In the age of mass information and multimedia proliferation, citizens are swamped with data and opinions. The widespread use of social media contributes to the information chaos, where rumors often pose as facts and spread like wildfire. In uncontrolled social networks, rarely are sources checked and even lazy or sensation-seeking journalists can give conspiracy theories credibility by publishing or broadcasting them in the mainstream media.
This phenomenon can be defined as globalized village gossip without particular political objectives. Nonetheless, it can also inflict significant damage, whether to the reputations of individuals or institutions. Hoax stories can discredit officials and organizations in the eyes of readers and listeners, and even recourse to retraction or trial may prove insufficient to clear someone’s name. It is difficult to wash away the stigma of disinformation that has no evident source.
At a deeper level, fabricated news can become more organized, systematic, and politically motivated. Here, it is useful to distinguish between state-sponsored disinformation and non-official or insurgent disinformation by non-state actors. Such a distinction has implications for both goals and means, although there may also be convenient connections between the two sources.
“Guerrilla disinformation” is pursued by an assortment of individuals and groups for a variety of purposes. Politically motivated radicals may try to provoke domestic conflict to promote their cause or to delegitimize a particular politician or party. Hackers and false news planters may simply seek to sow social chaos through cyber hooliganism. And criminal groups may endeavor to benefit from attacks on specific businesses or organizations. All such assaults tend to have a limited purpose and are not geostrategic in seeking to effect global power relations.
By contrast, state-sponsored disinformation is invariably designed to undermine governments, to split societies, to weaken national security and to strengthen the position of the aggressor state. Such offensives are not a new invention. Soviet sources regularly engaged in disinformation wars against the West, although with limited success. For instance, fraudulent news stories that the CIA had manufactured the AIDS virus or that NATO was preparing to attack the USSR primarily fooled those who wanted to be fooled.
"By contrast, state-sponsored disinformation is invariably designed to undermine governments, to split societies, to weaken national security and to strengthen the position of the aggressor state."
The contemporary disinformation offensive, especially the Russian variant, has more numerous goals, transmits a broader diversity of messages and employs a wider assortment of methods. Although the overriding objective is similar to Soviet times – to defeat the West - it has several supplementary goals: to confuse and frighten citizens, to delegitimize Western democracies, to corrupt and corrode state institutions and to strengthen nationalists and populists. Simultaneously, although Moscow no longer claims it is an alternative global utopia, it does promote Russia as an avowedly strong patriotic state with allegedly conservative values that can appeal to sectors of the Western public.
By employing a diverse array of messages, Russian disinformation questions basic facts and injects alternative narratives about a range of issues. For instance, U.S. democracy promotion is depicted as a cover for toppling governments, or the EU is claimed to be spreading homosexuality among new members. Russian officials assert that they are simply pursuing “balance” in disseminating and interpreting information through Moscow’s international media network. But “balance” does not always mean objectivity and the truth does not always lie in the middle between two opposing positions. For instance, what is the balanced position between a flat earth and a round earth?
Modern disinformation has a much wider and faster assortment of channels for distribution than during communist times. In addition to standard media outlets, fabricated stories can be disseminated through social media networks, including Facebook and Twitter, and potentially reach millions of consumers. As with village gossip, most people do not check the source before further spreading sensational items. There are also electronic methods for increasing the reach of hoax news and even infecting the more credible media with bogus items.
There is also overlap between some state actors and guerrilla attacks. State sponsors may purposively employ or exploit the social media, amateur media outlets, and guerrilla disinformation to generate messages for subverting democratic systems. They can simultaneously use outfits such as Wikileaks to spread stolen or falsified documents.
Ominously, the “fake news” phenomenon also undermines the legitimate media. Accusations about fabricated stories are frequently made by Western politicians either to discredit rivals or to deflect criticism. This was evident in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections and continues to this day. Attacks on the free media and on journalists who diligently check their sources of information have a corrosive impact on American society. In the eyes of many citizens, few outlets can be believed if the media is regularly blamed by politicians for disseminating falsehoods. Atrophied trust for the “fourth estate” also makes it easier for saboteurs and hostile foreign powers to inject forged news into the confusing swirl of disinformation that destroys democracies from within.