When I first got to Auburn for college, I was fortunate to have a mentor, an older guy named Burson Dixson who took me under his wing and showed me the ropes, as the saying goes. Maybe he saw this awkward skinny kid integrating into his group of friends and decided it would be good karma to make sure I graduated with not only a degree but also an education on life.

He taught me many things, but the one that stands out right now is his advice on asking for forgiveness rather than permission. Specifically, our tendency as human beings to perceive that someone belongs somewhere if they appear to belong. “Faking it until making it,” if you prefer.

The examples Dixson gave included observing a mutual friend stroll into a convenience store, grab a six pack of beer out of the cooler and nonchalantly go to the checkout, walking out with a grin on his face and a liquid trophy of his audaciousness. Now, I’m not encouraging anyone underage to attempt that. I’m just giving an example.

Another classic illustration was getting past security to meander backstage at a concert. You truly could, on occasion, get access to places you weren’t supposed to be, simply by giving off a vibe of confidence and appearing to know why you’re there and what you’re doing. Most of us respect authority and won’t risk the hassle of getting caught, humiliated and possibly even arrested for trespassing.

I’ve seen guys date girls who were way out of their league in terms of looks or status on the social ladder based purely on convincing them that, of course, she belongs with him.

Confidence is a superpower when it appears authentic.

The Power of Persuasion

I’m seeing a lot of this practically applied these days in the realm of sharing disinformation. That is, people appearing to be authoritative when they’re really just other people on the Internet forwarding data based simply on what they want to be true or what they think will make their case.

In my past job as a marketing guy, I studied various ways to persuade people to respond to calls to action. We never finished a blog post or web page without suggesting some action that would move the viewer closer toward putting the client’s product or service in their hand. You might be shocked to learn how often people will do something simply because they see it assertively (but not rudely) suggested in print. Combined with some offer that’s too good to decline, very powerful stuff.

Another concept I picked up while doing digital marketing was the importance of authority as a ranking factor. In other words, what factors Google uses to determine one website is more relevant and trustworthy than millions of others.

For example, keywords appearing in a newspaper article are deemed of high value as a search result because Google knows that the information is better if a professional writer or researcher researched and compiled it (presuming some attribution to an expert source and vetting of facts to make sure they’re truthful), the facts appear in a publication that’s been around for a while, and a lot of people tend to read and share the articles from that website as a matter of routine rather than randomly ending up there based on keyword recommendations alone.

On Facebook, however, there’s no accounting for the authority of the source. You’re simply seeing something one of your friends shared, possibly without even reading it.

These people commenting in internet comment threads, they rarely qualify what they say with wishy washy qualifying words like “might be” or “allegedly.” Their words are concrete, black or white. They have the power of conviction behind their words and enough life experience to know that if you repeat a lie enough times, people start to presume that it could be true, even if their own life experience and common sense suggest otherwise. If you keep getting in the referee’s face every time you’re caught trying to cheat, eventually he may start to question his own fairness and throw you a bone or two, just to be sure.

The only problem with this approach is that time isn’t on your side – eventually folks realize it when the things you said would definitely happen don’t. And the moment a deceiver collides with someone possessing an equal sense of certainty and conviction, the bluff is called and the cards laid on the table. The grocery clerk tells you he’s calling the cops, the security guard gets mean and tosses you out, the pretty girl humiliates you in front of the whole school.

Someone slick and audacious enough to attempt such feats likely possesses the ability to let such moments roll off of them without a ton of residual shame or worry. But others see them for who they are and should have the good sense to not get fooled again.

The tricky part is that some of the people sharing disinformation are acting out of genuine sincerity and concern. Their hearts are in the right place, but their heads aren’t.

Let me get to the point

With disinformation on social media, we see these principles at work. Attacks on credibility appealing to our reluctance to be perceived as gullible. Facebook and Twitter users are bashing “the mainstream media” as if reporters and editors all get up in the morning and consult one another in some vast conspiracy rather than being fierce competitors scrambling for what’s left of the digital ad dollar.

It would strain credibility to suggest that everything you see and read is always 1,000% accurate and true, but when we’re told not to believe sources that have historically been viewed as credible, it’s a bit of projection at work. Guilty people tend to accuse you of what they are doing themselves so you are thrown off their scent.

This weekend, I was disappointed to see someone I admired on social media contributing to anti-vaccination rhetoric by sharing memes that simply aren’t true and are going to end up getting folks killed. If people online where held to a higher standard, we would have a lot less of this nonsense, but it is rare for people to be held accountable these days.

As we saw last winter, people can make whatever inflammatory statements they want but they tend to act differently in a court of law where they’re forced to present actual evidence to support claims and can face stiff penalties, including imprisonment, if they’re found to be lying. That’s what happens when someone like Sidney Powell is challenged for making baseless claims and is forced to admit that “no reasonable person would conclude that the statements were truly statements of fact” once held legally accountable for her divisive rhetoric.

Fox News personality Tucker Carlson made a similar admission last year when an attorney for the network asserted that no reasonable viewer would believe that what he’d said was factual reporting.

What reasons are there for these people to lie to us? Maybe they do it for sport, the same way a kid who hasn’t fully developed empathy yet enjoys burning ants under a magnifying glass. There’s surely enough cruelty and pettiness in the world to believe that’s possible. Or maybe there’s something financial or ideological to be gained from a little sleight of hand and misdirection.

