Webinar presenters John Farmer, Paul Goldenberg, Graham Brookie, Chris Swanson, Don Mihalek, and Mark Pfeifle answered a number of your questions after their presentation, The Unintended Consequences of Disinformation Campaigns on Law Enforcement. Here are just a few of their responses.
Audience Question: The first question comes in from Megan. I’m thinking, Graham, this might be initially and best answered by you but please anyone else feel free to weigh in. Megan asks how do you determine what exactly is disinformation?
Graham Brookie: That’s a good question. It’s not quite like other online arms, like child pornography, which is explicit. We need standards for attribution and standards for identification. At the DFRLab, we focus on what is provable and what is not, so we can independently verify facts, directly refute narratives, and get to disinformation. A very difficult thing in attributing disinformation is proving intent. There’s a big difference between my uncle not reading an article then sharing it with all of his friends and somebody organizing misleading, networked behavior and intentionally trying to spread a false narrative to as many people as possible. So, the two things that I would say are what can you prove in any case of disinformation and can you prove intent to deceive? That’s a good starting point.
Audience Question: I don’t know if Sheriff Swanson was able to stay on. I know that we went a little bit over on this. Sheriff, if you are there, there’s a question from Jamad is wondering, was there any negative feedback from your agency, the media, your local leaders regarding your decision to march with the protesters?
Chris Swanson: That’s a great question. I will tell you, I only got one negative from an anonymous individual who sent a card and not even a return address. So that coward means nothing because 99.9% of everybody who watched it from around the country and around the world, saw that hope and great presentation. Donald, you want to add that, you know, more of an international platform. What we were able to show is, no matter where you are, the common denominator that people want is they want peace in their community but there’s a group of people out there that all they want to do is create panic, discord, division. If you could overwhelm them with the people that want peace and unity, they have no voice. Because trust me after everything I’ve said we still had the militia show, we still had the Antifa, we still had all those bottom of the crate but they were swarmed by people that wanted to do it right.
Donald J. Mihalek: I just wanted to echo the Sheriff’s point there because that’s one of the things that was missing during all the summer of protest. One thing that law enforcement was telling people is that the protesters have an obligation when they show up to work with law enforcement, to tell law enforcement what’s going on, who’s supposed to be there, and who’s not? I think the problem and the reason a lot of these protests got co-op was they weren’t doing that. So your Antifas, your Proud Boys, your radical elements were showing up, and they weren’t going up to the deputy or your officer, saying, “Hey, these are these people are with us but these guys, we don’t know who they are, get rid of them,” does not happen.
Chris Swanson: And if I may, not to piggyback on that, but without that dialog, everybody gets grouped in and now that I hope that I have righteous anger are linked in with rioters who come out of town to destroy. So, make no mistake, we were still using all our intel-gathering to figure out where those groups are. But the key for local law enforcement is don’t wait till your problems get to one thousand. You stop them when they’re at five. You find out where they are. You find out. You interject. You create that accountability before they get so out of control. You know, as a sign that we have an operation called Operation Lockup. You know, we had a great thing here. We’ve had a great thing, but if something were to tip-off, I have them just as much of a response plan for somebody who wants to create discord. So, you know, we can detain 500 people within a 30-minute period and deploy over 100 uniform cars within 30 minutes. That plan has been enforced this year. That’s in the background, but that’s not my best option. That’s one of my last options. That’s what I call the Alamo option. The best option is to do what we’re doing and that is to engage, to vet information, knowing that it’s coming our way to build those relationships and unify if possible.
Audience Question: How do you respond to disinformation when it’s coming from a local elected official?
Donald J. Mihalek: You got to be held accountable. They must be held accountable. The law enforcement officers must show leadership. I think the sheriff is probably one of the few that’s doing that right now, Sheriff Swanson so congratulations. It is critically important that you know, the law enforcement officers confront these individuals that are giving out this information or not supporting law enforcement and correct the facts and make sure that they’re being taken to task because all they’re doing is undermining our community by giving out disinformation or attacking the law enforcement officers, which, unfortunately, we’ve seen.
Paul G. Goldenberg: Yeah, this is Paul Goldenberg, just one closing comment for myself. We have to really be careful as well, because, you know, when the media reaches out or tries to talk to our deputies or officers and, of course, that little thing called First Amendment, they’re not realizing that some of these are state media coming in from Russia and other sources. You got Sputnik and I’ll mention it. You got RT. They look professional, you know, they looked like the ducks but there certainly are the ducks and maybe that’s not a good way to describe them. They are “legitimate state media” but they are definitely media outlets to be contended with. So just food for thought on that.
Graham Brookie: One thing that I’d say about elected officials, as well, and I say this with the luxury of not being in a public position right now: When dealing with public officials who dabble in misinformation or disinformation, you don’t have to accept it. It does not inherently create conflict to say what you know, or what you can prove in response. You also don’t have to directly accept their premise if the local elected official is an outright conspiracy theorist. You don’t have to respond directly. You can say what you know about the topic and build your own trust. You don’t have to say, “Well, I disagree with so and so because they’re spreading disinformation.” Your role as a public safety official is to brief straight and narrow: stating what you know, stating what you don’t know, and setting expectations for further engagement on that issue. Doing so helps to not give the oxygen of amplification to that original false statement. It gets above it and builds trust.
Chris Swanson: I’ll just say this to my fellowship Sheriffs that we are elected law enforcement. It’s a unique balance because much like Graham said, I don’t have to worry about what I say because I’m the people’s guardian. I have no Mayor I answer to. I have no city council and I answer to the people. If I know my people, then they will protect me. So, for that small-minded politician that wants to sow discord let your people defend you, and you, by your actions, will show who you are. But if you respond and I think Graham, you’ve mentioned it to every single thing that’s put out there are, and you are now tracing rabbit trails and you’re, you’re losing focus on where to be. Let all the things you do. I see that now with the millions and millions of people that are watching us right now throughout the year are the fans so to speak, of law enforcement, the tribes that have been built. This is servant leadership. Even in the private sector, they will defend you. You don’t have to say a thing, somebody will put a bomb out there, and they will be just destroyed by those that are, like, no. That’s where we need to be as law enforcement, are we need to use the power of media, social media, to put out what was there and then that our folks, our loyal followers will be able to address that. But I say, don’t focus on that. Lions never care about the opinion of sheep. You’re a lion, you’re created for this. Just keep doing what you’re doing and don’t mess with that nonsense.
Click Here to Watch a Recording of The Unintended Consequences of Disinformation Campaigns on Law Enforcement.