'Superspreaders of Malign' -- Disinformation Expert Miriam Matthews Talks About Russian Information Manipulation: Episode 10

In this episode, we talked to Miriam Matthews author of a report published in April called Superspreaders of Malign.

Eva & Daiva @ The Inoculation

In this episode, we talked to Miriam Matthews author of a report published in April called Superspreaders of Malign. It describes the types of COVID-19-related malign and subversive information efforts with which Russia- and China-associated outlets appear to have targeted U.S. audiences from January 2020 to July 2020.

Our reporting is supported by Journalismfund.eu, Media Lab Bayern and Alfred Toepfer Stiftung. Subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts, Audible, Google Podcasts, Spotify or another platform of your choice. Follow us on Facebook as @theinoculation, on Twitter as @TInoculation, and on Instagram as @the_inoculation

Here's the transcript (A robot helped us, so please excuse any mistakes):

Miriam Mathhews  0:05
I am Dr. Marion Matthew and I am a senior behavioural and social scientist for the RAND Corporation. And part of what I do is look into alignment versus information efforts could be called propaganda.

Eva Schaper  0:23
Hi, listeners, we just took a look at the calendar and saw that we're heading towards our summer break. We're going to be off all of August. So today's show and the show in two weeks are going to be the last for our first season. Well,

Daiva Repeckaite  0:37
first season. Do you remember our first podcast episode? Right? We asked Dr. Samantha Vander slot and Professor Jason reifler. About how to estimate the size of the anti vaccination movement.

Eva Schaper  0:49
Yeah, that was so interesting when Jonathan Kennedy introduced us to the idea of fencers which are people who are neither 100% Pro vaccination or totally against it. And what I think is most interesting thing is that's actually the biggest group of people. Oh,

Daiva Repeckaite  1:06
yes, you're right. Do you remember episode four lsrs omenka told us about the behaviour of Q anon and other secretive groups?

Eva Schaper  1:14
Oh, yeah, that was a really interesting episode. We also had a lot of positive feedback on episode six, where we talked about how Russia is spreading negative information on vaccines made by Western countries.

Daiva Repeckaite  1:27
Yes. And I thought we'll listen to the complete interview with Dr. Miriam Matthews of RAND Corporation, who published a report on this information because she had so many interesting things to say.

Eva Schaper  1:45
drawing me up on paper and my colleague divert rabid Qaeda as we come through research to find out what you can do and what our governments can do to stop the spread of disinformation. Because we believe that knowing about disinformation is the only way to protect ourselves against it. We believe this is one of the most important fights of the future, because so much is at stake.

Welcome to the inoculation. The podcast that gives you the facts about this information, we just wanted to take a minute to welcome our new listeners. Hello, and thank you for your interest in our show. If you like it, please tell your families, your co workers and your neighbours, we really need your help to get the word out about our show. Okay, so back to today's episode with Miriam. So first, I was really interested in knowing more about Miriam's professional background,

Miriam Mathhews  2:39
to look into persuasion and influence and the different factors that can can lead people to be persuaded to change their attitudes or to form certain attitudes or opinions and so forth.

Daiva Repeckaite  2:52
What else did you talk about?

Eva Schaper  2:54
Well, I wanted to know if Russian disinformation or misinformation or propaganda is something completely new.

Miriam Mathhews  3:01
This has been something that Russia in particular has been engaging in, kind of spread, sometimes creation, definitely spread of information that is incorrect, completely, or slightly incorrect or misleading. such that it might be certain bits of it are based in reality and placed and a context that is consistently incorrect. So no, this is this has been going on for quite some time. And an earlier work colleague and I, Chris Paul, we wrote a piece on Russia's fire hose halted such that Russia in particular, tends to get information that is misleading and false, out very quickly and does so just without the attempt of having consistency across these different messages, just a lot of information that is misleading, incorrect. And just putting it all out there. So that it makes it very challenging to, for individuals to be able to really tease apart which of these which of these messages true or false, what parts of the messages are true or false, just because there's so much of it.

