Blog Post

Joohn Choe, from “The Resistance Endgame”: Defining Disinformation

Joohn Choe delivers sophisticated analysis and advice about “doublespeak” at the level of mass (miss)communication. This is a reposting of an excerpt from his most recent discussion of “disinformation.” He writes regularly online at _Medium_, as an “information war strategist.”


“Defining disinformation”

A great deal of our language, and underlying assumptions behind it, are driven by legacy print media paradigms. We encounter repeated difficulty when we attempt to apply concepts like exposures, market penetration, engagement rates and return on investment to propaganda distributed in a participatory medium in a viral social-media paradigm.

The dictionary definition of disinformation is:

false information intended to mislead

Our traditional view of how disinformation operates is based on the background assumption that false information, in an efficient information economy, occupies the unprivileged position that reasonable people should assign it. On average, people are average, and average people can see through lies at least some of the time.

In the standard, pre-digital reckoning of things, false information was something obscure and marginal that no one took seriously — so the way that it operated was designed to work against that right at the start. Disinformation worked to build “penetration”, or effect on consumer, through repeated exposures in increasingly prevalent credible sources.

Modern, digital, doctrinally-consistent disinformation is a vastly different game than advertising, or even legacy disinformation theory.

It is much less about the outlets and much more about manipulating the feedback loops of its audiences; it entirely omits the escalating chain of source credibility in favor of a sheer mass of non-credible or non-truth-claim-based disinformation; and, in the case of Russian disinformation, it operates according to a strategic program called reflexive control that aims at “pre-winning” wars by creating chaos and making America’s national responses to change weaker, more predictable and less effective.

In the age of digital disinformation, hybrid war and nation-states waging information war on our culture, very, very little about the traditional model is at all any longer correct.

Reading is a social act on social media. As Leon Festinger showed in 1954, people look to each other or to an idealized reference group for cues on how to construct their self concept, including things like reacting to news and evaluating what they read.

Reading socially is depressing. Social media, as shown by NIH studies including this one, is an accelerated channel for self-definition through social comparison that produces emotional effects in its users; the most common is depression.

Actual reading is barely done at all on social media. More than 60% of all shared stories on social networks are shared without being read. Fewer than 1 in 5 Americans reads for pleasure on any given day.

Priming is extremely effective on social media. Priming is the presentation of indirect cues designed to affect behavior. Social media is powerfully absorptive; just being involved in reading social media is enough to reduce physical pain. Digital marketing already makes heavy use of priming because it’s empirically effective. Priming theory post-dates traditional theories of fascism by decades.

Source credibility is virtually meaningless on social media compared to emotional appeal. Lies spread faster than truth because lies are calculated to be newsworthy and interesting; truthful news delivered by reputable outlets, by its very definition, is not. Medium credibility and message credibility (and not information credibility, or “how credible is what this means?”) have been shown to be evaluated in laboratory settings; in reality, the sheer volume of non-credible sources with substantial followings (i.e. the millions of people who follow Alex Jones and InfoWars) demonstrates how little source credibility matters today.

In the digital context, disinformation is increasingly no longer about directly misleading. Rather, disinformation is increasingly evocative, strategic, and social, focused on getting groups of people to mislead themselves, creating a proliferation of narratives tied together by a community exchanging information, driven by emotional satisfaction rather than a desire to find the truth. Falsity nor the intent to mislead are no longer requirements; as we’ll see, “real facts” are often wrapped in a shroud of lies in order to advance disinformation agendas.

In the context of state-affiliated or -sponsored organs of disinformation (i.e. Fox News and Breitbart and their constellations of marginal figures, or the National Enquirer), disinformation is also, crucially, at the service of various levels of outright or implicit fascism, which has its own determinate aims at play.

The definition of disinformation that we need today is markedly different than it once was. We might be better served by a definition of disinformation that goes something like this:

Disinformation is the propagation of narratives that creates a strategic psychological effect in a target population.

In this definition, we omit the reading of intent, which cannot be discerned or may be fungible for impressionable, stupid or weak-willed people. A conspiracy to transmit and exploit disinformation can also easily compartmentalize in such a way as to make intent undiscoverable.

We also do away with the notion of falsehood altogether. The critical measure we are after in determining whether or not something is disinformation isn’t whether we agree it’s true or not, it’s whether or not someone is using it to attack a country, an institution or people.

The question to ask yourself in determining whether or not something is disinformation is simple: Is this being used to attack the notion of truth, or our country, or its institutions, or its people? Generally, this will be easily discernible from external, contextual factors like who’s making the relevant statement and when that statement is happening.

We have a Gödelian symbolic problem, at its core, in determining whether or not to assign ‘disinformation’ as a status to a network of symbols in a massive symbolic economy. We must choose either a maximally representative way of defining it, one that is never wrong even when confronted with problem cases, or a maximally complete one, one that covers all instances, if haphazardly in some cases.

For the purposes of the fight to recover our country from tribalism and authoritarianism, we are not after a 100% representative definition; we are after a complete one. There are problem cases and failures of brightline tests in this definition, and that’s acceptable as long as we know what to do.

Victory isn’t being 100% correct. It’s stopping a cabal of fascist criminals from destroying our country. As long as what we actually need to do is as clear, objectively good and idiot-proof as possible, definitional difficulties can be treated as inconveniences.”



The Resistance Endgame, Part I: Assumptions – Joohn Choe – Medium (
Critical background assumptions for recovering the American conversation through digital activism

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