How You Can Stop Disinformation from Doing (Even More) Harm

Supermajority Education Fund

October 30, 2020

Americans are still up against a major problem that has been sweeping the nation since 2016: Disinformation. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other, darker places on the Internet are home to articles from non-reputable sources that present false information as truth. While much of this disinformation is related to the upcoming general election, this practice — and the bad actors who spread it — won’t go away once all ballots are counted.

Vanessa Cardenas, a consultant and disinformation expert for the Strategic Victory Fund, told Supermajority News that these articles aim to confuse and scare those who share them. The best way to combat it, she added, is to get smarter about recognizing it and stopping it before it does harm. 

Cardenas shared some tips on what to do when you see or watch information that is based on fiction, and not facts. 

What are some of the most common mistakes you see people making on social media with disinformation? 

I think the fundamental problem with this information is that the algorithms with social media reward engagement. And when you see this information, the natural instinct, is if you believe it, you’re going to comment on it. If you agree with it, you’re gonna like it. If you disagree with it, you’re going to maybe make a comment that says ‘this is not true.’ But even by engaging at that level, you are telling the algorithms that this is something that people should be commenting on, liking, saying something about it—it rewards the post. The first rule of disinformation is do not engage with it. 

How should people get the message across to debunk the disinformation, then?

The best thing people can do, if they’re able to, is engage in a conversation with people. Really speak about your concerns from a place not of judgment, but of trying to get to a common understanding. Most people don’t like to be told ‘You’re wrong’ or ‘You’re not smart.’ I always tell people to avoid starting with that. I think the best thing is to focus on values, meaning we all want to have a respectful conversation about the issues, or we all agree that we need the facts to make informed decisions. So begin your conversation from a place of agreement that centers the values that hopefully we all agree with: We can have opinions, but we cannot make up our own facts. We all want tolerance, we don’t want to amplify racial tension. Always lead with your values and the common ground that you would have with the other person. 

The other piece is to amplify the content that you want to — you can post something that you believe in that focuses on the truth, on the facts or on organizations that are trusted. 

What can people do to ensure that they aren’t the victims of disinformation?

It’s important to prime people to be skeptical, to teach people to be good consumers of information. And I know this is something that already our kids in schools are learning: Check your sources, find out who’s writing, what would be the motivation. Start planting that seed in people’s minds about being skeptical, about questioning motives, asking who’s the source, why would they want to spread this type of information?

Why is it especially important ahead of this particular election that we don’t spread disinformation?

Our country is going through such a tense moment right now when it comes to our wellbeing. We’re going through this super hard economic and health crisis (COVID-19), and people are suffering in so many ways. I see that the goal of disinformation is just to create chaos, to communicate a sense that we don’t have control. The worst thing about it is it just wants to undermine the truth in our democratic institutions so we don’t have anyone to trust. 

Given the fact that we are poised to make a decision in an election that really is the most important election of our lifetime, we have to make it with a clear eye, focused, and really embracing the values that this country stands for. We have to communicate a message that we have a vision for a better country, that we are united, and that we are fighting for basic rights to help everyone. And I think to be consistent with that mission, we have to act in a way with a realization that we are all part of an American family. Regardless of where we are, we still have to move forward together as a country. 

Something else that has been a big topic lately is how important the down-ballot elections are in this election. Do you find that disinformation is still spread on the state level, or do you mostly see it in the national election?

I think that the national conversation is taking precedent, but it has implications for down ballot [races]. Bad actors are saying [things like] the Black Lives Matter movement wants to create chaos and is pitting Black people against Brown people, even though there are so many Latinos who are Black. This national conversation does have an impact on state and local races because people are being pitted against each other and put in different camps. The goal again is to just paint someone who doesn’t agree with you as the “other” side and that you are against that person just because they are supporting another candidate. 

How are specific communities targeted by disinformation?

I think, for me, what has been so disappointing, as I learn more about disinformation, is the really evil way in which this disinformation is trying to undo all the work that movements have been doing for the past, I would say, two decades. We have been building movements across racial lines, building solidarity, acknowledging that one movement’s struggle is connected to another movement’s struggle and just trying to build this multi-ethnic coalition. 

One of the most vivid examples of disinformation I have seen this year was around the Vanessa Guillén case. After they did the investigation, they found out that it was an African American male [who killed her]. Around that time, we saw this explosion of disinformation, pretty much making the point that the alleged attacker was Black and was attacking a Latina. That was one narrative. The other narrative was like, “where’s the Black Lives Matter movement when it comes to Latinos?” 

These two messages were being spread online in Spanish. [Disinformation spreaders] started posting super graphic pictures of other Latinos, who, apparently, according to them, had been attacked by Black men. So just making this whole narrative that Black people are attacking Latinos. Then the other piece again saying, ‘How come nobody’s doing any marches or any protests around it?’ 

What was scary about it is how quickly it spread, mainly because this information was being targeted or amplified in Spanish-language Facebook pages and particularly in Mexican-American communities, online communities. Just really preying on that fear factor, not even acknowledging that there are Afro-Latinos among us, but just literally pitting us against one another. 

What worries me about it is it’s preying on a community, or all communities, that already have so many vulnerabilities, particularly at a time when people are losing their jobs. Their mental health is terrible because of all of the stress they’ve been suffering. They don’t have access to the healthcare that they need. At the end of the day, the goal is to depress the vote, it’s to make people feel so disillusioned with democracy that they just decide not to participate. 

What is the scariest consequence when it comes to how we interact with this disinformation?

Some of the disinformation is jumping from sort of the fringes of social media to local news to ethnic media papers, and I think that’s what’s scary. That’s why I go back to this notion of literacy and learning to consume news and re-learn that process, because I think everybody is prone to it.