In a presentation on “Disinformation and How to Preserve Democracy,” Clint Watts, a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, explained how social media facilitates large-scale information operations in a way that wasn’t possible before the Internet. He said the people who began building the Internet decades ago had no inkling that it could be used in this way.
Part of the problem is that social media are built to serve confirmation bias, Watts explained. Clicking the “like” button on a post indicates the type of content you want to see, and the algorithm will do its best to serve you more of it. Even without the algorithm’s help, however, people naturally seek out personalities they agree with and avoid those they don’t want to hear from. After they’ve carved out their own “preference bubble” online, people develop a herd mentality.
While this phenomenon is also present in the real world, it’s much more pronounced online. Watts said a contributing factor is “clickbait populism,” in which posts that serve the crowd’s preferences are rewarded because they receive more attention. Another development is “social media nationalism,” or “collective adherence to social media identity defined by shared beliefs.” Watts explained that people’s identities are now being shaped by their online personas. These personas are often preferred versions of themselves, which is one of the reasons people act tougher and meaner online.
Information operations take advantage of this online social environment by amplifying, distorting, and inflaming the fissures that are already present.
In order to defend against these operations, Watts believes countries need to be faster at responding to misinformation and pushing the truth out, and companies need to have brand and reputational protection plans.
But the most important factor, Watts said, is how the citizens themselves respond. “Can you know your neighbor as well as you know your Facebook friends?” he asked. Realizing that what we see online isn’t an entirely accurate reflection of people in the real world can put a damper on our tendency to react impulsively. Humility is also useful. “Know when you’re an expert and when you’re not,” Watts added. Verifying information, knowing which sources to trust, and asking basic questions before forming an opinion can mitigate information operations.