The Virus of Disinformation

author: Viktoriia Omelianenko   20-05-2020

Is the information that I am reading at this particular moment the real one, or is it another piece of fake news or someone’s new conspiracy theory? Shall I check it before sharing it? As a student majoring in international information, an analyst, and a former intern at the fact-checking organization, I always ask myself these questions and encourage everyone to do it. Why? Because disinformation is everywhere: on TV, social media, newspapers, etc.

Currently, while the world is trying to cope with the COVID-19 virus, we are facing another problem – the virus of disinformation, called by the WHO the “Infordemic”. Why is the COVID-19 a fertile ground for disinformation? First of all, because everyone is at risk. Secondly, it is a highly complex topic that requires specific scientific knowledge. And finally, the environment around us is so dynamic that this uncertainty brings even more chaos.

Josep Borrell, head of the European External Action Service, said at a press conference: “Disinformation is playing with people’s lives. Disinformation can kill.” But the good news is that the vaccine from the virus of disinformation exists. In this article, I would like to share with you my receipt of this vaccine.

What Is Disinformation?

To resist disinformation, one needs to understand what this phenomenon is about. When we refer to disinformation, we usually mean information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, organization, or country. It can take various forms and serve different purposes. It is not easy at all to identify disinformation. Often it may be put as a single sentence in an article that supports an overall strategic narrative. Disinformation is mostly spread through narratives that are repeated from time to time but in different variations. Every narrative has its target. If we consider Russian disinformation campaigns in the European Union (EU) and its neighbourhood countries, the main targets are sovereignly of the organization and some states, the cooperation of the latter with the EU and NATO, values of the EU such as democracy and respect to human rights.

Disinformation, along with recurring narratives, may also be a ground for the promotion of different conspiracy theories. If referring to the COVID-19, you may already recognise some of them:

  • Coronavirus was “created in NATO biolabs”;
  • The WHO is a part of the “global government” and the coronavirus is a pretext for a global “colour revolution”;
  • Coronavirus is a man-made phenomenon;
  • Coronavirus spreads on the basis of race;
  • Bill Gates seeks to impact people with microchips, etc.

Why Do People Trust Disinformation?

I was always wondering why people trust disinformation. However, lies spread faster than truth. The study by the Eindhoven University of Technology looks into the reasons for this phenomenon. Unlike real facts, disinformation is not constrained by reality and can be shaped in a way that makes it more attractive. For example, disinformation may appeal to our fears and concern some significant threats. Recently there was a piece of news in Ukraine about it “becoming the colony of IMF and Soros”.

Another issue to deal with is the unnatural character of disinformation, so-called “violation of essential beliefs”. Narratives that contradict the essence of beings – such as genetic modifications and clones – arguably become more memorable than those that don’t. For instance, some Russian and pro-Russian sources claim that the US is sowing genetically modified crops in Ukraine to cause famine.

Moreover, people are more likely to share gossips on social media, especially if the latter deal with politicians. The “EUvsDisinfo” has documented numerous disinformation cases about Ukrainian, European, and American politicians, including such claims like the president of Ukraine is a part of a Clinton-led global campaign against Trump. The EUvsDisinfo” is the project of the European External Action Service’s East StratCom Task Force established in 2015 to forecast, address, and respond to the Russian Federation’s ongoing disinformation campaigns affecting the EU, its Member States, and countries in the shared neighbourhood.

©YEAs Ukraine

Ukraine VS Disinformation

After 2014, Ukraine became a target of Russian disinformation campaigns. The most commonly used narrative tells about Ukraine as a failed state.  Among other popular narratives are those about Ukraine having no evidence of Russian presence in Ukraine,  Russia having nothing to do with the Ukrainian crisis, and Russian military presence in Donbas due to some linguistic misunderstanding. However, in practice, the EU has recognised and condemned the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity by acts of aggression by the Russian armed forces since February 2014.

Being under attack, Ukraine still tries to do its best to protect its citizens from such information and to counter Russian disinformation and fake news. Mainly it is done through the work of civil society organizations. The most successful among them are “StopFake” and “VoxCheck”.  The first one was founded in 2014 and aimed not only at identifying cases of disinformation but also at launching a discussion on how to resist it. The “VoxCheck” is in charge of checking the speeches of Ukraine politicians concerning the way they use the data and facts to prevent manipulations. Since the beginning of the pandemic, both projects started to debunks the popular myths concerning the COVID-19.  Despite attempts to increase the level of critical thinking and media literacy of Ukrainians undertaken by different actors, according to the latest researches, in practice, only 11% of Ukrainians can distinguish fake news from the real one.  However, 65% of the research participants believed that they could distinguish false information from the truthful one. It proves that people tend to overestimate their abilities in fact-checking. If you also consider yourself a person who may easily distinguish disinformation, try your efforts in a quiz prepared by the “EUvsDisinfo”.

