Think Tank (6/2020)
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DRUMS: Distortions, Rumours, Untruths, Misinformation & Smears
01 Dec 2020

The Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) at RSIS organised their fourth annual workshop on “DRUMS: Distortions, Rumours, Untruths, Misinformation & Smears” as a three-part webinar series on 1, 2 and 4 December 2020.

The webinar series explored trends and issues in information manipulation — disinformation, misinformation and online falsehoods — that bedevilled the world in 2020. Collectively, these trends and issues affect national security by influencing the processes and outcomes of elections and political discourse, public health and safety, and trust in media sources and national institutions. Expert speakers at the webinar series also examined efforts by governments, civil society, and digital campaigns to counter the information disorder.

Webinar 1: Elections, Misinformation and Disinformation

The first webinar explored how malicious domestic and foreign geopolitical actors used information manipulation to undermine elections integrity and social peace, and influence online political discourse in western democracies and Asia.

On elections integrity, democratic societies needed a comprehensive framework to protect themselves against risks from hybrid campaigns.  These campaigns comprised cyber-attacks that targeted elections’ digital infrastructure, and disinformation that targeted political figures and election results to sow public confusion and disorder. Disinformation could cause harm even when cybersecurity measures prevented hostile actors from attacking the voting systems. Regarding the Twitter-space, analysis by western experts unveiled a network of inauthentic accounts that had behaved in a coordinated manner to target western democracies. This campaign supported the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) narratives about issues such as COVID-19 that could be critical of China. Regarding the Myanmar 2020 elections, political parties, elements linked to the military, and extremist movements had used disinformation tactics such as hoaxes and fake media outlets to target political opponents and minority groups. With the US 2020 elections, the coordinated use of peer-to-peer texting and influencers to engage voters presented regulatory loopholes and new vulnerabilities.  Hostile domestic and foreign actors could exploit them to influence voting decisions and undermine trust in the elections system.

Webinar 2: Health Crises, Misinformation and Disinformation

The second webinar explored how the COVID-19 infodemic aggravated the impact of the pandemic. The infodemic complicated the health crisis, fuelling racism and xenophobia, and could persist as countries seek the supply and distribution of safe and affordable vaccines.

In Malaysia, studies unveiled that COVID-19 misinformation incorporated images and videos to appear credible, and were spread mostly via the encrypted messaging platform WhatsApp besides Facebook. Misinformation promoted scams, ill-will towards different races, religions and nations; and fed religious apprehension that could drive anti-vaccine ideas. In Indonesia, civil society organisations such as MAFINDO were helping to counter misinformation resulting from the politicisation of the pandemic. Conspiracy theories and clickbait tactics exploited people’s concern for their families and religious identities to spread distrust and drive political contestations. Regarding healthcare organisations, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and healthcare officials worldwide were the targets of information attacks. For example, online memes, slurs and hashtags that were racist and conflated with anti-China messages had targeted the Director-General of the WHO each time he tweeted. In Europe, lesser-known social media platforms enabled an ecosystem of online sub-communities where COVID-19 conspiracy theories and extremist ideas thrived. Non-governmental organisations such as EU DisinfoLab played essential roles in fact-checking and raising the public’s media literacy against the infodemic.

Webinar 3: Technology and Journalism – Countering Misinformation/Disinformation

The third webinar explored how journalists and media outlets, deepfake technology, social media influencers and digital advertisements played a crucial role in the information environment. They could influence opinions and spread harmful content across all demographics of Internet users.

On digital advertising, the work of grassroots social media campaign Sleeping Giants examined ad revenue models. The campaign reached out to brands that had inadvertently placed their advertisements on the Breitbart website, which was pro-Trump and circulated online disinformation. In preventing harmful content, digital marketers and brands should be aware of where their ads appeared. On social media influencers and Internet celebrities, societies should not underestimate their influence on topical conversations. Using tactics such as “insta-vagueing” and memes, they were adept in leveraging social media platforms to optimise online engagements and disseminate messages. Deepfakes were also increasingly popular among celebrities and politicians who use the technology for outreach and entertainment. Exposure to deepfakes was of concern as they fomented the liar’s dividend, and studies unveiled that a third of Singaporeans and Americans surveyed had unknowingly shared deepfakes. The media could be a conduit for this, depending on the state-backed and private interests that funded them. Fake news outlets could conceal their origins to evade foreign influence countermeasures and engage journalists to reach their target audiences.

In conclusion, the webinar series highlighted the primacy of the information environment today across the various domains of healthcare, social peace, public safety, politics, and geopolitics. Tactics to cut through the noise in this environment and spread misinformation are continually evolving.

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