Disinformation inoculation, issue 2: smoke and mirrors

By Sam Leitch, editor

Now that we’ve covered how to identify the purpose of the media you ingest online, it’s clear that verified news organizations are the gold standard for information; if you cannot trace a post back to a source with the intent to inform—not to enrage, persuade and so on—your skeptic-senses should be firing. To paraphrase one of my dad’s idioms, “If someone bakes you delicious brownies and says they added only a couple cow droppings to the flour, don’t eat them.”

Simple as that, right?

However, sometimes a post pulls out all the stops to convince us. In an era when anyone with a simple computer can alter reality for a meme, replicating facial expressions and vocal patterns near flawlessly, it should be expected that this technology can be used to spread disinformation.

Sometimes, the propagators of propaganda will try to conceal their true purpose, generating false videos, pictures and even entire websites. This issue will give you the tools to counter theirs.

Website spoofing

Let’s run through a hypothetical. It’s 2017, and your uncle, who is also your friend on Facebook, sends you a story claiming that anti-Trump protestors were paid as much as $3,500 on Craiglist. You see the three dots pop up, and soon a second message blinks into view: “Shows how far the deep state will go to trick us, huh.”

You scoff, since this is typical behavior for the uncle I just made up. Upon viewing the link, however, you stop in your tracks: this is from ABC News.

Curious, you investigate the front page.

Screenshot of abcnews-us.com, a website designed to replicate ABC News and filled with fake articles

Before it was taken down, abcnews-us.com was designed to mimic the original source, even down to the reporting. This is a subset of website spoofing, or website copies, used to lend false credibility to fake stories. And it isn’t alone: other examples include ABCnews.com.co, CBSnews.com.co and fox-news24.com—all currently taken down, but like a hydra, seven sprout up for each fallen head. 

Of course, I trust you to only frequent the real websites, but when you need to ward a family member away from website spoofs or fake news sites, there are lists on Snopes and Wikipedia dedicated to the documentation of these bad apples.

If you don’t have a list handy or can’t find what you are looking for, there are other tools as well. That .com.co address in the examples is a dead giveaway since “.co” has previously meant the site is based in Colombia, although now it is also marketed as an alternative to the .com domain. Similarly, the contraction “won’t” in the Matt Lauer story above is not typically permitted for a professional headline and should be a red flag. Furthermore, you can use the purpose: does the site use loaded language to enrage, or does it have sketchy, sexual clickbait ads to sell? Even the knowledge that these sites exist is a tool in and of itself.

Video “evidence”

Now, for this next section, I highly recommend you check out The Washington Post’s article, “How to Spot a Fake Video,” which outlines in detail how to know when videos, which are often taken at face value as undeniable proof, are actually tricking you. The Post’s fact checker team categorized these traps into three categories.

The first one is “missing context,” where a video is deliberately cut short or taken out of context to support a fake narrative. Although it is the most rudimentary, it is deceptively effective. Take, for example, the recent Derek Chauvin trial, where the defense compared the “reasonable doubt” to saying that space aliens inhabited Chauvin’s body. This clip was quickly taken out of context, spread like wildfire due to its absurdity, and sent to me by a friend. For a split second I took it as truth just because of the video evidence.

This is why it is absolutely crucial to verify information if the source’s purpose is not to inform. Even if you think you are tech savvy or know your way around the truth, anyone can be deceived on the internet, especially with topics as controversial and vital to justice as this trial.

This specific tweet, for example, seems as though it aims to entertain, meaning that they likely wouldn’t go through the necessary steps to fact check. Upon a simple Google search, however, the video is quickly debunked.

According to the Post, the other two categories are “deceptive editing” and “malicious transformation,” referring first to the seedy rearrangement or editing of clips and second to the entire fabrication of video and audio. For that reason, it is best to watch out for not only unexplainable gaps in time with the editing, but also technical issues that point to tampering, such as “blurriness in the foreground or background, pixelation, changes in color…slower or quicker movements that don’t match normal human behavior…[and also] edited audio, including cutoff speech, sound that’s warped or modulated and speech that sounds slower or faster.”

Above all, however, you should watch how a video is presented or framed. This includes who posts it! If the purpose is not to inform, don’t bite. 

Simple as that.

In the end, however, these should act as secondary tools. By determining the author’s intent for the source you’re reading and staying clear if that purpose is not to inform, I’d say you can pinpoint propaganda most of the time. Now all that’s left is inoculating your friends and family. Together, we can reach herd immunity against disinformation. 

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