The effects of successful misinformation or disinformation campaigns from foreign state actors can be as divisive as whether pineapple belongs on pizza or not.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released an easy-to-follow explanation of how foreign interference works and highlighted the signs indicative of an attempt to manipulate and distort perception on various topics.
While misinformation operations regarding pizza topping choices are yet to be uncovered, there is evidence of such activity targeting voters in the U.S.
Actors looking to influence societies in a specific direction first need to identify an inflammatory topic that would create groups of diverging opinions.
"Foreign influencers are constantly on the lookout for opportunities," the DHS says, adding that they "don’t do this to win arguments; they want to see us divided".
They choose a mass communication channel, such as social media networks, and create fake accounts that will be used as part of the operation. To reach a large crowd, influencers tend to rename and reuse the accounts they create to make the conversation appear larger and more varied.
Influencers also engage in conversations on public forums where discussions on a topic can drag for days and weeks. Even if not all members participate, many will read the lines and may change their perspective on the subject.
Polluting healthy debates and sparking discord is how they disrupt and make the conversations grow tense. Getting people mad with each other and distorting the perception is the agenda.
By starting small and creating controversy in a community and amplifying arguments on both sides of the issue, influencers can separate the parties even further.
In the next stage, they can use the arguments and the discussion platform as a legitimate source of information. If the controversy reaches a higher level, more individuals are engaged and society splits.
The transition from the online world into the physical one is quick once the disagreement on a topic becomes mainstream.
When painting the picture of a disinformation campaign, the DHS points to Russia, noting that agents of the Kremlin government "have organized or funded protests to further stoke divisions among Americans."
Adversaries involved in disinformation and misinformation campaigns will seize every opportunity to achieve their goals. Social media platforms are fighting common attack tactics such as increasing popularity through artificial means (click and like farming) or networks of automated accounts (bots).
Features like event pages on social media platforms have been used for this type of operations. Facebook routinely detects and removes fake accounts, groups, and pages specifically set up to shape opinions on political figures in a country.
Twitter has its share of problems as well. In mid-June, the company removed 5,000 fake accounts created for state-backed activities. By that time, the profiles had generated over 30 million tweets and more than one terabyte of media content.