Illiberal leaders use fake news to build ‘alternative reality’


Russian cyber-activists ‘tried to discredit the Scottish independence vote,’ the Guardian reports:

Pro-Russian propagandists used Twitter, fake videos on YouTube and Facebook accounts to make and then spread false allegations that votes were interfered with to ensure victory for pro-UK campaigners, according to Ben Nimmo, an analyst for the Atlantic Council.

A Cold War plot that fanned a conspiracy theory about the origins of AIDS serves as a lesson about Russian disinformation and the subversion of weighty issues worldwide, the New York Times reports:

New York Times

“Today, the fingerprints of Russian disinformation campaigns have been left on both sides of the Atlantic,” Mark R. Jacobson, a professor at Georgetown University and former Pentagon adviser, told a congressional hearing in November.

“The Soviets intuitively understood how the human psyche works,” Dr. Boghardt said. He said the playbook was simple but effective: Identify internal strife, point to inconsistencies and ambiguities in the news, fill them with meaning and “repeat, repeat, repeat.”

The Twitter bots that helped spread viral fake news during the election last year have now morphed into cyborgs, or accounts that blend automation with human curation, said Samantha Bradshaw, a researcher on the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University. They are more difficult to identify, but still latch onto divisive issues and seek to deepen the wedge.

“The point is not to just tell a lie, but to tell a lie in increments,” Ms. Bradshaw said. “They get a little bit more absurd as you start release more and more stories.”

Authoritarians are taking advantage of the presence of fake news in the globalized stream of media content [which] helps blur the line with traditional, fact-based news, the Times adds:

How much the fake-news epithet has damaged journalism, however, is difficult to say, given the pre-existing difficulties of doing untrammeled reporting in countries where the media is already under the thumb of the state and where journalists have been murdered or imprisoned, not simply insulted or mocked. But there is little question that social media, with its huge reach and its vulnerability to bots and manipulation, has helped to amplify criticism from political leaders and undermine trust in traditional journalism.

Illiberal and authoritarian leaders have “succeeded in building an alternative reality separate from the mainstream media’s efforts at democratic, rational politics,” said John Lloyd, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. “Of course journalists make mistakes, but those errors are amplified by the charge of ‘fake news,’ ” he said. “The mainstream media is portrayed as the tool of an arrogant, out-of-touch elite, who use that tool to keep down the marginalized.”

Putin’s propagandists “create a barrage of fake facts” on politically sensitive topics such as the conflict in Ukraine in order to sow public cynicism and uncertainty. Russia and China also create “positive” fake news on social media to inspire patriotism at home. “People accept these versions or are confused by them, unclear as to what is correct,” said Mr. Lloyd, author of “The Power and the Story: The Global Battle for News and Information.” “Putin above all has grasped this and uses it against his enemies. The concept of ‘fake news’ is used to tar any uncomfortable fact.”

A recent controversy in Estonia demonstrates how the Kremlin uses a technique is known as a cluster narrative, which is defined by three elements, the Center for European Policy Analysis reports: a quantity of sometimes conflicting narratives, one well-targeted message, and the capacity to create confusion. A cluster narrative is a massive response from multiple media channels, containing several different—sometimes even controversial—narratives all targeted to deliver one message, usually in the form of a denial.

An argument could be made that the end of net neutrality could allow ISPs to fight disinformation online by censoring misleading content, Cipher Brief reports. However, a tiered system also could provide new avenues of disinformation, enabling foreign adversaries such as Russia to covertly purchase or gain privileged viewership to their disinformation.

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