Whatever your opinions on the polarizing political environment in the United States, there is no refuting the fact that disinformation is beginning to play a huge part in elections worldwide. In countries like Germany, France and even places like Ukraine — disinformation is the norm rather than the exception. But what is disinformation? Disinformation is not the same as misinformation, which is information that was unintentionally false like incorrectly attributing a photo to an event.
Disinformation is intentionally spread inaccurate information meant to deceive.
You might have come across it and not even realized that you were been deceived or lied to. The whole idea behind much of this disinformation is that it hides in plain sight, and attempts to influence your own opinions. That is why it is also often also referred to as information influence activity.
A country generally conducts information influence activities because they wish to undermine key democratic processes, social institutions and to sow doubt between groups and cause societal rifts. When a country is divided, it makes not only decision-making more difficult, but also means that country is less likely to interfere or make coherent foreign policy actions on the world stage.
But as a normal person, those big picture questions aren’t particularly relevant for you.
What is important for everyday communicators, whether you are a casual social media observer, a journalist or a media official, is to a) become aware of information influence activities, b) identifying these activities, and c) countering them. The first step is becoming aware of these deceptive measures. You might recognize them when political debates are exploited and instead of helping the argument, a user rather wishes to continue the argument and polarize the two sides so that compromise is more difficult.
The second stage, identifying disinformation, is the process of examining the information that you are given. It is no longer enough to simply read an article or post on Facebook without considering its origins. Disinformation narratives tend to be disruptive, oblique and polarizing. The problem is that there are so many different kinds and often, they come about together! Hostile actors will rarely stick to one technique because with more options comes more chaos.
But you’re probably more interested in countering these activities. Unfortunately, the reality of disinformation is that you’re always one step behind. You can always prepare, evaluate the risks, build public trust and raise awareness but once disinformation strikes — that is the best time to act. You can decide whether to react aggressively or simply let the matter fade to the side. You could choose to fact-check and post an official response. However, ultimately the best defense is a strong offense. So in times when disinformation strikes, rely on the ability to be aware of it and identify it so that you are able to counter it. If you first notice it, and understand its origins, your opinions and political debates to come will be more educated and rooted.
Read more about countering information influence campaigns with Countering information
influence activities: A handbook for communicators, a handbook published by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Industry or check out Katarina Kertysova's report on Russian disinformation.
Some books find you at a perfect time—they become like a friend or even a mentor. Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, spoke to us, as both.
We were initially inclined to read Hillbilly Elegy, because we desired and needed to develop an understanding of the discussed area of our country, a region often belonging to a very different political ideology and way of life. We wanted to comprehend the reason behind people's’ decisions. To do that, you need to uncover how they arrived at that conclusion by looking at what has influenced them. This means hearing their stories. Hillbilly Elegy offers a look into a world different from ours, yet one that shares the same leader.
Jospehine’s Note: While I have familial ties in some of these states, my roots are primarily based in touristic mountain towns whose populations are staunchly liberal, avid environment advocates. Growing up amongst the western mountain ranges of the United States, the destinations for many vacations, is my greatest privilege. I grew up amongst my some of country’s most breathtaking backdrops that allowed me to develop a healthy lifestyle and environmental consciousness and appreciation. I include this because there exists a stark contrast between my childhood and the author, J.D. Vance, who also grew up amongst mountains.
J.D. Vance grew up in the Appalachian region between Kentucky and Ohio, also known as the Rust Belt. In many ways the Appalachian hills were his life-long safe haven, so much so that he recently went and purchased his grandparents’ land. This is where he grew up and where he escaped as well as faced his struggles, common to the average hill person. This part of the world is built on a lost generation of families who once moved here for economic prosperity—they moved to work in the coal and steel industries, with the hope to build a life for their families. For a while, this worked, but as factories and the industry moved out of the country, these people were left in the dust.
The epidemic that is now present across the Midwest, starts at the core—the family. As Vance notes and experiences, being raised by a nuclear family is not the norm, rather grandparents step in as parents for their grandchildren. This is the common byproduct due to high rates of alcoholism and opioid use, and an educational system with little to no community support. It is a system that unfortunately perpetuates itself. Vance describes Jacksonville as a place where you make it, but only if you have someone looking out for and encouraging you, like his grandparents did for him. Otherwise there is little hope for another way out. Vance didn’t even realize this until much later in his life - that he could escape the cycle of drugs, abuse, and poverty that plagues the Rust Belt. Vance explains that a person’s lack or perception of a lack of possibilities lies within each individual and where they point their blame. For some, the government is solely to blame. This is a contradictory statement by those who misuse their food stamps to buy cheap products at a grocery store, then resell the items on the street at a higher price, so as to spend the majority of the money on alcohol. Others point their blame on an America at large that no longer depends on them, and no longer sees them as a crucial aspect of modern America. The white underclass may have thought they were forgotten, but in 2016’s presidential election, they were heard.
