Skip to main content

Democratic disinformation: it’s worse than you think and it’s always on purpose

Nina Jankowicz

Nina Jankowicz is Vice President at the Centre for Information Resilience and an adjunct professor for Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Government. She teaches in their program located in Washington, D.C. She is the author of How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News and the Future of Conflict and How to be a Woman Online: Surviving Abuse and Harassment and How to Fight Back.



decorative image

Sam Martin, Ph.D. is the Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Affairs for the Frank Church Institute in the School of Public Service at Boise State University. She is the author of Decoding the Digital Church: Evangelical Storytelling and the Election of Donald J. Trump and editor of Columns to Characters: The Presidency and the Press Enter the Digital Age.


decorative image

Disinformation is of tremendous concern to democratic countries today, including the United States. International writer and scholar Nina Jankowicz says that disinformation is different from fake news because it always comes from bad motives. “Disinformation is the use of false or misleading information spread with malign intent. That’s the key thing. It’s the malign intent. That’s different than misinformation which might be what Aunt Sally or Uncle Joe says at the Thanksgiving dinner table.”

Fake news, by contrast, has come to represent those stories candidates and public officials find politically inconvenient. It is a term that gets used to throw shade at reporters to distract from unfriendly news content. Disinformation comes from foreign governments or other bad actors who want to disrupt democratic processes or otherwise make money by intentionally spreading false or misleading information.

Jankowicz will be the keynote speaker at the 37th annual Frank Church Conference, held at Boise State on October 6, titled “Beyond Left and Right: Democracy in the 21st Century.” The conference will feature speakers and panels about the threats facing American and global democracy in the run-up to the November midterm election. Jankowicz recently joined Dr. Sam Martin for a brief conversation about her research and experience working as a woman in national security. Their conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

decorative image

It’s Worse than You Think and It’s Always on Purpose

Sam Martin: First, would you briefly summarize the argument you’re making about disinformation? What is your main message for the American public or for the world about what’s happening?

Nina Jankowicz: I think the main thing for people to understand is that disinformation is not cut and dry fake news and that fighting disinformation isn’t about taking things off of the Internet or saying that something is true or false. The best disinformation (by which she means disinformation that is most likely to gain interest), whether it’s coming from Russia, or an actor within our own political system, is stuff that’s grounded in real grievances, real fissures in our society, and has a kernel of truth to it. It rings true with people in some way. And as such, we can’t just tell people that their lived experiences and the feelings that are resonating with them that are in that disinformation aren’t true. What we have to do is repair the underlying fissures in our society that allow that disinformation to take place and spread in the first place.

Sam Martin: I read an interview you did with the Pearson Institute in Chicago, in which you said that you sometimes note a degree of “hubris” in the American attitude toward disinformation and politics in the public sphere. I thought that was really interesting. And I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit. Specifically, what do you think Americans might gain from a more global perspective when it comes to disinformation?

Nina Jankowicz: I started noticing American hubris toward disinformation pretty early on, long before disinformation was a household term or fake news was even a household term. I started my work in Washington working on Russia and Eastern Europe, specifically at the National Democratic Institute, which is a nonpartisan, nonprofit that is focused on building democratic institutions around the world. And I worked on Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine to some degree. And it was clear in, let’s say, 2013 and 2014 that Russia was using what we now recognizes as foreign disinformation tactics, you know, the spread of false news stories or false accusations in the press, which they controlled. And in a lot of these countries, and certainly in Russia itself, it was clear that Russia was really good at using the Internet to spread disinformation.

So our partners and Russia and Belarus and Ukraine and in the broader region, were quick to recognize those tactics because they had seen them before. They bore a lot of resemblance to Soviet tactics. But we in the United States seemed to be really just, I would say, full of ourselves and too trusting in our institutions and kind of the idealistic view of the Internet. We thought this wouldn’t happen to us. And then the war in Ukraine began in 2014. We saw a lot of disinformation spreading around the Euromaidan protests and the annexation of Crimea, and so on.

And then I went and lived in Ukraine in 2016 and 2017. And this is as the US election was happening, and we saw and heard about, you know, different cyber-attacks and hack and leak operations and the extent of Russian interference in our election became clearer and clearer as time went on. And I kept hearing from my Ukrainian colleagues, you know, “Why isn’t the United States doing anything about this? Why aren’t you taking it seriously?” And we know that the US intelligence community did have a pretty good understanding that this was happening. We know, and I’m actually rereading this book right now for my students at Syracuse by Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel, An Ugly Truth, which documents how Facebook also knew about some degree of interference. And yet everyone was scared about sounding the alarm bell, they thought it would look like putting, you know, a hand on the scale for one candidate or another—in this case, it would be viewed as a pro-Clinton kind of interference.

