.

• The challenges societies face in thoughtfully addressing speed-of-light misinformation designed to create mistrust across a spectrum of issues are immense.

• The global spread of online information has not resulted in a golden age of accessible knowledge, but rather created echo chambers of entrenched confirmation biases.

Social media has created enormous opportunities and changed the nature of communication, but the unprecedented distribution of information and misinformation via social media has also exacerbated global instability and crises. While addressing global crises has always been complicated, the proliferation of social media has made even the baseline facts of many of today’s global challenges utterly resistant to consensus. From large-scale crises such as international efforts to address the conflict in Syria or the geopolitical stressors threatening to unravel the EU, to more isolated issues such as the July 2014 downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine, the actors involved have not only become increasingly unable to cooperate to address the issues, but also increasingly unable to agree on what actually happened. 

Indeed, many of the undeniable positives of the social media age have been eroded to a degree by how people have responded to an endless stream of ‘facts’. The self-selecting nature of Twitter follows and Facebook friends has done more than create echo chambers of similar opinions and relationships; it has created an ‘us versus them’ dynamic that encourages strong confirmation bias. 

With a greater percentage of people getting their ‘news’ from self-selected social media feeds, the traditional means for large-scale media to build the social awareness necessary to effect societal change has become less effective. Rather than providing users with access to a broad array of information, for many users, social media serves more to spread false awareness used both to encourage one group and discourage or defame another. In the U.S., the process of living in an information bunker while sending out weapons of misinformation has largely fallen along partisan lines, but even that line is blurring. Issues such as nationalism, populism, globalism, racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and other extremism feed off each other while fending off counter-arguments and facts.

This becomes an issue of geopolitical instability and insecurity not only because of the divisive nature of the varied realities social media facilitates, but also because state actors can easily amplify this trend. Social media offers states with deniability for information manipulation. The deniability of state-encouraged disruptive social media campaigns comes from the very nature of the medium used to spread the message. By sowing doubt about any fact on the Internet through tactics of blatant lies, doctored images, and never admitting fault, countries such as Russia and their proxies have made ‘proof’ nearly irrelevant. The social media age has become one of permanent and relentlessly reinforced first impressions that are nearly impossible to correct with the truth. 

The result of so many warring realities among divided populations is that the governments that represent these populations become equally unable to reach consensus on solutions. This issue is particularly striking the democratic world, where the free flow of information is a necessary component of democracy, regardless of accuracy or biases. Governments and societies will continue to struggle to address the attractiveness and ubiquity of misinformation that confirms what is already believed. The implications of segments of society not only holding differing beliefs and ideologies, but differing ‘factual’ accounts of world events altogether, will make reaching the large-scale consensus required to meaningfully address global crises even more daunting of a task.


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