“It's easy for anyone” to spread disinformation, expert warns

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Russia is not the only country trying to spread disinformation to influence Americans ahead of the 2020 presidential election, author Nina Jankowicz told CBSN. Jankowicz, who wrote the book “How to Lose the Information War,” said the U.S. needs a “joined-up government response” to disinformation, which she defined as “false or misleading information used with malign intent.”

There were “not enough” consequences for Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, Jankowicz said. This has in part allowed Russia, as well as other countries, to continue to engage in disinformation campaigns, she said. 

“China’s certainly been engaging in similar tactics, although they’re a little bit less, I would say, practiced at exploiting our societal fissures” as Russia, she said. “Iran has been doing it again in support of Iranian policy. We’ve also seen Venezuela and North Korea. I mean, it’s easy for anyone to do, unfortunately.”

Jankowicz was critical of President Donald Trump’s messaging toward Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“You know, we’ve heard a lot recently about Chinese disinformation and COVID-19. I only wish the Trump administration had been so bullish about Russian disinformation,” she said.

While there are entities in the federal government dealing with disinformation and cybersecurity, there is not a joint effort, Jankowicz said.

Nina Jankowicz

CBS News

“In terms of a joined-up government response, we don’t have that because from the highest levels of government, we’ve not seen President Trump say, ‘This is a threat, and I want us to shore up all of our resources to make sure our domestic, democratic processes are not affected,'” she said.

Jankowicz urged Americans to pay attention to disinformation tactics, such as taking advantage of private Facebook groups that are advertised as trusted spaces.

“These audiences are already segmented by vulnerability, essentially,” she said, adding that Facebook should not allow groups to be private if they reach a certain threshold of membership.

“When you’ve got hundreds of thousands of members, or even tens of thousands of members in a group, it’s no longer a private space, and it’s just serving as an ideal vector for bad actors to seed disinformation and to watch it spread,” she explained.

Jankowicz also advises Americans to practice “informational distancing.”

“When you find yourself getting upset about something you see online, or overly emotional, there’s a good chance you’re being manipulated. Disinformation runs on that emotion,” she said. “And so, when you feel that, just put your device down, close your laptop, walk away for a little bit, and if it’s still bothering you, then just do some basic fact-checking work.”

Jankowicz’s fact-check tips include looking for the information in multiple places, checking if the source is credible by looking for mailing address and phone number, and doing reverse image searches to find the original source of an image.