Outsourcing Disinformation

If you’ve paid even minimal attention to the discussion about today’s media environment then you know that market forces, the deleterious effects of social media, and the subsequent division of all media markets into tiny segments means that we can no longer count on a paid, investigative reporter showing up at local or county-level government meetings – the outlets for which most of them worked are probably gone and if they are not, they cover such things only when they can’t ignore them because of a crisis.

Middle-market newspapers are often owned by far-away corporate outsiders.  Looking at two examples with which I am familiar – Syracuse, NY (my closest city) and Birmingham, AL (near where my parents live) both have a single daily newspaper owned by the same corporate entity.  It’s not surprising that identical newswire stories will appear in both.  Both have a small investigative staff and I’m sure they would both love to cover more local news but their print advertising and subscription revenue no longer supports covering the workings of democracy where it matters most.

So, does this mean there’s a void in news?  Certainly not, but we have to stretch the definition of “news” quite a bit when we’re including someone’s Facebook page having no limitations on the veracity of what’s posted or repeated and with no citations on source.  The anonymity of the internet is the very basis of the vast trove of conspiracy theories.  Anonymity can be important but the person receiving the information must have a way of verifying the veracity of the provided information or evaluating the motives of the person providing the information – a standard that your average Twitter user does not follow.

Who else is filling the void?  Increasingly we are outsourcing the job.  When it’s a large corporation or a government-level effort, we can find ready sources of labor often in far-away places with low or no journalistic standards or, we can look right here at home.  At one time, public relations was geared toward evaluating the impact of the facts on a client and helping that client promote or minimize the impact of those facts.  In the age of an anonymous social media, facts need no longer be part of the equation!  Why not just make up whatever is helpful to your cause, your company or your government!?!  The Lawfare Blog (a trusted source that backs up its reporting with good investigation and expert explanation) highlighted one government’s efforts (and we’re not singling them out – you can read the post – as there are plenty of others) here.  This is why the USG was right in requiring RT to register as a foreign agent.  If RT had been distinguishing itself with good investigative reporting of happenings in Russia and Eastern Europe there would have been no need or point in designating them as what they are:  Purveyors of Russian propaganda.

In a future military conflict, I expect to see potential adversaries hiring out the production and dissemination of information that helps shape the information environment during what is being called by the U.S. military the “competition” phase.  Shaping the IE in competition will be an absolute requirement to achieving victory in “conflict.” Look for that shaping to occur on behalf of an adversary contracted out to a third party perhaps even located in a ‘friendly’ country.

Lawfare wraps up their article with a lukewarm warming:

“Private actors are adapting their online disinformation campaigns to avoid detection as social media companies continue to target them with takedowns and suspensions, and governments will likely continue to work through these private firms because they benefit from the indirect approach. Understanding these practices and the intent behind them is necessary to identify and address them.”

If we wait until the shooting starts to “identify and address them,” I predict that victory will more difficult to achieve.