Disinformation: How You Can Spot It and Fight It

Published Mar 29, 2022

Communications strategist Sabrina Joy Stevens shares practical tips for shutting down disinformation online.

In this episode

Colleen and Sabrina discuss

  • the difference between mis and disinformation
  • how we get pulled in and how to avoid common traps
  • strategies for managing your social media accounts
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:26)
Intro (0:26-2:16)
Interview p1 (2:16-13:13)
Break (13:13-13:56)
Interview p2 (13:56-28:02)
Outro (28:02-29:00)


Editing: Colleen MacDonald
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth and Cana Tagawa
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

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Full transcript

Colleen: If you’re like me, scrolling down your social media feed can be a harrowing experience these days. I use Facebook and other social networking apps as a way to keep tabs on my family, catch up with old friends, see their dogs or kids, and support birthday fundraisers. But now, when I log on, I see friends posting graphic images from Russia’s war on Ukraine… warning people away from this or that neighborhood that’s under siege… or videos of injured civilians after a bombing.

Not only is this stressful and upsetting to see…it’s also misguided at best to share such content, says my guest today. At worst, it’s downright dangerous. Because while many social media videos on the ground in Ukraine may be authentic and capture the human tragedy of Russia’s bombardment, there’s also been a proliferation of disinformation from sources that aren’t credible, and the disinformation they spread can put real people at risk.

Sabrina Joy Stevens is a communications strategist who’s an expert on minimizing the power of disinformation. And that goes beyond Facebook posts about the war—disinformation spreads about COVID and life saving vaccines, about climate change, about politicians… And it’s not just on social media, either. It’s everywhere, and its scale and scope can feel overwhelming to those of us who only want the truth.

In our conversation, Sabrina was generous enough to share her strategies for how to become a savvier and strategic consumer of social media… what to do when you encounter disinformation… and how to stay hopeful in the fight against the shadowy forces that are trying to tire us out and get us to buy into lies.

Colleen: Sabrina, welcome to the podcast.

Sabrina: Thank you so much for having me. It's great to be here.

Colleen: Yeah. You know, I recently attended your training on disinformation. You know, what it is, who's creating it, how to deal with what at times feels like a firehose of false or misleading information on social media. And I'm really excited to have you here to hit the highlights for our listeners. So let's start with the basics. What types of disinformation are there?

Sabrina: Yes. So there are a lot of types of disinformation, and because this informational environment we're in is constantly evolving, there, will continue to be new ways that people make up false information, unfortunately. First of all, it's important to know the difference between mis-and-disinformation, because we hear those terms a lot and sometimes people use them interchangeably. Misinformation can be any kind of incorrect information that people share. it may not be shared with bad intent. And I think that's the key difference to know. Sometimes people just don't know that they've got the wrong information, say about when an election is happening or what's going on in a certain issue or another country per se, whereas disinformation is intentionally spreading bad information for negative reasons. Those are the two broad categories that we're dealing with.

Colleen: And then what are the different types of disinformation?

Sabrina: There are lots of different types of disinformation. For example, we are dealing a lot with things like fabricated content, things that are made up to give people false impressions, manipulated media. So we’re seeing now that technology has improved, it's a lot easier for people to create things like deep fakes where it makes it look like someone is saying or doing something that they're not actually saying and doing. We're seeing a lot of things like recontextualized information, which is especially common. We're seeing that a lot in Russia and Ukraine, but taking things, maybe images, maybe video, maybe comments that were said and captured in one particular moment in time and then resharing them as though they're being said and done right now.

There's also lots of different tactics within all of this. So, there are things like people creating false personas online to give the impression that a person of a certain demographic is sharing a bit of information or sharing certain opinions that is actually being shared by another person or maybe from another place than what they're representing in their profiles. So there's lots of different ways. And I think one of the reasons that I'm so passionate about the work I've been doing with groups like yours at the Union of Concerned Scientists is because, though there are lots of different ways that bad actors are sowing confusion and misinformation, the good news is that as long as we are really proactive about sharing good information about getting better at how we tell our stories and make sure people understand what's really going on, we can really inoculate people against all of these types of mis-and-disinformation.

Colleen: You mentioned recontextualized information and you're seeing that with Ukraine. Can you talk a little bit about what you're seeing there?

