Information Disorder: disinformation, democracy and post-truth politics



The European Union will spend €1.1 million on training diplomats to monitor fake news, amid growing alarm on Russian propaganda, EUobserver reports:

The funds, as well as related measures worth another €3.8 million, will be rubber-stamped by member states on Wednesday (29 November) and by the European Parliament on Thursday as part of next year’s EU budget, Siegfried Muresan, the MEP in charge of the file, told EUobserver……He said the €1.1 million will be funneled to the EU foreign service, whose so-called Stratcom unit will use it to train staff in Commission offices in selected member states and in EU embassies in former Soviet countries and in the Western Balkans.

Barefaced lies, disinformation and hate speech are all now routine and accepted parts of the media diet, analyst Jasmin Mujanović argues in the Washington Post. But the vocabulary we use matters, according to the co-authors of “Information Disorder,” a report (above) commissioned by the Council of Europe.

When we use the term “fake news” it is not only self-defeating, it oversimplifies a very complex problem, according to Hossein Derakhshan, a researcher on new media technologies who spent six years in prison in Iran, and Claire Wardle, a research fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Research shows the more educated people are, the less likely they are affected by information warfare, they write for CNN. Technologists, policy-makers, and researchers are working hard to find short-term solutions. However, none of these will have a long-term effect if we don’t overhaul public education, especially regarding information literacy.

Their definitional framework introduces three types, elements and phases of information disorder (see below), using dimensions of harm and falseness:

  • Mis-information is when false information is shared, but no harm is meant.
  • Dis-information is when false information is knowingly shared to cause harm.
  • Mal-information is when genuine information is shared to cause harm, often by moving private information into the public sphere.

The financial cost to Facebook to try to scrub disinformation and manipulation from its social media platform could be high, the FT reports.

The tech companies’ “blunders” around disinformation, “ignoring the problem and insisting it wasn’t their problem” have brought a new urgency to government oversight, says Ben Edelman, an associate professor at Harvard Business School.

“The real cost is the company’s increased vulnerability to future regulatory efforts,” he says. “They’ve had an amazing run of things so far — avoiding any significant government oversight, and enjoying immunities against the kinds of laws other media companies rightly face if they are insufficiently careful,” Edelman tells the Financial Times.

Photographer: Elisabeth Feldner. Copyright: Eurozine (PRNewsfoto/Eurozine)

Disinformation and Democracy‘ is the focus of several features published by Eurozine – a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy –  which combine national-level empirical studies with theoretical discussion of the politics of post-truth, asking: what now constitutes democratic ‘normality’? Articles include:

  • Joseph Uscinski on why ‘conspiracy theories are for losers’ – a discussion of how partisanship and political predisposition impacts on conspiracy narratives; 
  • Marci Shore on the pre-history of post-truth – an intellectual history of concepts of truth in eastern and western Europe, and why Derrida and Havel represent two ends of the same philosophical spectrum; 
  • Dimitar Vatsov and Milena Lakimova on ‘co-opting discontent’ in Bulgaria – how Russian propaganda merges with western grassroots criticism of liberalism and globalization.

British media reported that more than 156,000 Russia-based Twitter accounts spread messages about Brexit before the referendum took place in June 2016. In the 48 hours before the vote, more than 45,000 tweets about Brexit had been posted by these accounts, notes Kremlin Watch, an initiative of the European Values think-tank.

On Russian state controlled TV, the US was accused of paying Ukraine to keep the conflict going, actively preventing peace in the east of Ukraine, but also of provoking the war in Ukraine in order to stop the new “Great Silk Road”. Neither theory was backed up by any evidence, the EU East StratCom Task Force adds.

There are few greater threats to democracy in the world today than the proliferation of fake news and propaganda. So it was no surprise that this year’s National Democratic Institute’s (NDI) prestigious Democracy Award focused on websites and research organizations that are countering the distribution of fake news, Joshua Keen writes for TechCrunch.

On 21 November, the official TV channel of Russia’s Ministry of Defence, Zvezda, published an analytical article on its website under the headline “Czechoslovakia should be grateful to the USSR for 1968: The history of ‘the Prague Spring,’” EUvsDisinfo adds. The publication coincided with the first day of the visit to Russia by the President of the Czech Republic, Miloš Zeman. As reported by Radio Prague, both the Czech President and other leading Czech politicians reacted strongly to the publication, calling its claims “outright lies” and the author “completely brainwashed”.

Politics is media politics, and affecting the content of the news on a daily basis is one of the most important endeavors of political strategists, according to a recent Eurozine analysis. But conquering news content is just the first field of battle over the minds and attention of people in networked societies, note the authors of Mapping and quantifying political information warfare.

Alliance for Securing Democracy Director Laura Rosenberger joined Kori Schake, David Sanger, and David Rothkopf on Deep State Radio November 22 to wrestle with tough questions about Russia’s interventions in democracies. Addressing how hacking and disinformation in our elections will continue into the future, discussants called on us to respect our values while devising policies and solutions to counter and deter foreign actors from meddling in our democracies.


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