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Ask HN: Why is the US so vulnerable to disinformation from abroad?
18 points by zepto 3 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 25 comments
I’m interested in general answers to this question. It seems like China and Russia in particular have strong protections against external influence.

What is stopping the US from doing something to filter out such attacks.

I’m interested in the legal, technical and geopolitical reasons, but also whether it’s even a good idea.

The long and short answer is: there has been a terrible collapse in the intellectual life of the average American person. Note that "education" is not a prerequisite for a rich intellectual life.

In the pre-industrial era, yeoman craftsmen (think Paul Revere) would hire a person to read them history and literature while they worked. In the early industrial era, factory workers imitated this tradition and also published/read dozens of leaflets we might call newspapers. Because this active intellectual life produced crazy ideas like "maybe let's do a union", it was quietly eliminated.

As time passes, we are increasingly conditioned to respond only to "expert" opinion (always conclusory, never persuasive), or emotionally potent oversimplifications intended to manipulate opinion in a particular direction.

When you condition a population to respond to propaganda, and only propaganda, you get predicable consequences.

The remedy is to encourage critical thought by socially rewarding activities like reading and reasoned dissent. Reasoned dissent is particularly unwelcome in communities of highly credentialed "intellectuals".

Could you imagine the Federalist / Anti-Federalist debate playing out today? It's unthinkable.

"Could you imagine the Federalist / Anti-Federalist debate playing out today? It's unthinkable."

Given the federal government has usurped much of the states' powers through activist judges and ignoring the constitutional amendment process to comply with the 10th amendment, it would probably result in secession efforts or bloodshed rather than debate.

Do you want a cynical answer?

Because a lot of the types of misinformation that are being spread from abroad (conspiracy theories and dangerous anti-science information) are equally generated and spread from within the country, and by elected officials. If you're just regulating the type of information, you're screwed. You need to regulate where it's coming from, which is much harder on the internet (because it can be faked so easily).

Not only the US, but because of its influence in the world whatever happens there gets, understandably, more attention, both from the public and the attackers.

The fact that an ever higher proportion of the population has forsaken traditional, edited media for social media, which is like tabloids on steroids, doesn't help.

Whereas traditional media was typically controlled by local polical and economic interests, social media content, and recommendations, is controlled by internet giants that seem to be guided mostly by profit, and are easily gamed by foreign interests. Authoritarian regimes would never allow this.

Some interests in the west, the very ones that coined the term "fake media", have no qualms about riding this wave.

If you want to be better informed, ignore any social media news and debates, read The Economist and good books. Now, try telling this to the masses.

So the only solution, short of trying to educate the masses, would be for the state to regulate the social internet giants, who maybe have already been allowed to become too powerful for this to happen.

Why is it happening? Because they can. And we are making it increasingly easier for them by building these centralized, mostly open platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

There has been no collapse in the intellectual life of Americans. If anything maybe a peak then moderate decline. The only difference is these platforms.

By what mechanisms could Russia and China influence the US a few decades ago? Substantially more limited.

I would think it's similar to why there are so many viruses for Windows vs Mac. Hackers target where the users are. In this case, Russia seeks to influence the USA citizenry because we have a democracy where votes actually count.

where votes actually count.

Yeah, right.


Strange how it makes no difference who the US President is, Democrat or Republican, the policies always remain the same. The US President has as much actual power as the Queen of England - None!

In the short-term, an authoritarian nation-state will always have a massive information warfare advantage over a liberal-democratic nation-state.

People in America complain about official narratives, but in China and Russia distributing or even viewing or discussing alternative narratives can lead to imprisonment or worse. It's hard for either internal or external forces to spread non-governmental propaganda for very long. Also, these governments are less reserved and more brazen; NSA surely has private emails of Russian politicians, but it's unlikely they'd ever release them publicly to influence an upcoming election.

In China or Russia, the government can just decide to ban access to Wikipedia, Twitter, and Facebook on a whim. Governmental spies and informants watch chat groups and national social media. Journalists and citizens fear repeating any claim that may upset the government.

However, in the long-term, authoritarianism is probably not very sustainable in peacetime. As education and information increases, it becomes harder to prevent people from wanting more liberties. The US may have collapsed by then, but whether it is or isn't collapsed, assuming no global catastrophes (a big assumption, I know), I predict that in the year 2120 Western ideals will have won globally, and China's and Russia's political systems will be a lot closer to liberal democracies than they are now. If there is a global catastrophe, then the reverse will probably be the case.

