In November Google held its annual Newsgeist “unconference” in Phoenix, AZ – a gathering where 200+ guests have the opportunity to put any topic up for discussion. This year, one of the sessions simulated the creation of a systematic “disinformation campaign.” One of the participants, Frederic Filloux, wrote an article about that on Monday Note. What none of the participants knew was that some of their tactics have already been tried and tested live in the Marc Gafni Smear Campaign.
Frederic Fillow writes:
We made four groups of four people and were given the following assignment: “You are going to propagate a disinformation campaign claiming former vice-president Joe Biden had been embroiled in a sexual harassment case that was secretly settled”. The goal: being the most efficient possible at spreading the news; making it long lasting and remanent to cause a maximum damage before a likely debunking.
With these four groups in the room, it became a fun exercise — and a scary one. Twenty minutes later, we debriefed.
In random order, here are some of the tactics that emerged. A team came up with the idea of writing the story about Biden’s secret settlement on an obscure blog, unlikely to be surfaced by Google or anyone else, and leave it there for six months or so. The benefit is to be in a position to say later, “Look! The story was there; it was willfully ignored by the mainstream media!…” A guaranteed delight for right-winger conspiracy theorists, a tasty morsel sure to land in every Facebook page.
Another group focused on Twitter, the vector of choice for such a campaign. It suggested the spread of an enigmatic statement: “If the victim hadn’t been a woman of color, the story would have come out…”. This was aimed at rallying groups like Black Lives Matter or the ACLU, hoping to (even briefly) add confusion. Hashtags were to be launched, hijacking #metoo and mixing with #IwasBidened, or #CreepyUncleJoe distributed with scores of pictures (found by all teams), of senator, then VP Joe Biden in ambiguous situations with women.
He later summarizes:
Fake news have yet to unleash their full potential. Experts already agree: from now on, every electoral process will experience some form of disruption based on false information.
We must also expect a new breed of fake news providers that will build on audience data and user profiling to calibrate their message, injecting pernicious and “credible” false information in a stream of innocuous but well-distributed news. The tools are here, up for grabs. Finding the talent to operate them is merely a question of money.