Sabrina Joy Stevens discusses how bad actors pollute the information ecosystem to serve their own interests.

Producer: Charlotte Jones
03/20/2023 • 06:15 AM EST

Sabrina Joy Stevens, communications strategist and founder of Sabijoy Creative Solutions, discusses how bad actors use information disorder to distract, confuse, and overwhelm, to trick everyday people into acting against their own best interests. She also explains how these same bad actors stoke bigotry and existing mistrust to maintain division and prevent people from coming together to see common cause.

0:00: Charlotte Jones:

With us today we have Sabrina Joy Stevens, communications strategist and founder of Sabijoy Creative Solutions, who examines political manipulation tactics surrounding information disorder. Miss Stevens, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:13: Sabrina Joy Stevens:  

Yes, thank you so much for having me.

0:15: Charlotte Jones:  

So to first start off, could you explain what information disorder is?

0:20: Sabrina Joy Stevens:  

Sure. So a metaphor I think is really helpful in this situation is to think about our information environment as an ecosystem. An information disorder is essentially the result of what happens when bad actors pollute our information environment with misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation.

0:39: Charlotte Jones:  

So you mentioned in some of your work, that information disorder and political manipulation destabilizes people and communities. Could you explain why this is?

0:49: Sabrina Joy Stevens:  

Sure well, again, thinking about us inhabiting this information ecosystem together. When individuals and groups have bad information, or they're just confused about what's true and what isn't. That's disorienting for individuals as well as for groups. And then we also factor in the fact that bad actors aren't just trying to confuse people, but they're intentionally sewing and stoking mistrust between and among people. That also is destabilizing because it prevents people from being able to come together and solve common problems, both if we can't individually wrap our minds around something and what to do about it.

And if we don't trust each other enough to work together to do something about the things we do know, then that's going to make it really difficult for us to solve pressing problems like the climate crisis, or public health challenges, all of the different things that we're dealing with right now.

1:42: Charlotte Jones:  

Okay, perfect. Your work mentions there's an organized effort to mislead people into acting against their own best political and economic interests in what you call confusion campaigns. Could you please elaborate on these campaigns?

1:55: Sabrina Joy Stevens:  

Sure. Well, again, when I mentioned earlier, bad actors, when I say that I mean people who hoard power and wealth by deceiving and exploiting other people, and so bad actors, people who actually want to behave that way are outnumbered. So the only way they're able to succeed is by enlisting the rest of us into helping them, either by confusing us or coercing us to going along with the unjust systems that they prop up for their own profit for political gain.

And so the goal really of information disorder of negative propaganda campaigns, to use a little bit of your new group's terminology, is really to do that. Is to trick people into acting against their own best interests by confusing them about what their best interests even are and what are ways for them to actually pursue them.

2:49: Charlotte Jones:  

How can we counter these confusion campaigns?

2:53: Sabrina Joy Stevens:  

Well, I think part of it is just being aware that this is going on. So there is an element of this that we need to help people understand that it's not an accident that people have become increasingly divided. It's not an accident that it's becoming harder and harder for us to discern what's true and what's not, especially in an information environment that is just awash in far more content than we've ever experienced collectively as a society.

And so what we need to do about it is figure out, knowing what these bad actors are doing and how they operate, then we need to think about how we need to communicate in that context to help people understand how to wrap their minds around these issues that we share in common so that they can do something different about them. It's about helping people understand what the issues are, how things got to be the way they are and then what they can do about it. So that we can help people start to distinguish useful information from information that's not useful and start to take action that is aligned with their best interests.

4:03: Charlotte Jones:  

Why is storytelling such an important tool in countering disinformation?

4:08: Sabrina Joy Stevens:  

We are programmed to think in narrative format or, I shouldn't say programmed, like that's how we've evolved, right, that is how the human brain works. We understand information in the context of story. That's why for centuries, and thousands of years really, people have shared culture, built culture, taught each other in story format. That's how our brains best understand information. And so when we think about a situation where people have been intentionally confused, we don't want to use communications techniques that are only going to add to that confusion. And when we speak and things like isolated facts and statistics, which is another of the pitfalls that I often warn people against, that is hard for people to understand.

So we need to put things into a format that is easy for them to understand. And that's narrative format. Storytelling is the number one way that people make sense of the world. And so when we're speaking to people in the context of story, that is helping them understand what's really going on so that they can better retain that information and be more resistant to the false stories that they hear from bad actors.

5:16: Charlotte Jones:  

You've mentioned that fighting disinformation is a choice not an accident. Could you give us some examples?

5:22: Sabrina Joy Stevens:  

Sure. Well, you know, first just recognizing that our information environment didn't just get polluted by accident, right? People made intentional choices to create the situation we find ourselves in. We're also going to need to make intentional choices in order to reverse those decisions and move in a more positive direction. And so as we think about, you know I've worked with many different groups, whether it's figuring out ways to better communicate about our election, so that attempts to sow confusion and mistrust are less effective.

We saw that work out over the past two election cycles where there was still quite a bit of problematic information and some problematic results in terms of that information. Overall, we were able to really stave off some of the worst attacks on our democracy here in the US, because more people in the media, more voters and more community groups were able to understand what really is supposed to be happening so that they could take appropriate action. We were able to do things like demystifying the elections process, so that when bad actors try to use normal run of the mill processes that occur during every election, when people understood, oh, this is supposed to be happening like this, then they were less susceptible to lies and claims that normal parts of the electoral process were somehow nefarious or problematic.

And so that is, I think, one good example of ways that taking intentional action to help inoculate people against mis and disinformation, has helped us create better outcomes.

7:00: Charlotte Jones:  

You've continued with the ways that political manipulation tactics manifests in new media. Do you feel that race plays a role in the way these new tactics manifest?