Sabrina: Sure. But basically, what we're seeing is a lot of these sort of spammy accounts on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, etc., where they're taking images and video from earlier conflicts or from conflicts, you know, in other parts of the world and they're sharing them as though they are, on the ground. This is happening right now in this Ukrainian city," or, "This is happening right now in this place in Russia." And it's not. And so the problem with that is because there are so many people looking for information to know, is my family member safe, where are safe places to go versus places I need to avoid. When people don't know what's actually happening in these places, it's very difficult for them to make decisions about how to move for safety.

Something that I and other people have been truly trying to warn people against is if you you don't have a sense of what's truly happening in real-time and what isn't, especially for those of us who are very far way, one of the most important things we can do is to not amplify that kind of information. We wanna keep the information environment as clear as possible so that people can get the information they need to stay safe.

Colleen: So the example that you gave, I'm imagining that would be a meme, a photograph with some text on it. The origin of that content is either someone who has just made a mistake or they're doing this on purpose. And then the sharing around is more misinformation where people see it and they think it's true and they just share it because they think somehow they're helping.

Sabrina: Right. Yes. And so that is definitely happening a lot. I'm receiving even more of these videos, very short video clips that claim to be of, battles and things like that. And yes, a lot of people are sharing it either because they think that it expresses their sympathy or their concern. Probably the most important thing many of us can do who are not very close to that conflict is to avoid sharing things like that. It really doesn't help very many people to share battle images in general. But also, again, if we're not able to verify that that's actually from a reputable source, it's even more harmful because we know that the Russian strategy is very...they're very, very good at spreading false information, in addition to spreading a lot of these false images of what's going on, and there are other actors, separate from either country's information efforts. A lot of these are really just accounts that are just trying to get clicks and views to be able to monetize them, which is a true shame.

But something that we also see a lot of is these posts that are intending to distract people or to deflect away from the intentions behind some of this aggression. And again, it's really important for those of us who are not on the ground to be really careful about sharing that kind of thing.

Colleen: I'm thinking of what I see on my social media accounts. It might be a meme that a friend's posted and they've shared it from somebody else. So it seems hard to trace things back to their origins. Is it possible to do that? And if not, well, I think I know what you're gonna say, "Don't share it."

Sabrina: Right, Quickly see if you can verify where it came from. Don't just share from a friend of a friend of a friend, but really, look at it, and a lot of videos and images will have some sort of a watermark or attribution somewhere in them. If you can't quickly find that, just don't share it. It's much better to err on the side of keeping quiet and not sharing something versus sharing something that is going to confuse people, that is going to, boost the statistics and the metrics of accounts that may be trying to use this content for bad reasons.

Colleen: So let's talk about the main actors that are spreading disinformation and the tactics that these individuals and groups use.

Sabrina: Sure. So there are a number of different groups, and there are groups that spring up all the time. One of the things that I try to do a lot of when I train people is just to help people recognize the importance of sharing the information that they know where it comes from because these groups morph constantly because they're constantly being recognized and exposed by organizations that do this kind of work on an ongoing basis. And so we'll see both state actors, so going back to the conflict in Ukraine and elsewhere, we'll see certain state actors that are doing things. So, there’s state media like RT or there are groups like Redfish and things like that that are associated with some of these foreign governments that use a lot of mis-and-disinformation tactics.

But then more broadly, we see whether it's political operatives here in our own country or abroad, they really tend to fall into much broader forms of political manipulation. Any type of political manipulation, and mis-and-disinformation is part of that, is gonna tend to fall into one of three categories, either divide and conquer, so information that's being shared for the purpose of turning people against each other or for the purpose of further exacerbating existing tensions between groups of people. Mislead and misdirect, so information that is being shared, or any other action, right? Because this is broader too than just disinformation. And mislead and misdirect is gonna be any kind of information that's being shared to trick people into taking unhelpful action on something, whether that's telling people false information about vaccines or telling people false information about political candidates. There are people who will intentionally try to confuse people into taking unhelpful action.

And then the third category that I teach a lot about is overwhelm and exhaust. there are some people who are so well-informed that they can't be misled and misdirected into taking bad action. So, what the other, attempt is to basically overwhelm people with so much negative information that they just give up trying. These are flavors of political manipulation that have existed pretty much since politics has existed, even though we still have obviously, unfortunately, way too much actual, blowing-things-up wars, for the most part, the terrain of warfare has moved to our minds.

