We barely are into 2020, but already discoveries in late 2019 point to a dangerous year of disinformation ahead of us. We will need to be sharp and careful readers not to fall prey to deliberately false information — messages designed to misinform, divide and distract us.
Take the case of TheSoul Publishing as revealed by Lisa Kaplan on Lawfare last month. She noted the firm is behind a number of innocuous arts and crafts videos, but also at that time offered “pro-Russian versions of histories that contain inaccurate information.” She also wrote, “Measured in terms of views and subscribers, it had the third-largest reach of any group of entertainment channels on YouTube in November — outranked only by Disney and WarnerMedia. It is run by Russian nationals and based in and managed from Cyprus, with U.S. operations housed in a shared work space in New York. It funds itself with ad revenues from YouTube and Google worth tens of millions of dollars. And in 2018, it purchased a small suite of Facebook advertisements targeting U.S. citizens on political issues — and it made those purchases in rubles.”
TheSoul now says it will suspend its histories; it is worth watching what becomes of both this provider and its content. Another large provider of concern is The Epoch Times, a Chinese-American offshoot of Falun Gong, a pro-Trump outlet also opposed to the Chinese government. Its politics are not a problem; its penchant for misinformation-laden claims is what got it banned from buying ads on Facebook.
The fact-checking organization Snopes has shown links between The BL (The Beauty of Life), an operation with an immense Facebook presence, and Epoch Times. As 2019 drew to a close, Facebook shut down more than 900 fake accounts, groups and pages, many with artificial intelligence-generated profiles. Epoch Times, as noted by National Public Radio, was “behind the sophisticated misinformation campaign.”
Facebook, owner of Instagram, in October shut down 50 Instagram accounts it had linked to a Russian influence campaign from the Kremlin-linked troll factory, the Internet Research Agency. Viral video memes, harder to trace than text disinformation, may be the forum of greatest concern for 2020.