People have been stretching the truth on the Internet for as long as the technology has been available. Most of the time, no harm is done. However, recently, we’ve seen governments from several countries actively spreading “fake news” in an effort to protect their reputation or discredit their opponents. Below, I’ll list the defining characteristics of government-sponsored disinformation campaigns and explain how a fundamental change is needed to limit the spread of “fake news” in the future.
Yes, I’m Serious
Unfortunately, government-sponsored disinformation campaigns are no longer a conspiracy theory; they’re a quietly accepted part of our daily lives. You don’t have to take my word for it; we have concrete evidence that Russian bots amplified pro-Trump messages in the lead-up to the 2016 election, and more recently, YouTube took down 200+ accounts that were consistently posting Chinese pro-government propaganda.
When we mention governmental disinformation campaigns, we’re not talking about vague soundbites from party politicians. We’re talking about multi-million dollar projects that sow discord using fake social media profiles, deliberately low-quality memes, and, in some cases, entire branches of the military. Ultimately, though, all of these projects have the same goal: changing or reinforcing a narrative while providing plausible deniability for the people behind the campaign.
How to Identify Government-Backed Disinformation
So, what are the telltale signs of a coordinated disinformation campaign? Often, you’ll see the same phrase, word-for-word, parroted across hundreds of social media accounts. Of course, politicians love a memorable slogan, so this alone isn’t an indicator of dishonesty.
The user profile, on the other hand, is everything. Do they follow far more people than follow them back? Is the account relatively new? Does the person post exclusively about politics? Do they appeal strongly to emotion or traditional values? If the answer to all of these is “yes,” the profile may well be a fake. Even reporting the account has little impact, though, since the organization behind the campaign likely has hundreds more ready to go.
A Radical Approach Is Needed to Stop the Spread of Fake News
It’s often said that we can stop fake news in its tracks by introducing mandatory fact-checking across social media. However, this is a gargantuan task that leaves platforms open to claims of selective censorship. Additionally, social media giants have proven time and again that they simply cannot be trusted to police themselves. While we can’t stop people from lying online, with an industry-wide shift towards user anonymity, we can limit their reach.
Previously, it had been the user’s responsibility to protect themselves online. This could by why Comparitech has found that VPNs are most commonly used in countries with strict online surveillance. We’re at a turning point, though, and are beginning to see a shift towards a privacy-by-default approach; for instance, there are popular web browsers that now come with VPN or DNS-over-HTTP functionality as standard. However, while this is an excellent starting point, we can always do more.
Imagine a world where, rather than collecting user data in bulk, browsers, websites and internet-facing applications strived to keep as little identifying information as possible. This would mean users were effectively untraceable by default. But how does this stop the spread of fake news? Simply, if you can’t tell which country a user is in, you can’t reliably target them with region-specific disinformation. In fact, if you don’t know which websites they visit or any of their browser information, you can’t even guarantee that the recipient will be able to read your ad.
Opponents might claim that these changes would make it more difficult to serve you relevant information, but ask yourself this: When was the last time you clicked an online ad? Even if it were possible to filter out every piece of propaganda (which it isn’t), our existing algorithm-driven advertising practices are incompatible with a privacy-first approach. Sooner or later, the data-aggregation bubble is going to burst; your company might as well get ahead of the curve.