The dangers of disinformation are increasingly dire for democracy

We could be facing a pandemic worse than COVID-19 with disinformation.

It’s more dangerous because, while millions of lives are at stake with COVID-19, disinformation, if left unchecked, has the potential to degrade our democracy. We saw, for example, how the siege of the U.S. Congress on January 6 halted democracy for a few hours. Disinformation was the fuse that lit that siege.

First things first: what is disinformation? Disinformation is not fake news; rather, it is false information created with an intent to cause harm to a person, a government, a population or a country. 

Disinformation is not new. It has long been part of intelligence tradecraft. Credit is often given to the KGB for its modern application, but the inventor of disinformation to manipulate governments to elicit military action was a Canadian named William Stanger, also known as William Stephenson.

Today’s disinformation takes place on social media platforms. Threat actors create false information and then work to launder it through multiple social media platforms and traditional news outlets. Disinformation can be big business. The Financial Times recently reported that Vancouver-based Estraterra had been banned by Facebook for foreign interference originating from Canada. It spent $1.3 million on Facebook for disinformation targeting several countries.  

While Canada has played a role in creating disinformation, it is also a target. In April 2020, foreign state actors launched a disinformation campaign in Europe alleging that Canadian troops were responsible for infecting Latvia with the COVID-19 virus. 

Certain types of disinformation on the continuum rise to the level of a national security threat. For example, when it unlawfully undermines trust and confidence in democratic institutions or is designed to degrade the rule of law or government functioning through violence, such as the U.S. Congress siege.

During that siege, at least 25 groups were identified, including QAnon and Boogaloo, which intended to use violence to impede government functioning. All of those groups are inextricably tied to disinformation because they not only came to fruition through disinformation, they also came full circle and disseminated their own disinformation.

QAnon followers have a core belief that a secret, pedophilic child trafficking cabal of influencers, media figures, celebrities, billionaires and officials are conspiring to take over the world. Their messaging grew more extreme during COVID-19 lockdowns, laying the ground for a rash of new conspiracy theories, including that COVID-19 was fake or that vaccines will result in mind control by elites who will take over the world. These types of theories and the resultant disinformation threaten to undermine public health and the economy.

In Wisconsin, a pharmacist was recently arrested for spoiling COVID-19 vaccines because he believed disinformation campaigns that said that vaccines altered human DNA.

The Boogaloo use memes on social media with instructions to murder or maim law enforcement officers or infect them with the COVID-19 virus. American Bradley Bunn threatened violence against law enforcement officials when they enforced COVID-19 lockdown orders in Colorado. He was arrested with pipe bombs and two pounds of gunpowder, which he planned to use to kill law enforcement officers.

Disinformation is effective because it aggravates existing problems in a country, deepening and hardening social divisions, which inflame political and ideological reactions that lead to violence. Instability caused by COVID-19, social isolation, growing wealth disparity, and in Vancouver, the opioid crisis, leads to faster adoption of extremism from disinformation. 

There is no single magic bullet that will counter disinformation, but we can mitigate its harmful effects using the law, technology and policy.

Legal responses should include laws that impose liability for disinformation on platforms to provide for redress for harms caused by disinformation to individuals, brands and companies.

Technology responses should include government funding for startups to develop tools to identify and counter disinformation in a way that encompasses responsible innovation inclusively, across the whole country. 

Educational responses should build resilience through school programs, including media integrity programs, and government responses should involve engaging non-partisan experts to counter disinformation messaging, as well as intelligence community responses to detect disinformation at the end of the continuum that poses a threat to Canada with greater reliance on OSINT (open source intelligence) capabilities and sources. •

Christine Duhaime is a financial crime expert with Fusion Intelligence, an intelligence consultancy.