Daiva Repeckaite  4:23
Oh, that image of the firehose is really great, isn't it?

Eva Schaper  4:27
Oh, it? Sure it is. And I also was wondering if countering disinformation is as easy as maybe just not choosing RT as my news channel. And here's what Dr. Matthews had to say

Miriam Mathhews  4:41
no, not at all. So there is the element of know that there are certain certain channels that are directly connected to Russia or somewhat indirectly connected to Russia, including RT you mentioned Sputnik before but then There's also the dissemination of messages through other sources where it's not, it's not quite so clear that these are connected threshold agents. So these sources can include things like Facebook and Twitter, and so forth. And, you know, new websites that pop up, and it's hard to, it's hard to address each of those as are coming out of this diversity of sources so that you can inform people, this source we know is connected to Russia. And it has put for us messages that are questionable at best, and others that we know are completely false. So that we can do but then all of the other things that come up on you new tweets or new, something from a new Facebook element, those sorts of things, it's very hard to address those, to find them and rapidly and quickly, it goes down when they're when they're being so I guess versus the terms of the dissemination of information?

Daiva Repeckaite  6:02
Are those the only trials Russians are using?

Miriam Mathhews  6:04
No, no, no, no. So as we mentioned in the report some of the things so of course, RT America, because I report just to rely and the focus is on the malign and subversive information from China and Russia on COVID-19 is going to, or could potentially be reaching us audiences. And so within our report, what we focused on either different channels or sources where us audiences might be exposed to this information, and then they're exposed as potentially counsellors by it. So some of the things that we identified include, of course, RT, America is associated Facebook and YouTube channel. Then there's South news, grand, global research, strategic culture, Foundation, One World Press, all of these sorts of things. So multiple different sources. And things can also come out from, you know, from individuals in positions of authority or political positions within the country as well. And they are, they're separate. They're separate speeches, tweets, Facebook messages,

Eva Schaper  7:17
and so on. And then I wanted to know if these messages are concentrated just on one side of the US political spectrum?

Miriam Mathhews  7:26
No, that is not what we what we found. In our review, it's not that there is effort to target for example, of left target of right or whatnot, instead, it appeared more of an effort to get fringe ideas that could, some of them might appeal to the rights, some of them might appeal to the laughing because out and disseminated to larger audiences. So for example, there might be something of a French individual or site that that Russia and its agents appear to pick up on. And then while normally that would remain with that one individual, or very few people would be exposed to that message. What Russia and PPC do is find ads and credit wisely. And so as more people are exposed to that, then that can lead to more divisiveness and, and lead to more individuals potentially believing this information that they not only wouldn't have been exposed to because it's from the fringe individual or fringe. Right.

Eva Schaper  8:34
Okay. And Dr. Matthews also broke down the type of messages that we see coming from Russia.

Miriam Mathhews  8:40
Yeah. So I think in doing that, I also have to speak to timelines for exactly the different types of messages varied over time. Our focus is kind of more on the early pandemic, and the early 20/21 part of that year, and looking to identify who and what, when, and so forth. So during that time, what we, what we found was that when people there was a lot of confusion and uncertainty about the American, what it what it was and what people should be doing. At that time, we saw a lot of Russian links, messaging, that implies conspiracy theories, and all kinds of different conspiracy theories that were that were being promoted by Russia. And so I won't go into depth about those. But what it seems to be is that people were looking to understand what was happening and so they were bobbing on to these conspiracy theories, because those those things were providing some sort of, albeit incorrect and completely misleading, sort of messaging that seems to provide people with some certainty early in the pandemic when there weren't as many kind of straightforward as it is about what to do and how to do it, when to do it. And confused about the pandemic, Russia was putting forth these conspiracy theories and people were. Apparently, they were appreciative of those and seeking out those kinds of things as, as it became as more information came out, and people began to learn more about the pandemic, responses to it then appeared to shift to more of what might be called propaganda. So providing overtly negative and disseminating overtly negative messages about United States and its response. And so the suppose ID and efficiencies within the medical system or enact the adequacy of measures to curb the pandemic or potential economic implications. And somewhat interestingly, promoting it, other countries, including China is doing so much better in terms of addressing the pandemic response that says, at least from what we can see, it doesn't appear to be something where Russia really intended to create some sort of collaboration with China, instead, it was just an immediate risk that could be referenced and compared to the United States. So it wasn't that there was some sort of effort to rush at China to work together and said, just more out of convenience, Russia was also putting forth messages about how, how great China was comparatively to the United States.

