Deploying disinformation as well as other asymmetric tactics, Russia attacked America's 2016 election. "Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump," according to a 2017 report from the director of national intelligence.
In 2020, Russians have returned. And they've got company: China, which the National Counterintelligence and Security Center believes prefers Joe Biden, and Iran are also trying to degrade our democracy. "Foreign states will continue to use covert and overt influence measures in their attempts to sway U.S. voters' preferences and perspectives, shift U.S. policies, increase discord in the United States, and undermine the American people's confidence in our democratic process," according to an NCSC statement. With these three nations "all seeking greater influence online, the dynamic somewhat resembles a Cold War arms race, but with information rather than missiles as the weapon," Sarah Kreps, a Brookings Institution senior fellow, wrote in an analysis. "Whether the United States has learned how to guard against these weapons, and their evolving use, remains far from clear."
Part of the guard is government, which has mostly focused on preventing an election hack. But less has been done to blunt the insidious internet meddling from foreign forces or even deliberate disinformation from homegrown groups. Sure, some social media companies have mitigated the impact. Facebook, for instance, announced Thursday that it was taking down three disinformation networks with ties to Russia's military and intelligence agencies. But for the most part, social media sites have reacted after the damage is done.
Since these institutions can't do it alone, individuals are the best line of disinformation defense. But unfortunately, it turns out that we're not always that good at it. That's the conclusion from a study by the Reboot Foundation that states, "People are overconfident about their media literacy skills, and they believe that they have more skills than they actually do. For all age groups, determining the reliability of websites is problematic." Especially social media. Even among moderate and light users, "the more time spent on social media, the worse the user's news judgment."
So sound judgment on media choice is important in imparting facts. What works best? According to the Pew Research Center, which ranked respondents on correct answers to 29 fact-based questions, the highest political knowledge is seen by those who "use a news website or app as the most common way" to get political and election news. That figure, at 45% "high political knowledge" and 31% "middle political knowledge," is followed by radio (42% high/34% middle), print (41%/29%), cable TV (35%/29%), network TV (29%/35%), social media (17%/27%), and local TV (10%/21%).
Emphasizing professionally produced news (even delivered via social media) isn't self-serving but democracy preserving, as Americans need to be on guard that they don't advance adversaries' attacks on the 2020 election.