Sign up for our daily briefing

Make your busy days simpler with Axios AM/PM. Catch up on what's new and why it matters in just 5 minutes.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Stay on top of the latest market trends

Subscribe to Axios Markets for the latest market trends and economic insights. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sports news worthy of your time

Binge on the stats and stories that drive the sports world with Axios Sports. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tech news worthy of your time

Get our smart take on technology from the Valley and D.C. with Axios Login. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Get the inside stories

Get an insider's guide to the new White House with Axios Sneak Peek. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Denver news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Des Moines news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Twin Cities news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Twin Cities

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Tampa Bay news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa Bay

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Charlotte news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Charlotte

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Disinformation campaigns used to consist of trolls and bots orchestrated and manipulated to produce a desired result. Increasingly, though, these campaigns are able to find willing human participants to amplify their messages and even generate new ones on their own.

The big picture: It's as if they're switching from employees to volunteers — and from participants who are in on the game to those who actually believe the disinformational payload they're delivering.

Why it matters: Understanding this changing nature is critical to preparing for the next generation of information threats, including those facing the 2020 presidential campaign.

Speaking at Stanford University Tuesday, researcher Kate Starbird — a University of Washington professor who runs a lab that studies mass participation — traced the change across the stories of three different campaigns.

1. Russian interference in the 2016 election: Starbird's work started not with studying disinformation, but with an analysis of the debate that raged on Twitter over the Black Lives Matters movement.

  • It was only after Twitter released data on Russian propagandists in November 2017 when her team realized that some of the most prolific posters — on both sides of the debate — were fictional personas created by the Russians.
  • "In a few cases, we can see them arguing with themselves," said Starbird.

2. Syria's "White Helmets": In this case, an aid group known as the White Helmets working in Syria was attacked by online critics for a host of alleged atrocities.

  • Here Russia was actively involved in stirring the pot, but the posters themselves were neither bots nor trolls, but activists who adopted the issue as their own.
  • "These are real people who are sincere believers of the content they are sharing," Starbird said.
  • Russian media, including Sputnik and RT, made the movement appear significantly larger, though, by interviewing activists and giving them both a platform and a veneer of legitimacy.

3. Conspiracy theories tied to mass-casualty events: People are predisposed to find conspiracies in every tragedy, and conspiracy theories have accompanied all manner of mass-casualty events such as the Boston Marathon bombing and Sandy Hook shooting.

  • The theories crop up organically, though Russian or other disinformation promoters can and do help amplify the messages.
  • Terms like "false flag" and "crisis actors" are applied to the victims, flipping the script of whatever has transpired.
  • "It's almost like a self-sustaining community, but you can see it's been shaped by disinformation campaigns of the past," Starbird said.
  • All these factors, she said, makes these cases the "most frightening" she's studied.

Between the lines: Not all of the disinformation has come from Russia, Starbird said, but added: "They have been innovators in this space."

What's next: Starbird recommended a couple of actions for the tech companies.

  • First, she urged them to look at entire campaigns, rather than focusing on the veracity of individual posts. While Twitter and Facebook tend to look at posts in isolation, the creators of disinformation are focused on an overall campaign, a set of narratives with a larger point, she said.
  • Starbird also said tech companies should discount false claims of conservative bias that, she suggested, are being leveled by the disinformation's beneficiaries.

"The people that have benefited are now in power in a lot of places," she said. "Anything the companies do to take a chunk [of their power away] is going to be called bias."

Meanwhile: Many of the next disinformation threats may be domestic, notes former Facebook security chief Alex Stamos, who now teaches at Stanford. And those will be harder for law enforcement to investigate given that in many cases there is no law being broken.

Go deeper: Read more from Axios' Misinformation Age series

Go deeper

Updated 3 hours ago - Health

California surpasses 50,000 COVID-19 deaths

A man prepares a funeral arrangement in in Los Angeles, California, Feb. 12. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

California's death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 50,000 on Wednesday, per Johns Hopkins data.

The big picture: It's the first state to record more than 50,000 deaths from the coronavirus.

4 hours ago - Technology

Facebook bans Myanmar military

A protester holds a placard with a three-finger salute in front of a military tank parked aside the street in front of the Central Bank building during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by Aung Kyaw Htet/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Facebook said on Wednesday it would ban the rest of the Myanmar military from its platform.

The big picture: It comes some three weeks after the military overthrew the civilian government in a coup and detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi, causing massive protests to erupt throughout the country. Military leaders have been using internet blackouts to try to maintain power in light of the coup.

It's harder to fill the Cabinet

Data: Chamberlain, 2020, "United States of America Cabinet Appointments Dataset" Chart: Will Chase/Axios

It's harder now for presidents to win Senate confirmation for their Cabinet picks, an Axios data analysis of votes for and against nominees found.

Why it matters: It's not just Neera Tanden. The trend is a product of growing polarization, rougher political discourse and slimming Senate majorities, experts say. It means some of the nation's most vital federal agencies go without a leader and the legislative authority that comes with one.