How to Fight a Disinformation Campaign

By Alex Berezow, PhD — Mar 10, 2021
Victims of disinformation campaigns can use a five-pronged strategy to fight back and win.
Credit: Public Domain/Wikipedia

Misinformation and disinformation have emerged as two of the most important threats in the world today.

The difference between mis- and disinformation is intent. When somebody is "misinformed," they hold and perpetuate false beliefs, mostly innocently. Disinformation, on the other hand, is sinister. It involves the spreading of "fake news" to inflict some harm. Usually, disinformation is aimed at a particular target -- an individual, an organization, or even an entire nation.

This phenomenon isn't new, of course. The old-school term for it is propaganda. What makes it uniquely powerful today is the speed with which a lie can circle the globe. Phony information can destroy reputations, careers, and lives in a matter of seconds. Frighteningly, nobody is immune.

If information is power, then disinformation is like a pipe bomb. How can it be dismantled?

How to Fight a Disinformation Campaign

When being victimized by a disinformation campaign, there is a five-pronged strategy that the target can use to fight back.

1) Acknowledge what the disinformants get right. The goal of many disinformation campaigns is to destroy a reputation, and the best, most convincing lies are couched within a cushion of truths. To disarm the disinformation, the victim must first admit to the parts of the story that are actually true. If the victim is indeed guilty of some wrongdoing, admit it. Confessing mistakes builds credibility with the public.

This might seem counterintuitive but think about the times in which you had a personal conflict with somebody. Peace is restored much quicker when both sides admit to contributing to the problem. Disclosure is disarming.

2) Explain why the other parts of the story are not true. Though a disinformation campaign may deploy many verifiable facts against its target, they are often taken out of context or manipulated in some way that paints an entirely false narrative. This false narrative must be corrected using evidence. But remember that data alone is insufficient to win in the court of public opinion. People are mostly influenced by emotion, so appeal to it. It is psychologically easier for us to believe in likable people.

3) Reveal the motivations behind the disinformation campaign. The disinformants are often trying to accomplish something. Though some disinformation campaigns (like those that originate in Russia) seem to create chaos for the sake of creating chaos, most have a goal in mind. Perhaps the disinformants are motivated by power or money. Try to determine what is driving the disinformants and then expose them.

4) Perform an "accusation audit." (This is a great term coined by Chris Voss, author of the book Never Split the Difference.) Whatever you say in response to a disinformation campaign, be assured that the disinformants will fire back. The best way to prepare is to anticipate what the campaigners will accuse you of and have answers prepared. If you're feeling particularly bold, publicly state in advance what the disinformants might say next.

5) Stay cool, calm, and collected. This might be the hardest part. It is natural to be angry and enraged when somebody is lying about you or your organization. But remember that your audience is the general public, and it is difficult to believe somebody -- even if they are 100% correct -- when they are shouting or name-calling. So remain calm.

The growth in the disinformation "industry" is obviously a very bad development for society. The upside is that those who work in public relations firms, especially on crisis management teams, will have decades of job security.

Alex Berezow, PhD

Former Vice President of Scientific Communications

Dr. Alex Berezow is a PhD microbiologist, science writer, and public speaker who specializes in the debunking of junk science for the American Council on Science and Health. He is also a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and a featured speaker for The Insight Bureau. Formerly, he was the founding editor of RealClearScience.

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