Today, Vance’s resume screams privilege —he is a white male, who graduated from Yale Law, and married the woman of his dreams. He resides in Cincinnati where he practices as a malpractice lawyer, but his current life deeply contrasts his roots. He is the American Dream. Hard work got Vance to high places; however, without his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, his older sister, and aunts and uncles who stepped up throughout his life, he could have easily been another kid with barely a G.E.D. and an hourly job. Vance acknowledges that he was up against the odds, and he managed through his unique support system, to come out on top. His Mamaw believed deeply as education being the ticket out and she was correct. She sacrificed so much, to ensure he had the best shot at an education. From raising Vance and giving him as stable of a home as possible to redirecting money for her own prescription meds to buy Vance a calculator, Mamaw was Vance’s backbone. These moments defined and served as a catalyst to a better life.
Throughout his memoir, Vance explores the root causes of the hillbilly states. He candidly relives his childhood on paper, but moreover, he questions it. He dives into the cultural nuances that impact the white lower class more than economic opportunities present. He believes that way-of-life choices have been passed down and while they offer comfort and familiarity, they aren’t necessarily beneficial. The hillbillies are making their own fate—and it is not a hopeful one. This poses the question: who should fix it? Is the epidemic across the hillbilly states one that is structural, and can be mended through governmental reform? Or, is it one that can only change through intrinsic nature where people hold themselves accountable?
Vance describes the epidemic in the following way: imagine a kid coming to school every day and telling his teacher “I can’t,” when in fact the kid truly can, and has done so many times before. However, at home the parents do the work for the student instead of investing time into watching the child succeed. Much is the same in the dried up steel towns spotted across the center of the United States—the people have “learned helplessness,” and decide that the situation they are in far outweighs their capacities to improve their own lives.
The fact is if you are raised in this region of the world, born to parents that are ill-equipped to parent, your likelihood of making it out of this corner of the country is slim to none. Children raised here score very high on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), a series of ten questions outlining traumas most upper-class families never endure. Children who experience abuse, have a single parent, and are exposed to drugs and alcohol during early childhood are more likely to have depression and anxiety, to develop chronic heart disease, to live shorter lives, and also to continue the cycle. Kids who have experiences ACEs “are more likely to underperform in schools and suffer from relationship instability as adults.” Harvard has found that constant stress during development actually changes the chemistry makeup of the brain. Although the conditions are hard, and Vance contributes much of his success to having his grandparents and other family members support him, he states, “no person’s childhood gives him or her a perpetual moral get-out-of-jail-free card…”Ideally, individuals change, they raise better families, and in turn future generations are made successful.
Hillbilly Elegy tells the story of a lost generation that is need of a better future. That future will come from strong families, and individuals committing to better their own lives. Change starts from the inside, but it can extend out, culturally reshaping communities at large.
Josephine's Takeaway: After reading Vance’s take on adversity and experience of ACEs, I have never felt more sure of that our actions pave our own future. In the end, situations or rather our reactions to such, are opportunities for change. Despite the trials that children suffer, it has been my experience that people are extended olive branches throughout their lives by way of coaches, teachers, a wonderful grandparent, etc. If such branches are received with grace, people truly do have the ability to make it out on the other side in order to forge forward and create a life that they desire, not that they were born into.
Jessica's Reflections: This memoir opened my eyes and my heart. As a New Yorker, I am surrounded primarily by those who think and act the same way as I do. To be able to learn about another American’s drastically different way of life, is truly a gift and a lesson I strongly recommend that others divulge in, especially given this highly polarized political context. Familiarizing oneself with the values and challenges that others are up against is key to fostering understanding and empathy. I thank J.D. Vance for sharing his story and I encourage others, across the political and geopolitical map, to do the same.
During the latest U.S. Open women's singles final match between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams was first given a code violation warning followed by a point penalty and game penalty. She was later fined $17,000 for these three violations prompting Ms. Williams to call out the empire and the entire regime of tennis as sexist. We at Sub-Stances were interested in this event and wanted to share our individual thoughts with you, as women.
In almost every realm, women face some sort of double standard. People blame them for their partner’s use of drugs, most recently the case of Mac Miller and Ariana Grande. People declare that women cannot pursue their dream job while also being a rockstar of a mother. On the court, that also plays a role. Men are allowed to take off their shirts while Mia Hamm got bad press for years for her celebratory shirt take-off. This past weekend, Serena Williams was confronted with a variety of double standards, but does it justify her actions? While it is true that she may have been penalized more than her male counterparts, should she stoop lower or to their level to prove her point? I think not. While in many ways this world is shaped in a ‘men on top’ (man)ner, equality in or out of sports will only be won if women rise above those seeking to push them down. That means instead of criticizing an umpire for a questionable call, choose to take a deep breath over splitting a racket. It means winning with profound class. That is only way to make it to the top of society —to be so good they can’t deny you.
