By Fiona Cece, Uma Kalkar, Stefaan Verhulst, and Andrew J. Zahuranec
As part of an ongoing effort to contribute to current topics in data, technology, and governance, The GovLab’s Selected Readings series provides an annotated and curated collection of recommended works on themes such as open data, data collaboration, and civic technology.
In this edition, we reflect on the one-year anniversary of the January 6, 2021 Capitol Hill Insurrection and its implications of disinformation and data misuse to support malicious objectives. This selected reading builds on the previous edition, published last year, on misinformation’s effect on violence and riots. Readings are listed in alphabetical order. New additions are highlighted in green.
The mob attack on the US Congress was alarming and the result of various efforts to undermine the trust in and legitimacy of longstanding democratic processes and institutions. The use of inaccurate data, half-truths, and disinformation to spread hate and division is considered a key driver behind last year’s attack. Altering data to support conspiracy theories or challenging and undermining the credibility of trusted data sources to allow for alternative narratives to flourish, if left unchallenged, has consequences — including the increased acceptance and use of violence both offline and online.
The January 6th insurrection was unfortunately not a unique event, nor was it contained to the United States. While efforts to bring perpetrators of the attack to justice have been fruitful, much work remains to be done to address the willful dissemination of disinformation online. Below, we provide a curation of findings and readings that illustrate the global danger of inaccurate data, half-truths, and disinformation. As well, The GovLab, in partnership with the OECD, has explored data-actionable questions around how disinformation can spread across and affect society, and ways to mitigate it. Learn more at disinformation.the100questions.org.
To suggest additional readings on this or any other topic, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. All our Selected Readings can be found here.
Readings and Annotations
- Md. Sayeed Al-Zaman, Lecturer at Jahangirnagar University in Bangladesh, discusses how the country’s increasing number of “netizens” are being manipulated by online disinformation and inciting violence along religious lines. Social media helps quickly spread Anti-Hindu and Buddhist rhetoric, inflaming religious divisions between these groups and Bangladesh’s Muslim majority, impeding possibilities for “peaceful coexistence.”
- Swaths of online information make it difficult to fact-check, and alluring stories that feed on people’s fear and anxieties are highly likely to be disseminated, leading to a spread of rumors across Bangladesh. Moreover, disruptors and politicians wield religion to target citizens’ emotionality and create violence.
- Al-Zaman recounts two instances of digital disinformation and communalism. First, in 2016, following a Facebook post supposedly criticizing Islam, riots destroyed 17 templates and 100 houses in Nasrinagar and led to protests in neighboring villages. While the exact source of the disinformation post was never confirmed, a man was beaten and jailed for it despite robust evidence of his wrongdoing. Second, in 2012, after a Facebook post circulated an image of someone desecrating the Quran tagged a Buddhist youth in the picture, 12 Buddhist monasteries and 100 houses in Ramu were destroyed. Through social media, a mob of over 6,000 people, including local Muslim community leaders, attacked the town of Ramu. Later investigation found that the image had been doctored and spread by an Islamic extremist group member in a coordinated attack, manipulating Islamic religious sentiment via fake news to target Buddhist minorities.
Banaji, Shakuntala, and Ram Bhat. “WhatsApp Vigilantes: An exploration of citizen reception and circulation of WhatsApp misinformation linked to mob violence in India.” London School of Economics and Political Science, 2019.
- London School of Economics and Political Science Associate Professor Shakuntala Banaji and Researcher Ram Bhat articulate how discriminated groups (Dalits, Muslims, Christians, and Adivasis) have been targeted by peer-to-peer communications spreading allegations of bovine related issues, child-snatching, and organ harvesting, culminating in violence against these groups with fatal consequences.
- WhatsApp messages work in tandem with ideas, tropes, messages, and stereotypes already in the public domain, providing “verification” of fake news.
