Now, more than ever, steer clear of misinformation, disinformation and mal-information (MDM)

September 22, 2020

Now, more than ever, steer clear of misinformation, disinformation and mal-information (MDM)

If the information and conversations you see online seem more toxic, divisive and even downright dangerous now more than ever, you would not be alone in those sentiments. 

The general consensus, among cyber security experts and members of the public alike, is that the internet ecosystem is brimming with prolific, divisive information — and much of it is disinformation, misinformation or mal-information (collectively referred to as MDM) or any combination in between, according to Samantha Korta, a cybersecurity advisor for Deloitte’s Risk and Financial Advisory who was interviewed earlier this month. 

There is a difference between misinformation, disinformation and mal-information, says Korta. 

  • Misinformation is false information spread without intent to manipulate the public.

  • Disinformation is the spread of information with the purpose to manipulate the public.

  • Mal-information is factual information that’s used maliciously or without context to harm an individual, country or other entity (for example: real documents that are spread for malicious purposes).

“You’ll often see the latter combined with a disinformation campaign in effort to increase impact and effectiveness and inflict additional harm,” said Korta.

And with more people at home and online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the opportunity to engage with questionable content increases. Coupled with real-world events like wildfires, social unrest or an escalating political climate, the detrimental effects of a polluted internet ecosystem can be particularly acute, Korta said.

“People are at their computers or on their phones now more than ever,” Korta said. “As humans, we can engage with this information and it can contribute to division, especially how we, as social creatures, engage with and process information.” 

For more than a decade, Korta has served as an intelligence specialist on everything from online criminal behavior to information laundering*. In her current cyber practice, she works among more than 4,000 practitioners providing advice on leading security practices, cybersecurity solutions and threat intelligence.

Photo of cybersecurity advisor for Deloitte’s Risk and Financial Advisory Samantha Korta — speaking at February 2020 Election Security Symposium.

Her focus — as it was during the 2016 Election — has been on the rapid spread of influential but illegitimate content aimed at undermining the credibility and authority of legitimate sources, sowing division, eroding trust and promoting conspiracy theories.

Lately, that battle rings true when it comes to the spread of MDM about COVID-19, the election, and even the rapid spread of wildfires across the West Coast and Pacific Northwest.

According to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, bad, incorrect information can spread six times faster than good, correct information. 

As we get closer to the Nov. 3 General Election, it may become increasingly difficult to differentiate between political opinions and MDM, Korta said. And if there are any delays in the declaration of a winner on Nov. 3, there’s a chance misinformation, disinformation and mal-information will spread even more rapidly.

“Whenever there’s a gap in information, when there’s an expectation of a winner to be announced, you may see MDM flourish,” Korta said. “The longer the outcome is undecided, the more potential there is for doubt to be sowed.”

But voters can rest assured in the processes that have set the standard in Oregon for more than 20 years, stressed Tim Scott, director of Multnomah County Elections. 

As always, 50 percent to 60 percent of all ballots cast will be reported at 8 p.m. on the night of the election, due to pre-processing work that always begins seven days before Election Day, Scott said. “And the election will be certified, as required by state statute, within 20 days.”

“If members of the public have any questions or need answers, they should go to official sources for that information, such as elections officials and their respective websites,” Scott said. 

Oregon’s paper ballot system offers inherent security — bolstered by ballot-counting systems that are never connected to the internet. Other factors of paper ballots that contribute to the security of the system include:

  • A paper trail leads back to each and every voter. And Multnomah County voters can sign up for the Track Your Ballot service to track how it moves through the acceptance process. A statewide service is available, too.

  • Election results are verified by tallying results of randomly chosen ballots and the use of rigorous statistical tests. 

  • A large contingent of public and private sector teams are dedicated to elections and cybersecurity in Oregon. 

If someone is sharing information with you that seems like an emotional plea to take action, think twice before you pass it on to others, officials stress. Look for a second source of that information and try to verify that information through independent means, like a fact checker. If you’re unable to verify the information, please don’t click on the link, and don’t share any personal identifiable information through the internet. 

“Conflicting narratives can sow division,” Korta said. “Issues are not always black-and-white, and the truth isn’t binary. We have to ask ourselves, ‘Do I have enough information to make an informed decision? Is what I am reading, watching, viewing intended to elicit a certain reaction? What might be the agenda of the person sharing this content?’”

Multnomah County is also encouraging voters to Make a Plan to Vote, Scott said: “Be prepared for the Nov. 3 General Election. Register to vote by Oct. 13, 2020. Ballots will be mailed starting the following day. You have two options for returning your ballot: by mail with free postage, or by depositing it in an Official Ballot Drop Site by 8 p.m. on Nov. 3, 2020." 

If you return your ballot by mail, make sure you send it by Tuesday, Oct. 27, one full week before the election. 

“When you get your voted ballot returned to us, we will get it counted with all the others so that we can certify the election 20 days after Nov. 3 as required by state statute. So make sure your plan includes getting all the information you need to cast your ballot from trusted sources and make a concerted effort to steer clear of misinformation, disinformation and mal-information,” Scott said.  

“We encourage voters who have a question about something they read online or see on social media to make an effort to verify the information before acting on it,” he said, “and to reach out to their local elections officials with concerns. "

*Information laundering is the process by which malicious actors leverage the interconnectedness of the internet to normalize false, or extremely biased information, until the original source of that information is lost, and the underlying narrative becomes part of public discourse. This process can translate into physical threats, erode trust in government, military, and educational institutions, discourage foreign diplomacy, and distort international and domestic opinions.