It is unfortunately not surprising that events like this still occur in many kinds of environments, particularly when it comes to sports. Despite advances being made to help give women equality in the workplace, sexism is still an ever-present challenge. It is in instances like the one faced by Serena Williams that such displays of sexism come out of the closet and into the light. However, in choosing to respond in the way she did, Serena Williams made a mistake. Losing control of her emotions has led to many pigeonholing her into the ‘hysterical women’ bracket rather than taking her complaints at the sexism seriously. The fact of the matter is that often men treat women differently. In sports, this can mean a different call or even a losing one. By remaining in control and not giving into urge to scream, women are better served by taking the high road. It may be a challenging route, but ultimately, it is the right one.
As a tennis player and tennis lover, I admire Serena Williams for the exceptional player that she is. She is a force to be reckoned with and is perhaps the greatest tennis player of all time. She breaks records and stereotypes. She fights racism, sexism, and the enormous pressure to remain on top. Not to mention, she nearly died giving birth to her daughter Olympia and then rose to play in this year's Grand Slam final, so soon after such a traumatic experience. So yes, I admire Serena for all that she is and achieves, as a woman and as a player.
Thus, my take on the incidents that unraveled at the U.S. Open women’s final is in support of Serena — to a degree. I do not think that the player should be penalized for her coach’s actions. She had no control over his actions, yet she was penalized for such. Not to mention, how much can a coach actually influence the game? After all, it only comes down to the player actually being capable to defeat his or her opponent. Plus, this is one of if not the only sport to prohibit such coaching. So, I think that the first code violation was on top of being subjective and difficult to enforce, unfair. However, I do believe that breaking or slamming a racquet is cause for penalty. When it came to Serena’s verbal response of calling umpire Ramos a thief, I do think that it was an overreaction by the umpire. A warning would have sufficed, not a game dock. This response by the umpire was not just unfair to Serena, but also to her opponent Naomi Osaka. No player wishes to win on an unfair technicality. This was a disservice to both women.
Despite all the controversy surrounding Serena’s actions and reactions, one thing is clear —how she addressed the crowd and her opponent, Naomi is laudable. She alone had the capacity to quell her supportive, angry crowd. She redirected their as well as her own frustration towards celebrating Naomi and her major achievement as the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam event. With the whole world watching, Serena used her platform to build her fellow female tennis player up, and not put down the umpire. For that, Serena is a champion to me.
If you’ve ever been in an argument with someone, you might know the feeling when the situation begins to devolve. The carefully formulated points you were prepared to make fall to the wayside of ad hominem. You’d rather point out the inadequacies of the person against you rather than actually fight about the issue in question. Why bother finding a compromise when you could just stick to your guns? The stakes raise higher and you find yourself more angry, more dramatic about your opinion. You find yourself a supporter who fuels your beliefs, and drives you to go argue further than you may have to begin with.
When a situation becomes polarized, it means that it is divided into two sharply contrasting sets of opinions. And unfortunately, that has become the case in many countries politics. There is no space for a middle ground because any move towards the center is seen as an inherent betrayal. Much as politicians and organizers might feel that polarizing their base serves to support their interest, it couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Choose your poison: abortion, immigration, the death penalty. Even though supporters might feel more ardent about their position, that very fact means they are less likely to come to a compromise. And politics… it depends on compromise to get things done.
In the United States, politics has become increasingly polarized. It didn’t just start in this administration or the last, rather, it’s been on the rise for decades. Admitting that you were wrong about any cause is next to impossible. Why? Because it means conceding. That also extends to lawmaking. Although Congress has experienced a remarkably productive year in 2017, we can attribute that to moment when one party controlled both houses. When the two houses are divided, little lawmaking ever gets accomplished.
In other words, polarization solves nothing. It simply divides and restricts the possibility that anyone can come to an agreement. When issues require agreement and compromise, such as funding the federal government and addressing emergency relief in places like Texas and Puerto Rico, polarization slows down the process considerably, leaving people in danger. The act of not acting because of stark differences in opinions affects real people, in real time.
Lawmakers should take a moment to consider the negative impact of their polarizing campaign strategies and actions within the government. Sticking to one’s guns might be commendable in theory, but in practice it couldn’t be more irresponsible. To take one Harry Potter quote, “the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters.” That quote is equally as relevant in that universe as it is within our own. You cannot divide the world into people who are on your side and people who are not. Politics and progress requires compromise, concessions, and hours of discussion. It requires the ability to look at your political opponent and see them as a person rather than a bodily representation of a political belief that they hold. Polarizing arguments will solve nothing, but compromise certainly will.
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