In my last post I mentioned the growth of an industry of disinformation ‘experts’ who themselves spread disinformation. If anybody has any doubts about it, evidence of how this industry operates came out this week in the form of a couple of short reports from the University of Manchester, which is the home of a research project known as ‘Reframing Russia’.
Led by Professor Stephen Hutchings and Vera Tolz, both well respected researchers, the project primarily studies the Russian media network RT, saying that ‘ we test hypotheses … that challenge conventional thinking and presumptions about RT and really get to grips with RT’s recalibration of Russia’s public image for international audience.’ Beyond RT, however, the Reframing Russia team also comment occasionally on issues relating to the Russian media and disinformation more generally, and this is where this week’s news comes into play.
First off, we had a frenzy of complaints that the Russian news agency RIA had published an article claiming that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been ventilated while in hospital suffering from coronavirus. This resulted in a series of denunciations of Russia in the press and on social media, followed by a public statement by Johnson’s office that the story was Russian ‘disinformation’. Rather embarrassingly, however, news soon came out that Johnson had been taken into intensive care and was being provided with oxygen, apparently indicating that the RIA story had been true.
The Reframing Russia team therefore decided to investigate. Apparently, the accusations of Russian disinformation were due to ‘mistranslation’ of what RIA had said, which was not that Johnson was being intubated, but that he ‘will’ (future) be receiving artificial ventilation, a phrase that in Russian includes ‘non-invasive use of an oxygen mask’. In other words, RIA didn’t report that something had already happened, but made a prediction which turned out to be true. ‘In sum’, concludes Reframing Russia, ‘there is no evidence of any attempts by Russian news providers to spread disinformation about Prime Minister Johnson’s state of health’. The whole story, in other words, was sloppy journalism. As Reframing Russia puts it, this case indicates how
rudimentary journalistic standards relating to the careful verification of source materials are … sidestepped. … the inaccuracy with which Russian coverage of the COVID-19 crisis is represented in the EU and the UK is concerning. Countering disinformation with mis/disinformation is counterproductive.
That brings us neatly onto the research project’s second report, which deals more generally with claims that the Russian state has been spreading disinformation about the coronavirus. The report involves an analysis of the output of the European Union’s counter-disinformation service EUvsDisinfo, which has been the source for a large number of media stories claiming that the Russian Federation is actively spreading false stories about COVID-19 for nefarious political purposes.
To check whether EUvsDisinfo’s claims were correct, Reframing Russia examined the specific stories the EU organization had flagged as disinformation, but also went beyond that by taking a wider look at what Russian TV has been saying about the COVID pandemic. Observing the output of Russian TV’s Channel 1, the team concluded that, ‘there was little sign here of the coordinated pro-Kremlin “conspiracy theory propaganda’ flagged by EUvsDisinfo.’ On the contrary, ‘The extent of EUvsDisinfo’s misrepresentation of Russian COVID-19 media coverage in the material we then analyzed is troubling.’
The research team identified two ways in which EUvsDisinfo misrepresented the truth. The first is ‘omission’: ‘in some cases individual sentences are extracted from the context of the source materials and rephrased in the form of summaries and headlines which make them sound particularly outrageous. Failure to supply contextual information encourages misreading of the significance of the relevant media.’
The second form of misrepresentation is ‘blatant distortion’. For instance, EUvsDisinfo issued a report claiming that Sputnik Latvia had said that ‘COVID-19 had been designed specifically to kill elderly people’. In fact, ‘the article in question … was clearly ridiculing a whole series of international conspiracy theories … the article highlights their idiocy.’
Beyond this, Reframing Russia attacks EUvsDisinfo’s methodology for assuming that ‘random websites without any traceable links to Russia state structures’ are similar to state-funded media outlets, and that all are part of a coordinated Kremlin-led campaign. This is true even in the case of ‘conspirological, far-right websites which are actually critical of Putin.’
Overall, the Reframing Russia report concludes with characteristically British understatement, that
Our analysis demonstrates that EUvsDisinfo’s headlines and summaries border on disinformation … The source material cited by EUvsDisinfo demonstrates that the Russian state is, in fact, not targeting countries with an organised around the current public health crisis.
The research team suggests two reasons for this: first, ‘a profound misunderstanding of how the media in neo-authoritarian systems such as Russia’s work’ (everything is not, in reality, dictated by the Kremlin), and; second, ‘The outsourcing of services by state institutions to third parties without a proper assessment of their qualifications to do the required work’. In EUvsDisinfo’s case, the work is outsourced to some 400 volunteers, who are ‘operating in a post-Soviet space saturated … by anti-Russian attitudes.’
In short, the disinformation experts don’t understand how Russia operates, and they are also unprofessional, and driven by anti-Russian biases.
I’d go farther than this. The output of the disinformation industry doesn’t ‘border on disinformation’, it is to a large degree disinformation. Furthermore, the industry’s output is a product of more than just lack of understanding and lack of professionalism. I’d argue that it’s inherent in the industry itself. Institutions have purposes, and the methods they use reflect those purposes. The purpose for which the disinformation industry was set up is to be a tool in the current East-West geopolitical conflict. The method is to make Russia look bad by presenting Russia as a source of disinformation, which in some way is said to undermine Western unity, democracy, and all the rest of it. In short, disinformation ‘experts’ exist to find Russian disinformation. It’s what they do. If they can’t find it, their reason for existence disappears. So, they find it. And if they can’t, they fabricate it. The ‘blatant distortion’ identified by Reframing Russia is part and parcel of what this industry is.
Sadly, EUvsDisinfo is hardly unique. Other examples, such as the Ukrainian organization Stop Fake and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, abound. The problem is that our media and politicians take them seriously. As Reframing Russia notes, ‘Since it [EUvsDisinfo] bears the EU stamp of credibility, it is unsurprising that the material provided [by it] provided the basis for a series of national international press articles’. This applies more generally. The output of the disinformation industry is widely treated as truth. But as the Reframing Russia team have so ably demonstrated, in reality much of it is not.