7:09: Sabrina Joy Stevens: 

Absolutely, and I think part of it is just to recognize that bad actors intentionally use issues related to identity and variety of context. So race, gender, political ideology, a number of different identifiers in order to divide people, because that's one of the ways that they exploit existing mistrust and stoke increasing mistrust among different kinds of people. For example, if we look at the way the last, really over the course of ours, everyone here's lived memory, there's always been people who are using identifiers like race to engender mistrust among different groups of people. We see that play out repeatedly where bad actors will take existing, because again the reason I use the term political manipulation more broadly is because all forms of bigotry are forms of political manipulation.

The whole point is, again, going back to this dynamic of there's a small group of people who built power and wealth at everyone else's expense. The only way they're able to do that is by dividing and conquering people, right? So if you think about that old LBGA quote, if you can convince the lowest white man, if he's better than the best, you know, I think he said colored person or negro, that's dated terminology, obviously, but if you can convince the lowest white man that he's better than the best black man, then he won't notice you're picking his pockets. Give him someone to look down on and he'll even empty his pockets for you. That's really the dynamic we're dealing with here where there's a small group of people who are exploiting everybody else.

And so rather than allowing or you know, letting those people come together and see their common cause, they use the wedge issues like race, gender, class, all these different things to make people think that they are more divided. That their interests are better served by aligning themselves with the the bad actors who are actually undermining them, instead of coming together to make common cause with the great majority of people whose interests are better served by the kinds of just economic policy, social policies that would result in those bad actors actually having to share the wealth and the power that they're hoarding. And so that's what we really always want to be paying attention to is that, when bad bad actors evoke things like race, what they're trying to do is distract people from the real dynamics that are resulting in folks not having enough money, not having enough economic security, in a much broader sense, not having access to health care, etc.

The way we often see this play out in this current info disorder context is that bad actors will use slightly different tactics on different segments of the population. So for example, they will stoke fear among white voters, that there are people who are coming to take their jobs or dilute the power of their votes. They give them an idea that they're like real Americans, and all these folks coming from different countries or who are different races are less legitimate participants in the democracy. And so they use that, they appeal to the worst elements of people's fears, bigotries etcetera, to induce them to vote for people who are actually the ones who are undermining their economic well being, the ones who are actually undermining their health, etcetera. And so they trick people into voting against their interests that way.

Likewise, we see the flipside, the very seen bad actors, in many cases, are involved in spreading information that discourages black folks and other people of color from participating in the electoral process. So we saw that play out in the 2020 elections and in many elections before and after, where they would post information, discouraging people from voting. So saying things like it doesn't make a difference, your vote doesn't really matter. We saw those coming from both foreign and domestic bad actors, showing these kinds of discouraging depressive information, to try to discourage certain groups of people from voting, while trying to encourage other groups of people to vote in a way that reinforces current divisions.

11:37: Charlotte Jones:  

On the same point, you've talked about how public trust in institutions is low, particularly in communities that have faced past and current discrimination. How did bad actors work to further undermine distrust?

11:50: Sabrina Joy Stevens:  

Yes, well, I think something that is really important to talk about is the role of malinformation in information disorder. I think people hear a lot about misinformation and disinformation. But malinformation is actually true information that's used inappropriately or in an inappropriate context, in order to bolster the believability of lies, the disinformation that gets spread. And so one clear example of malinformation is taking those examples of real life discrimination and abuse that communities have faced from authorities in order to undermine the trust in those authorities.

So we saw that play out massively and continues to play out, for example, in our public health conversation. Where bad actors are able to exploit the fact that many people of color, lower-income people have experienced real discrimination in our health care system or have experienced real instances of drugs being tested inappropriately are not offered to people, to then cause people to mistrust the public health interventions that were being promoted by doctors and the public health community during the pandemic, right. They're able to use something that is true but maybe is inappropriately extended to a new situation where it's not relevant in order to continue to stoke mistrust among people who have actually legitimate reasons to distrust those institutions.

13:22: Charlotte Jones:  

You also talk about the importance of setting intentions when navigating social media. Could you explain this?

13:29: Sabrina Joy Stevens:  

Sure, if we understand that the way social media platforms are designed, these platforms are designed to be intentionally addictive. The goal for the platform, the companies that are selling you this attention product, essentially, is to keep you on the platform. They want to keep you scrolling, because that is how they sell ad space, right. The more people who stay on the platform longer, the more data you give them through your clicks, through your stops, through your shares, through your reactions, all of that helps them tailor advertising which is incredibly profitable to them. And so, if we understand that the design of these platforms is intended to addict us, it's intended for us to lose track of time, to lose track of the ability to stop ourselves from continuously scrolling. Once we recognize that that's what's going on, it becomes important for us to then be intentional about how we use them. 

So I talk to people a lot about setting intentions, boundaries, and limits when you're using social media so that instead of just going on social media and being at the beckon call of every notification, of every que that is trying to hook you into that dopamine loop of scrolling, getting a response and then continuing to share content in order to continue to get that response. You want to be really intentional. Have a clear idea of why you're going onto a platform before you log on. Have a sense of how much time you're going to spend there and then set either a timer or an automatic shut off for yourself which most phones now give you the capability to do. And then also set boundaries to decide in advance what it is you're going to engage with versus what you're not going to. So that you can start to reclaim a bit of control over the way your mind interacts in a space that is intended to addict you and to stop you from making such decisions.

15:30: Charlotte Jones:  

Okay, so it looks like we're out of time today. We've been talking to communications strategist Ms. Sabrina Joy Stevens and founder of Sabijoy Creative Solutions, who examines political manipulation tactics surrounding information disorder. Ms. Stevens, thank you so much for joining us today.

15:45: Sabrina Joy Stevens:  

Absolutely. Thanks so much for inviting me.