Disinformation wars: From the stupid to the malign

Access to accurate information is essential for democratic institutions to function effectively, for economies to be run fairly and to promote public health. In Europe the deliberate dissemination of disinformation threatens to undermine all this: what is being done to tackle this threat?

Stupid and dangerous

Did you know that Macedonians have the lowest IQ in the Balkans? Did you know, as one particularly uncharitable headline put it in 2015, that “Macedonians are among the stupidest people on earth?” And did you know that Macedonia’s low intelligence problem is actually getting worse – that the average IQ in the country has slipped from 91 points in 2015 to a current low of 82 points?

You’d certainly know it if you were a regular consumer of articles posted on Macedonian news portals. But you wouldn’t really know it, because, of course, it isn’t true.

This stupid story about some of the supposedly “stupidest people on earth” is illustrative of a number of the essential drivers of disinformation and of the dangers in spreading it. It shines the spotlight on the need for proper, high quality, ethical journalism, on the huge importance of media literacy and on the role of social media platforms. It also says something about our own natures and behaviours when we come into contact with salacious, untrustworthy news stories.

IFEX member Metamorphosis has explored how the most recent version of this story spread: an article – ‘National IQ of Macedonia is 82, the lowest in the region’ – appeared on the Macedonian news website Fokus in July 2019; within a week, it had provoked over 3,500 reactions on Facebook and was being uploaded, unattributed, onto several news sites across the region.

As Metamorphosis points out, the story was based on a pseudoscientific study by a discredited professor of psychology, Richard Lynn, who runs a think tank that peddles racial science theories. Lynn, as Metamorphosis also notes, has connections with the far right.

Why did a story promoting crank science gain so much traction?

Partly it’s a failure on the part of Macedonian journalists and editors: even a quick Internet search would have revealed the dubious history of this kind of ‘research’, and indeed of Richard Lynn. The seductive lure of the story’s clickbait potential must also have played a role: “false news” – often so novel and provocative – is 70% more likely to be shared on Twitter than the truth, and in Macedonia it spreads like wildfire via news portals and social media.

Another big factor would have been media literacy, or the absence of it: according to a study carried out by the Open Society Initiative Sofia, Macedonia ranks lowest of 35 European countries in media literacy (the ability to recognise disinformation and resist its potentially negative consequences).  All of the Balkan countries (plus Turkey) find themselves at the bottom of the media literacy league table.

Peddling racial science, national stereotypes and other kinds of divisive disinformation is a dangerous thing to do: it has the potential to fuel discrimination, hatred, political instability and violence.

Conversely, access to accurate information is essential for democratic institutions to function effectively, for economies to be run fairly and for public health.

The promotion of the Macedonian IQ story was probably driven by sheer salaciousness. But when a piece of disinformation like that is spread as part of a hostile communications strategy coordinated by political figures or state actors, it becomes much more troubling.

For some of the most extreme examples of this, we need to head just over 1,000 km north east of Macedonia to Ukraine, a disinformation battleground where domestic politicians have weaponised lies disguised as news in order to gain advantage over their opponents, and where Russia has combined military backing for separatist forces in the Donbass border region with an ongoing disinformation campaign seeking to destabilise and delegitimise Ukraine’s leadership.

Disinformation battleground

Facebook has played a big, negative role in Ukraine’s disinformation war. StopFake.org (Twitter: @StopFakingNews), a Ukrainian organisation of journalists dedicated to exposing disinformation, especially the Kremlin-sponsored variety, has reported on how Facebook has been used to spread false information via the creation of fake accounts in the names of Ukrainian leaders; how legitimate Facebook accounts were shut down by “malign actors using Facebook’s ‘report’ function”; and how – despite former President Poroshenko raising these complaints in 2015 – the social media giant did virtually nothing to remedy the situation.