One of sort of the secrets I like to let people in on is that there's just way more good guys than bad guys in the world. And so if you can't win based on numbers, if you can't... especially when you're looking at the United States, which has such a huge asymmetry in the sheer vastness of our armed forces, of our weaponry, another country really can't hope to beat us in the kind of warfare that we see in a lot of places in the world, but what they can do is basically cause us to destroy ourselves.

And so that's why we're seeing so much of this type of informational attack is because basically it's a cost-effective way to destabilize a country without having to send your soldiers, without having to fire actual weapons. There's a lot that we can do fortunately in order to keep our minds, our spirits healthy enough that we can withstand that sort of thing, so that we don't allow ourselves to be divided and conquered, so that we don't allow ourselves to be misled into taking bad action, and so that we can keep ourselves well-oriented enough that we can see clearly to see, "Okay, these are the types of decisions I need to make. These are the types of actions I can take that are helpful."

Colleen: Actually just going over those tactics has made me feel better already, because I often fall into the feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by all of it. And just to hear you say that that's what they're trying to do, I mean, it's just helpful to know that.

Sabrina: Absolutely, my grandmother used to say, "The devil ain't clever." Right, like, it's gonna be the same stuff over and over again. Once you start to see the broad patterns, then you can recognize, "Okay, if they try to divide and conquer us, well, then I can figure way to share some sort of loving, unifying response to that, right? If they're trying to mislead and misdirect us, I can figure out compelling ways to present the truth.

If they're trying to overwhelm and exhaust us, I can figure out ways to distill what's important and call people's attention back to where they can really make a difference." the more we can start to see the broad patterns instead of trying to play that whack-a-mole game of trying to stop every type of bad thing, if we just recognize that they fall into these broad patterns and that there are broad ways that we can think about our solutions, it just makes things a lot easier and it cuts against that exhausting, overwhelming nature of just how much information comes at us.

Colleen: I know you have a lot of really great solutions, but before we get to that, I really wanna talk about the pitfalls and how we just tend to boost their algorithm, because it's really hard when you see upsetting things online to not want to just shout and absolutely either share it or say to your friend, "Can you believe what has happened here?" And it's so easy to fall into just doing the wrong thing. So could you talk a little bit about how these algorithms work and how we end up being our own worst enemy?

Sabrina: Absolutely. It's really important just to remember how these algorithms work and how it plays into our psychology. So as humans, we're wired to overfocus on things that could be potentially threatening. So it makes total sense that's something that pushes our buttons, whether it's, you know, something that makes us very angry, something that makes us very outraged, something that just seems so glaringly wrong, especially for those of us who are very well educated or who just really have a certain expertise in another area. We really want so badly to correct misperceptions.

And likewise, the algorithms are really there to optimize—because there's so much information, right—it has to be sorted and prioritized somehow because there's just too much of it for us to take in at any one time. And so what the algorithms are coded to is to make an assumption based on your previous behavior, what types of things to show you in the future. So the types of things you tend to click on, the types of things you tend to share, comment on, bookmark, like, all of those reactions, those are trackable by any algorithm.

Any action that you take that exists between you and the device you're using can be tracked. And so, anytime you're doing a trackable action, so again, that's things like clicking, liking, reacting, sharing, bookmarking, retweeting, quote tweeting, all of those actions that can be tracked by the platform you're using basically are a vote for more of that type of content. The things you scroll past you're going to see less of, the things you click on and engage with you're gonna see more of.

Colleen: So working at a science organization, I often hear people ask, you know, why isn't it enough to simply lay out the facts?

Sabrina: Yes. Oh, how I wish just telling people the facts was enough. The teacher in me is very much, like, "I just wanna..." But, unfortunately, you know, there's a few factors at play. One is that because we have lived under this type of political manipulation for so long, there is just a massive downgrading of trust in institutions and, between and within groups of people, with official sources of information. There's a lot of mistrust that has been intentionally sown among us.

And so if you don't trust the authority, the person who is telling you something is a fact, then it doesn't stand on its own, right? The truth doesn't have its sort of built-in power that we would like it to. It really matters the context in which it's presented. If you don't trust the person who is presenting the truth to you, then you don't necessarily make the assumption that it is true. So that's the first piece we need to consider.

The other thing is that, again, we are living in a time where people are just absolutely inundated with information. There is so much data coming at people every second. And so when people are constantly trying to make choices about what they will and won't believe, what they will and won't pay attention to, again, the context matters in some cases more than the actual substance of the issue.

