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Criminals know when to strike by cranking up the volume of scams during a national event—like an election—or during a crisis—like the coronavirus pandemic. It’s easy to spot these spikes in activity, but it’s harder to understand why the tactics behind these scams work so well.

Two researchers at the Cisco Talos Intelligence Group examined misleading and incorrect posts on social media to understand why so many people share misinformation and help spread propaganda online.

Azim Khodjibaev, senior threat intelligence analyst at Cisco Talos, and Ryan Pentney, threat intelligence lead for the APAC region, wrote this post, “What to expect when you’re electing: Why disinformation works,” which was published Thursday. The FBI has warned Congress and the American public that criminals are spreading misinformation about the 2020 election.

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Khodjibaev and Pentney looked at the human mechanisms these operations rely on, why they’re effective, and what individuals can do to become more responsible consumers of information.

Disinformation is what criminals and foreign actors do: The intentional spreading of false information with the intent to deceive. Misinformation is what people on social media do: The unintentional spreading of false information that is not meant to cause harm.

The researchers found that information that is first employed deceptively may, in turn, find itself spreading through unsuspecting participants with the sincerest of intentions.

Criminals and influencers manipulate the feelings and behavior of people by driving false narratives that serve particular goals. They also use established and trusted networks on social media to spread this information:

“These chains of trust fostered by our connections and relationships become attractive infrastructure for disinformation actors looking to bypass our usual smell tests for disinformation by piggybacking on the trust we’ve established in those sources.”

The ultimate goal is to overwhelm people with bad information and train people to disengage from the news or even civic activities like voting.

Here is a look at why these incorrect posts spread so successfully on social media and what you can to improve your information hygiene.

How to write a misleading post

There are several common techniques that propaganda writers use to increase the chances that a message will go viral. It’s easier to spot a misleading post or outright lie when you know what to look for. The Talos researchers described these five tactics based on a list from the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Whataboutism: This is the “you can’t criticize us because you’re just as bad” response used to shut down a discussion and stop critical thinking.

Narrative laundering: First a person who is called an expert but may lack any real credentials makes a false claim. Then this source is used to justify the claim, even though neither the statement nor the person is credible.

Drowning facts with emotions: Misinformation campaigns often use pictures or statements that provoke a strong emotional reaction. If a person is too busy being outraged, it’s easy to share the information before making sure it is accurate.

Card stacking: This tactic mixes true information with lies to make it harder to spot the false information. This makes the lie seem more credible so people are less likely to be skeptical about it.

Changing the quotation, source, or narrative: This technique takes an existing piece of news and changes its original context to serve a different purpose. This includes altering a word in a quote, editing a video clip to change original meaning, or falsely summarizing an article to attribute a new message to its source.

Ask these questions before sharing emotional posts

If you’ve ever shared a post with the warning “just in case it was true,” consider these questions before passing on information that sounds wrong. The first step is to acknowledge that you are human and susceptible to these common manipulation techniques. Then ask these questions:

  1. Does the information make sense or just provoke an emotional reaction?
  2. What is the source of the information and what is the journalistic track record of the source?
  3. Does the information reference a study and was the study published in a predatory journal?
  4. If the information includes an image or video, does it show up in a Google image reverse search?
  5. Is the post written with a particular rhetorical technique that might increase doubt about the intentions of the post?
  6. Is there a claim in the information that can or has already been fact-checked?
  7. Is there an open-source tool that can help me evaluate this information?
  8. What do I know about the account posting this information and could it be a bot?

Who helps to spread misinformation?

The report also highlights research from the BBC about who starts rumors on the internet and spreads them. The news organization analyzed hundreds of misleading stories during the COVID-19 pandemic and identified these seven types:

  • Joker
  • Scammer
  • Conspiracy theorist
  • Politician
  • Insider
  • Relative
  • Celebrity