The Detriments of Disinformation: In the context of the Russia-Ukraine War
Amid the escalation of the Russia-Ukraine war, Western countries have become increasingly concerned with the spread of disinformation by Russian intelligence agents to citizens in the West.
Researchers describe disinformation as the dissemination of intentionally false or deceptive communication used to advance the aims of its creators at the expense of others.
International political elites in the last decade have investigated and recognised that disinformation can have serious negative consequences for democracies and democratic processes and should therefore be combatted.
In order to address disinformation and its effects, the European Commission has recently developed and began to implement the Action Plan Against Disinformation.
Amid the escalation of the Russia-Ukraine war, Western countries have expressed increased concern about the spread of disinformation about the war. Over the last few weeks, millions of people on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok have seen, engaged with, and shared misleading, manipulated, or false information about the conflict. Agents of disinformation used digitally altered or misleading images of the conflict, propaganda, and misleading social media posts and articles to control the narrative of the war in Ukraine. In response to these campaigns, journalists, fact-checkers, and social media platforms have tried to diminish the spread of disinformation and inform platform users on how to assess news sites, images and videos, and articles for legitimacy.
This article explains disinformation, why it matters, and how it can undermine democratic processes. Further, it examines disinformation in the Russia-Ukraine war to demonstrate how it shapes information access and opinions on international conflicts. Lastly, this article analyses EU commission regulations on combatting the dissemination of disinformation to understand if they are sufficient in protecting core democratic processes and attributes.
What is disinformation?
Information and the dissemination of information are essential aspects of politics that allow citizens to make conscientious decisions and cause political elites to act accordingly to the will of the people (Mckay & Tenove, 2021; Gregor & Mlenkova, 2021). However, propaganda, disinformation, and misinformation are not new phenomena but instead have been used for a long time in politics and warfare to control narratives and persuade different actors (Gregor & Mlenjková, 2021). Therefore, it is important to distinguish between the three to understand how disinformation is used and why it may negatively affect democracies.
There is some contention around how to define propaganda. Generally, scholars note that propaganda originated in the 1600s and “connotes the selective use of information for political effect” (National Endowment for Democracy, 2017). However, on the one hand, some maintain that information used for propaganda is neutral and, therefore, may be used for either positive or negative persuasion (see Hester, 2016). On the other hand, some argue that propaganda’s central purpose is to conceal inconvenient facts and censor information in manipulative ways to solicit action or inaction from the masses (Gregor & Mlenjková, 2021, p. 5). For example, in Russia, Vladimir Putin and his party have recently cracked down on free speech and placed strict propaganda controls on what Russian citizens see about the war in Ukraine (Nell, 2022). As the Russia-Ukraine war intensifies, it is now punishable to speak out against the war or release reports contradicting the governments’ version of events. The government has used propaganda tools to justify the conflict in Ukraine. They maintained that the Ukrainian government was ‘neo-Nazi’ and ‘perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation’ (Triesman, 2022; Mckay, 2022). This narrative is wholly untrue and uses Russophobia to influence Russians’ feelings about the conflict. The claim of neo-Nazism further distorts history by misrepresenting and misappropriating the Holocaust (Triesman, 2022).
Disinformation, similarly, to propaganda, has been used for decades concerning warfare and politics. However, while disinformation fits into the larger conceptual framework of propaganda by employing lies, it is not always necessary. Instead, disinformation can distort truths through misrepresentation (O’Shaughnessy, 2020), and researchers define disinformation as “intentionally false or deceptive communication used to advance the aims of its creators at the expense of others” (Wardle & Derakhshan, 2017; Mckay & Tenove, 2021). A more in-depth understanding of disinformation can be characterised by its purpose and distinguished into four categories (O’Shaughnessy 2020, pp. 58 -59; Gregor & Mlenjková, 2021):
Acquiescence, not belief: The purpose of disinformation is to create, sustain, and amplify divisions within a rival political party, a government, a coalition. In this sense, disinformation is a strategy of political control.
Sow division: Disinformation as a national strategic tool with the aim of sabotaging international consensus—a weapon against a hostile nation or coalition. Therefore, it becomes a method of leveraging advantage in international relations.
Sow confusion: The aim is to perplex—everything and nothing is believable anymore, which is the precondition for political paralysis. Lying is a strategy. The object is not to create belief but to spread confusion.
Raise doubt: The spread of doubt is a very effective genre of disinformation since credible phenomena can seldom be proven absolutely. There is always the possibility of doubt.