Foreign Influence and Instigation

Like Oz operating machinery while hiding behind the curtain, America’s enemies are trying to tear us apart and use our open systems to sabotage our society. It is the fulfillment of the prophecy spoken in 1956:

“We will take America without firing a shot. We do not have to invade the U.S. We will destroy you from within….”
– Russia’s Communist leader Nikita Khrushchev

I used to believe that couldn’t happen, but now I am horrified to see Khrushchev’s words coming true!

Let’s consider at the evidence:

  • A Kremlin-linked troll farm, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), has strategically waged a social media war to provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States through hacking, internet-trolling and financing for extremist political groups.
  • They have financed these operations with indirectly provided illegal cash donations from Russian oligarchs, laundering this money through a U.S. national advocacy group that isn’t required to disclose their donors. You might have heard of them as the N.R.A.
  • They have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in Facebook social media advertisements to directly reach millions of Americans and create hundreds of fraudulent accounts to generate shareable content.
  • They routinely fabricate news articles and disinformation to spread from Russian government-controlled outlets, RT America and Sputnik to be popularized on pro-Russian accounts on Twitter and other social media. They use these Kremlin-directed messaging channels as part of the larger efforts to undermine faith in the U.S. government and fuel political protest.
  • They employ thousands of Russian propagandists/trolls to foment “dissent or conspiracies against the U.S. government and its institutions” and use hoax websites and hyper-partisan blogs to generate “clickbait” content sensational enough to produce shares, reactions and comments on Facebook.
  • The Russians target social and political divisions in the U.S. and strategically spread misleading information to groups most susceptible to their influence.
  • They have recruited typically unknowing assets to stage events and spread content from Russian influencers, spreading provocative videos and sharing misleading information.
  • They use misleading memes on social media to arouse viewers to react with outrage by exploiting their typical social attitudes, suggesting that groups they fear and/or feel superior to are receiving undeserved and special treatment from the other side, thus making them feel persecuted and deepening the ideological divide. Simultaneously, they distract from and denigrate critics of Russia and propagate falsehoods about those who exist to expose their fraud.
  • Russia’s military intelligence agency, GRU, has been used under code names like “Cozy Bear” and “Fancy Bear” to send deceptive “spearphishing” emails targeting hundreds of individuals, ensuring one is eventually compromised by clicking on a link, empowering them to upload and use malware to explore American computer networks. Once files are copied, these hackers delete computer logs and files to obscure evidence. They sort through tens of thousands of harvested emails and attachments in search of embarrassing information and/or data analytics.
  • These groups use Bitcoin to pay for a hacker website as cover for activities and wreak havoc by strategically releasing damaging information from stolen emails and documents in stages.
  • They target messaging to “key constituencies” a non-preferred political candidate needs to mobilize, then bombard these voters with negative information about that candidate on social media. They amplify attacks via geographically targeted social media messaging to sway public opinions of “swing state” votes prior to the election.
  • The Russians have attacked our state election infrastructure and exploited weaknesses in voter-registration operations, state and local election databases and other equipment of state election systems, even altering or deleting voter registration data to create chaos and undermine the confidence of Americans in the system’s capability to guarantee free and fair elections. They’ve attacked the critics of these nefarious activities as nothing more than partisan election interference and alleged voter fraud to provoke as much outrage among the U.S. population for as long as possible, ideally disillusioning voters and undermining U.S. voters′ faith in their electoral system.
  • They have repeated disinformation so often that some have begun to believe it could be true.

I’ve been reading the U.S. State Department’s GEC Special Report on Russian efforts to impact our elections. Titled “Pillars of Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem,” it is absolutely riveting to learn intricate details about the sophisticated networks and misinformation tactics they employed in 2016 and are enhancing and expanding now.

I highly recommend you read it, especially if you’re tempted to spread conspiracy theories on Facebook.

Why they are doing it

The Russians have two goals in mind:

  • First, they want to undermine democracies and attack the United States’ global image so we can no longer speak with moral clarity on behalf of freedom-loving people around the globe. If they succeed in smudging our reputation and diminishing our influence, Russia will essentially gain greater influence on the world stage as a result.
  • Secondly, these efforts serve to silence criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has displayed alarming authoritarian tendencies by invading Crimea and staying in office well after his term should have expired. The former KGB officer has murdered journalists for sharing information about his corruption, jailed his political opponents, and he seems to have extraordinary influence over the current president of the United States, Russia’s hated adversary on the world stage and the author of the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

The report states, “By simultaneously furthering multiple versions of a given story, these actors muddy the waters of the information environment in order to confuse those trying to discern the truth.”

This is a golden time for fringe thinkers and conspiracy theorists. A fascinating article on Medium.com explores how we get roped into these idiotic scams. Well worth reading as well.

I’m seeing unprecedented disdain toward scientists and fact-checkers. As if it’s all a ploy, a toolkit of lies, to lead us to some imaginary persecution. Well, there is a toolkit of lies, alright. But the liars and the con men have successfully projected their own manipulations upon others, convincing everyday people that anyone who presents information which contradicts their rhetoric is the actual deceiver.

Final Thought

I leave you with this quote from the movie “V for Vendetta,” which somehow seems appropriate to our current situation.

“Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression… I know WHY you did it. You were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you.”