But I think, you know, Americans deserved to know that a foreign entity was interfering in our elections. And because we waited so long, the issue became more and more polarized. And we said, oh, you know, our institutions are strong enough, nothing is going to happen to us. And here we are today, six years later, with very little that has happened legislatively. The Biden administration, frankly, is struggling to address this issue, as we head toward the midterm elections, and later, the 2024 elections, and disinformation domestically has become far more of a threat to our democracy, I would say than foreign disinformation, although domestic disinformation can be manipulated by foreign entities, as well. So our hubris has kind of been blinders for us.

By not looking at what, you know, allies like Ukraine, like Poland, like the Baltic states have been doing over the past several decades since they gained independence from the Soviet Union to fight disinformation, we ourselves have kind of been on the backfoot. And we remain on the backfoot, because now we’ve gotten ourselves into this political quagmire.

Sam Martin: So given all that, if you had to get specific right now, and you had to give immediate advice, what would you say is the biggest obstacle? And what would be the first thing you would do to address disinformation in this political climate?

Nina Jankowicz: Well, it’s complicated the way our system works with checks and balances, and that the Congress, which for all intents and purposes is divided right now. One of the things that’s been in Congress since 2017, frankly, is a bipartisan piece of legislation that was introduced by Senator Amy Klobuchar and Senator John McCain, the late John McCain, called the Honest Ads Act, which would establish the same sorts of transparency for the Internet that we have for TV, radio and print political ads. Right now, there’s no disclosure rules for Internet ads. And I think that’s the bare minimum that we need. I think people need to be informed about who is targeting them, and why, online.

There’s a lot of content that’s not paid for or bought by political campaigns. That’s informative as well. And so there are issues related to that. I think we need to introduce some new regulations around the Federal Election Commission, and kind of the types of statements you can make online as a candidate for federal office. The lower offices are under the jurisdiction of states themselves. So that would vary from state to state. But I think at the federal level, we need to set that example. And then I think the federal government itself needs to get a lot more proactive about messaging around disinformation campaigns around what we’re seeing, not just the foreign stuff, but around the stuff that affects people’s understanding of the issues that affect our country, to improve their democratic understanding around public health and around public safety.

A lot of the biggest disinformation campaigns that we’ve seen over the past couple years, if you look at the years of COVID, alone, have affected people’s health and wellbeing, and, you know, actual safety in the world. And that’s absolutely the nexus of what the federal government needs to be addressing. And instead, because we have this kind of bifurcation between foreign and domestic disinformation, and we’re very scared to touch anything that’s domestic because of the politicization. What’s happened is we just kind of sit there wringing our hands.

That hand wringing, of course, was very, very much on display in my own experience in the federal government, where, just briefly, for those who don’t know, I was brought in to chair a coordinating body at the Department of Homeland Security that would have advised DHS on best practices for countering disinformation. We had no law enforcement authority, we had no censorship authority, we had no fact checking authority. If we had had any of that I wouldn’t have taken a job because I don’t believe that that is the role of the federal government. Instead, what happened when this body was announced was that the Republicans called it the Ministry of Truth.

I was targeted with heinous attacks, harassment, my family was threatened. My mother got phone calls, my personal life was torn apart. And this was all because the department and the administration more widely and didn’t communicate very transparently about what the Disinformation Governance Board, as it was called, was meant to do. Instead of filling in that vacuum of information, they sat there silently, didn’t allow me to address the attacks, and the attacks grew, the vacuum of information was filled with, again, attacks on me in my personal life. And ultimately, I decided that since it was clear the administration didn’t want to stand up for that effort and stand up against the disinformation that was targeting us, that I could do better work outside of the federal government. And so I resigned that position. But that’s just one little microcosm of what we’re facing here.

And I don’t mean, we as Democrats versus Republicans, I mean, we as a country, this happens broadly across the political spectrum. There are folks on the far left who spread disinformation, just like the far right does. And frankly, you know, the government is making its job a lot more difficult by not just creating a set of transparent standards that it uses to communicate about these issues when they have to do with American national security, election security, and the health and safety of the American public.

Sam Martin: Okay, I’m going to try to do something a bit unusual, in that I’m going to try to draw our research together. In my work, I argue that another problem with politics is basic indifference. So many people either don’t vote or, more insidiously, they vote, but then they refuse any responsibility for negative consequences that might happen in between elections. They regard politics as nasty stuff done by nasty people between the elections they may happen to participate in. Otherwise these citizens regard themselves as either rising above politics, or checking out all together. And so this means no one has to change their mind because they haven’t done anything wrong. Other people have done things wrong.

You argue that another huge problem is that for people who are paying attention, the problems they’re being made aware of are fabricated, and then micro targeted to particular groups. Or if we put this much more simply, interested citizens are very aware and incited about false issues of little to no consequence. Everyone else is not interested in at all.