Moreover, the actors who utilise disinformation may employ complex mixes of fact and fabricated content, manipulated media, false information sources, automated accounts, and other tactics to achieve their goals (Mckay & Tenove, 2021). Thus, it can promote false understanding via the dissemination false content, which causes consumers of disinformation to develop false inferences about information crucial to political processes (Fallis, 2015). The overall goal of disinformation campaigns may be to amplify social divisions, produce scepticism in formalised institutions and induce political cynicism. Agents of disinformation may be internal or external actors of a state, such as rival political parties which employ disinformation to diminish the credibility of their competition. However, external agents (international entities and states) to the state may also deploy disinformation campaigns to achieve different means. For example, in the Russian-Ukraine war, Russian intelligence agents recently produced and disseminated disinformation to western audiences through false reports, distorted images and tweets, and misleading news reporting. Russian disinformation campaigns aim to deepen political divisions, restore their power status, and preserve their influence (Clark, 2022; Myers & Thompson, 2022; Treisman, 2022).
It is worth noting that misinformation is distinct from disinformation. While both are deceptive distortions of the truth, they can be distinguished by their intentionality. The spread of misinformation is wholly unintentional. Thus, everyone is vulnerable to misinformation and may have unintentionally participated in spreading misinformation on social media sites (Gebel, 2021). By contrast, disinformation campaigns are intentional, maliciously deceptive, and aim to achieve a particular goal (Gebel, 2021). Furthermore, the term ‘fake news’ has grown in popularity since the 2016 U.S. election and Trump presidency and has been heavily politicised. Some authors define ‘fake news’ as all news that is not fact-based but is reported as authentic news. In contrast, others maintain that “fake news” is news that denies the principal quality of objective and fact-based journalism (Gregor & Mlenjková, 2021). Empirically, the latter definition of fake news has been observed, especially in the case of the US, which saw right-leaning political actors using “fake news” to delegitimise news and media, researchers, and politicians that opposed them.
Adverse effects of disinformation and the EU response
Due to the prevalence of disinformation, scholars have sought to understand disinformation and how it is utilised in media and information spaces. More importantly, they have also sought to understand the effect of disinformation on democratic processes. With the rise of the internet and social media platforms, and the ease of information access and dissemination, some have raised warning signals that disinformation may be detrimental to democracy. However, there have been mixed opinions on what is harmed in democracy and how. Nevertheless, a growing consensus maintains that disinformation campaigns adversely affect deliberative democracy due to the digital revolution and increased risk of vulnerability to manipulation by distorted or misleading information (Gregor & Mlenjková, 2021; Mckay & Tenove, 2021).
Deliberative democracy is widely understood as a normative theory of democratic legitimacy. It maintains that those affected by a collective decision should have the right, opportunity, and capacity to participate in consequential deliberation about the content of the decision (Ercan et al., 2019). A healthy deliberative democratic system then realises epistemic, ethical, and democratic functions that actively allow citizens to participate in associated processes. Mckay and Tenove (2021, p. 7) note that the epistemic function promotes the likelihood that facts and logic will inform opinions and decisions. The ethical function promotes mutual respect among citizens, and the democratic function promotes inclusion and equal opportunities for participation. Thus, access to accurate and fact-based information is necessitated by the functions associated with deliberative democracy. However, when disinformation campaigns are employed, these associated functions are subverted through anti-deliberative tactics such as corrosive falsehoods, moral denigration, and unjustified inclusion, consequently causing epistemic cynicism, techno-affective polarisation, and pervasive inauthenticity (see Mckay & Tenove, 2021).
It is important to note how disinformation’s subversion of the functions above leads to epistemic cynicism, techno-affective polarisation, and pervasive inauthenticity. First, the epistemic function (access to knowledge) is harmed when false claims lead to epistemic cynicism. Subversion of the ethical function occurs when citizens are aware that disinformation exists, but misleading information by political elites leads to epistemic cynicism because they cannot decipher fact from fiction and do not know which sources to believe. Second, the ethical function is subverted when moral denigration exacerbates techno-affective polarisation. Disinformation campaigns can lead political opponents to degrade speech norms and abandon mutual respect. This causes political polarisation at both the meso and macro levels. It is harder for politicians of different political parties to develop coalitions or consensus around issues. Also, it is hard for citizens of political parties to accept the positions of rival parties. Lastly, disinformation subverts the democratic function when fears of unjustified inclusion cause perceptions of pervasive inauthenticity. In a democracy, unjustified inclusion occurs when international actors are included in national information processing and debates in an unclear manner. Due to the internet, foreign intelligence agencies can share information and opinions without sharing their identity while pretending to be genuine members of specific groups. Pervasive inauthenticity then occurs when essential discourse is corrupted due to the belief that several participants have problematic identities and diminishes the ability to share and process information authentically.
