Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Information Laundering 101

Jessa Mellea
Jan 15 · 6 min read
Graphic by: Olivia Velten-Lomelín

Media manipulation is everywhere. We’ve heard it before, but how does it actually work?

One form of media manipulation is information laundering. Information laundering, money laundering’s digital cousin, is a nefarious form of media manipulation used by bots, conspiracy theorists, and hate groups to filter fake news and extremist ideology into the mainstream consciousness.

What exactly is information laundering?

Information laundering is the process through which misinformation or disinformation is passed into mainstream media through unreliable sources. Picture it this way: A troll account on Twitter tweets about something. The tweet is amplified by other troll or bot accounts and reaches real Twitter users. Those users start talking about it, and the supposed incident comes to the attention of government officials or local news networks.

Information is presented in a palatable way, either through content or context. Even though it has nefarious intent, it easily camouflages into legitimate news media.

The danger of information laundering is two-fold:

  • Sanitizing malicious and dangerous misinformation (ex. anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theories)
  • Weaponization as a propaganda tool (ex. political sway campaigns, attempts to influence elections)

Squeaky Clean

The power of information laundering was on display recently at local news networks across the country. Although most local news networks have stopped covering opponents to vaccination as a way to curb misinformation, almost fifteen news stations featured stories about the anti-vaccination movement’s opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine. One CBS affiliate station in Washington even broadcast a segment four times in one day.

In these broadcasts, the anti-vaccination advocates focus on their concerns with the COVID-19 vaccine, falsely claiming that it had not been tested properly. News networks have consciously stopped covering anti-vaxxers’ typical talking points to stop the spread of misinformation about public health. By presenting misinformation in a novel and seemingly credulous way, the anti-vaxxers’ manipulated their way onto a public platform.

This process of making their message more palatable was a calculated and strategic move. Online platforms have taken steps to curb the spread of misinformation by anti-vaccination communities, preventing them from recruiting new believers. By getting media coverage, anti-vaccination activists can bypass these measures and spread their message to a wider audience.

Local media is a particularly effective and dangerous method, as it adds a layer of credibility to the advocates’ widely debunked claims. By sanitizing their message and gaining access to a verified news source, anti-vaxxers lend credence and legitimacy to their movement, moving away from being a fringe group through information laundering.

Even troll farms are full of horse shit.

Information laundering doesn’t just make extreme views presentable. Its potential for causing chaos is enormous — and terrifying.

In a coordinated attack by the Russian government-backed propaganda organization Internet Research Agency, hundreds in a Louisiana town were convinced that their local chemical plant, Columbian Chemicals, had suffered a major attack, possibly from ISIS. The hoax was pulled off by an army of troll accounts, backed up by doctored screenshots of CNN news reports and clones of local newspapers’ websites.

Doctored screenshot used in the Columbian Chemical hoax. Source: PBS NewsHour

A 2015 New York Times investigation revealed there could be thousands of trolls employed to sow discord and foment political unrest, all aimed at furthering the interests of the Russian government.

A recent study of similar online behavior found that information laundering tactics had the potential to reach about 27,574,449 Facebook users. Most of the posting was politically partisan, particularly pro-right-wing politics in the US and other countries. Inauthentic users utilized a variety of tactics to spread their laundered disinformation, including spree postings across multiple groups, copypastas, and Tumblr redirect links to obscure where they were routing users.

While it’s unclear who the actors behind the inauthentic behavior were, much of the activity occurred before the 2020 US Presidential Election and was clearly focused on polarizing voters.

Why are these groups using information laundering?

There are two primary purposes of information laundering:

  • Pushing extremist ideology into the mainstream
  • Spreading misinformation/disinformation

These are by no means mutually exclusive; often the fake information being spread is done so in pursuit of a political goal.

For extremists, overtly hateful or otherwise intense rhetoric can put off people who might eventually engage with the group. Through information laundering, the discourse that starts on the fringes, like extremist websites or forums, can migrate to more mainstream websites like YouTube or Facebook if presented in a palatable enough way. Once users are intrigued, they can begin to radicalize, diving deeper into the rabbit hole. Information laundering helps grow the movement.

Disinformation is also filtered into mainstream media, but with different intentions. Instead of trying to recruit users to a movement, trolls try to shape perceptions and stoke outrage. A study of Russian online interference tools used in the lead up to the 2016 US Presidential Election articulated the goals of information laundering:

  • “[paralyzing] a nation’s decision making process
  • harming the political or economic infrastructure
  • undermining social cohesion
  • destroying confidence in democratic institutions”

Using these tactics, government-backed forces can interfere to further their own country’s interests.

Information laundering has impacts beyond the primary goals of both extremists and trolls. Both groups erode faith in mainstream media, even as they enter it. Successfully getting coverage on a piece of laundered information can lend credibility to the group, while simultaneously making others question the credibility of the source that covered it. Spoof and look-alike sites, like the variety of ideologically based (and biased) versions of Wikipedia, create an alternate news landscape that draws on the credibility of the websites they mimic while purporting to provide information that is more credible than those actual websites. Though this dynamic seems contradictory, the two effects are successful at appealing to people at different stages of shifting their beliefs to extremes and losing faith in mainstream media.

Graphic by: Olivia Velten-Lomelín

How can we stop information laundering?

Thankfully, the spread of misinformation through information laundering can be mitigated. Networks that distribute laundered messages depend on authentic users to amplify information to a broader audience. Better vetting, by social media users and news networks alike, can curb the impacts of laundered information.

Another effective tactic is creating more friction for bots and troll armies. Using technology like human-ID, social media platforms can make inauthentic accounts too costly to be effective, stopping information laundering before it enters the online landscape.

To learn more about how online tactics are used in the digital landscape, check out Miriam Attal’s article on 12 forms of media manipulation.

What’s humanID?

humanID is a new anonymous online identity that blocks bots and social media manipulation. If you care about privacy and protecting free speech, consider supporting humanID at www.human-id.org, and follow us on Twitter & LinkedIn.

All opinions and views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of humanID.

humanID

humanID offers an entirely private and secure Sign In solution for apps and websites across iOS, Android and the web. humanID is nonprofit, open source and part of the Bluenumber Foundation. We will use this space to post regular updates for the wider community.

Jessa Mellea

Written by

Brown University 2023 | International Relations and Religious Studies | Research and Marketing @ humanID

humanID

humanID offers an entirely private and secure Sign In solution for apps and websites across iOS, Android and the web. humanID is nonprofit, open source and part of the Bluenumber Foundation. We will use this space to post regular updates for the wider community.