How Disinformation Is Taking Over the World | NYT Opinion

How Disinformation Is Taking Over the World | NYT Opinion
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    It's time to fight back against disinformation.
    But these are the people leading the charge.
    "Can you please explain to us the difference
    between a bot and a troll?"
    "Is Twitter the same as what you do?"
    "You can look at a lot of gray hair
    and realize that my technology capabilities are
    very shallow."
    Not very encouraging, is it?
    But this isn't the first time the U.S. government has been
    asleep at the wheel on this.
    "Mr. Allen, how can we compete with
    this Communist propaganda?"
    You know now that Russia has been attacking
    the U.S. like this since the '50s,
    but did you know that for the first 30 years of that,
    no one in the U.S. government took it seriously?
    "There was not a very high awareness
    of disinformation or "active measures."
    So there was a tendency to want
    to keep the waters smooth."
    "They use all the means of communication."
    The thinking went, if you respond to a fake story,
    you dignify it.
    "I don't think we grasped it intellectually."
    Then, in 1980, a new cowboy rode into town.
    "Ronald Reagan — his point of view was we ought to be bold.
    We ought to tell the truth."
    [dramatic chords]
    "Truth ought to be put front and center,
    and that if somebody were speaking the opposite,
    we ought to expose it."
    "Get up!"
    "Presidents are very important."
    "To the danger of espionage is added active measures,
    designed to subvert and deceive,
    to disinform the public opinion upon which
    our democracies are built."
    Reagan created the Active Measures Working Group.
    You know, that government truth squad,
    which Kathleen Bailey led from 1985 to '87.
    "I came at the problem believing
    that I could grab the tiger by the tail
    and whirl it over my head.
    I was going to win."
    They brought down the AIDS myth —
    Operation Infection, one of the greatest disinformation
    campaigns ever created.
    Proof that the best defense against disinformation
    is exposing it.
    Well, actually, it's not that simple.
    " — and I know the government administer AIDS — "
    Decades later, surveys have found
    that millions of Americans still
    believe AIDS was cooked up by the U.S. government.
    The lie lives on in our music, on TV —
    "My parents believe the government created H.I.V.
    in a lab, and the C.I.A. spread it in the prisons
    to kill blacks and gays."
    — in comics, on YouTube, even in churches.
    " — weaponize pathogens to hit selected groups of humans."
    Fighting disinformation, it's like a nightmarish game
    of whack-a-mole.
    No matter what you do, the lies just keep popping up —
    " — biochemists create ethnospecific epidemics,
    injecting the public in clinics, then when — "
    — all of which makes us wonder,
    do we really stand a chance against disinformation?
    Or is this a virus that can never be cured?
    "It ain't little green monkeys,
    it's little white honkies, crossing bovine leukemia — "
    Mark Twain once said, "A lie is halfway around the world
    before the truth has even got its boots on."
    Except even that's a lie.
    That quote's been attributed to loads of people.
    But whoever said it was right.
    We know now empirically that lies
    do have an unfair advantage over the truth,
    spreading further and faster, gaining traction
    every time they're repeated.
    "Repetition is part of the game,
    and the more a bad story is repeated — repeated,
    repeated, repeated — the more real it becomes to everyone."
    But Twain's "around the world" part is also true.
    This is a global problem.
    In Iran, the government's deploying their own version
    of the Soviet playbook, calling their operation
    "nefak" which is Farsi for "discord."
    Myanmar's been brewing up endless conspiracy theories
    to justify ethnic cleansing.
    And in Pakistan, the establishment
    sees C.I.A. plots everywhere.
    That last one even ensnared one of our own journalists
    here at The New York Times —
    an experience that was so upsetting to him,
    it led him to make the film you're watching right now.
    Isn't that right, Adam?
    "That's right.
    I was living in Pakistan.
    Al Qaeda accused me of being part
    of a C.I.A. anti-Islam plot.
    See, conspiracy theories are kind of
    like a national sport over there.
    And even today, I still get blasted on Twitter
    for being either a C.I.A. spy or a dead terrorist."
    A dead terrorist?
    "One of the country's most popular TV talk
    show hosts accused me of being one
    of the attackers in a school massacre
    that murdered dozens of children.
    Here I am, dead, in the Pakistani press.
    But this stuff is kind of normal over there.
    I mean, it happens all the time.
    What I never imagined is that we'd
    be seeing this kind of toxic disinformation
    here at home in the States."
    So is there anything we can do?
    "I think so.
    I also used to live in Eastern Europe."
    [polka music]
    "Estonia, Ukraine — they lag behind us in many things.
    But when it comes to fighting disinformation,
    there's so much we can learn from them."
    For instance, if you turn on the TV in Latvia
    on a Sunday night, you'll see this.
    A prime-time show all about Russian lies.
    In the same slot where we'd be watching
    "American Idol," folks in Riga are tuning in to watch
    the latest disinformation be systematically described,
    debunked and destroyed.
    It's not just Latvia.
