White House officials have been using a powerful psychological technique to combat Russian disinformation.
They’re calling it out in advance.
As early as December, they began warning that Moscow might invent provocations to justify an invasion of Ukraine. A month later, they predicted a “false flag” operation and gave specifics: Russia had sent saboteurs into Ukraine and was planning to release a staged video of fake Ukrainian atrocities. When the video finally appeared, it fell flat. In fact, it was quickly recognized as propaganda and ridiculed as “dumb.” That’s how you combat disinformation.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki went on to clarify the administration’s approach: “We’ve made a decision — a strategic decision — to call out disinformation when we see it. We are much more cognizant of the Russian disinformation machine than we were in 2014. Russia has a boundless capacity to misrepresent truth.”
Because President Joe Biden’s team was proactive, Vladimir Putin’s lies gained almost no traction, and the civilized world stands in near universal opposition to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. The importance of this accomplishment should not be underestimated. In a recent webinar hosted by American Purpose magazine, retired U.S. Army officer and strategy analyst Ben Hodges described Biden’s handling of the situation as brilliant. He went on to predict that “people are going to be studying this for a long time.”
Maybe so, but experts on disinformation have studied similar techniques for almost 60 years. Early researchers called it “mind-inoculation.” Today, many call the strategy “prebunking.” It’s a way to prevent false narratives from sinking roots into people’s minds — and guard against the more challenging salvage operation of “debunking” them later.
The Kremlin’s use of disinformation is not limited to military campaigns. Before Biden took office, Russian intelligence operatives propagated the wacky theory that Western COVID-19 vaccines would contain microchips. They pushed it out to one of their English language propaganda arms, and a month later, a CBS poll indicated that 44% of Republican voters believed it to be true.
We can draw important lessons from this. First, human beings can be astonishingly gullible; our susceptibility to nonsense is nearly bottomless. Second, we have to be proactive about combatting disinformation. Think about it: If Donald Trump had taken on Russian COVID-19 disinformation the way Biden took on Russian disinformation about Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Americans might still be alive today.
Third, our brave new digital world gives bad actors unprecedented power to exploit vulnerable minds. Russian propagandists, domestic conspiracy theorists, demagogic politicians, cult leaders, peddlers of quack cures — our world is now teeming with people skilled at disrupting higher brain function. Scientists call it “amygdala hijacking” — the use of fear to sow division, stoke resentments, win followings and manufacture cynicism.
If the situation feels out of control, take heart. Scientists like Stephan Lewandowsky, Sander van der Linden and John Cook have been studying solutions. Their research suggests that prebunking is massively underutilized. We could be using it to combat climate denial, vaccine resistance, QAnonsense, political polarization and more.
Our own work, as researchers at the Cognitive Immunology Research Collaborative, suggests that prebunking is just the tip of a very large iceberg. In fact, there are many ways to boost “mental immune function” and thereby reduce susceptibility to bad information. It’s time we took a more systematic approach to fortifying minds against malicious influence. Cognitive immunology — the science of mental immunity — points the way.
Disinformation is insidious. Like biological weaponry, it releases infectious agents that spread corruption among the susceptible. With internet connectivity as a vector of transmission, the threat to our way of life is profound.
To many, Trump’s claims about the 2020 election looks like nothing more than the complaints of a sore loser. But by spreading allegations about rigged voting machines, corrupt election officials, bamboo ballots and more, Trump and his allies might be laying the groundwork for things they might do if they don’t like the results in 2024.
Will the Biden White House employ its new strategy of prebunking to combat Trump disinformation too? If they wait until election season, it may be too late.
In the meantime, there’s still plenty of disinformation out there about Ukraine to keep the debunkers busy, such as fake photos on social media (with some images even taken from video games) and lies about the Ukrainian president having already fled Kyiv or raised the white flag.
In the future, once people become more aware of the prevalence of disinformation and the power of prebunking, it will be possible to head off some of this nonsense before it starts, by making people more skeptical of what they see and hear and building up their mental immunity in advance.
Andy Norman is the author of “Mental Immunity: Infectious Ideas, Mind-Parasites, and the Search for a Better Way to Think.” Lee McIntyre is the author of “Post-Truth” and “How to Talk to a Science Denier.”