And so we have to remember that being right all on its own doesn't do anything. It's not a substitute for setting boundaries. It's not a substitute for establishing trust. And so the thing we wanna remember too about human brains is that we're wired for story. So we need that whole context, who, what, when, where, why, those basic elements of story to make sense of something.

And a lot of us fall into the trap of, say, seeing a bit of false information and then just, trying to respond with, either saying that “that's wrong” or trying to replace a bit of false information with the factoid, a statistic or something else that's true, when what we really need to be doing is helping people contextualize that information by telling them a story about it. A statistic, a fact in isolation is not really graspable to most people, but when we put it in the context of a narrative, then people can start to make sense of it.

And so that's really what we wanna be communicating in as much as possible is we really wanna think about, "Am I telling a complete story? Is there a subject? Is there a bit of information that tells them the context in which this is taking place?" You wanna make sure that things are packaged in the form of a story because that's how our brains retain information. We can track that in a way that in a way that...just giving someone an isolated fact is not necessarily going to land.

Colleen: Can you give an example?

Sabrina: Sure. So if we see information like people are spreading some false information about vaccines, we have to weigh, where is this person coming from? Are they sharing this information because they want to warn people or are they sharing this information because they're feeling defiant, right? We wanna suss out what is a person's intention. Because depending on, the reason they're sharing, we have to make some judgment calls about how we wanna interact with that information. We really wanna always contextualize in the case of why, telling stories about how being vaccinated allows people to safely gather with their families again. So sharing those kinds of narratives about what, has this vaccine enabled me to do, what kinds of positive outcomes have I experienced because of it. That's the sort of thing that really helps move people in a way that just saying, "Oh, that source is wrong," or, "That, information is wrong."

The other thing we always wanna remember is that when people are sharing false information, simply negating it is not going to dislodge it. if you can make a picture of something in your head, then it's more likely to stick. So this goes back to, the classic don't think of an elephant, right? You can't picture don't, you can't picture think, you can't picture of, but you can picture an elephant. So, if one person says, elephant, and another person says, no elephant, that's basic...to the brain, it's like both of them just said elephant. And so, as I'm communicating with someone, do my words put a picture in their head and does that picture repeat the picture they already have, or does it replace the picture they already have? Whenever possible if we're dealing with false information, we want to replace the picture they have that's untrue with a picture that's true.

And so, you know, just use don't think of an elephant, right? If I want someone not to think of an elephant, I'm going to say, "Hey, let's think about kittens." Right? Because now, you can picture the kitten in your head, whereas if I just tell you don't, you can't picture don't so you're just gonna stick with whatever the thing is that you originally had.

Colleen: Right. Which basically is the don't repeat the opponent's argument.

Sabrina: Exactly. As much as possible, again, you want to replace what they're saying instead of repeating it.

Colleen: Right. And actually, I'm also remembering in the training where you quoted something about, "If you wanna build a boat, don't just give someone a plank and a nail, but make them wanna hear the roar of the ocean."

Sabrina: Yes, exactly. One of the things that we really wanna do, especially for those of us who are championing causes and issues that really have not gotten their fair airplay, as much as possible, we really wanna harness the power of the human imagination. We wanna make people crave something new. We wanna build their vision. Again, going back to what picture are you putting in people's head?

Build their vision, their appetite for something new, something that is more satisfying than the conflict and the negativity that they're constantly being surrounded with. That's really one of the best ways that we have to build people's energy and their willingness to try something new is by giving them, you know, a sense of hope, a sense of possibility, and building their vision for what's possible.

Colleen: As you were just saying that, I was thinking the overwhelm and exhaust—somehow we've gotten ourselves into this Tasmanian devil kind of, you know, cartoon character, and you saying, for a few minutes, let's think of a vision that's more positive, it allows you to break out of that.

Sabrina: Absolutely. And that's really what we wanna provide for people. As much as possible, we want to be able to create content that pulls people out of that...the Tasmanian devil is exactly the image. Like, you wanna pull people out of that spiral. And the way you do that is by interrupting sort of the constant drumbeat of doom and gloom that is so prevalent in so many of our feeds. This is the other reason why it's so important for us to develop some discipline and some intentionality around what we share, what we don't share, when we do and don't engage with certain types of media because that's how we save space in our minds to be able to envision something different.

