By Douglas Todd | Published by the Vancouver Sun
Douglas Todd: Disinformation is coming to a screen near you, incessantly
It messes with the public’s mind. And it’s cropping up in ever more inventive and creepy ways in the internet age.
Disinformation is not subtle. It is more than rhetorical exaggeration or a heat-of-the-moment misrepresentation of the facts.
Disinformation is when agents of a foreign power place a story on an English-language website asserting that Pope Francis has endorsed
Donald Trump for U.S. president. And it’s when that site is made to look like an actual U.S. TV station, which it called “WSB Channel 9.”
That is propaganda of a high and invasive order. It messes with the public’s mind. And it’s cropping up in ever more inventive and creepy ways in the internet age.
Political commentator David Frum tells the story of one of the more notorious phoney news stories of the 2016 American presidential election campaign — the pope’s non-existent endorsement — to illustrate the deviousness of disinformation wars. They’re more bewildering and likely as dangerous, in a different way, as propaganda of the past. They’ve recently struck hard at the U.S., Britain and Ukraine and could be making their way into Canada.
Disinformation operations were plentiful in the 20th century, to be sure. Adolf Hitler started the Second World War after lying that Poland had invaded Germany, offering “proof” in the form of murdered men dressed in Nazi uniforms. The bullet-ridden bodies were those of prisoners dragged out of German concentration camps. Meanwhile, Imperial Japanese propaganda films were portraying its enemies in the West and East as decadent, tyrannical and cowardly.
“How is disinformation different today? Immediacy. Scale. Direct operation on public opinion,” says Frum, a Canadian-born thinker who wrote speeches for George W. Bush when he was president, serves as senior editor at The Atlantic and recently wrote Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic.
He will be one of three keynote speakers in Vancouver in early April for a Simon Fraser University conference titled Confronting the Disinformation Age.
“We also live in a time when established channels of communication are less trusted,” Frum said. “So some of the immunities we had against disinformation are weaker than they might have been in the past. People are less likely to believe their governments than they were in the 1960s and ’70s. And they are less likely to believe that sources of media have quality control.”
The story about Pope Francis backing Trump initially appeared on a crude website, which looked suspicious, Frum said. “But when the story re-appeared a second time it was on a site that was engineered to look like it was the website of a local TV station. And local TV is quite trusted in the United States, even more than it should be.”
SFU’s community summit, which runs from April 10 to 18 (go here for tickets), will focus on the growing distrust associated with the spread of false information — political, corporate or ideological — by digital technology.
The SFU event on April 16 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre will include the Victoria-raised Cambridge Analytica analyst, Chris Wylie, who last year blew the whistle on his company’s unauthorized possession of private data from 87 million Facebook users.
The Facebook profiles were misused to construct online political campaigns to manipulate voters during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Wylie’s company has also been linked to secretly promoting Britain’s Brexit campaign, and he had worked for Canada’s federal Liberal party. Wylie said he’s “incredibly remorseful” for helping to set up the company. “Nothing good has come from Cambridge Analytica.”
The SFU event will also feature Sue Gardner, former head of the Wikipedia Foundation and the new executive director of The Markup, a news site dedicated to investigating technology and its effect on society. Markup digs into the abuse of profiling software, internet “infections” like bots, ad scams and the fearsome reach of modern tech companies.
The people putting together Confronting the Disinformation Age feel the stakes are high. Frum believes the election of Trump and the game-changing British vote to leave the European Union would not have occurred if not for Russian disinformation.
Canada may not be hit as hard as the U.S., Britain and Ukraine by specific fake news attacks. But Frum says Canada is not immune to planted disinformation, particularly in its non-English language media.
Conference organizer Landon Hoyt cited recent examples of disinformation in Canada, including a false newspaper report that refugees in Eastern Canada were slaughtering goats in their hotel room. Another media outlet, Hoyt pointed out, maintains that automatic bots appear to be rapidly disseminating the tweets of Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
‘Disinformation is a weapon of the weak’
It’s not a coincidence the thorny subject of disinformation is linked most strongly to Russia.
The word “disinformation” is borrowed from the Russian term, dezinformatsiya, derived from the title of a KGB propaganda department. The Soviet regime excelled at it. Operation Infektion in the 1980s, for instance, was a disinformation campaign run by the KGB to spread the false news that the U.S. invented HIV/AIDS.
Spurred on by President Vladimir Putin, a former spy, thousands of Russian trolls have for years been scouring the internet, sowing deceitful tales of division. And Russian TV has told wild lies about nationalists in Ukraine, including that a child was crucified by Ukrainian neo-Nazis.
