Cross-Platform Disinformation Campaigns: Lessons Learned and Next Steps

Networks, the Internet, and Cloud Computing, Internet, Privacy and Security and Media and Content

Article Snapshot


Kate Starbird and Tom Wilson


The Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, 2020


Disinformation campaigns use misleading information to discredit a political adversary. Opponents of a humanitarian group operating in Syria use Twitter and YouTube to discredit the group.

Policy Relevance

Social media platforms should collaborate to address cross-platform misinformation campaigns.

Main Points

  • The White Helmets are a nonsectarian humanitarian group operating in rebel areas of Syria; the group conducts rescue operations and documents attacks on civilians, and has become a target of the Syrian government and its allies.
  • Disinformation is deliberately false or misleading information intended to create doubt about an adversary for a strategic political purpose; the work of paid agents is mingled with the activities of unwitting online participants.
  • Mapping Twitter conversations about the While Helmets enabled researchers to identify a pro-White Helmets cluster and an anti-White Helmets cluster; a "cluster" is a network of accounts that retweet each other.
  • On Twitter and YouTube, anti-White Helmets content dominates the conversation.
    • Mainstream media outlets sometimes provide content supportive of the White Helmets.
    • The anti-White Helmets make dedicated use of social media and alternative news sites.
    • Anti-White Helmets make more effective and extensive use of linked YouTube videos.
  • Russian state-sponsored media support the anti-White Helmets by supplying content for articles and videos and amplifying some social media voices.
  • Disinformation is not simply provided by bots and trolls; some anti-White Helmets are fake personas operated by political entities, but some are sincere activists, journalists, or state media.
  • Social media firms share data about disinformation on a voluntary and informal basis; development of more formal channels would aid detection of misinformation.
  • Data sharing across platforms would raise consumer privacy issues; defining “disinformation” is the best first step to address concerns about cross-platform surveillance.

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