Eva Schaper  11:34
And who are the people who unknowingly spread these messages? In my head, I have this idea that they might be, you know, crunchy yoga moms. And to be honest, I'm a bit of a yoga mom myself. So what did Mary Matthews have to say about that,

Miriam Mathhews  11:50
what I want to do the month in particular, so that's kind of what misinformation is considered to be often it's not that somebody has intentionally created some false or misleading message and this disseminating it and said, they've been exposed to a message that might have been intentionally created to be false, and they don't know it. And there are various reasons why they might No, not know it, they just it happens to support something that they that they are with, or that they were suspicious of. So even though it's false, say, they don't know it, and they're just gonna, they're gonna go ahead and support that, because it seems to make sense to them. Or maybe they don't have the time or the motivation to really carefully consider it are the typos in this is this, how does this conflict with what I'm hearing from official us sources, and, and all that. So this challenge of really being able to identify true versus somewhat true versus false versus sum of all it's like being able to understand that spectrum of vision and clearly have literacy and evaluating needs these false messages. So absolutely, a large part of this comes from people who don't know that what they've been exposed to, it's actually incredibly false misleading, like very damaging and harmful. And they just assume that it is, it is the truth. And that could be because it looks like it's coming from an official source, it looks like an official news source. Or it incorrectly says that this information came from some sort of government person or a medical individual, or what, you know, all of these different options. And so they assume, based on these bits of the messages that they're actually true, when in reality, if you ever really got into this or you checked a source or you saw that there were these misalignments throughout the message should be a little bit more clear, this is false, and these individuals would hopefully be you know, aware of this more. So a lot of it is just just lack of knowledge.

Daiva Repeckaite  14:09
So can we say that we see clearly how Russia is trying to sow

Miriam Mathhews  14:14
chaos in the US through the dissemination of these these different types of messages to these audiences. So for example, for some of these, it's going into a particular kind of political environment and then making it even more polarised going by disseminating these friend messages, incorrect messages to large audiences, focusing on just the right or just the left it may be a more divisive and polarising environment, it makes it more difficult for people to to come to common understanding and contributes to kind of this receptivity to conspiracy messaging, and painting the US and the various responses to go and vaccines in a negative light, which could be quite harmful. And it leads to the uncertainty and, and

Eva Schaper  15:12
mistrust. But I really wanted to know seeing people who don't want to be vaccinated or don't want to wear masks. If this was something that just plainly happened, or if we can say this is exactly what Russia had planned. So is this something that happened by chance, and Russia is quite happy about it or is something else going on?

Miriam Mathhews  15:35
So what we've been seeing from Russian messaging isn't necessarily that there is like, there is a clear and certain plan with regard to masks, for example, with regard to these certain behaviour or elements. Instead, it is this rapid and massive dissemination of whatever kind of information can lead to greater divisiveness. And there's a lot of divisiveness about masks. So then you can see some associated messaging from Russia, which can help to help to create that that kind of helps to produce even larger divide. So it's, it's people that already have questions, at least what what we're seeing maybe some confusion wants some information on this, and then they get this incorrect information about mass quick thing about social distancing. And, and then that contributes even more to stronger emotions and feelings and greater divides and more confusion, and just creates a more kind of chaotic environment.

