Isaac Kfir, Advisory Board, International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law and Adjunct Professor, Charles Sturt University
Disinformation is widely understood as referring to content produced to generate profits, pursue political goals, or as information created to maliciously mislead, such as in the form of hoaxes.
In the era of infodemic and radicalisation, the monetization of disinformation has become a major challenge, not only because some reject the science and in doing so put many others at risk, but also because it undermines faith in the political system, weakens social harmony and cohesion, and encourages violence.
A recent study by GLOBSEC highlighted the danger of disinformation, revealing that 30% of people living in Central and Eastern Europe believe that Covid-19 had been created to control and manipulate people. The study also found that one in four entertain the claim that the Covid-19 vaccine will be used to insert a nanochip in people. It is evident that many of those inhabiting the disinformation ecosystems are more likely to embrace conspiracy theories, reject the status quo, and even engage in violence.
Much of the attention when it comes to disinformation is on how state actors such as Russia, China, Iran, and others use it. The narrative focuses on how ‘bad’ countries seek to sow divisions in western, liberal democracies. A second focus is on how national politicians use disinformation to exploit political, social, economic, cultural, and religious divisions, to advance their agendas and careers. U.S. President Donald Trump’s repeated claim of election fraud in the of hope of securing a second term has slipped into the psyche of millions of Americans. These men and women fervently believe the 2020 election was stolen, even though the evidence shows the opposite. It was such rhetoric that led to the storming of the Capitol by thousands of Trump supporters determined to ‘stop the steal’.
Clearly, with the growth in the dissemination of disinformation, people have looked for ways to profit from the widespread fear be it by claiming they have effective countermeasures to 5G radiation (5G conspiracy theory) to providing ‘cures’ to Covid-19 and other ills. These entrepreneurs serve as a reminder that disinformation begun as a for-profit endeavour. That is, enterprising individuals saw an opportunity to monetise the spread of untruths, building up an entire industry focused on exploiting people’s fears, dissonance, and politics.
One way to understand the rise of the monetization of disinformation is to look at the Macedonian fake news industry, which has reinvented itself in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Kosovo, Ukraine, and other jurisdictions as creative disinformants look to cash in on suspicion, distrust, and the search for truths.
In a ground-breaking, ethnographic study on the Macedonian town of Veles, Heather Hughes and Israel Waismel-Manor concluded that economic hardship and the knowledge that there was a market for misinformation led many young people to engage in creating and disseminating fake news. In other words, it was the recognition that a fertile, wealthy, hungry market existed that encouraged these young people who were looking for economic security, to develop and promote mis- and dis-information. Moreover, it was also the knowledge that such action did not incur any criminal penalties that encouraged young people to join the sector.
Nowadays, troll farms, strategic communication companies, and individual entrepreneurs, spread mis- and dis-information for financial gains. They do this with impunity, as the national and international legal regimes are unclear on how to deal with these actors, especially when the propagators use a free speech defence.
A good example of how hard it is to prosecute those engaging in disinformation was in the case of the Russian-based Internet Research Agency. The US Justice Department decided to drop the case, claiming that to proceed would expose collection methods. One of the oddest things about the decision was that it came on the eve of the trial. Alternatively, the 2020 US Honest Ad Act, aimed at enhancing transparency and thus addressing political disinformation, is also lacking, as it focuses only on political advertising and the legislation is yet to be tested in the courts. There are hopes that the EU’s Digital Service Act might offer some security against hate speech and the spread of harmful information, although one remains sceptical.
Before developing a strategy to counter the monetization of disinformation we must begin by recognising the role of data voids, search engines, and algorithms, play in facilitating the monetisation of disinformation.
Back in May 2018, two Microsoft employees, Michael Golebiewski and Danah Mattas, who styles herself (lower-case) danah boyd, defined data voids as results from search engines that turn up little to no results. These tend to happen when the query is obscure or not searched often. What the authors also identified was that when a data void emerges, an enterprising entrepreneur could create content to fill in the void. The entrepreneur would exploit inbuilt features such as auto-fill, auto-play, and trending topics as they look to create content. This was how the Macedonian fake news sector first emerged.
Two important elements feed the monetization of the disinformation process. The entrepreneur’s knowledge that machines learning systems lack the subtlety or appreciation for the nuance of a word or a phrase, which humans do. Instead, these machines rely on algorithms that record search history, recognition of taste, repetition, all of which mean that the machine presents information that carries a probabilistic likelihood that the webpage, image, video, or story satisfies the search parameters. The disinformation entrepreneur by focusing on certain words, can create content knowing that when certain people conduct specific searches they would be led to the webpage, image, video, or story that the entrepreneur had created. The pages could have some advertising or content that users would need to pay.
The growth of disinformation is also associated with programmatic advertising and the increased reliance on non-mainstream, non-reputable “information” providers, some of whom rely on clickbait or pay-per-click traffic that at best sensationalizes the news. Programmatic advertising refers to the use of software to buy and sell advertising space online. The process allows companies to purchase an advertising space without having to go through a human. Programmatic advertising is attractive because search engines track users’ search history, helping target the advertising. For example, if someone looks to buy a car, the search engine records it and could direct ads about cars to the person. Conversely, because the system is automated and works on algorithms, the company buying the advertising space, may not know where its ad ends up. This reality could explain why in 2019, $235 million worth of advertising ended up on sites peddling disinformation.
Moving to the growth in non-traditional news propagators: such are the source of news for approximately two-thirds of individuals in the United States, Mexico, Malaysia or Argentina. Social media platforms have displaced traditional news outlets to a considerable extent. The Global Disinformation Index (GDI) identified Breitbart, The Western Journal, The Epoch Times, RT.com, and SputnikNews.com as websites that attract over 115 million visits per month, but accordingly to GDI these entities carry the highest amount of election-related disinformation.
The monetization of disinformation is a persistently under-studied problem. If society is serious about returning to civility and harmony, those peddling disinformation for financial gain must be brought to account, as disinformation poses a clear and present danger to contemporary society as seen most vividly on January 6 when a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol believing they were preventing an election being stolen. This is where experience with deradicalization, de-platforming, and other accountability tools could help; they worked in undermining the spread of terrorist propaganda and should be explored sooner rather than later as we try to contain the spread disinformation for financial gain.
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