Cyber Scoop: Shannon Vavra

As Americans reckon with the ways that manufactured political narratives can influence public behavior following the riot at the U.S. Capitol, researchers who have spent years studying the issue warn that there’s no simple solution.

Disinformation campaigns on social media, sinking trust in journalism and a willingness among some lawmakers to spread conspiracies present a pernicious set of challenges for the federal government. While major technology firms have started to act against calls for violence, specialists say Congress, the intelligence community, the private sector and the incoming Biden administration must consider ways that Americans can improve media literacy before the issue becomes more of a national security issue.

“This isn’t specifically about elections, or just the pandemic,” said Cindy Otis, vice president of analysis at Alethea Group, which tracks threats online. “Influence targets our economy. Domestic actors such as white supremacist groups use it. It can become a counterterrorism issue.”

Belief in the unfounded notion that the Democratic Party stole electoral victory from President Donald Trump, a narrative that’s been widely debunked, is the latest evidence that Americans largely don’t trust the media to report news fairly or accurately.

Some 60% of Americans lack confidence that journalists report news “fully, accurately, and fairly,” according to a Gallup poll conducted between August and September 2020. Fifty-eight percent of Republicans reported having no confidence in the news, a ten point increase from 2019.

New roles in government

The numbers paint a trying landscape ahead. Several lawmakers in recent weeks have urged the Biden administration to establish a coronavirus misinformation role. But the government should carve out more roles to properly address disinformation, including an intelligence community lead as well a role focused on interagency coordination on attempts to undercut trust in the government, suggested Otis, a former CIA officer in the directorate of analysis.

“There needs to be an acknowledgement that disinformation affects topics across the board,” Otis said. “I think there needs to be a much stronger approach for the next administration.”

Such an idea could face significant roadblocks. Several Trump allies, including Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., one of the lawmakers that partook in the effort to overturn President-Elect Joe Biden’s win, have spread conspiracy theories in recent days that “antifa” was part of the storming of the Capitol.

Gaetz’s role in spreading lies reveals just how mainstream conspiracy theories have already become, says Emerson Brooking, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

“It will remain, to an extent, a voting bloc,” Brooking told reporters on a call Friday. “There will always be a temptation for politicians to court and feed this movement because they’re getting great political utility from doing so.”

The U.S. government hasn’t been entirely blind to the threat of information operations. The Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity arm has dispelled election-related misinformation, along with the FBI. The Pentagon has also worked to interfere with foreign actors that have run influence campaigns targeting American politics.

But the insurrection at the Capitol exposes the gaps current government programs have in preventing conspiracy theories from dovetailing into real-world harms — and alerting on them.

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