The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence held a virtual hearing on the topic of Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories with an august panel of specialists well-steeped in how disinformation and misinformation are created, amplified and consumed. The hearing underscored misinformation and conspiracy as both domestic and international issues with respect to the United States.
The existence or non-existence of fringe groups that garner social network momentum was also touched upon, specifically, those that foment violence resulting in real-world actions.
Congressman Denny Heck (D-WA) queried the psychology of individuals that leads them to “buy into this crap.” Graphika’s head of analysis, Melanie Smith, noted how social networks make it possible for the mainstreaming of what is and was considered to be absurd as now being received as plausible.
Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School commented on how white supremacy and white nationalist have used their online presence to recruit, fund and move forward their cause. The recent arrests of domestic terrorists in Detroit for their plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Whitmer were highlighted as just one example.
QAnon, the bizarre conspiracy theory that there is a “Q” who is secretly working to upend a “global cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles” continues to gather adherents, including a candidate for the U.S. Congress—Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is running for Georgia’s 14th district. Indeed, the ability of the group behind QAnon to morph their topics regularly ropes public figures with large megaphones into sharing their information and or failing to recognize it as QAnon-created content. This flexibility permits the purveyors of misinformation/disinformation to poke at both sides of a discussion/argument.
In fact, an “anti-pedophilia” protest in Los Angeles Oct. 19 organized by a QAnon follower hijacked of the name and mission of the Save the Children organization and movement.
It comes as no surprise that Russia is a prime source of activity amplifying what has been coined “fake news” and whose media outlets continue to write about the subjects being touted by the fringe entities. When the government and quasi-government media outlets highlight content, it is part of the effort to inject it into the mainstream and achieve Russia’s policy goals of fomenting unrest within the United States.
Committee chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) asked what data needs to be shared with experts to allow the continued research and illumination of the misinformation/disinformation populating the social networks. Cindy Otis, vice president of Alethea Group and author of “True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Identifying and Fighting Fake News,” noted that social networks share data on an uneven basis: Twitter is forthcoming with raw data that allows for independent analysis, yet Facebook shares little to no data with researchers.
While Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have all declared they are removing QAnon accounts and content, the need to preserve the removed posts and their attendant granular data is key. Third-party researchers/analysts will then have a more comprehensive picture of the modus operandi of the individuals or entities engaged in the disinformation.
In the end, the HPSCI heard a recommendation for more transparency from the social networks and regulation of social media advertising that presents patently false information, an avenue which is very attractive to the nation-state effort, given their deeper financial pocketbook.