We wanna be able to interrupt that flow of negative content and replace it with something that causes people to be able to kind of take a deep breath and think about, "Oh, yeah, there are other ways we can do this." And there is so many stories too that just have not been told. There are a lot of people in the world who are doing really important, wonderful things. And the more we can redirect attention away from the things that are wrong and toward the things that are right, the more we build people's stamina to even try to do different things.

Colleen: Sabrina, as we send our listeners back out into the wild and overwhelming world of social media, what are the top three or five pieces of advice that you would give?

Sabrina: The biggest piece of advice I would give anybody is to really start to build a practice of setting some kind of an intention about what you're doing with a piece of media before you engage with it. So whether that's turning on your TV, logging onto Twitter or Facebook, or wherever, you know, actually say to yourself, "What am I trying to do here? Am I trying to get information? Am I trying to share information”? Have some sort of a plan for what it is that you're doing before you go on so that you are not just passively scrolling and losing track of time.

That's really where a lot of us get stuck is, right? Even before we get on where we're just kind of passively engaging with things versus making some proactive decisions beforehand. I think we also wanna be really alert as we're scrolling. I'm a big fan of setting not only to intentions but limits about how long I'm on social media so that I don't just get sucked into endlessly scrolling.

And when you see something that sort of pushes your buttons, makes you angry, makes you sad, makes you frustrated, pause, right? Get in the habit of pausing before you click things, before you tap that share button, etc., and really, stop and think, "What do I hope will happen after I do this?" and to remember that every single action you take is a vote for what you and your whole network is going to see more of. So, as much as possible, share what you want to see more of, right? Vote for the content you wanna see more of.

The other thing that's really important, especially for those of us who have a significant amount of expertise who are used to being right on a lot of these things is to have some humility about, what's happening to us as we're engaging with digital media. It is very easy for all of us to get caught up in the tailspin of being overwhelmed by the amount of information and content that's coming at us, at the gravity of the problems that we're seeing. And so we wanna be humble enough to recognize that it's not just those people who are getting tricked into spreading or amplifying bad information, it's us too. And so whenever possible, thinking about, "Okay, if I have some expertise, if I have something that's worthwhile to share, let me proactively think about ways I can share that for people to, again, be voting for the kind of content that we wanna see more of."

Colleen: Sabrina, one final request. Can you tell us about your three “A’s”?

Sabrina: Absolutely, I give people three A's whenever I'm doing trainings or communications consulting. And the three A's that we always wanna keep in mind for good content is that it's accurate, it’s aspirational, and that it's actionable. So whenever possible, we wanna make sure that what we're sharing, the content that we're voting for meets those three criteria.

Is it true? Does it make people want something bigger? Again, that's that roar of the ocean, right? We wanna, you know, give people something to look up to and to work toward. And then is it actionable? If I'm telling them...especially in the moments where we have to give people some, potentially upsetting information, whether it's the state of the environment, whether it's the state of our democracy, we wanna make sure that anything that we're telling them about that's wrong, that we're giving them something to do to correct it.

So don't just tell people, "Oh, the climate is melting." Like, we don't wanna just say that and then run. We wanna actually tell people, "And here's what you can do about it," right? "Here are ways that cities can, green their spaces so that they can be, less vulnerable for climate change. Here are ways we can change our agricultural system so that instead of, pumping methane into the atmosphere, it's actually pulling in carbon," right? There's always a solution to pretty much every problem. And as much as possible, we wanna show people what the solution is versus expecting that if we tell them what's wrong enough times, the solution's magically going to appear in their heads.

Our job, as experts in particular, is to make sure that we are not just leading people into a moment of despair and overwhelm, but that we're leading them into a place of like, "Oh, okay, this is important and there's something I can do about it." And if we hit those three A's, accurate, aspirational, and actionable, then we're setting people up to take positive action instead of further overwhelming into inaction.

Colleen: Well, Sabrina, this has been a great conversation. I'm impressed that we managed to pack so much in. I think I'm gonna separate out that last little bit for myself and just kind of play it every time I'm gonna to go on to social media.

Sabrina: Yeah. We should just do a little snippet of that. Yes. Like, that's the intention setting right there. I will only share accurate, aspirational, actionable things. Colleen: Exactly, right. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. Sabrina: Absolutely. It's great to be here as always.

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