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If you think Iranian and Russian disinformation memes are designed to change people’s minds and opinions, you might already be deceived!


Author: Tim O'Connor

Let me begin by saying I am not an expert on Iranian and Russian disinformation campaigns, although I have been researching them with great interest. What I do have is many years of experience in the information security field and am a practicing stage and parlor mentalist.

You may be wondering, what does mentalism have to do with disinformation campaigns?

Well, I’m glad you asked! It just so happens that both are forms of social engineering and use the same fundamental methodologies. If you would like to learn more about mentalism (aka con-artists that entertain) and social engineering, please view this blog post.

Disinformation is one of the tools in the basic con-artist toolkit.

The con-artist has zero interest in changing your mind or opinion on ANYTHING. The con-artist, in fact, wants to stay as far away from your rational mind as he or she can. The target for the con-artist is your emotions, and the gateway to your emotions are your basic human biases.

Similar to the con-artist motive, disinformation memes do not have a primary intent of changing minds. Like any good con, they are designed to motivate and engage emotions. In fact, making you think they are about changing minds is one of the deceptions they push. Your motivation to share "these unaddressed wrongs" is the product they desire. The lies in the messages are just a tool, and your motivation is the product they produce.

The goal is not to change what you believe. It is to get you to DOUBLE DOWN and then ACT. Acts can consist of sharing misinformation, voting, and tying up resources that correct misinformation.

You might say disinformation campaigns are more interested in KEEPING you from changing your mind than actually changing your mind.

A good disinformation campaign will address your personal bias so that you don’t even consider that the information could be inaccurate. If you have now publicly and personally identified with that misinformation, and then discover and realize that your information is inaccurate, it is likely that you will take no action for correction.

So what is the end game for the meme campaigners? Simply put, the campaigner’s memes are considered wildly successful if they motivate even a small percentage of people to do one of the following: go to the polls, not go to the polls, or harden their stance on a topic they already associate with emotionally.

If you don’t think this has real world implications, you might want to look into the reports documenting dozens of people who were killed in India and Brazil from mobs mobilized by misinformation on Facebook and WhatsApp. Read more (India, Sri Lanka and Brazil). 

What can we do to protect ourselves, friends, employees and family from these campaigns?

To protect yourself from disinformation you must learn some of the basic biases ALL humans have and practice being skeptical of any meme that appeals to your self-identity. Remember many such cons include a grain of truth to aid in the swallowing of the lies.

The best “vaccination” (pun intended) is to take a well-designed Security Awareness class or have one designed for your organization that includes social media as a subject matter. 

In conclusion, I doubt that I have changed your mind on any key issues, but I hope I have motivated you to lay the groundwork for exercising your skepticism by learning about the following human biases:

Confirmation Bias

Cognitive dissonance

Availability cascade

Anchoring Bias

Bandwagon effect