“One of the reasons for the appeal of it is that disinformation is a weapon of the weak,” Frum said. Lies are tools employed by politicians, businesses and organizations that often lack clout, and today Russia is a second-tier power. Despite a population of 144 million, Russia’s economy is not much higher than that of Cascadia, the informal name for the West Coast region comprising B.C., Washington and Oregon.
Disseminating disinformation is cheap and relatively easy. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Frum quoted Timothy Snyder, author of The Road to Unfreedom, saying Russia’s annual budget for cyber-warfare is less than the price of a single American F-35 jet.
When Snyder asks us to consider which weapon has done more to shape world events, Frum answers, “Let’s put it this way: Between Brexit and the Trump presidency, those are pretty big wins” for disinformation.
Frum warns Canadians to be on the lookout for disinformation appearing in ever-growing non-English-language media in Canada, which can affect ethno-cultural groups, including Canada’s varied ethnic Chinese population of 1.7 million.
At a time when Canada’s ambassador to China, John McCallum, has been terminated for hosting a news conference about arrested Huawei executive Meng Wangzou that he directed exclusively to Chinese-language media, Frum said Canadian watchdogs should more closely watch non-English-language media outlets, since they can easily become forums for stories planted by China.
Researcher Anne-Marie Brady says China’s United Front propaganda agency is increasingly exploiting the internet and ethnic media outlets to influence the Chinese diaspora to support China, to co-opt the foreign elite and promote Beijing’s agenda. Last year, Taiwanese leaders charged Chinese agents with waging a disinformation campaign against Taiwan, which China covets, by spreading a viral message that Taiwan had failed to protect its own citizens in a typhoon.
In response to Weng’s arrest in Vancouver, the Chinese-language media has also alleged most Canadians feel in thrall of a rogue government and falsely claimed Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing is punishing the country by withdrawing his offer for Husky Oil.
“I worry about the possibility for the very authoritarian Chinese state to try to mislead or motivate Chinese diaspora communities by putting disinformation into Chinese-language media,” Frum said.
“People who are in one language community can be present to an information reality that their next-door neighbour, in another language community, doesn’t know. That can create opportunities for malicious actors to try to manipulate people.”
That said, Frum suggested the leaders of China, the world’s second largest economy, don’t have to rely to the same extent as weak Russia on disinformation campaigns — “because they have other instruments of power.”
‘Viral video moments are not reality’
Disinformation is not only a tool of nation-states. All sorts of self-interested people and groups spread falsehoods, including corrupt individuals, zealots, social movements and corporations.
Some ideological crusades, Frum said, can become so extreme that they venture into disinformation.
“I think one of the most effective and dangerous campaigns in our world is the campaign against vaccines,” he said. “People who are driven by fanaticism and ignorance, with no government behind them, have created a current that runs across a certain stream of reactionary politics. I don’t think the Russians waste their time on it. But it’s advanced by disinformation through social media.”
Disinformation sows confusion, division and antagonism, especially between ethno-cultural groups. The result is the citizenry cannot agree upon what is real and what is not.
What can we do to counteract disinformation?
The Liberal government announced in January that it’s shoring up Canada’s electoral system against foreign interference, while enhancing the country’s readiness to defend the democratic process from cyber threats. Critics, however, are warning the Liberals against showing partisanship in the process.
Following a recent amateur Covington school video that falsely convinced tens of millions of people that male Catholic students were deliberately antagonizing an Aboriginal drummer in Washington, D.C., Frum emphasized something else — that “individuals need to recognize that they are not only news consumers, but also news publishers.”
“Be aware that viral video moments are not reality,” Frum said. “Sometimes they are harmless fun, but often they are deliberately created to deceive and inflame.”
Everyone is vulnerable to disinformation, regardless of background and intelligence. An education, Frum said, does not necessarily inoculate us against digital disinformation slithering onto our monitors from Russia, China, Trump or true believers of the right or left.
Disinformation is “designed to appeal to our prejudices,” Frum said, making a plea for us to constantly probe for information sources that are worthy of trust. “Maybe the most useful thing educators can do is entice us all off our screens, and onto the page.”
Confronting the Disinformation Age with David Frum, Sue Gardner and Christopher Wylie
Where: Queen Elizabeth Theatre, 630 Hamilton St.
When: April 16 (7 to 9 p.m.)
Where to go for tickets: www.sfu.ca/publicsquare/tickets
This article was originally published by the Vancouver Sun on February 2, 2018.