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Nation & World

How Disinformation Spreads, And Why It's So Hard To Combat

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

This past week, President Trump tweeted a single hashtag - #OVERTURN. It's part of a pattern of amplifying hashtags already out there or creating new ones. For the uninitiated, it may seem meaningless or random, but our next guest argues it is part of a calculated campaign of disinformation and propaganda.

Emily Dreyfuss works with the Harvard Shorenstein Center's Media Manipulation Casebook, and she joins us now from San Francisco to talk about how it works. Welcome to the program.

EMILY DREYFUSS: Thanks so much for having me, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just after the election, you wrote an op-ed for The New York Times with the title "Trump's Tweeting Isn't Crazy: It's Strategic, Typos And All." So let's first talk about how something like the #OVERTURN hashtag sort of metastasizes on social media when someone with such an enormous following like Trump uses it.

DREYFUSS: So hashtags like #OVERTURN or #StopTheSteal or, in the case of my New York Times op-ed, #BidenCrimeFamily, they work as a viral slogan is what we call them. And it is a way to distill a very complicated agenda down into one soundbite. And then it allows people who are interested in furthering that agenda to amplify it much further.

When it comes to President Trump, he has a huge following on Twitter. Everything that he tweets is not only news for journalists but also is watched very closely by people online who are waiting around to amplify everything that he says. They are his most excited supporters. And there is an entire machinery online that is waiting to sort of amplify everything that he is putting out there. Additionally, he is a very savvy user of the media ecosystem that we are in, and he knows which soundbites and slogans and hashtags to amplify. He himself is the most effective amplifier.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have described a technique called typosquatting (ph). What is that? And how did President Trump use it?

DREYFUSS: Well, in the case of the #BidenCrimeFamily, what I was talking about is the media manipulation life cycle of the specific media manipulation campaign to get the #BidenCrimeFamily slogan to trend. Now, the typosquatting tactic was - in this case, #BidenCrimeFamily was the original hashtag seeded around the Internet by people like Giuliani and Sean Hannity and very influential conservative members of the media. And it was to push misinformation at the time before the election about Hunter Biden. So Twitter de-indexed it which meant that if you clicked on the #BidenCrimeFamily hashtag, you would get no results even though those posts were live. So before the election, when Donald Trump tweeted #BidenCrimeFamily, he did something incredibly savvy, which was that he put a typo in the hashtag. He spelled the word family with two I's. Now, we call this typosquatting. You could say it was an error. You could say it was just a coincidence. But it wasn't because that version of #BidenCrimeFamily with the two I's, the typosquatted version, had been in use by members of the conservative media and influential Internet sphere in order to get around Twitter's mitigation of the original hashtag. And to this day, that version with the typosquatted two I's is still not banned or de-indexed on Twitter. And it is now - you can see it constantly or frequently in use in posts that are also pushing things like #StopTheSteal.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, because putting those words together, if I'm not interested in the story, I know nothing about it, it might affect people who are exposed to it, right?

DREYFUSS: Absolutely. And, you know, social science studies have shown that the more a person hears something or is exposed to something, the more true it sounds. It's kind of a glitch in the human brain. It has evolutionarily served us before. But in a disinformation ecosystem, it really is dangerous. And what these hashtags do, what viral slogans and all of these - even memes - what they do is they take really complicated, nuanced issues that people can debate about, that people feel passionate about, and they distill them down to this really simple piece of information that becomes unstoppable in some ways.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your work at the Shorenstein Center isn't all about political disinformation. We're seeing a huge influx of coronavirus vaccine disinformation right now. What are you tracking?

DREYFUSS: Yeah, we are - we have been watching this for a while in anticipation of the vaccine. And a lot of these media manipulation campaigns, and especially when it comes to vaccine hesitancy, they really prey on existing social ledges and cultural inequalities. So groups of people who may already be hesitant and distrustful of doctors are often targeted. People whose children have died of unexplained circumstances and now, you know, are looking for something to blame and are - and have been targeted by the anti-vaccination community to blame vaccines then become mouthpieces to spread misinformation about the vaccine. So there is a - not a vacuum, but there's definitely a deficit of trustworthy information coming from the government, coming from trustworthy sources, partially just because the coronavirus is confusing, and scientists have been working overtime to understand it. But in that environment where people are looking for answers and there aren't necessarily simple and easy answers readily available, into that environment flows disinformation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Emily Dreyfuss is a journalist with the Harvard Shorenstein Center's Technology and Social Change Project. Thank you very much.

DREYFUSS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.