Is there any way to bridge these dilemmas for the public sphere? Is there a conversation individuals could engage in that would both draw people in, while also creating more salutary civic dialogues?

Nina Jankowicz: For me, I always begin with transparency. Transparency especially around how the microtargeting on social media is working, particularly on Facebook. And we do know more now mostly because of whistleblowers. But I think we need some oversight for that to perhaps be used more altruistically. But also, and this goes back to my own experience as a high school student in New Jersey, we, in our senior year, AP government class, we were required to do what my teacher called “Operation Civic Duty.” Every semester marking period we had to do a certain amount of community service hours related to politics and civics. So that could be observing jury selection at the courthouse, it could be volunteering on a political campaign of our choice, it could be other kinds of civil society work in the community.

And that made me really very aware of the importance of local and state politics at a young age. And I think a lot of people think about, you know, Washington and the effects that it has on their state, or on their life. But actually, you can achieve a lot by getting involved locally. And I’m not saying it will necessarily always be sunshine and rainbows, right? It’s not always going to be the most optimistic view that you’ll have. But you can make change on a very real scale for you and your community if you get involved that way.

Then, if you think carefully about voting in off year elections, and things like that, just keep participating. I think it’s a shame that in midterms, and certainly in in non-midterm years of non presidential election years, how low turnout is across the United States, how little people are involved in their local communities, because a lot of funding, a lot of the, you know, decision making on that local level is going to have a much, much more tangible effect on people’s lives. So I guess the way that I would try to push back against that apathy and again, connect people is to remind them that what’s happening right where they live is really important.

This is also where I think public libraries can tend to come in. Librarians are very highly trusted individuals and our communities and librarians and libraries are looking for their kind of new raison d’etre in the 21st century. We should be hosting public town halls and things like that among adults, not just for kids in terms of information literacy and civic literacy, civic education, we need to be focusing on those people who are reachable. They’re perhaps not on the far end of either of the political spectrums, but they’re there, perhaps curious and want to be engaged. And I think we can do that. That’s, that’s one way we can do it through libraries.

Sam Martin: Let’s talk for a moment about your other really interesting, important book, How to be a Woman Online. You have had some really terrible experiences online. But it also gives you a really important perspective. Could you speak about how being a woman online from being a man online? You can speak personally, if you’d like, and you also have done really, really spectacular research. Also, please share a few words about why this is this an issue worth worrying about?

Nina Jankowicz: Let me preface all of this by saying that I went to a women’s college so I think I came into Washington with a little bit of rose-colored glasses on. I was used to being around other headstrong, outspoken women who supported one another and that’s one of the one of the best things about going to a women’s college—you have this network of people who get you from day one. And I think when I started becoming more public about my research and work, there’s always an extra layer of criticism that everyone has toward you, especially if you’re a young woman, in a heavily male dominated space, like national security. I’m regularly the only woman and the only young woman in the room. And so when I started writing more publicly, a lot of the criticism about me took on this gendered tone.

And then ahead of the 2020 election, was my first interaction with the far right. I thought at that time that that was going to be the worst of what I dealt with. It was very sexualized. I was 31 years old and people were sending me pictures of empty egg cartons meant to say you know, your fertility is waning, you shouldn’t do this national security stuff, you better go make babies, stuff like that—things criticizing my appearance, criticizing how much I blinked ,criticizing my hair and makeup, criticizing how I was dressed, my breast size, all sorts of crazy things.

Just this this past week I was with some women in Milwaukee, where I was doing an event and talking about my book.  We were talking about how we as women have to be this like, extra level of perfection, we have to be perfect in what we speak about; perfect in how we present it; perfect in our research; and perfect and how we look. But our male colleagues can come in, like Senator Bernie Sanders, with crazy hair looking very ruffled. And you know, they get—that’s cute for them, right? The way that Bernie Sanders showed up to the 2020 inauguration in his coat with his mittens, sitting like this became a meme. If a woman did that, she would be lambasted. And in fact, you know, how much time did we spend in the 2020 election speaking about what different women were wearing, what color their coats were, and if their clothes were acceptable or not, rather than talking about their policies.

And of course, you know, when I was attacked as a member of the Biden administration, much of the attacks against me were focused on the fact that I was pregnant at the time. The fact that I was a young woman. They were again, very sexist and tearing apart my looks. A lot of men were commenting on my weight gain during my pregnancy. Men were talking about, you know, pregnancy acne that I had. And I don’t think that that would have happened to a man, even a young man who had been in my position, not to mention the fact that you know, my own personal life was what came first, instead of my years of nuanced and careful scholarship on the issue. So that’s my own experience.