Eva Schaper  16:45
At the end of the day, basically, you're kind of making it easier for let's just say fringe candidates to become more successful in upcoming elections. Just because there's so much distrust in the current government, for example,

Miriam Mathhews  16:59
it's possible you're certainly making some of their fringe messages, you're disseminating the more widely from a greater variety of sources that can contribute to people believing that there's more validity in them, when in reality, it's just false messaging and misleading messages being disseminated from a larger variety of sources, and then being further disseminated by people that don't know as well, because they just keep spreading it.

Daiva Repeckaite  17:26
For Miriam's report, that sounds like you know Russia is very active in this China is maybe a bit less. So

Miriam Mathhews  17:32
the Russians in Canada, the objectives behind it appear to be to show distress to amplify divides to the information space, discredit the US. So these are the things that I think so far we've discussed the various elements that it appears like Russia is doing. So what China is doing, by contrast, really appears to be promoting. And doing that consistency across various sources. You know, defending China and promoting China, with that consistency of messaging, we don't see that there's this real intent to do all these other things to, you know, create internal divides in the US where the objective isn't necessarily about, about doing things for the United States as much more about defending China. So to the extent that China feels attacked by the United States, and sure, the subsequent perceived response to this, but not not this fire, from Russian said, there's a lot more consistency. And because of that, it really might resonate with fewer audiences, because you have Russia's guide, putting out whatever kind of messages you can stick and to make these internal divides greater. From China side, it's really just consistent across all these sources. China is doing such a great job, look at how China is doing in comparison to the United States, like China, kind of China.

Eva Schaper  18:57
And then I really wanted to know if there's a way to think about these operations, you know, do we have people sitting somewhere in a room full of computers? Or are these bots? How can I visualise What's happening?

Miriam Mathhews  19:11
Well, there is previous evidence, and this is also part of the fire hose piece that there are people in rooms sitting in front of computers just trying to get out massive amounts of misleading and false information. There are also flights and we also have research on that, that has has shown that yes, there appear to be bots that are and you know, there are active attempts to identify and find them and take them down. But then new bots are created. So it's this constant effort of trying to take those down just a constant effort of trying to find these, these two profiles are these new whatnots that are being created.

Daiva Repeckaite  19:53
What can we do if I see for example, a parent or a neighbour believing those things

Miriam Mathhews  19:59
great. Question. So first off, do you lean toward conspiracy theories? They are very challenging to directly address. So if you say that conspiracy theories and correct the person that believes that their subsequent responses, oh, you're just supporting the conspiracy or you're just part of whatever it is this this higher story. And if you don't address that, then they also assume that this conspiracy theory is true. So conspiracy theories are very challenging to address what might be better for individuals and for government is to more rapidly and continuously get out correct information. And so correct information about the vaccine and correct information about social distancing mass querying, and all of these sorts of things rapidly, quickly tenuously providing that kind of information, directly refuting something, or, and I've tried to, as you probably noticed, throughout the conversation, tried to be careful about identifying what incorrect messages are and putting those out that that nothing helps to further that messaging helps to further those conspiracy theories. So by telling people, here's a conspiracy theory, and it's false. After after a few days, what from psychological literature is that people can disconnect, that it's false from the message, and they just remember the message. And so then that message just keeps on being something that so I would not recommend doing that and putting forth these messages and saying, That's false, because people will disconnect that. And they'll just remember the message. And instead putting through what, or at least at the best of our knowledge, putting that out there quickly and rapidly. And continuous is, is one good tactic of going about it, if there is an absolute necessity to, to, there's some sort of message that is being put out so much, and it's so so damaging that you have to directly refute it, then there has to be a subsequent providing of information that people can they'll glom on to that new information. Instead, they'll be able to connect to that because people essentially they like to have consistency and how they see the world and their stories. And so if you take this incorrect, this conspiracy theory or this misleading message, and you say it's incorrect, that that leaves gaps in their mind, well, then, how do I connect this information, so you need to provide them with true correct information that can sort of fill that in that can help to create that consistency again.

