TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Americans have been aware for several years how easy it is for foreign nations to systematically spread falsehoods and spurious rumors on social media. But it's only recently that we fully appreciated the political ramifications that such campaigns can have. That's what's led FRESH AIR's linguist, Geoff Nunberg, to make his word of the year for 2019 disinformation.
GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: As always, this year's word of the year candidates came from all over. There were the viral memes like OK Boomer and weird flex but OK. But they won't endure any longer than earlier years' candidates like FOMO and man bun. Quid pro quo had a moment, but the jury's still out on that one. And a surge in dictionary lookups led Merriam Webster to pick nonbinary they. My choice of disinformation needs some explaining. It isn't a new word, just one of the family of names we give to the malignancies that contaminate the public discourse, along with propaganda and, in particular, misinformation and fake news. Each of those last two was chosen as word of the year by some dictionary or organization in 2017.
But over the last couple of years, disinformation has been on a tear. It's 10 times as common in media headlines as it was five years ago, to the point where it's nudged its siblings aside. That rise suggests a basic shift in focus. What troubles us now isn't just the plague of deceptive information on the Internet but the organized campaigns that are spreading the infection. Most of those headlines concern the Russians. There was their weaponization of social media during the 2016 elections, which The New York Times called the Pearl Harbor of the social media age, and the fears it will be repeated next year. There were also the stories about their interference in recent elections in the U.K., Italy and other nations. And most recently, there was the Russian success in planting the conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, rather than Russia, who interfered in our 2016 elections, despite its being debunked by U.S. intelligence agencies.
Disinformation is as old as human conflict. The great Chinese military theoretician Sun Tzu wrote that all warfare is based on deception. But the Russians can take credit for inventing the word itself. The term dezinformatsiya was reputedly coined by no less than Joseph Stalin in the 1920s as the name of the section of the KGB tasked with deceiving enemies and influencing public opinion. Over the decades, that unit disseminated rumors by means of forgeries, moles, front organizations, fake defections and sympathetic fellow travelers, which, by the way, is another term with Russian origin. The Soviets put out that Pope Pius the XII was a Nazi sympathizer and that the CIA had assassinated Kennedy and invented the AIDS virus.
Dezinformatsiya was anglicized to disinformation during the Cold War era and extended to Western intelligence operations. The characters in John le Carre's spy novels are always talking about planting disinformation to deceive the KGB, using the same clandestine techniques the Soviets did. But the advent of social media created a new field of play and a new panoply of tools for diffusing and amplifying disinformation - trolls and troll farms, bots, hacked accounts and microtargeting. The Russians weren't the only ones to see the possibilities. In a recent report called "The Global Disinformation Order," the Oxford Internet Institute identified organized social media campaigns in 70 nations.
Authoritarian regimes use social media domestically to discredit political opponents. A dozen or so nations like Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia use it to influence opinion in foreign nations. Dictionaries typically define disinformation as the dissemination of deliberately false information. And modern disinformation campaigns all make use of the mendacious techniques we associate with the Orwellian propaganda of the totalitarian states of the last century. They generate a deluge of deceptive narratives that some describe as the firehose of falsehoods concocted to glorify a leader or a cause or malign their enemies. But these campaigns are not all lies. They're also aimed at sharpening tribal divisions and sowing confusion or apathy. And a lot of their effort just goes into building out networks of followers. And for those purposes, a true report or even a benign cat photo can sometimes be just as effective as a blatant falsehood. You have to win friends to influence people.
In fact, as the Clemson University researchers Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren point out, a lot of the disinformation produced by the Russians is just spin. And they've taken their tactics from modern public relations and advertising. As Linvill and Warren put it, they're less like Boris and Natasha than like Don Draper. An ad man like Don Draper would've recognized the classic marketing tactic that led the Russians to fabricate the rumors of Ukraine's interference in the 2016 election. You undermine a competitor's product by creating a counternarrative to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt - what marketers call the FUD factor.
But Draper would've marveled at how porous our online discourse was, how easy it was to inject an implausible rumor into its bloodstream. And he would've been astonished at how quickly the rumor would find receptive hosts in public life. Stalin maybe not so much. Call it disinformation or call it computational propaganda or cyber-enabled information warfare, as some have done. The struggle against it is our new forever war. And our vocabulary is having to catch up with it.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley School of Information. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll continue our series of interviews featuring staff picks from the decade. We'll hear this year's interview with Howard Stern and our 2010 interview with the late Joan Rivers. I hope you can join us. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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