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What Can Citizens Do To Fight Foreign Disinformation Campaigns?


It's October, and the fall election campaign is in high gear. So are the social media operations, full of mind games and falsehoods, things that marred the 2016 election campaign. NPR's Tim Mak has been asking how people can protect themselves.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: The online social media world, in many ways, is an illusion. The Senate Intelligence Committee recently heard from an expert who testified there is 25 to 30 times more fake information from automated accounts on the extreme left and the extreme right than there is genuine, real-life conversation. And with the midterm elections just around the corner, experts are bracing for a spike in foreign disinformation.

BRETT BRUEN: We are going to have an October surprise.

MAK: That's Brett Bruen who, during the Obama administration, worked at the National Security Council on how to respond to Russia's efforts to spread false information during the invasion of Ukraine.

BRUEN: It is not a question, in my mind, of whether it's going to happen. It is a question only of when and how large.

MAK: The government and America's intelligence agencies have traditionally been more capable in tracking cyberattacks and espionage. But the Russian online influence operations during the 2016 elections were done all right there in the open, something that caught American spies and law enforcement off guard. Here's Victoria Nuland, a top State Department official during the Russian interference campaign in 2016, testifying before Congress.


VICTORIA NULAND: There was a tendency in the U.S. intelligence community to look only at classified information. So we were, as a government, not as aware of what was happening in the private sector.

MAK: Now Americans won't be caught off guard like they were then. But we still need to wade through the sludge of our online news environments and be smarter about the information we read and digest. Here's April Doss, who was the head of intelligence law at the National Security Agency.

APRIL DOSS: There's been social science research demonstrating that if I tell you some really outrageous proposition, something that's clearly untrue - I tell you, you know what Tim? The sky is green today. The first time I say it, you're going to say that's ridiculous. That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard of. The next time I say it, you're going to be more inclined to believe it. And by the third or fourth or fifth time, it starts sounding almost plausible.

MAK: A big problem is the nature of the Internet, which allows foreign actors to pretend to be Americans spreading real information. Here's Kevin Mandia, the CEO of cybersecurity firm FireEye.

KEVIN MANDIA: It's an unbelievably complex challenge for a free society, especially with the anonymity of the Internet, to really police, you know, the ideas that you're reading, the ideology you're reading and who the true source of those ideas are.

MAK: Raffi Krikorian joined the Democratic National Committee in 2017 to be their lead on cybersecurity and has given some serious thought about how to combat misinformation.

RAFFI KRIKORIAN: What I literally tell my father to do is, like, to effectively just look for opposing points of view. Just understand what the opposition to a point of view might be and, like, use that as input in your own head to try to sort through what's going on.

MAK: Ultimately, the biggest recommendation from experts in online disinformation campaigns is to diversify your news sources and remain skeptical.

GRAHAM BROOKIE: The term that we use is digital resilience.

MAK: That's Graham Brookie, who leads the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensics Research Lab.

BROOKIE: Have a degree of critical thinking where if you see something that's overly emotive or, you know, doesn't seem quite right, check another source. Just do some basic kind of legwork on your own to say - OK. Well, that could be right; that could be wrong. And just have a degree of skepticism on what you're seeing online.

MAK: And if there's one thing about which there's bipartisan consensus in Washington, D.C., it's that foreign actors like Russia are continuing, even now, to try to undermine American democracy and sow confusion right up until Election Day in November.

Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington.


Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.
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