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Top ten reading list: disinformation books

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E&T’s pick of recent books for anyone who wants to understand the threat of disinformation.

A US election that could be one of the most important spectacles of the early 21st century is just around the corner. In 2016, disinformation muddied the waters and was blamed for manipulating millions of voters. Four years later, social media companies are coming under increasing fire for falling short in addressing the task of removing false information on their platforms. The raging Covid-19 pandemic saw the plethora of dangerous online disinformation spiral.

The mantra by which many disinformation experts live is that the more people know about the problem, the easier it becomes to avoid it. To equip our readers with the wisdom they need, E&T has put together a summer reading list of ten top non-fiction books on contemporary and historic disinformation.

‘Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics’ by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts (Oxford University Press, £17.99, ISBN 9780190923624)

Published in print in 2018, this book hasn’t lost any value. In fact, the opposite is true. By laying bare, for instance, how US media channel Fox News deflected negative coverage of President Trump by promoting exaggerated and fabricated stories to defend the head of the US against damaging news from the Mueller investigation, this book deserves its place in your 2020 disinformation reading list.

In preparation for a paramount upcoming US general election on 3 November, ‘Network Propaganda’ is excellent in giving a detailed account of the architecture of the US media ecosystem. This year’s election will show whether the lessons outlined in this book have been learned. The book offers a freely accessible online version under the open access licence.

‘The Reality Game’ by Samuel Woolley (PublicAffairs, £21.70, ISBN 9781541768253)

Samuel Woolley, also a researcher, is well-equipped to speak on the subject of disinformation. His previous book, ‘Computational Propaganda’, concentrated on case studies where digital tools played a role during political elections, national disasters and security crises in attempts to manipulate public opinion. What make ‘The Reality Game’ worth a read is Woolley's focus on the upcoming wave of new technologies; arguable deep fakes; virtual reality, and machine learning. The takeaway is not that all tech constitutes a peril per se. Instead, people themselves are responsible for weaponising it against each other in the form of disinformation.

‘Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation and What We Can Do About It’ by Richard Stengel (Grove Press, £20, ISBN 9781611856385)

There are few books that capture images from the front line of the disinformation wars better than this one, especially regarding Russia and ISIS. Author Richard Stengel is an American editor and former government official. On ISIS, this book is a valuable asset in understanding how a militant group can terrorise the world by leveraging the power of social media. Stengel also goes deep behind the scenes of how Russian actors launched a wealth of disinformation around the annexation of Crimea. Despite being presented entirely from a US-centric viewpoint, the insider knowledge is so revealing because of its first-hand nature. Stengel, who was solely in charge of dealing with ISIS messaging and Russian disinformation under the Obama administration, is a viable source to prescribe what works and what doesn’t in fighting it.

‘This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality’ by Peter Pomerantsev (Faber & Faber, £14.99, ISBN 9780571338634)

If you want to understand how disinformation can wreak havoc on liberal democracy, this book (previously reviewed by E&T features editor Vitali Vitaliev in October 2019) is one for you. The author - award-winning writer Peter Pomerantsev - concentrates largely on Russia. It shines with a forward-looking view on the topic. The book lays bare the author’s inner motivation to establish the truth. There is some personal involvement: the author’s dissident parents were targeted by the KGB. Today, the Kremlin has surfaced again as a propaganda power. The book is ambitious in explaining how actors can blur the line between fact and fiction. To hold the truth sacred, the book tells why and how it is so important to take possession of the truth.

‘I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP's Digital Army’ by Swati Chaturvedi (Juggernaut Publication, £9.99, ISBN 9789386228093)

This book is an underdog in the library of modern disinformation literature, but it packs a punch. The author, Swati Chaturvedi, is an Indian journalist who invested two years of work in order to lay bare the extent of right-wing trolls dominating social media within his country. Chaturvedi investigates the connections between abusive social media accounts and the BJP. Being an online investigation par excellence, it features interviews with top politicians, bureaucrats and marketeers, as well as trolls themselves. Its power lies in explaining who is behind these aggressive targeted disinformation campaigns against Indian public figures including journalists and actors.

‘Lie Machines: How to Save Democracy from Troll Armies, Deceitful Robots, Junk News Operations and Political Operatives’ by Philip N Howard (Yale University Press, £20, ISBN 9780300250206)

Philip Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, is well suited to write about disinformation: his team produces regular reports on the matter. Howard's research skills, after writing nine other books, are superb. Where the book excels is when the author explains how automation will prop up and accelerate the amount of disinformation. He delves deep into the question of how artificial intelligence will have its role in political life in all types of regimes in the years ahead. What Howard does particularly well is to gauge the powers that automated disinformation systems have. The book also contains valuable lessons for leader of Western and Eastern social media giants. Howard describes how to pull the plug on these lying machines.

‘Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare’ by Thomas Rid (MacMillan USA, £25.55, ISBN 9780374287269)

This book was recommended to E&T by Prof Agnieszka Legucka, an analyst of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, where she works on Russian disinformation. The title is well chosen: it stands for the actions of political warfare conducted by the Soviet and Russian security services to influence the course of global events. The book is exactly about that. It shines a light on how disinformation got off the ground in the first place. A review by the Washington Post stated, “ the deeper value of [Thomas] Rid's book is that it takes us to the beginnings of modern manipulation”. The author is also a credible witness. A professor at Johns Hopkins University, Rid testified on disinformation in front of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

'Disinformation, Misinformation and Fake News in Social Media' (Springer, £109.99, ISBN 978-3030426989)

This book might seem a tad academic for this reading list. It might even be hard to stay awake, but bear with me. It is among the best sources there are on interdisciplinary emerging research at this point. It might seem dry, at first. On the contrary, this is the only book in the list that allows you to become active on your computer. It shows the most contemporary approaches to identifying the problems rife on social media. If you are tech savvy - which we know many of our readers are - this book will appeal because it offers you the means to play with data. It will show you what's beneath the claims made by other authors in this reading list. It will guide you through advanced social computing, data mining and machine learning methods that can help to detangle the disinformation, misinformation and fake news in social media.

‘Verification Handbook for Disinformation and Media Manipulation’ Various contributors (European Journalism Centre, free)

This is a guide commonly used by journalists to spot misinformation and manipulation in the media. What’s good for those who produce the news should be also good for those who consume it. To any interested party, the book tells educational tales about how to investigate social media accounts, bots, private messaging apps, information operations, deep fakes and a variety of other forms of disinformation and media manipulation. It’s also freely accessible online.

‘LikeWar: The Weaponisation of Social Media’ by PW Singer and Emerson T Brooking (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99, ISBN 9780358108474)

As disinformation migrates to social media, this book provides a valuable asset in your reading list to understand how the forces of good and evil are fighting infowars on social platforms. By carefully studying how ISIS emulated Instagram tactics used by Taylor Swift, how internet trolls influenced elections, or how China monitored citizens with a smartphone app, the authors lift the veil on who has the upper hand.

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