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NATO's View of 'Fake News' and Related Information Activities

The next session at AoIR 2017 is a panel on 'fake news', and begins with Giorgio Bertolin, from NATO (!). 'Fake news' is also an issue for NATO as a military alliance, of course, and NATO is about to publish a report on the issue that is called Digital Hydra. The focus is on exploring activities across different platforms, examining the role of blogs, and studying 'fake news' sites.

The term 'fake news' itself remains problematic, however: it has been used for anything from overtly fake and satirical stories to the spread of deliberate mis- and disinformation that promotes particular political agendas. There is therefore a spectrum from overtly to covertly false information, and from unintentional to intentional falsehoods; NATO uses terms such as 'disinformation' (deliberately deceptive), 'misinformation' (inadvertently false), and more broadly 'information activities' (designed to affect information and/or information systems, therefore.

How does this take place in online, social media environments, then? Social media users receive information from their connections on the platform, and often trust such information more than the material received from other sources; information is not necessarily evaluated as critically as it is in other media. This is a significant issue from the perspective of strategic communication, and the combination of cognitive biases and technological innovation plays a key role here.

Part of the problem here is the absence of gatekeepers: the contemporary information environment is characterised by informality and reciprocity, and this substantially affects the dissemination processes for information. 'Information activities' by the definition above are exploiting these features: attributability is difficult, but we can assume malicious intent when the dissemination of a specific 'fake' story benefits particular actors.

Further, the contemporary disinformation environment is quanitative more than qualtitative: we have moved from a few dedicated propaganda and information warfare departments to a multitude of controlled and independent actors promoting particular stories in a variety of ways. The channels they use are also different in different geographic regions, for different cultures, languages, and demographics, and each have their own way of telling a story. Effective information activities require cross-media tactics, therefore, and blogs continue to play a crucial role here. Additionally, such messages are increasingly also crafted on the basis of user data collection, enabling targetted messaging in specific digital and social media environments.

There is a need to distinguish between mis- and disinformation, then. Political uses of information is not new, but disinformation is now more sophisticated and widespread. Social media bring about new risks, but also offer new opportunities for fighting disinformation.