Ask a Scientist: How to Disarm Disinformation

June 8, 2022 | 10:00 am
Highlighted definition of disinformation from a a dictionary pageShutterstock/Casimiro PT
Elliott Negin
Former Contributor

Our society is awash in disinformation. Lies about vaccines. Lies about the last election. Lies about climate change. There are just too many examples to mention. It’s infuriating, to be sure. But more than that, it’s dangerous—to public health, to democracy, to the country, and to the planet.

Powerful interests disseminate disinformation to maintain their financial or political advantage, and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has been blowing the whistle on them for years. My colleagues and I have documented the lies the fossil fuel industry and its hirelings spread about the reality and seriousness of climate change. Other colleagues of ours, meanwhile, have written extensively about the current assault on voting rights as well as the effectiveness and safety of vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines.

Given the pervasiveness of deliberately planted falsehoods, UCS experts are now focusing on the nature of disinformation itself. What are the best ways to recognize it for what it is and combat it? In April, two staff members of the UCS Center for Science and Democracy, Bilingual Senior Organizer Sophia Marjanovic and Campaign Manager Lindsey Berger, published a resource guide, Countering Disinformation in Your Community, which offers battle-tested recommendations for confronting disinformation. The guide is based on research by communications strategist Sabrina Joy Stevens and union organizer Jane McAlevey.

I recently had the chance to talk with Dr. Marjanovic, who has a Ph.D. in immunology and microbiology, about her guide’s main points and asked her to share some real-world examples of advocacy groups that have disarmed disinformation. Below is an abridged version of our exchange.

EN: Before we get to the stories about advocacy groups that have foiled disinformation, could you tell us about what advocates should avoid doing when trying to counteract disinformation, as well as what they should do instead?

SM: There are a number of things to avoid. For example, avoid quoting or sharing images of disinformation, because people are hardwired to believe information that is repeated. When people react to disinformation by quoting it or by sharing images to counter it or joke about it, the bad actors benefit because people are helping to spread their disinformation.

The father of one of my best friends is a Holocaust survivor, and she often quotes him saying, “Never dance on anyone’s stage.” Spreaders of disinformation are setting the stage to get people to react as they try to divide, distract, demoralize and delay accountability for their bad actions. Let them fade into obscurity instead of amplifying their harmful words and images.

Instead, people should pause, and take a moment to strategically develop accurate, aspirational and actionable messaging with influential organizers in the targeted community to show what people are capable of accomplishing when they work together. Disinformation spreaders have a “puffer fish” approach to make themselves look bigger because they are afraid of organized people power. Show the power of strategic, organized people power by finding appropriate organizers in your community, building a relationship with them, and following their expertise about how to best implement counter-messaging, as well as the strategies and tactics to implement solutions the community targeted by disinformation needs.

EN: As I mentioned in my introduction, UCS staff members have posted “frequently asked questions” about COVID-19 vaccines that dispel some of the disinformation anti-vaxxers have been spreading about them. Besides disinformation, there are other reasons why some people are hesitant about getting vaccinated, lack of good information and mistrust of the medical establishment among them. Two organizations founded by Stacy Abrams, who is running for governor of Georgia, have had some success in the rural South dispelling doubts about the vaccines. What did the two groups—Fair Count and the Southern Economic Advancement Project (SEAP)—do to counter disinformation and provide vaccine education and access?

SM: The Southern Economic Advancement Project and Fair Count, whose president, Dr. Jeanine Abrams McLean, is an evolutionary biologist, hosted a series of town halls in communities targeted for vaccine disinformation to educate and demystify the COVID-19 vaccine. Once people got correct information about the vaccines, they got vaccinated and contributed to the public health solutions needed during the pandemic.

The same communities that were targeted with voting disinformation were the same communities that were targeted with COVID-19 disinformation, because the objective is to silence these communities by any means necessary, including death. The communities most targeted for disinformation—marginalized communities—have had to build collective people power to keep themselves safe, often with minimal access to organizing resources. Therefore, the communities most targeted for disinformation have the ability to hold bad actors accountable by their organized people power, which is often based on intergenerational intelligence.

Organized people who vote and have access to scientific education can leverage their collective power for solutions. They are, therefore, threats to bad actors who spread disinformation. As I said earlier, bad actors want to divide, distract and demoralize people from organizing to delay accountability for their actions, so they disseminate disinformation about voting and public health.

EN: You also mentioned two organizations that were able to neutralize disinformation targeting Black and Spanish-speaking voters during the most recent election. How did Shireen Mitchell, founder and president of Stop Online Violence Against Women—parent organization of the Stop Digital Voter Suppression project—and Adrian Reyna, tech strategies director at United We Dream, accomplish that? Were they able to turn out the vote in those communities?

SM: Shireen Mitchell has been tracking disinformation targeting women and People of Color since 2013. In 2020, she noticed that bad actors were using the same strategies for spreading disinformation as in the 2016 election, but more of the disinformation was being produced domestically than four years before, when much of it came from overseas.

Disinformation thrives from the illusory truth effect, which is when information is repeated so often that people perceive that it is true, and reflexive control, which is a form of manipulation when specially prepared information is disseminated to people to get them to voluntarily act in the way that the manipulator wants. To successfully debunk disinformation, Mitchell recommends a tactic called a “fact sandwich”—also called a “truth sandwich”—by repeating the facts before and after debunking  the disinformation to take advantage of the fact that when you repeat information over and over again it is eventually perceived as true. She worked with Move On, Reality Team and other organizations to develop counter-messaging to voter disinformation, which helped Move On mobilize millions of volunteers to turn out the vote and inspire millions of people, especially Black and Brown people, to go to the polls in 2020.

Despite having minimal access to recognition and resources, Black women have been the most effective community organizers in US history. Their efforts have resulted in more than 90 percent of Black women consistently voting for one party—the Democrats—in elections with a national impact. According to Mitchell, Black women are the biggest targets of disinformation campaigns largely because they are such effective organizers.

In 2020, Adrian Reyna of United We Dream developed guides for people to stop and think before sharing any information they encounter that evokes emotion; engage in private one-to-one conversations with people who share disinformation to disrupt the disinformation flow; and ensure that the people sharing disinformation engage with someone they trust to disrupt the disinformation flow.

Reyna’s guides were so helpful in Latine communities in many battleground states that Latine voter turnout was larger than the margin of victory in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

EN: What immediate plans do you, your guide co-author Lindsey Berger, and your other UCS colleagues working on this issue have to further the organization’s anti-disinformation agenda? How can UCS members and supporters get involved?

SM: At the UCS Center for Science and Democracy, we are training pro-science advocates to monitor disinformation, report it, and work with trusted community influencers to counter and neutralize it, especially to ensure that everyone can exercise their right to vote. UCS members and supporters can learn more about how to respond to disinformation by checking out our web feature, How Disinformation Works.  Additionally, UCS members and supporters can get involved by signing up on our website.