As a response to the growing concern of disinformation campaigns from foreign intelligence agents and their interference with governmental elections and referenda platforms, the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, composed and released an Action Plan against Disinformation to tackle the spread of disinformation. The action plan has four main pillars: to promote free and fair elections by presenting new legislation on political advertising, which also includes financing regulations and improving election cyber-security; strengthening media freedom and pluralism by proposing recommendations for the safety of journalists; countering disinformation by requiring online platforms to follow a framework of obligations and accountability to users to combat foreign interference; and by raising awareness and improving societal resilience by supporting independent media and fact-checking and targeted campaigns and improving participation in civil society (European Commission, 2018). The overall goal of the European Commission’s Action Plan Against Disinformation is to address potential threats to elections and strengthen democratic systems in the EU when faced with the rise of foreign-backed disinformation campaigns by actively involving journalists, fact-checkers, media platforms, governments, researchers, and civil society.
While more still needs to be done, the EU’s action plan is a good start in combatting disinformation’s harmful effects on democracy because the four core pillars can fight against the aforementioned anti-deliberative tactics. This has been realised by social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter, through the inclusion of information warnings on posts that are disseminating misinformation or disinformation, through news outlets and fact-checkers consistently checking stories and disseminating their findings on social media outlets for greater public use, and through targeted information campaigns to combat disinformation campaigns when they are recognised by political elites, researchers, and journalist.
Clark, N. (2022) Here’s how propaganda is clouding Russians understanding of the war in Ukraine, NPR, 15 March. Available at: https://www.npr.org/2022/03/15/1086705796/russian-propaganda-war-in-ukraine [Accessed on 15/03/2022].
European Commission. (2018) Action Plan Against Disinformation. Available at: https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/default/files/action_plan_against_disinformation.pdf [Accessed on 11/03/2022].
Gebel, M. (2021) Misinformation vs. Disinformation: What to know about each form of false information, and how to spot them online, Business Insider, 15 January. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/misinformation-vs-disinformation [Accessed on 11/03/2022].
Gregor, M., Mlejnková, P. (2021) Challenging Online Propaganda and Disinformation in the 21st Century. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
National Endowment for Democracy. (2017) Issue Brief: Distinguishing disinformation from propaganda, misinformation and ‘fake news’. Available at: https://www.ned.org/issue-brief-distinguishing-disinformation-from-propaganda-misinformation-and-fake-news/ [Accessed on 10/03/2022].
Nielsen, R., Fletcher, R., Cornia, A., Graves, L. (2018) Measuring the Reach of “fake News” and Online Disinformation in Europe. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Available at: https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/our-research/measuring-reach-fake-news-and-online-disinformation-europe [Accessed 12/03/2022].
McKay, S., Tenove, C. (2021) Disinformation as a Threat to Deliberative Democracy. Political Research Quaterly, 74(3), pp. 703-717.
Medium. (2020) What is the EU’s Action Plan against Disinformation?, Medium, 18 November. Available at: https://medium.com/curious/what-is-the-eus-action-plan-against-disinformation-996f4fed30ae [Accessed 10/03/2022].
Meyers, S. L., Thompson, S. A. (2022) Truth is Snother Front in Putin’s War. The New York Times, 20 March. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/20/world/asia/russia-putin-propaganda-media.html [Accessed on 20/03/2022].
Richter, A. (2019) Accountability and Media Literacy Mechanisms as a Counteraction to Disinformation in Europe., Journal of Digital Media & Policy, 10(3), pp. 311-327.
Richey, M. (2017) Contemporary Russian Revisionism: Understanding the Kremlin’s Hybrid Warfare and the Strategic and Tactical Deployment of Disinformation. Asia Europe Journal, 16(1), pp. 101-13.
Saurwein, F., Spencer-Smith, C. (2020) Combating Disinformation on Social Media: Multilevel Governance and Distributed Accountability in Europe. Digital Journalism, 8(6), pp. 820-41.
Treisman, R. (2022) Putin’s claim of fighting against Ukraine ‘neo-Nazis’ distorts history, scholars say.” NPR, 1 March. Available at: https://www.npr.org/2022/03/01/1083677765/putin-denazify-ukraine-russia-history [Accessed on 2/03/2022].
Vériter, S. (2021) European Democracy and Counter Disinformation: Toward a New Paradigm? Carnegie Europe. Available at: https://carnegieeurope.eu/2021/12/14/european-democracy-and-counter-disinformation-toward-new-paradigm-pub-85931 [Accessed on 11/03/2022].
Wardle, C., Derakhshan, H. (2017) Information Disorder: Towards an interdisciplinary framework for research and policy making, Council of Europe Report, DGI(2017)09.
IDRN does not take an institutional position and we encourage a diversity of opinions and perspectives in order to maximise the public good.
Sweezy, A. (2022) The Detriments of Disinformation: In the context of the Russia-Ukraine War, IDRN, 01 April. Available at: https://idrn.eu/democracy-and-civil-society/the-detriments-of-disinformation-in-the-context-of-the-russia-ukraine-war [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].