- WhatsApp use is gendered, and users are predisposed to believe misinformation and spread misinformation, particularly if it targets a discriminated group that they already have negative and discriminatory feelings towards.
- Among most WhatsApp users, civic trust is based on ideological, family, and community ties.
- Restricting sharing, tracking, and reporting of misinformation using “beacon” features and imposing penalties on groups can serve to mitigate the harmful effects of fake news.
- Misinformation leading to violence has been on the rise worldwide. PolitiFact writer Daniel Funke and Susan Benkelman, former Director of Accountability Journalism at the American Press Institute, point to mob violence against Romas in France after rumors of kidnapping attempts circulated on Facebook and Snapchat; the immolation of two men in Puebla, Mexico following fake news spread on Whatsapp of a gang of organ harvesters on the prowl; and false kidnapping claims sent through Whatsapp fueling lynch mobs in India.
- Slow (re)action to fake news allows mis/disinformation to prey on vulnerable people and infiltrate society. Examples covered in the article discuss how fake news preys on older Americans who lack strong digital literacy. Virulent online rumors have made it difficult for citizens to separate fact from fiction during the Indian general election. Foreign adversaries like Russia are bribing Facebook users for their accounts in order to spread false political news in Ukraine.
- The article notes that increases in violence caused by disinformation are doubly enabled by “a lack of proper law enforcement” and inaction by technology companies. Facebook, Youtube, and Whatsapp have no coordinated, comprehensive plans to fight fake news and attempt to shift responsibility to “fact-checking partners.” Troublingly, it appears that some platforms deliberately delay the removal of mis/disinformation to attract more engagement. Only once facing intense pressure from policymakers does it seem that these companies remove misleading information.
- In the past decade, the number of plugged-in Myanmar citizens has skyrocketed to 39% of the population. All of these 21 million internet users are active on Facebook, where much political rhetoric occurs. Widespread fake news disseminated through Facebook has led to an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment and the spread of misleading, inflammatory headlines.
- Attempts to curtail fake news on Facebook are difficult. In Myanmar, a developing country where “the rule of law is weak,” monitoring and regulation on social media is not easily enforceable. Criticism from Myanmar and international governments and civil society organizations resulted in Facebook banning and suspending fake news accounts and pages and employing stricter, more invasive monitoring of citizen Facebook use — usually without their knowledge. However, despite Facebook’s key role in agitating and spreading fake news, no political or oversight bodies have “explicitly held the company accountable.”
- Nyi Nyi Kyaw, Visiting Fellow at the Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, notes a cyber law initiative set in motion by the Myanmar government to strengthen social media monitoring methods but is wary of Myanmar’s “human and technological capacity” to enforce these regulations.
- Researchers Stephan Lewandowsky and Sander van der Linden present a scan of conventional instances and tools to combat misinformation. They note the staying power and spread of sensational sound bites, especially in the political arena, and their real-life consequences on problems such as anti-vaccination campaigns, ethnically-charged violence in Myanmar, and mob lynchings in India spurred by Whatsapp rumors.
- To proactively stop misinformation, the authors introduce the psychological theory of “inoculation,” which forewarns people that they have been exposed to misinformation and alerts them to the ways by which they could be misled to make them more resilient to false information. The paper highlights numerous successes of inoculation in combating misinformation and presents it as a strategy to prevent disinformation-fueled violence.
- The authors then discuss best strategies to deploy fake news inoculation and generate “herd” cognitive immunity in the face of microtargeting and filter bubbles online.
Osmundsen, Mathias, Alexander Bor, Peter Bjerregaard Vahlstrup, Anja Bechmann, and Michael Bang Petersen. “Partisan polarization is the primary psychological motivation behind “fake news” sharing on Twitter.” American Political Science Review, 115, no.3, (2020): 999-1015.
- Mathias Osmundsen and colleagues explore the proliferation of fake news on digital platforms. Are those who share fake news “ignorant and lazy,” malicious actors, or playing political games online? Through a psychological mapping of over 2,000 Twitter users across 500,000 stories, the authors find that disruption and polarization fuel fake news dissemination more so than ignorance.
