Russian Meddling May Have Only Been The Beginning of A Disinformation Era


Illustration by Dan Redding

The comedian Bill Hicks once joked that the Gulf War wasn’t really a war at all. “A war is when two armies are fighting,” Hicks said. His point was that Saddam Hussein’s forces were so wildly outmatched by the United States military that you couldn’t consider the conflict a war in the traditional sense.

In 2018, we find ourselves in a similarly unrecognizable kind of war: America is engaged in a war that many Americans aren’t even aware exists. It’s a disinformation era that one tech expert has dubbed the ‘infocalypse.’

On Friday, Mueller’s indictments delivered concrete evidence of the role of disinformation in the 2016 Presidential election. 13 Russians were charged with subverting the American presidential election; their tools of disinformation included identity theft, fraudulent social media accounts, propaganda, and political advertising.

Regular Americans were duped by Russian trolls who organized rallies, published pro-Trump propaganda, and relentlessly smeared Hillary Clinton and her supporters online. How many regular Americans are still unaware, in 2018, that they attended pro-Trump rallies that were organized by Russian agents working to undermine the election? Take, for example, Lilia Moraz, a Trump supporter who attended and filmed the Russian-sponsored ‘Florida Goes Trump’ rallies on August 20th, 2016. Lilia’s Twitter video even tags the Russian-led Twitter account @March_for_Trump (which is now suspended from Twitter):

Is Ms. Morraz aware that she was used as a ‘human puppet’? We need to inform and educate ourselves so that we can recognize disinformation when we see it, because 2016 was likely just the beginning.

The term ‘infocalypse’ was created by Aviv Ovadya, Chief Technologist at the Center for Social Media Responsibility, who has been sounding the alarm for years. He told Buzzfeed News that he identified an “impending crisis of misinformation” shortly before the election. “At the time,” he said, “it felt like we were in a car careening out of control and it wasn’t just that everyone was saying, ‘we’ll be fine’ — it’s that they didn’t even see the car.”

How many of us see the car in 2018?

The tools of disinformation that we might see in coming years include hyperrealistic video and audio messages that are completely fabricated, fake but authentic-looking emails from your closest friends, and fake revenge porn. Americans will need to fight back against ‘reality apathy’ in order to maintain an understanding of what is real and what is not.

We’re going to have to start building tools to help us recognize and combat the rising tide of disinformation. I’ll investigate how we might do so in my next piece in this series on the dawn of the infocalypse.

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