Winning the misinformation war is like playing a game of ‘whack-a-troll’

To break a wishbone, you can’t just pull on one side. Someone needs to tug on the other, too. The same could be said for exploiting fissures in a country’s cultural fabric; it’s much more effective to go after both the right and the left.

That’s one of the main points Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center, makes in her new book, How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict. When foreign actors use social media to pass around inflammatory memes, videos, and articles, they don’t need to create divisions. There are already plenty of them to work with.

In the book, Jankowicz closely follows what she calls “influence operations” in Poland, Georgia, Ukraine, and other countries. The attacks may have started in Russia, but to succeed the country’s citizens needed to believe. In Estonia, propaganda about a statue being cut in two and graves being desecrated were lies, “but like all of Russia’s disinformation campaigns, they found fertile ground because they were based in public fears and sentiments that were very real,” she writes.

It’s not such a far leap to the U.S., where Jankowicz was shocked to discover that an event she’d seen shared on friends’ Facebook feeds about a Les Miserables sing-along-slash-protest was one of the events Russian “troll farm” Internet Research Agency helped promote on the social media platform. The man who organized the flash mob had no idea the relatively large turnout was in some part thanks to $80 in advertising from the trolls. The agency also purchased an Instagram ad for an anti-Hillary Clinton flash mob.

When Jankowicz started looking for Russian interference in the U.S.’s 2018 elections, she realized that some candidates’ campaigns had latched onto some of the trolls’ tactics. They would create fake accounts, spread disinformation, and hound opponents’ supporters. Social media sites have started to implement changes to try and address some of this behavior since 2016. “They are not enough,” Jankowicz writes.

While the sites share part of the blame, Jankowicz thinks politicians on both sides of the aisle have missed the urgency of the situation. In 2018, she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on election interference prevention. Fast forward to the 2:07:48 timestamp on this video to see a swath of empty seats instead of senators.

That lack of interest is a problem because Jankowicz believes the solution to resisting foreign and domestic influence campaigns is much bigger than Facebook fact checks. Estonia, Ukraine, Finland, and other countries have made deeper changes that address societal divisions and education around how to spot misinformation and media manipulation.

Jankowicz calls the efforts to stamp out these types of attacks “whack-a-troll.” To win, you need more than a mallet. You need a variety of tools for better guardrails, better education, and less division.

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