Disinformation as a Global Phenomenon

One of the biggest problems with disinformation is that it spreads very quickly and without any regard to borders or continents. Last summer, I participated in the Erasmus+ exchange in Slovakia, which was dedicated to investigating the topic of disinformation and fake news. By listening to the stories of participants from the other countries, I got that feeling that the problem of fake news is a global problem and concerns not only Ukraine. By the way, that was the very moment when I found out about the “EUvsDisinfo”.

I recently got a chance to participate in the training on disinformation for Young European Ambassadors, which involved representatives of the EU Stratcom Task Force. It provided me with thorough knowledge on the “EUvsDisinfo” project itself, as well as on the Russian disinformation narratives and methods of their resistance.

The training consisted of 2 days/parts: theoretical and practical. During the first day, the participants were engaged in discussions with leading experts on disinformation. For the second day, each national team had to prepare materials for social media to counter disinformation. In particular, the Ukrainian team created a short TikTokvideo that, in creative way, debunked the popular myths concerning the COVID-19 and an Instagram mask, which helps you to check whether you are skilled enough in critical thinking. 

 

©klublu
©klublu

Sooo… Is There a Vaccine From the Virus Of Disinformation? 

Thus, the problem of disinformation is a plague of our days. However, I promised to share with you my vaccine from this dangerous virus. It is high time to do it. The only one thing that can safeguard you from being caught by another disinformation narrative is developed critical thinking! Though it is no possible to eradicate the disinformation from our lives fully, you should try to analyse and check the information that you are reading. In this manner, you can develop immunity to it. 

Here are some basic rules that I prepared for you to use in everyday life to protect yourself from manipulations and disinformation. These recommendations are based on several guidelines of countering disinformation as well as on my own experience: 

  1. Check the source of information.  Try to understand where the message comes from and whether the source is credible and not biased. Try to search if anyone else is reporting on this fact: other media or institutions. Always check official sources of information, especially when it comes to the data. You may refer to the Bureau of Statistics of your country or reports published by the EU institutions, IMF, etc. If, for example, you read news about the European Union, its internal or external affairs, go to the website of the European Commission or another official EU institution and examine whether there is any mentioning of the fact which you are questioning.
  2. Check the author of the article or message. Does this person even exist? If you haven’t heard about this author before, search for some other articles that he or she wrote and check the media. A well-respected journalist always has a track record. If information comes for a so-called expert, do not be lazy and look into the Facebook or Twitter page of this person. Revise the content he or she posts, the number of likes and shares of his or her publications. If the author is anonymous, then there is a high risk of the information being fake.
  3. Check the photo if it is present. Different pictures or videos may confirm fake news. But the image itself may also be false. There are various tools for getting to know whether the photo is real; for instance, Google search by Image. It is a reverse image search. You could upload a picture there to find its source and to examine where else it was published. Some other useful tools may be found thanks to the Bellingcat’s Online Investigation Toolkit.
  4. Pay attention to the word combinations that are used in the text, especially in the title. Very often disinformation and fake news attract the attention of readers through some very emotional concepts such as “Incredible news”, “It is impossible, but...” or through the use of large numbers, sums, and significant threats. But do not let your emotions make you trust or get hooked by the disinformation. 
  5. Question your own bias! Sometimes a story is “too true”, or “too engaging” to be true. Keep a cool head. Please do not trust the information only because it corresponds to your point of view. Check it according to the rules described above.
  6. Keep on top of the latest tricks and narratives used by those spreading the information. My piece of advice is to subscribe on social media to such projects as “EUvs Disinfo”, “StopFake”“DFRLab”.
  7. Last but not least, think before you share! You may find it useful to watch the video that explains all of the information mentioned above in a straightforward and engaging form following this link.

Try once to do all these steps, and fact-checking will become your habit, as it is mine. Even if you have the smallest doubt whether the information is truthful, it is worth checking it before sharing. Keep in mind: all is in your hands.  

Viktoria Omelianenko
Viktoriia Omelianenko