Eva Schaper  22:45
So I've been asked Dr. Matthews, if it would be best that the information come from doctors or the government, or maybe rather people from my social circle? Is there any research about that? Do we know what is the most effective thing? We do

Miriam Mathhews  23:01
know things about that? Actually, we do know that, you know, coming from official sources, that is something that people find persuasive when a source that is considered to know about the topic is believed to know about the topic, and they are then subsequently into the topic that they're an expert in, that is considered to be persuasive. In addition, we also know at least from this social aspect, and there is messaging that is coming from a large number of people to in group, you know, from their friends, from their family, from their social circles, that also be persuasive, someone who might not have a lot of information or might have some incorrect ideas when when they're coming from some sort of counter messaging from a large number of people in their in group and their social circle that can also be persuasive.

Daiva Repeckaite  23:48
And how about things we find on the internet? So if I go online, and I see something where I think, well, this sounds weird, but could be true. How do I go about it? If I'm not an expert in you know, immunology masks? What do I do? How to verify information?

Miriam Mathhews  24:04
Well, I think the first is the real intent is to understand this seems a little off and to understand, is there some validity? Is there some truth behind this so some of it is just reading that information that's being there even just finding lots of typos or seeing that somebody is connected to a source that like to a organisation or a company that doesn't actually exist, that that raise, raise some alarms type of existent companies and organisations or citing citing some kinds of you know, official government sources, go to those sources and see if they're actually saying that also an awareness of where this is coming from the we, as I already mentioned, RT America, Sputnik. Those we know are connected to Russia. There are other sources connected to Russia and if they didn't have Having an awareness of where this information is quiet or if it's an article, and it's connected back to one of those sources, those are the kinds of things where you can say, Well, I don't know if this is a note. So take it with a huge grain of salt. And don't just don't just assume that this is true, I think that would be one of the main things to do is be aware of the sources. And be aware of the content really take if this is something that you want to, to understand better take time to see if these messages have some disconnect throughout the messaging, if they have some typos, if they're citing sources you've never heard before. These are all indications that something might be off.

Eva Schaper  25:50
And is there any way to know how effective these messages are? This is what Dr. Matthew said,

Miriam Mathhews  25:57
yeah, that's the least when determining the effectiveness of these efforts is probably one of the hardest things to do. Like, because what we can we can determine when who's eliminating messages, what messages that they're disseminating. And to some extent, for example, we can see on Twitter or you know, Facebook, about how many people might have been directly exposed. But then, but then it's very hard to know even if you're exposed have had your have your attitudes actually been changed. Or, as you mentioned, you might read some message that seemed off. And immediately you know, that this is this is silly. So you've been exposed to it, we're able to immediately discredit it and had absolutely no influence on us. That's not one might not think of that as being effective. And that's where we're having an I think everyone is having it's very challenging determine overall exposure might be direct exposure, or you add a person that might have been influenced and go on to tell your Aunt Sally that you saw this message. And so it might have a greater dissemination that is very hard to identify to see that. And, or you might be exposed and it really didn't have any effect whatsoever. The exposure element, and then there's the actual incident of changing attitudes or changing behaviours, what we can see is it's just consistent firehose and false information. That's just whatever on people, whatever the topic is, at that moment that really seems to be on the focus on people's minds. That's, that's what we see coming. So I think we can see some consistency there. And we can see, that continues on as other things as other topics arise, but at least that seems to be relatively consistent.

Daiva Repeckaite  27:59
If you want to hear more stories about vaccine hesitancy, you can look up the inoculation, wherever you'd like to listen to podcasts.

Eva Schaper  28:07
Don't forget to subscribe to our newsletter inoculated, and the link is in the show notes.

Daiva Repeckaite  28:13
You can follow us on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. Our reporting is supported by journalists and funded to you Media Lab Byun and twofish. We'll be back in two weeks. Bye for now.

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