Dr. Alina Polyakova, the David M. Rubenstein Fellow for Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, is one of the world’s foremost experts on fake news and Russian disinformation. She had a brilliant idea the other day.
In the Western world, we’ve been playing catchup with the Russians for years, trying to find a way to counter the pesky disinformation tactics they’ve become famous for.
She came up with something just as simple as it is profound- to look for an analogous solution, based on the American anti-smoking campaign that started in 1964. These two completely unrelated subjects have some amazing similarities.
In the case of whether or not it’s a good idea to let the Russians loose like attic-bound raccoons in our cyber-grid, spreading disinformation and malware around like scat, the why-nots are obvious, just like with smoking. A rational person has no cause to misunderstand why this would be bad.
What we want to examine are the actual techniques used by the Surgeon General and others to paint cigarettes in the light they deserve- as filthy, smelly, cancerous sticks of death you’ve got to pay for.
That’s the way to go here.
First off, disinformation is dangerous. It leads to a gross devaluation of truth and a breakdown in the entire moral order. Though zany Russian hacker disinformation combos of race-baiting and coordinated cyber-lying may seem silly and random one at a time, they add up.
Ladislav Bittman, the former Communist Czechoslovak deputy chief of the disinformation department, compared the effects of disinformation to a slow acting poison, saying “One drop may not be a problem, but together a dose could be fatal.”
The same is true of nicotine, of course. And eventually, America caught on. But for years, the tobacco companies managed to convince Americans that the opposite was true. They did it with a carefully calculated and billion-dollar effort, based on pseudoscience, lies, and big advertising. It was exactly like what the Russians are doing now.
This is a significant concept for a few reasons. First, it’s always elegant when you can fit an old key in a new lock. She went rifling through the old Public Threat or Menace manual, found a campaign in the past that gave her precedent, and voila.
This is conduct to be emulated as much as possible, especially as that particular connection isn’t easy to see. Well done, Doctor!
Returning to our topic, people have been thinking this whole time that these Russian cybercrimes are all really stylish, powerful, interesting things to do. They think Russian hackers, and they picture this:
What they should be picturing, is this:
Think back. When your mother first told you not to smoke cigarettes, did she give you any pamphlets on the subject? Did she cite scholarly sources to you? Or did she just do like mine did, and shout “No! Mucky! Gives you cancer!”
I got the point. Looked it up later.
This thing with the Russian disinformation is exactly the same. It is so obviously bad for America that the case cannot be overstated, and yet they are not listening. The whole thing has had to be completely infanticized, and it’s us who’s changing the diapers.
Inside those disinformation diapers are the images we need to show people.
Disinformation is gross. It’s like being smelly. Telling lots of lies is for the kid nobody wants to sit next to. That’s probably why he became a hacker, the poor schmoe- Glad I’m not that guy!
Disinformation is smoggy. It makes it hard to see, hard to breathe.
The people under its influence get bewildered and don’t know what is what anymore. They just know that they are angry and they want to hit out at something, like Trump is provoking his followers into doing to CNN reporters.
That’s why watching Fox News these days make people behave like they’ve been doing bathtub crank. There’s no bathtub-crank chic. Nobody is remaking Trainspotting, over bathtub crank.
Smoggy. Wasteful. Smelly. Stupid. Gross. These are the reasons people quit smoking. Once smokers realized that nobody was looking at them and seeing the Marlboro Man, they got red in the face and cut it out, en masse.
This will be the case with fake news trolls eventually also.
Sitting around inside all day plunking on a keyboard and trolling is not what healthy adults, ones with actual influence in life, tend to want to do. Many studies have shown this to be the case.
Recently researchers at Australia’s Federation University used an online questionnaire to look closely at the psychology of those who engage in.
Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that trolls tend to show higher levels of trait psychopathy and sadism.
Trolls also tend to be poor, unfit, unkempt, unhappy. This is not what you want to do. You’re acting out all this harm on yourself for a cheap thrill.
You might as well start smoking.
Going forward, the message we have got to get across is a very simple one.
Spreading disinformation and sowing dissent around in the form of fake news is a lousy, negative activity.
It isn’t writing, or programming, or art.
It destroys and does not create.
It does everyone in the world a huge disservice by destabilizing their nations and economies.
It’s gross, it’s stupid and it’s unhealthy. There’s nothing good about it. Cut it out.