Getting from Awareness to Action on Disinformation

Perspectives on Disinformation

Jorhena Thomas is a Clinical Instructor and Lecturer in the Crime, Justice, and Security Studies program at the University of the District of Columbia; in the Applied Intelligence Program at the Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies; and in the American University School of International Service and School of Public Affairs.

OPINION — Lately, it seems that hardly a day goes by without a major publication running an article about disinformation. This is a noticeable change from a few years ago, and it is good that this important issue is receiving the attention it deserves. Now is the time to build on existing efforts to identify and analyze disinformation by implementing measures to steel our society against it. Here are some measures that we can consider for the long, medium, and short terms. 

Long Term: Education Across all Levels

As other countries have already learned, investing in media literacy and critical thinking skills through the educational systems can be a valuable tool in building a society resilient to false information. With some intentionality, it may be possible to weave in tailored programming at both the K-12 and higher education levels to meet our long-term needs for disinformation-resilient individuals.

  • At the K-12 level, school systems often offer creative and age-appropriate programmingto enhance student learning, from yoga and art classes, to money-management lunch talks, to stress coping workshops. The same approach may be appropriate for offering programming related to media literacy and critical thinking skills, especially because school-aged children are immersed in the digital world and need to be taught how to navigate it. When I was in elementary school decades ago, the school had the foresight to bring in a dedicated teacher once a week to teach us how to play complex logic games. Looking back, it seems almost fanciful to invest in this way, but I can say without a doubt that the thinking skills gleaned from those lessons have stuck with me over the years.
  • At the higher education level, there may be even more options for educational offerings targeted to media literacy and critical thinking skills. Colleges and universities can develop courses, clubs/organizations, webinars/seminars, speaker events, practicum classes, and other academic experiences to encourage students to build these skills. A potential benefit of leveraging the higher education environment in this way is that programming can be fluid, agile, and able to adapt to the evolving issues of significance. American University’s development of the mandatory AUx course is a stellar example of a university building relevant programming in response to an important societal issue. The same approach may work well with efforts to curb the impact of false information as well.

Creative programming within any educational system to build media literacy and critical thinking skills will, of course, be subject to resource and other decision-making constraints. However, exploring how to best go about it as a long-term investment may be well worth the effort.

Medium Term: Domestic and International Engagement 

Engagement among the disparate entities that look at the disinformation issue across the public and private sectors will continue to be integral to addressing it effectively. This engagement can take a variety of forms and can be as formal or informal as necessary. The overall goal is to find ways to tackle the many faces of modern disinformation, which is equal parts a sociological, technological, political, geopolitical, financial, cybersecurity, and national security phenomenon. As a multifaceted global concern, engagement with domestic and international partners can be a medium-term effort to learn and to strengthen our work.

  • Domestically, this can mean being intentional about establishing a coordinated effort among US entities. There are many options for what this can look like. A modified fusion center construct might be appropriate, as it would allow for trusted and vetted partners to work together on the issue, sharing information in accordance with the clearance level of individual liaisons. The task force model might also work, as might the ISAC model. Another option might be the establishment of academic centers of excellence, along the lines of what some government agencies have sponsored.
  • Internationally, we can gain a lot from having focused conversations with our counterparts about their counter-disinformation efforts. Although the particulars of every country are different, common disinformation themes and tactics tend to show up everywhere. We can learn from the measures other countries have taken and assess which could be adapted in the United States.

Short Term: Exercises

As we run up to major national elections, it is prudent to think about the actions we can take in the short term to brace for the inevitable flood of false information coming our way. Staying informed of the latest tricks and trends is absolutely important, but so is practicing how to respond. A crucial short term measure, then, is to exercise through drills, tabletop exercises, functional exercises, etc.

  • Using scenario-based exercises is a great way to test our individual and organizational knowledge, effectiveness of policies, and ability to deliver situation-appropriate responses to a given set of challenges. Exercises can be as detailed as needed, but even a short drill can help to surface relevant issues, limitations, needed policy adjustments, vulnerabilities, and other factors that impact our stance against disinformation efforts.
  • A colleague from the Harvard Berkman Klein Center and I have been working on a tabletop exercise package focused on disinformation and the upcoming elections. The package contains carefully developed scenarios and discussion questions targeted to four players who we assess have a key role to play in addressing disinformation related to the elections: state and local election officials, technology companies, professional media organizations, and the US Intelligence Community. It is our hope that this type of disinformation-centered exercise package will inspire organizations to both create and conduct their own exercises as a way to proactively guard against the deluge of disinformation likely to be unleashed in the short term.

In sum, there is a lot of good reporting being published on disinformation, and a lot of good work being done across government agencies, academia, and private sector companies. Now is the time to build upon their work to home in on long, medium, and short-term actions that can be taken to guard against the negative impacts of disinformation.

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Perspectives on Disinformation

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