#RSAC: The Invisible War of Internet Misinformation

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RSA Conference keynoter Theresa Payton outlines how misinformation works and what organizations can do to help combat it.

Misinformation is everywhere on the internet today, but there are ways to spot it and limit its risk, according to Theresa Payton, CEO of Fortalice Solutions.

Payton detailed her firm's research into internet misinformation campaigns in an afternoon keynote session at the 2021 RSA Conference on May 17. Payton has been writing about and tracking the activities of misinformation groups on the internet for several years and has identified a number of key patterns. While there are different objectives for different groups, at the core, internet misinformation campaigns are about encouraging distrust.

"Manipulators promote misinformation to encourage populations to doubt what they believe," Payton said. "The end game is to make you doubt everything you believe, which leaves you open to believing anything."

The Misinformation Multiplier

Payton commented that although political and social espionage is centuries old and well documented, technology gives it a new twist. She noted that in 2013 the World Economic Forum listed online misinformation as one of the top trends.

The reason why online misinformation is so widely used is because it works. Payton added that the business of misinformation is also very lucrative, generating lots of money for certain groups that are able to execute campaigns effectively.

"Research shows that a false story reaches people six times faster than just the actual news or the truth," she said.

Public Health Misinformation

Among the many topics that are the target of misinformation on the internet today is public health related to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Payton said that one rough estimate shows that misinformation on public health alone generated billions of social media views in a year. The impact of one such misinformation campaign was revealed in a UK poll that Payton cited, reporting that 8% of UK residents believe that 5G technology actually spreads the coronavirus. In the United States, she said, 27% of Americans are hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine, much in part due to manipulation campaigns.

"These theories are just a small part of the global infodemic that is running largely unchecked on social media platforms," Payton said. "It doesn't have to be this way."

The end game is to make you doubt everything you believe, which leaves you open to believing anything.Theresa Payton

How Misinformation Spreads

There are various ways that misinformation spreads on the internet, though there are a few key recurring patterns.

The first step is the creation of the news item, which is then posted on independent news sites.

Popular but innocuous hashtags are used, and a combination of real people, fake personas, and bots re-share the original post.

Payton referred to the sharing of the news as an information laundering process, which is repeated over and over until the misinformation takes hold.

What Users Can Do to Combat Misinformation

Among the different steps that users can take to combat misinformation is to be vigilant and look out for sensational headlines.

Payton said that the fact that a topic is not being reported on traditional news media outlets could be another red flag. Traditional media outlets typically have to properly source and attribute news before it is published.

There are also tools that organizations can use to help identify potential misinformation campaigns. Payton recounted how her firm was able to use a series of tools to help identify the perpetrators behind one particular COVID vaccine–related misinformation campaign. Among the tools her team uses is Botometer, which can be used to identify the likelihood that a given social media account is a real person or is a bot. Another tool that her team uses is the Facebook Crowdtangle tool that can help to identify and correlate social media activities, which can be further visualized with the NodeXL tool for social media visibility.

For companies, Payton suggests that they consider building a playbook around how to respond to potential manipulation campaigns.

"Think about having an incident response playbook where either your industry, your executives, or your actual company fall prey to some type of misinformation or disinformation campaign," Payton said. "Go on offense now and create debunking and pre-emptive measures."

Payton also recommends that the standard operating procedure at organizations of all sizes should include scanning for misinformation about the industry the company is in, the company itself, and its executives.

"The only fix is for all of us to be enraged by what the manipulators are doing," Payton said. "It is time for this digital generation to rise up against those who are trying to hijack our minds and manipulate what we know to be true."

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