When Privacy International’s Sara Nelson wrote about Ukraine’s 2019 presidential election, she found that Facebook was still failing to tackle disinformation effectively. Despite the social networking site announcing in January 2019 that – ahead of the election – it would ban foreign-bought political advertising (a favoured vehicle for spreading disinformation), and that it would create a library of political advertising which would then be archived for seven years, Facebook turned out to be more of a hindrance than a help in the battle against coordinated lying campaigns: its advertising measures only came into force two weeks before the polls opened; it repeatedly blocked educational materials created by disinformation monitoring organisations to help voters determine false from accurate news items; and it was extremely unresponsive when these educational organisations tried to have their materials re-published. In addition to all this, Facebook’s ban on foreign-bought advertising also seems to have been pretty easy to circumvent, with Ukrainian intelligence announcing the discovery of a Russian plot to rent Facebook accounts from Ukrainians and use them to place political advertising.

Russian attempts to destabilise, confuse and sow fear in Ukraine were not limited to Facebook advertising and fake social media accounts. StopFake.org exposed numerous false news stories that were published by Russian media around the election. These included: a false claim that Ukraine’s health minister was about to ban the use of antiseptics, a misleading story that Ukrainians were voting “at gunpoint”, a lie that 10 million Ukrainians were denied the right to vote, and a story that was intended to suppress the vote which claimed that army conscription notices would be handed out at voting stations.

Metastasis

Pro-Kremlin disinformation has spread far beyond eastern Europe; it has also begun to mutate, making some versions of it very hard to detect.

The EU regards the dissemination of disinformation (both from Russia and elsewhere) as a serious security threat. In 2017, the EU Commission set up a high level expert group (HLEG), comprised of experts from academia, online platforms, news media and civil society; the Commission later published ‘Tackling online disinformation: a European approach, which took recommendations made by the HLEG into account and proposed an EU-wide Code of Practice to “ensure transparency by explaining how algorithms select news, as well as improving the visibility and accessibility of reliable news”.

However, in terms of educating the public, one of the EU’s most useful initiatives was the creation of the EU vs Disinfo website (Twitter: @EUvsDisinfo) in 2015. Set up under the European Union External Action Service (EEAS), EU vs Disinfo is intended to expose Kremlin-friendly disinformation and provides an easy to use database. By August 2019, EU vs Disinfo had debunked over 6,000 Russian disinformation cases; the most commonly appearing themes are: the conflict in Ukraine, elections, terrorism and migration.

Russian disinformation, like most political disinformation, seeks to exploit points of tension and potential rupture (such as elections) by weaponising divisive issues or deeply-held, often irrational fears. Examples of Kremlin-friendly interference in referenda include the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum, in which 150,000 Russia-linked Twitter accounts were identified as spreading disinformation related to the EU, and the 2018 Italian parliamentary elections, in which Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik targeted Italians with an anti-immigrant narrative. (Italian language Russian media continues to promote anti-immigrant lies in order to foster distrust and division within the EU.)

Before the EU elections in May 2019, there was a big uptick in Russia-originated disinformation directed at the EU in general and at individual members in particular. This included bizarre but dangerous false narratives suggesting that the Yellow Vests, Islamic terrorists, and the French intelligence services were (separately) to blame for causing the fire that destroyed Notre Dame Cathedral.

In June 2019, the European Commission took the unusual step of issuing a report that explicitly and publicly accused Russia of having run a “sustained disinformation” campaign aimed at “suppress[ing] turnout and influenc[ing] voter preferences” during the EU elections the previous month, by promoting “extreme views” and “attacks on the EU and its values”. It also announced that domestic political actors, especially those on the far right, had adopted some of Russia’s disinformation tactics in seeking to promote their own policies and lies. Further to this, the report cited research suggesting that over 600 groups and Facebook pages across various countries had spread disinformation or had used false profiles to boost the content of parties or sites during the elections; these pages generated 763 million user views.

