DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's just say it - our elections in the United States remain vulnerable. That's what Shelby Pierson, the head of election security for the U.S. intelligence community, said on our program yesterday.
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SHELBY PIERSON: The Russians, for example, are already engaging in influence operations relative to candidates going into 2020.
GREENE: OK. So the intelligence community is concerned, and we have learned so are American voters. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll out this week finds that Americans think misleading information is the biggest threat to keeping elections in the United States safe and secure. So what does disinformation look like on the Internet in 2020, and how, if it's possible, can we avoid it? I want to bring in NPR's Miles Parks, who covers election security issues for NPR. Hi there, Miles.
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: Let's just start with a basic question. Can you define disinformation for me?
PARKS: So you should think of it as the intentional spreading of false or misleading claims. And they can be sort of false, a little bit misleading or completely fabricated. And it could be that these claims are fabricated for a number of reasons. It could be for financial gain. The person creating the content can make money off the false claims about, say, Hunter Biden or vaccines if their post goes viral and they're able to sell ads on their website or blog. It also could be for political gain if the person sharing this false information is trying to push towards an idea that they want to advance.
GREENE: We've been talking about this for a while now, I mean, thinking back to all the reporting on what Russia did to spread disinformation. I mean, has anything changed in the last four years?
PARKS: I was curious about that, too. And I actually asked that exact question to Bret Schafer. He's the fellow for disinformation and media at the Alliance For Securing Democracy.
BRET SCHAFER: The threat landscape has probably grown exponentially since 2016 because what 2016 was able to show to anyone who would want to manipulate an election is just how easy it is.
PARKS: He's saying it's gotten worse, and that this time around, not only could it be the Russians, it could be another country potentially like Iran or North Korea, or it could just be an American who wanted to sow some sort of discord. It's really cheap and easy to interfere in elections is what Schafer told me.
There is a common thread, though, from most disinformation when we're kind of thinking about how to spot it. Whether it's false or misleading articles or memes, the place where this stuff spreads is on social media - Facebook, Twitter, YouTube.
Our colleague Lucy Perkins from member station WESA was out reporting and was talking to a voter and actually watched her encounter a piece of disinformation on Facebook right in front of her.
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LUCY PERKINS: It can be really easy to mindlessly scroll through Facebook - every once in a while pausing to read a headline or tap a link, maybe without even paying close attention to where it's from. That's what happened to Mary Henze when she came across a video that really surprised her.
MARY HENZE: What was the source? Hold on one second. I can find it for you. I was reading about this and just absolutely in shock.
PERKINS: Mary is 53 and lives outside of Pittsburgh. She was a Democrat for years but switched parties and voted for President Trump in 2016. Mary finds the link on her friend's Facebook page.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The House Intelligence Committee ramped up its public impeachment hearings on Capitol Hill...
PERKINS: The OAN video promotes a debunked conspiracy theory involving Nancy Pelosi's son and Ukraine. In fact, President Trump has even retweeted versions of the story.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER/NPR CLIP: ...The less-told stories surrounding Paul Pelosi Jr. but still unraveling on the sideline...
PERKINS: I don't know what OAN is.
HENZE: Hold on. One American Network (ph). And these are the things that nobody wants us to know.
PERKINS: Well, I mean, the one thing - the thing that strikes me about that is, like, you consume a lot of news. I consume a lot of news, too, but I've never heard of, like, the One American Network.
HENZE: Well, let's take a look at it.
PERKINS: Mary asks her phone to Google it.
HENZE: Reputation and information on OAN, One American Network. One American Network. Also referred to as One American News, is an - Twitter account - had a history - oh, whoa. Thank you. Thank you.
PERKINS: Can you keep reading what it says?
HENZE: Absolutely. Twitter account had a history of tweeting falsehoods and conspiracy theories. Now, here's the thing. Don't they all?
PERKINS: I don't think every news channel does that.
HENZE: No, I don't. But I think there's a lot that are biased.
PERKINS: Don't - do you think there's a difference between bias and a conspiracy theory?
HENZE: Oh, without a doubt. Oh, without a doubt. Absolutely. Bottom line is it doesn't matter if you're a Democrat or a Republican, they all lie, they all go behind the corner and try to get what they want.
PERKINS: Later, I did some of my own research on the One American News network. It's a small pro-Trump cable news channel. Mary says she now tries to be more aware of disinformation. She no longer follows a lot of sources that she worries are fake.
GREENE: All right. That was Lucy Perkins from member station WESA in Pittsburgh reporting. And Miles Parks, who covers election issues for NPR, is still here. Miles, that moment stands out. She basically is confronted with this falsehood, and instead of saying that's bad, she's like, don't they all do that? Is that common?
PARKS: The short answer is yes. I want to go back to that poll you mentioned earlier, David. Fifty-nine percent of respondents in that poll said it was hard to tell what is fact and what is misleading information. But 37% of people think this is easy, which even experts who do this for a living say it is not. Those are the people who could be really vulnerable to this sort of disinformation.
And there's also this misconception that people who put out false or biased information want everyone who reads it or comes across it to believe the information, but that's actually not really true. Experts, especially on Russia, talk about this idea, this reaction that Mary has here where she says, well, isn't - what is real anyway? Everyone basically lies. That could potentially have been part of the goal - Vladimir Putin's ultimate goal in 2016 with the election interference.
GREENE: I mean, people can write books on all this, obviously, and we only have a short period of time here. But are there a few tips you can give all of us this year in confronting this?
PARKS: Sure. One is that if there is an emotional response, if you're seeing yourself have an emotional response to something on the Internet, check the information before you share it. If it's a complicated subject, check the information before you share it. Or if it's a breaking news situation where a lot of information is changing really quickly, check the information before you share it. Those are times when disinformation works best. And those are times when readers, listeners should be a little bit more skeptical.
GREENE: NPR's Miles Parks. Miles, thanks so much for all this.
PARKS: Thanks, David.
GREENE: And you can hear much more of Miles' reporting on how to spot disinformation on the NPR Life Kit podcast.
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