    Ukraine has a bilingual stop-fake-news show broadcast
    by dozens of TV stations.
    "Disinformation never stops, and neither do we.
    Welcome to "Stop Fake," the place where — "
    The Czech government monitors disinformation
    as a form of terrorism.
    Lithuania has thousands of volunteer cyber-warriors —
    they call them elves —
    who relentlessly troll the Russian trolls.
    And in Estonia, there's a kind of digital national guard —
    thousands of volunteers who, among other things,
    fight disinformation.
    "The countries that have been exposed to this the longest
    are the best at dealing with it.
    They see things we don't see.
    They smell things we don't smell."
    Meanwhile back here, we're just
    learning the hard way what happens
    when we don't fight back.
    "The Pizzagate conspiracy — no journalist
    was going to actively debunk that because they
    didn't think that anybody truly believed that.
    We now know that they did, and actually it
    seems that we should have done more coverage
    during the election that there was a rumor circulating,
    and let's debunk it."
    So this is the prescription, right?
    Media literacy.
    Engaged citizens rallying around good journalism
    to create a culture of critical thinking.
    Ah, who are we kidding?
    Media literacy is great and all,
    but we need something way stronger.
    And for that, we've got to talk about the responsibility
    of this guy.
    "Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube —
    they were designed primarily by a group
    of quite young people, mostly men, on the West Coast
    of the U.S., in Silicon Valley."
    "I think there's a lot of people who went into the tech
    industry because they were very, very good at tech, not
    because they were good at civics or political science."
    "And they really believed that they were building technology
    that would connect the world and would actually
    be a positive force in society."
    Well, naivety eventually morphed into flat-out denial.
    "Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth — "
    The platforms have spent years shamefully
    ignoring information warfare.
    "The ads and posts we are here today to discuss — "
    " — the number of accounts we could link to Russia — "
    " — relatively limited."
    " — comparatively small — "
    "We're a very small fraction of the overall content
    on Facebook."
    "There's still a level of astonishing,
    kind of political and cultural illiteracy
    where they think connecting people is good."
    So what exactly are they supposed to be doing?
    Well, there's no silver bullet,
    but there are a ton of ideas for things
    they could be doing, from improving transparency —
    " — about who's paying for posts."
    — to fighting anonymity —
    "Is there a real person behind this account?
    Is there a real person behind this platform?"
    — to helping us know whether we can trust what
    we're reading —
    " — a nutritional label on sources in your Google Search
    findings — "
    — and getting serious about punishing violators.
    "We didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibility,
    and that was a big mistake.
    And it was my mistake, and I'm sorry."
    Now, companies like Facebook have recently
    been taking some baby steps along these lines —
    — but don't get your hopes up.
    Social media platforms are dependent
    on the emotional hyperpartisan stories that
    make great disinformation.
    The bottom line —
    [cash register]
    — their business models are riddled
    with perverse incentives.
    "If I am Twitter, and I have shareholders to keep happy,
    and I have to go back to my shareholders
    and tell them how many active monthly users I have,
    and the truth is that 22 percent of them are not human,
    I don't actually want to tell my shareholders that.
    I want to give them a lovely big number that
    means that we still have value and that we still
    make money."
    And that's the problem — asking just isn't enough.
    We've got to force the platforms to change.
    And that means regulation.
    That's right.
    It's time for Uncle Sam to get in the game.
    The problem is, Uncle Sam knows
    how to mobilize when we get attacked like this,
    but when the warfare is digital, well, you know —
    "There are days when I wonder if the Facebook friends is
    a little misstated.
    It doesn't seem like I have those every single day."
    "How many data categories do you store —
    does Facebook store?"
    "Senator, can you clarify what you mean by data categories?"
    These are the people who are supposed to be protecting you
    from information warfare.
    "Do you store any?"
    "Senator, I'm not actually sure what
    that is referring to."
    So I've testified five times to the Senate,
    either about terrorism or Russian active measures.
    There is a very diverse level of understanding
    of social media."
    " — have people say, well, yeah,
    because my 13-year-old son,
    you should see how he uses it."
    "Now, my son, Charlie, who's 13,
    is dedicated to Instagram, so — "
    "I feel very fortunate that I have not
    had to go to the House to testify.
    I think it would be a giant waste of time."
    " — to disinform the public opinion upon which
    our democracies are built."
    History tells us that the fight against disinformation
    starts with strong leadership.
    And I've got to to tell you, we've
    been let down on this for a long time.
    Now, I'm not talking about him just yet.
    I'm talking about him.
    "Americans and Russians share common interests
    that form a basis for cooperation."
    "It was really hard to get the Obama administration
    to take Russia seriously as an issue."
    "We could have looked at sanctions earlier.
    We could have talked about measured
    cyber-counterattacks, or even diplomatic negotiations.
    But that didn't really happen.
    The Obama administration kind of got played into a box
    by recognizing it too late."
    Obama actually signed an executive order
    to counter foreign disinformation,
    but he was so obsessed with the threat
    from ISIS, its mandate only covered terror groups.