But also, you know, I’m not the only one that this happens to. It happens to women on both sides of the aisle. At the Wilson Center, we did research in the 2020 election looking at 13 Different women candidates for office on six social media platforms and found hundreds of thousands of pieces of abuse. Most of it was directed toward then candidate, Vice President Kamala Harris. And we found, indeed, that women of color and women with intersectional identities face even more abuse than white women. There’s other research done by other entities like the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, that’s compared women in Congress versus their male counterparts, and women receive far and away more abuse.

You asked why this is important. There are two reasons why it’s important. First, from my National Security hat, and people make fun of this argument all the time, and it really bothers me when they do because we’re just talking about how Russia and others use fissures in our society to amplify their disinformation. But there’s always a kernel of truth. Well, here, the kernel of truth is misogyny, and the endemic misogyny in our society. And until we address that, nations, like Russia, like China, like Iran, are going to continue to use misogyny and gender disinformation in their campaigns in order to further polarize and split us apart. And I’ve documented this for each of those three countries. And I’ve also argued that, you know, we talk a lot about deep fakes, and how you know, there might be a deep fake nuclear attack or deep fakes might affect our next election.

Right now, 95 percent or more deep fakes are of nonconsensual pornography, so fake porn, and they’re all trained on women’s bodies, there’s no male deep fake pornography and or if there is, there’s very little of it. So, I think it’s highly likely that if we are to see a deep fake that affects our political system, or our national security, it’s likely to be about a woman who is prominent in that system. And that has happened to women reporters in places like India. Rana Ayyub has been attacked, for instance, by the by those who support Modi in India, and you know, nobody’s going to look away from that sort of pornography just because it’s a deep fake, even if it had a label on it. That said, people who dislike her or who dislike the ultimate woman who’s the target of such a scheme, it’s unlikely they’re going to dismiss it and say, Oh, it’s a deep fake. Instead, their attitude about the deep fake will be, “So what? This is pretty funny to watch.” And I think that is shocking. So that’s how nation states can use this stuff.

And then if we think about it, as a broader democratic problem, I have a son, but if I have a daughter, eventually, I would hate for her to look at the replies that I get on Twitter. I would hate for her to look at the replies that Vice President Harris got to tweets on inauguration day, or to, frankly, to drive by some of the homes with flags hanging that say things like, “Joe and the Hoe” because this is not only sexist messaging, it is playing into this disinformation narrative that Kamala Harris slept her way to the top.

And that’s one of the things that we tracked in our Wilson Center study. That means that young women, and frankly, women of all ages are going to think twice before they speak out with their opinion, publicly, they’re going to think twice before they get involved in in politics and public discourse. Because there is always a risk, just like as we, you know, walk home alone in the dark at night through a park, we pretend to be on our cell phone or get our keys out. There’s a risk when you speak out as a woman that you’re going to be hit with this sexualized, gendered, misogynistic language. And people will say, Oh, it’s just online, turn the comments off. It is not just online, I can speak to this myself. I had to have a security camera installed outside my house, because my husband and I were doxed, which means our private information was exposed publicly.

People send letters to my house, people have called my mother up. This is not just about the Internet, I walk around differently in the world, and I will probably for the rest of my life because of what has happened to me. So I think it’s a problem that we need to solve. Because if we want a truly equal society where women are participating, not just voting, but getting involved in making policy, then they should not be subjected to these insane threats and harassment and abuse just for existing as women in public spaces.

Sam Martin: Given what you just said, could you recommend three things as advice for women who want to stay online and use their voice but also want to stay safe?

Nina Jankowicz: Sure. I have two easy ones, both that have to do with your operational security. First make sure you have complex passwords on everything. You can get a password manager to do that. Then, use two-factor authentication. This means that your private emails, photos, messages are not going to be exposed, or, or a lot less likely to be exposed. If you have that two-factor authentication and complex passwords, in particular, you’re on the right track.

The second thing would be don’t amplify the trolls. Sometimes I like to expose how regular this is for me, but I don’t do that by retweeting the people who come at me. Instead, I usually will take a screenshot and remove their identifying information. So, their profile picture and their name is still there. And then I usually make fun of them. But that’s just because it allows me to reclaim the narrative. But again, I screenshot that and I don’t amplify them. Because often, if you respond to them directly, or you quote tweet them, what happens is either you’re encouraging more people to abuse them, which I don’t condone, I don’t want anybody to get abused online. But you’re also bumping them up in the algorithm, which is not good.

The third thing that I have found really helpful is finding a community of people that understand what you’re going through. And counterintuitively, that’s not always your friends and family, especially if they’re not super online, they might not get what you’re going through. Look to your colleagues, other women who are in adjacent spaces who might have gone through what you’re going through. Don’t be afraid to reach out to women who have gone through that and ask for help or just kind of guidance, because without the women that I’ve reached out to who have been through this before me, I wouldn’t know anything about what I’m doing. So that community is really important. And it continues to be a sounding board for me when inevitably something flares up again.

So those would be the big three, but there’s a lot more advice in the book as well.