An ecosystem of mistrust and disinformation

By Alex Romero, for Disinfo Portal

This article is part one of a two-part series by Alto Data Analytics about the workings of disinformation in the digital ecosystem.

In the months leading up to May’s European Union parliamentary elections, Alto Data Analytics researched the latest disinformation strategies in Europe’s digital public sphere. Data was collected from a wide range of public digital sources including social media, public forums, blogs, digital communities, discussion boards, news, video, wiki sites, and other sites, from mid-December 2018 to the end of May 2019 in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Spain.

Between December and January, the data lake included more than 4.7 billion data points indexed from over 200 million results from 20 million authors and continued to grow each month leading up to the elections.

The following series of articles will explore some of the findings and insights from the research, including analysis of the key issues, digital communities and relevant media across the networks identified, in addition to strong signals of coordinated patterns of disinformation across countries and languages.

But first, it will be useful to outline a broader view of disinformation in the digital ecosystem by outlining some of the key problems and suggesting potential remedies.

Fake news and the digital ecosystem

Much of the current debate around disinformation focuses on content – the lies and confusion spread by fake news. The Edelman Trust Barometer reported that nearly seven in 10 respondents among the general population worried about fake news or false information being used as a weapon to spread distrust.

The issue here is not fake news; it is the whole digital ecosystem. Sometimes it seems that social networks like Facebook and Twitter are the issue and that the problem will disappear once they are fixed. Unfortunately, the problem is more complex. The internet was not supposed to be used with malignant intent; as a communications platform, it has serious design flaws. The fact is that today’s digital ecosystem presents possibilities and incentives to lie at scale with lightning speed. The past few years have shown the digital ecosystem to be an incredibly effective environment through which a variety of actors can embed disinformation in the public digital sphere.

Through analysis of numerous social, political, and economic debates in Europe and the Americas over the past few years, four broad areas emerge as key to successful disinformation campaigns in the digital sphere.

Vulnerabilities and freedom of expression

The first is the soft underbelly of liberal democracy. Freedom of debate and expression is a core democratic value enabling and encouraging anyone and everyone to contribute views and debate on the broadest of political, social, economic, and cultural issues. In its European elections research, Alto Data Analytics discovered that on average, less than 0.1 percent of all users generated more than 10 percent of the public digital conversation. The vast dataset collected for the research acted as a powerful proxy of the public debate and the free expression in the digital sphere, and it helped to identify the social vulnerabilities most often exploited by those users with disproportionate abnormal activity. These users selectively focused on a reduced number of polarizing issues such as immigration or the role of multilateral organizations. Disinformation works effectively in vulnerable contexts, and if individuals lose trust in content on the internet then one of the key goals of disinformation warfare has been achieved. Finding or creating a social or economic vulnerability through active polarization of the debate is just the first stage.

Strategically-framed narratives

The next area is the ability to frame certain narratives and issues to suit particular viewpoints, often within localized or cultural contexts. This can range from genuine discussion and exchange of opinion to strategically reframing or distorting views or reality to encourage polarization. The recent European elections research shows how malicious actors relentlessly exploited anti-migrant and immigration themes to spread disinformation as a way to attack those classed as political elites and the wider EU establishment.

New agenda-driven media

A key tool for framing the narrative is the multitude and diversity of digital publications, ranging from government-backed media houses to emerging start-ups and local sites. Such domains are often designed to look like established media outlets. Upon closer inspection, however, they are actually content blocks aimed at distortion.

Our European elections analysis uncovered a list of influential sites aimed at polarizing an issue or spreading disinformation. Some of these were not familiar to journalists covering the EU elections for the better-known media brands in the countries analyzed. They were out of sight of the mainstream media because they proliferated with high intensity within siloed digital communities insulated from most political reporters.

Many of the sites which spread disinformation are funded through advertising networks that rely on programmatic advertising. Algorithms decide which ads go to which sites in real-time, and Alto Data Analytics’ research found that both global and local companies are unwittingly funding those sites. In addition, those sites rely on traffic from social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook and sometimes receive funding from legitimate, though opaque, crowd-funding platforms. In other words, the entire digital ecosystem can be leveraged to augment disinformation’s spread from one website to larger and more diverse audiences.

Coordination across languages and geographies

The final area is the potential for massive coordinated distribution across languages, geographies, and numerous digital touchpoints that helps create the siloed digital communities which propagate disinformation. This incorporates an array of digital tools including automation, targeted advertising, Facebook, WhatsApp or Telegram Groups, or alternative social networks such as, to name just a few.

Techniques such as these are being used to exploit the digital ecosystem and shape the public agenda. Due to the inherent vulnerabilities and the current composition of such an ecosystem, digital disinformation presents a powerful set of possibilities with multi-level incentives and is a real threat to everyone who values democracy.