    State actors, like Russia, were
    free to carry on unimpeded.
    To his credit, Trump actually reversed this,
    and some people in his administration
    are talking tough.
    "Russia is known for its disinformation campaigns."
    But the higher up you go, let's just say,
    the less enthusiasm there is.
    "The point is, if it's their intention to interfere,
    they're going to find ways to do that.
    We can take steps we can take, but this is something
    that once they decide they're going to do it,
    it's very difficult to pre-empt it."
    So what has been done?
    Well, Congress put aside $120 million
    to fund our defense against disinformation.
    The Trump administration sat on it silently for 18 months.
    And when they did release it, they gave just a third of it.
    Not much of a counterstrike, is it?
    I mean, where's the urgency here?
    These Russian attacks were first plotted way back
    in early 2014, and we're only now coming
    to grips with them.
    "We are still playing catch-up from a long way behind.
    We are looking in the rearview mirror,
    getting less bad at working out
    what Russia just did to us.
    We're still not looking through the windshield,
    find out what's happening right now
    and what's going to be happening next."
    This is one of the great unsolved policy
    questions of our time.
    A functioning government would at least
    come together to publish full detailed reports of all
    these attacks.
    But the problem isn't just our lackluster government.
    It's actually much scarier than that,
    because now the threat is coming
    from inside the White House.
    It's finally time to meet President Disinformation.
    [dramatic music]
    Donald Trump is a one-man wrecking crew for the truth,
    and he knows all the moves.
    First, there's Trump the denier.
    And when it comes to disinformation,
    he even denies we're being attacked.
    "And if it is Russia, which is probably not.
    Nobody knows who it is."
    Never mind what his own officials say.
    " — that information, manipulation,
    outright lies — "
    " — literally upped their game to the point where
    it's having a significant impact."
    Then there's Trump the useful idiot.
    This is a man who's never met a conspiracy
    theory he wouldn't tweet.
    "Why doesn't he show his birth certificate?
    You look at what's happening last night in Sweden —
    The same person votes many times.
    You've probably heard about that.
    They always like to say, oh, that's a conspiracy theory.
    Not a conspiracy theory, folks."
    We also know he shared stories originally planted
    by the Kremlin.
    I mean, not even the KGB could have dreamt up
    a useful idiot as prominent and powerful
    as Trump and his administration.
    And then there's Trump the disinformation natural.
    He doesn't just regurgitate this stuff,
    he invents his own.
    "It was the biggest Electoral College
    win since Ronald Reagan.
    I said, wait a minute.
    There's a lot of wiretapping being talked about.
    We've signed more bills —
    and I'm talking about through the legislature —
    than any president.
    ICE, they actually liberate towns.
    They liberate towns.
    We have become an energy exporter for the first time
    ever just recently."
    It's weird, but this is somehow
    worse than the Cold War.
    Back then it was just us versus them.
    But now it's us versus them, and us versus us.
    [sad music]
    Here's the thing about democracies —
    they can't function unless we all agree
    on a basic set of facts.
    We can't debate anything — health care, immigration,
    gun control —
    unless we're aligned — left and right — about what
    is actually true.
    Disinformation pollutes those waters, confusing us,
    so we end up debating facts instead of
    discovering solutions.
    And as we spiral downwards together,
    our adversaries applaud from behind the curtain.
    And here's the kicker.
    The things that make democracy good,
    living in an open society with a free press
    and political diversity, those are the things —
    weirdly — that make us vulnerable.
    Any country with an authoritarian leader
    and limited freedom of speech, they're
    the ones with the advantage right now,
    which kind of raises the question that maybe
    only history can answer.
    Can the good guys ever win?
    "You absolutely never win.
    "This problem is going to get a lot worse before it
    gets any better."
    "The next few years are going to be worse
    than the last few years."
    "And they will continue using it,
    regardless of what we say here in the discussion,
    regardless of the outcome of the discussion
    and investigation."
    "But we will not always be losers in this game.
    There will be victories here and there.
    It's only when we quit the game, quit trying
    to expose them, that we lose.
    As long as we can expose them, they're losing."
    It's like an exhausting never-ending game
    of whack-a-mole that we've got no choice but to play.
    We've got to find disinformation
    as best we can, whenever and wherever
    it rears its ugly head.
    We're in this for the long haul,
    whether we like it or not.
    "This was the largest audience to ever witness
    an inauguration, period."
    " — in the mysterious murder of former D.N.C. staffer Seth
    "And they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green
    " — who apparently was assassinated at 4
    in the morning."
    "The president still strongly feels
    that there was a large amount of voter fraud."
    "The 9/11 hijackers are alive and well."
    "People who are behaving like actors."
    "The murder rate in our country
    is the highest it's been in 47 years."
    "You had the NATO base in Turkey being under attack
    by terrorists."
    "This is the greatest overreach and the greatest
    abuse of power — "
    "This video that you linked to appears to be a hoax."
    "All we did was put out what he had on his internet."
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