It's easy to protect yourself from "disinformation" if you have state controlled media and a single acceptable viewpoint, not really a fair comparison.

Most American media is pretty much own by the same people and there only very little difference, in terms of what you can trust and are objective, when comparing state run media to what USA has.

how do I send you a DM?

thowawayt536 gmail

> What is stopping the US from doing something to filter out such attacks.

Just look at the backlash Facebook and Twitter got the other day for trying to limit the spread of an article. Now imagine what this would look like if it was the US government that tried to limit the spread of certain information.

Because Russia and China are nationalist societies with majority-centric viewpoints. There is propaganda, but it is minimally presented as a foregone conclusion. Citizens engage intellectually with other topics. The US is a pluralist society engaged in constant propaganda warfare. There are no boundaries to this, and it becomes the central theme of absolutely everything, with a special focus on intellectual institutions like universities as primary battleground. Russia and China have already passed through their very costly indoctrination phases, and will no longer allow it. The US may be at the peak of it now.

As a side note, I see a constant theme of American exceptionalism, mostly negative recently, and this seems to me to be a primary feature of the propaganda war. It is foolish to read history or news, and believe that you yourself would have acted differently than any other population-level actor in the same state of information and influence. And if you are absolutely certain otherwise, you can be just as certain that your information is incomplete or just wrong. This should not be surprising when you consider that there is nothing that is sacred from propaganda. Nothing. All lies have value to somebody, most likely not you. If nobody is benefiting from the belief, that may be an indicator of truth, and if somebody is already benefiting from a lie, they will probably censor the truth.

If you want to live in a free pluralistic democratic society without a propaganda infestation, you have to remove the moral hazards of mass influence. Reparations, for instance, and more broadly, torts that give value to speculative or non-financial harm, or punitive damages, especially when the defendant is the state itself, and the award is paid for by the people, by force, with guns. There are less-obvious versions of profiteering from information warfare that involve influence of politicians, perhaps a permissive or anti-competitive regulation, perhaps a direct payout to an industry, or through a population that will spend it predictably, seniors on healthcare, the poor on monopolist retail.

Certainly, yes, the first amendment is an enabler for all kinds of speech including propaganda, but the features of our system that give it value should also be considered, notably perhaps the lack of such such an originalist interpretation of the 10th amendment.

China and Russia have strong control over the media, which makes their propaganda more effective.

Russia in particular is a main contributor to the misinformation abroad. This isn't just in the US, but also in many eastern european countries.

Of course, as others have stated, strong reasoning skills are not very prominent. I would like to see philosophy of argument courses taught in secondary and even primary schools. The ability to recognize basic fallacies and validate facts/premises would go a long way.

Is there? Take into account that it's the US that is projecting huge influence on the rest of the world, not the other way around. E.g. the covid conspiracies are also finding supporters across the pond, but what foreign-originated conspiracies have entered the US ?

Most disinformation comes from within the US.

Everybody is vulnerable to misinformation. The only "cure" is an educated population. Now, who wants that? :-)

What makes you so sure that “Russian and Chinese interference” isn’t disinformation?

Do you have proof that Russia and China are spreading disinformation within the US? Or do you simply believe what you hear from others, such as the US media and intelligence community?

Take the Russian election interference allegation for example. IP addresses can be spoofed, or traffic intentionally originated from Russian IP addresses while the user is in a different country. Consider that the “evidence” is little more than a text file (traffic logs) that isn’t made public.

Consider that media allegations of “interference” rarely (if ever?) include any examples of said interference.

No, it is very easy to spot. The fake news and comments in social media are consistently identical to what is published in state controlled Russian and Chinese media. At the very least, this is highly suspicious.

But of course, they do it skilfully, plausible deniability is the name of the game.

I recommend reading "The Red Web", "Nothing is True and Everything is Possible", and "This is Not Propaganda" to learn more about this phenomenon.

Do you have an example of “fake news” in the US and it’s identical publication in state-controlled Russian media?

Copying news stories is a common practice in the news industry. US news outlets can republish Russian news for profit rather than as part of a foreign interference campaign.

Read the books I have recommended, there are plenty of examples there, the authors put it much better than I ever could. This is a complex issue, and us debating it here will only scratch the surface.

I’m not going to read those books.

If people read more good books instead of engaging in fruitless discussions in the internet, they would be better informed.

Just have a look at Sputnik and RT.

Ok, tell me about Olgino and Uighur camps denial.

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