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How Disinformation Works (on You)

September 19th, 2020 by dk

We have misspent four years trying to catch or conceal the culprits who disrupted our last presidential election. We haven’t learned enough about how disinformation was used to manipulate us. “Us” is not a reference to other people. Their targets include you and me. We’ve done too little to understand how their techniques affect us.

Hacking certainly happened in 2016. Senior aides had embarrassing emails stolen and published, fueling dissent between Democrats. Election records and tabulating machinery were targeted, even if they didn’t alter any outcomes.

They sought to sow distrust in our systems. And they succeeded. The real impact of their meddling has not been detected for one simple reason. It hasn’t happened yet. But it will. Very soon.

While our president has been denying there were any outside influences, he works from the inside to achieve the same goal. Citizens increasingly hate others who see things differently and doubt authorities and institutions.

Will the upcoming election be rigged? Will its outcome produce violent reactions? This administration answers yes, with little equivocation. It’s not inevitable, but it’s also not unlikely. Our democracy and self-governance has never been so imperiled.

That’s the who, what, when and why of this disinformation attack. But what about the most significant variable? Where, exactly, does this battle take place? Inside our heads and hearts — yours and mine. No one is immune.

Consider Facebook, but know that it applies to every other social media outlet as well.

You receive a friend request from somebody you don’t know or know well. It may be a real person, a stolen identity, or an invented persona. You accept, because it feels good to have more friends or followers. And then you forget about it.

Months later, you post something that expresses frustration with Oregon’s governor or Portland’s protests or any other hot-button issue. Suddenly, hundreds have “liked” your post — mostly friends of your friends. You feel popular and powerful. So you start posting more often on similar topics.

Facebook’s algorithm begins highlighting these posts to more of your actual friends, because a troll farm has boosted their predictive “engagement” score. Responding to nothing except the urges inside you, you express stronger opinions and link to others doing the same.

Old friends note the change, but they get shouted down by your new “friends.” Unconsciously, you begin to sever the connections you had before Facebook’s algorithm controlled what you see.

What you see looks like the news, but always with a slant that mirrors your own. Contrary views are hidden, except when disparaged by your “friends.”

Bit by bit, you absorb information and adopt opinions that play well with a new crowd you know only online. Meanwhile, your flesh-and-blood friends feel alienated from you — unless they haven’t noticed because the same transformation is being done to them.

Back-and-forth dialogue is reduced. Opinions change less frequently. We stop looking for common ground, because we can always find others who will agree with us. We love this virtual world and our place in it. We won’t see what we’ve lost until it’s beyond retrieving.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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