- Given the increasingly polarized American landscape, spreading fake news can help spread “partisan feelings,” increase interparty social and political cohesion, and call supporters to incideniary and violent action. Thus, misinformation prioritizes usefulness to reach end goals over accuracy and veracity of information.
- Overall, the authors find that those with low political awareness and media literacy are the least likely to share fake news. While older individuals were more likely to share fake news, the inability to identify real versus fake information was not a major contributor of motivating the spread of misinformation.
- For the most part, those who share fake news are knowledgeable about the political sphere and online spaces. They are primarily motivated to ‘troll’ or create online disruption, or to further their partisan stance. In the United States, right-leaning individuals are more likely to follow fake news because they “must turn to more extreme news sources” to find information aligned with their politics, while left-leaning people can find more credible sources from liberal and centrist outlets.
- James A. Piazza of Pennsylvania State University examines the role of online misinformation in driving distrust, political extremism, and political violence. He reviews some of the ongoing literature on online misinformation and disinformation in driving these and other adverse outcomes.
- Using data on incidents of terrorism from the Global Terrorism Database and three independent measures of disinformation derived from the Digital Society Project, Piazza finds “disinformation propagated through online social media outlets is statistically associated with increases in domestic terrorism in affected countries. The impact of disinformation on terrorism is mediated, significantly and substantially, through increased political polarization.”
- Piazza notes that his results support other literature that shows the real-world effects of online disinformation. He emphasizes the need for further research and investigation to better understand the issue.
Posetti, Julie, Nermine Aboulez, Kalina Bontcheva, Jackie Harrison, and Silvio Waisbord. “Online violence Against Women Journalists: A Global Snapshot of Incidence and Impacts.” United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2020.
- The survey focuses on incidence, impacts, and responses to online violence against women journalists that are a result of “coordinated disinformation campaigns leveraging misogyny and other forms of hate speech. There were 901 respondents, hailing from 125 countries, and covering various ethnicities.
- 73% of women journalists reported facing online violence and harassment in the course of their work, suggesting escalating gendered violence against women in online media.
- The impact of COVID-19 and populist politics is evident in the gender-based harassment and disinformation campaigns, the source of which is traced to political actors (37%) or anonymous/troll accounts (57%).
- Investigative reporting on gender issues, politics and elections, immigration and human rights abuses, or fake news itself seems to attract online retaliation and targeted disinformation campaigns against the reporters.
- District Police Chief of Jogulamba Gadwal, India, and Yale World Fellow (’17) Rema Rajeshwari writes about how misinformation and disinformation are becoming a growing problem and security threat in India. The fake news phenomenon has spread hatred, fueled sectarian tensions, and continues to diminish social trust in society.
- One example of this can be found in Jogulamba Gadwal, where videos and rumors were spread throughout social media about how the Parthis, a stigmatized tribal group, were committing acts of violence in the village. This led to a series of mob attacks and killings — “thirty-three people were killed in sixty-nine mob attacks since January 2018 due to rumors” — that could be traced to rumors spread on social media.
- More importantly, however, Rajeshwari elaborates on how self-regulation and local campaigns can be used as an effective intervention for mis/dis-information. As a police officer, Rajeshwari fought a battle that was both online and on the ground, including the formation of a group of “tech-savvy” cops who could monitor local social media content and flag inaccurate and/or malicious posts, and mobilizing local WhatsApp groups alongside village headmen who could encourage community members to not forward fake messages. These interventions effectively combined local traditions and technology to achieve an “early warning-focused deterrence.”
- Journalist Luke Taylor details the many incidents of how disinformation campaigns across Latin America have resulted in the mistreatment of health care workers during the Coronavirus pandemic. Examining case studies from Mexico and Colombia, Taylor finds that these mis/disinformation campaigns have resulted in health workers receiving death threats and being subject to acts of aggression.