While the report welcomed efforts by social media platforms to remove accounts and pages peddling disinformation (Facebook actually provides frequent updates of its efforts in this area), it said that “more needs to be done by the platforms to effectively tackle disinformation”. It also delivered an ominous warning:

“The tactics used by these [disinformation] actors are evolving as quickly as the measures adopted by states and online platforms. Instead of conducting large-scale operations on digital platforms, these actors, in particular linked to Russian sources, now appeared to be opting for smaller-scale, localised operations that are harder to detect and expose”.

“No silver bullet”: Defending ourselves against disinformation

There is no quick fix to tackling disinformation. Approaches tend to fall into two main areas: publicly debunking disinformation and developing media literacy.

As mentioned above, EU vs Disinfo and StopFake.org are good at exposing pro-Kremlin disinformation in the media; their pages are available to read in a number of languages. (It should be noted that some have accused StopFake.org of political partisanship during domestic elections.)

The International Press Institute’s (IPI) Contending With Fake News project, explores the ‘fake news’ problem in Spain, Poland, Austria, the Czech Republic and Finland, and looks at efforts to inform and educate the public about disinformation. One particularly interesting project that IPI looks at is the Transparent Journalism Tool (launched by Spanish news site Público.es). The aim of the Tool is to allow readers to see all the information behind stories published by Público, including the reasons for covering a certain topic, the number of people working on the content, verified sources and documents consulted.

The public appetite for access to accurate information and greater media literacy is definitely there. Privacy International’s Sara Nelson found that communities in Ukraine were extremely keen to enable their members to tell truth from fiction in the news and on social media, and that they had been supplying guides on the subject to schools and local canteens.

In Belgium and Germany, Lie-detectors.org, a member of the European Commission’s HLEG on digital disinformation and fake news, teaches school children how to navigate their way round false news online.

In the Western Balkans, where pro-Kremlin disinformation mixes with domestically generated false narratives to stir tensions between Serbia and Kosovo and portray the EU and NATO as threats to stability in the region, IFEX members Mediacentar, the South East European Network for Professionalization of Media and the Albanian Media Institute are involved in a project called ’Media for Citizens – Citizens for Media’. This initiative is focused on building capacity in civil society organisations so that they can advance media and information literacy in the region. The main activities include events, advocacy and public education; the focus countries are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

IFEX’s Macedonian member Metamorphosis is also currently running a media literacy project, Critical Thinking for Mediawise Citizens – CriThink, the aim of which is to foster a culture of critical thinking amongst the general public in Macedonia and an awareness of the detrimental impact of media manipulation on democracy and European values.

While there have been a number of attempts to tackle disinformation or ‘fake news’ using legislation (including in France and Russia), the consensus among press and free expression groups tends to be that introducing laws in this sphere is both impractical and dangerous, and that “any legal prohibition of ‘fake’ news would inevitably create a chilling effect upon the media and anyone that contributes to public debate” (ARTICLE 19).

The OSI Sofia report on disinformation also says we should prioritise education in media literacy over regulation, but warns that it’s “no silver bullet”.


This is part of a series IFEX is producing on regional experiences with the global problem of information disorder, and what people are doing to counter it.
While accusations of ‘fake news!’ still take up enormous bandwidth, the term is vague at best, and easily manipulated. Following the important work of Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan, we consider three aspects of “information disorder”: disinformation, misinformation, and mal-information. Disinformation is information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organisation or country. Misinformation is information that is false, but not created with the intention of causing harm. Mal-information is information that is based on reality, used to inflict harm on a person, social group, organisation or country.

We hope this will help broaden understanding and encourage dialogue about the problem of information disorder as well as the repercussions countermeasures may have on civic space and on our right to freedom of expression and information.

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Source: MEDIA FEED

HRNJ-UG Admin

Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) is a network of human rights journalists in Uganda working towards enhancing the promotion, protection and respect of human rights through defending and building the capacities of journalists, to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms for collective campaigning through the media.

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