STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A powerful image of the protests here in Washington circulated on social media Sunday night - a completely fake image, completely made up - an image showing a fire going halfway up the Washington Monument - not reality, just a screen grab from a TV show. It was part of a sophisticated disinformation campaign that was launched as the United States is in the midst of a public health and economic and political crisis. NPR's Miles Parks covers election security and disinformation. Miles, good morning.
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: Why would somebody spread that particular image?
PARKS: So the main storyline, it all kind of goes into this kind of conspiracy theory that somebody - we're not sure who - was trying to spread. And the story basically goes like this. They were trying to push this narrative that at some point Sunday evening, the government managed to shut down all communication and Internet services in Washington, D.C., so that way, protesters wouldn't be able to post things on social media and police would be able to use more force.
Now, we know this is not true. And come Monday morning, a bunch of reporters wake up to tens of thousands of tweets about this specific storyline, and they start posting, you know, things that say, no, this didn't happen. I was there. I was able to tweet and email without any issue. But the #dcblackout hashtag that went along with this had already taken off, and it's been mentioned more than a million times on Twitter already.
INSKEEP: OK, so lots of people get that message. It's not clear that everybody gets the debunking of it. Was that the end of the disinformation campaign?
PARKS: It wasn't. And that's where this campaign gets really sophisticated. Once it starts being debunked by all these reporters, a network of hacked accounts and other bots, other automated accounts jump in to say - basically give a PSA that says, oh, that's fake. That's misinformation. Don't listen to it - which then prompts this third round of sort of reverse psychology effect on some people, feeling like, oh, if the bots are saying it's fake, then they want me to believe that, and maybe this is actually real. So then you get, you know, another flood of posting about the fact that there's automated accounts debunking it, if that makes sense.
INSKEEP: Any idea who orchestrated all of this?
PARKS: It's not exactly clear at this point. It was definitely a well-funded and well-organized effort is what experts told me. It's not just somebody sitting in their basement on a whim deciding to do something like this. I talked to Darren Linvill, who's a professor at Clemson who studies disinformation campaigns on social media. He didn't want to assign blame, but he was willing to at least say it fits the Russian game plan of throwing out multiple, conflicting narratives.
DARREN LINVILL: That is a classic Russian move. I mean, that sort of creating a double negative to make one question everything one believes - there is no truth - is what they do best.
PARKS: Now, he was really clear that this does not mean it definitely is the Russians, but just that their playbook is out there for anyone who has enough resources and wants to sow this sort of chaos on social media.
INSKEEP: Is there something about the chaos on the streets or the protests on the streets that make people particularly vulnerable to this kind of disinformation?
PARKS: Yeah, there is. That's what Linvill said. I asked him the exact same question. Here's what he told me.
LINVILL: There has been a spike in social media use in general, and you combine that with something that is so emotional that people are going to have visceral reactions to, and they're going to be more primed to believe whatever it is you're going to plant in their mind.
PARKS: And then you add in the fact that this protest movement is sort of based on the very idea that many official sources of information are not necessarily to be trusted, and it all kind of feeds into this environment that bad actors can take advantage of online.
INSKEEP: Miles, thanks.
PARKS: Thank you, Steve.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.