Media and readers get wiser to false narratives

By: Rob Corbidge, 10 March 2022

Movie poster for the film The Man Who Never Was

We've all been witnesses to an extraordinary period of online manipulation, both successful and attempted, and seen its effects. Now there's a real conflict, it does seem more of us are losing our naivety.

Whatever your level of connection to the current conflict in Ukraine, either as a horrified observer or connected to an organisation covering the events, if you work in media you cannot be blind to recent turns of events in the industry itself with regards to the situation.

This week, the EU took the step of banning two Russian-state controlled media outlets from broadcasting in the region - Sputnik, and Russia Today - until Russia ends its attack on Ukraine and stops disinformation campaigns in member states.

Josep Borrell Fontelles, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said: "They are not independent media, they are assets, they are weapons, in the Kremlin’s manipulation ecosystem. We are not trying to decide what is true and what is false. We don’t have ministers of the Truth. But we have to focus on foreign actors who intentionally, in a coordinated manner, try to manipulate our information environment."

Success in disinformation doesn't mean that your version of the truth has to prevail: success means placing just enough doubt in your opponent's version of the truth to cause confusion and division.

It's widely accepted Moscow has long understood this better than most, and come the age of social media, come their incredible - and at least partially successful - attempts to undermine and destabilise democratic states and organisations. So successful have the efforts of outfits such as the Internet Research Agency been, that Moscow has been credited with water-muddying operations it probably had only a marginal part in.

No more though. The pendulum seems to have swung back so far the other way that now, if Moscow told us the Kremlin was on fire, we'd demand Professor Brian Cox go there with a thermometer. Or most of us would: on the extremes there are and will always be those who, when confronted with an uncomfortable reality, will look for any sort of (im)plausible explanation other than the burning truth before them.

Banning Russia Today and Sputnik isn't a win, it's an unfortunate necessity for EU leaders, and one the UK will probably follow. 

An interesting insight into RT's role for the Russian government stems from realising it has never been about its actual audience figures (which never rose much above the ten of thousands in the UK anyway). RT's primary role has been to be a reflector and amplifier. 

The terrible gas attack by the Syrian government at Ghouta was a chilling example of this: Russian social media operatives circulated numerous co-ordinated lies and rumours about the attack, unverifiable assertions which quickly gained traction through co-ordinated resharing, before being 'picked up' by RT which reported on them. This then allowed the untruths to be shared again as coming from a "reputable" source - reputable in this case equating to "read out by telegenic hosts in a TV studio with high production values". That's enough for some people to find plausibility in what they are told.

There's still plenty of online deception going on, although how much of it is state-level and how much is simple click-bait is highly debatable. TikTok has emerged as an unlikely source of video footage from the Ukrainian conflict, but wiser heads have pointed out that its audio features - a key part of the app's appeal - are wide open to manipulation.

We should of course not discount the role of Ukrainian counter-propaganda, which ironically seems to be playing a successful role in Russia itself, through the online channels such as Telegram that the Putin government can't fully control. Pravda even felt moved to launch an assault on the story of the "Ghost of Kyiv". TL/DRR: "The story might not be true!".

As we have pointed out before, during conflicts fictions are often seen as a good thing, and when their backs are against the wall Democracies can be gold medal standard liars, viz London's wartime carrot eyesight ruse, manufactured to hide the efficacy of RADAR, or Operation Mincemeat - as told in the film The Man Who Never Was - a truly world class piece of subterfuge. 

Many will think it a delicious irony if the online undoers were themselves being undone online.

If the barometer of belief is now reading that more people can spot more disinformation more of the time, that can only be a good thing. It doesn't end disinformation, or guarantee people will change their belief when presented with the truth, but it's a start in the right direction.