- One instance of this link between disinformation and acts of aggression are the 47 reported cases of aggression towards health workers in Mexico and 265 reported complaints against health workers as well. The National Council to Prevent Discrimination noted these acts were the result of a loss of trust in government and government institutions, which was further exacerbated by conspiracy theories that circulated WhatsApp and other social media channels.
- Another example of false narratives can be seen in Colombia, where a politician theorized that a “covid cartel” of doctors were admitting COVID-19 patients to ICUs in order to receive payments (e.g., a cash payment of ~17,000 Columbian pesos for every dead patient with a covid-19 diagnosis). This false narrative of doctors being incentivized to increase beds for COVID-19 patients quickly spread across social media platforms, resulting in many of those who were ill to avoid seeking care. This rumor also led to doctors in Colombia receiving death threats and intimidation acts.
- The article provides case studies of how fake news can be used to intensify social conflict for political gains (e.g., by distracting citizens from having a conversation about critical issues and undermining the democratic process).
- The cases elaborated upon are 1) Pizzagate: a fake news story that linked human trafficking to a presidential candidate and a political party, and ultimately led to a shooting; 2) Russia’s Internet Research Agency: Russian agents created social media accounts to spread fake news that favored Donald Trump during the 2016 election, and even instigated online protests about social issues (e.g., a BLM protest); and 3) Cambridge Analytica: a British company that used unauthorized social media data for sensationalistic and inflammatory targeted US political advertisements.
- Notably, it points out that fake news undermines a citizen’s ability to participate in the democratic process and make accurate decisions in important elections.
- While some public narratives frame online disinformation and its influence on real-world violence as “unprecedented and unparalleled” to occurrences in the past. Professor Heidi Tworek of the University of British Columbia points out that “assumptions about the history of disinformation” have (and continue to) influence policymaking to combat fake news. She argues that today’s unprecedented events are rooted in tactics similar to those of the past, such as how Finnish policymakers invested in national communications strategy to fight foreign disinformation coming from Russia and the Soviet Union.
- She emphasizes the power of learning from historical events to guide modern methods of fighting political misinformation. Connecting today’s concerns of election fraud, foreign interference, and conspiracy theories to those of the past, such as “funding magazines [and] spreading rumors” on Soviet and American practices during the Cold War to further anti-opposition sentiment and hatred reinforces that disinformation is a long-standing problem.
- This article discusses instances where disinformation inflamed already existing social, political, and ideological cleavages, and ultimately caused violence. Specifically, it elaborates on instances from the US-Mexico border, India, Sri Lanka, and during the course of three Latin American elections.
- Though the cases are meant to be illustrative and highlight the spread of disinformation globally, the violence in these cases was shown to be affected by the distinct social fabric of each place. Their findings lend credence to the idea that disinformation helped spark violence in places that were already vulnerable and tense.
- Indeed, now that disinformation can be so quickly distributed using social media, coupled with declining trust in public institutions, low levels of media literacy, meager actions taken by social media companies, and government actors who exploit disinformation for political gain, there has been a rise of these cases globally. It is an interaction of factors such as distrust in traditional media and public institutions, lack of content moderation on social media, and ethnic divides that render societies vulnerable and susceptible to violence.
- One example of this is at the US/Mexico border, where disinformation campaigns have built on pre-existing xenophobia, and have led to instances of mob-violence and mass shootings. Inflamed by disinformation campaigns that migrant caravans contain criminals (e.g., invasion narratives often used to describe migrant caravans), the armed group United Constitutional Patriots (UCP) impersonated law enforcement and detained migrants at the US border, often turning them over to border officials. UCP has since been arrested by the FBI for impersonating law enforcement.
We welcome other sources we may have missed — please share any suggested additions with us at datastewards [at] thegovlab.org or The GovLab on Twitter.