Propaganda underestimated

15 September 2017, 14:35

Observing Western media dealing with propaganda, particularly in the German-speaking world, is a strange experience. Autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan can play it easy: most journalists hardly ever deal with their attempts to manipulate public opinion, as they also hardly ever report on the impact of advertising and public relations. Propaganda is either trivialized or ignored. Experts, among them members of secret services, remain below the threshold of public attention with their warnings about the influence of propaganda. On the other hand, a recent study led by a team of researchers of Thomas Koch from the Universities of Mainz and Munich, shows once more how much journalists are subject to “control illusion”, sharing the belief that they rarely become victims of manipulation efforts.

This has likely changed slightly since the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN started to actively investigate the connections between Donald Trump and his campaign staff to the Kremlin. With “Russiagate” and with the Russian last-minute attempts to denounce Emmanuel Macron’s election in France, the fear is growing that something similar could happen at the election in Germany.

Nevertheless, Western European media focus on isolated cases. They rarely provide a bigger picture of how autocrats as well as left and right-wing populists use disinformation as a weapon. It starts with the media under the direct control of Putin and Erdogan: They reach a few million people of Turkish and Russian origin in German speaking countries, while critical journalists are being jailed or even killed back home. It continues with fake news and half-truths which are passed on successfully to the mainstream media in the Western world. And it ends with trolls and social bots picking up such stories and circulating them in social media and search engines. The Russian search engine Yandex is also hyping fake news, while Google and Facebook are at least making some first modest attempts to fight disinformation.

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Especially the influence of social bots – of “robots” which are able to write texts, but also draw attention to fake news by “liking” and “sharing” them – has been discovered only recently. The public gets particularly confused by the activity of such bots which are cheap, highly effective and difficult to trace. In already strongly divided societies propaganda can reinforce the split – and this is exactly the goal of its attacks. In Germany the Kremlin lords also keep advocates as close friends. The best example is the former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. He has served as a lobbyist for the North Stream pipeline, and now he has been offered a mandate in the controlling board of the biggest Russian oil company Rosneft.

“Russia’s RT network – is it more BBC or K.G.B.?”, asks Steven Erlanger in the New York Times. His answer is differentiated, but unambiguous: “Watching RT can be a dizzying experience. Hard news and top-notch graphics mix with interviews from all sorts of people: well-known and obscure, left and right. But if there is any unifying character to RT, it is a deep skepticism of Western and American narratives and a fundamental defensiveness about Russia and Mr. Putin.” Media analysts disagree over the influence RT has. Those who look at ratings warn about overestimating the influence. This is missing the point, argues Peter Pomerantsev. Two years ago, he wrote Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, a book on the Russian TV and propaganda empire. Apparently, RT it is not about audience ratings, but about campaigning to influence finance, politics and media, says Pomerantsev.

Looking back, Ukraine and the Baltic States were the training field to test the effects of Russian propaganda on social media. The educated elites in these countries seem to have more experience in dealing with propaganda than we Westerners – also due to previous experiences with the Soviet Union. Liga Ozolina of Turiba University in Riga highlights that even journalists of American media are by now consulting Re:Baltica, an initiative to fight fake news, to get a clue how to deal with propaganda. Similarly, the Ukrainian project Stopfake has become famous internationally.

Such factchecking sites are by now spreading like mushrooms in the Western world. Their operators have a lot of work to do. However, they are doing the basic work every professional journalist is supposed to do. Whether they can successfully contain the effects of propaganda, remains dubious. Researchers like Walter Quattrociocchi of the IMT School for Advanced Study demonstrate that it is getting increasingly difficult to enlighten and to educate users of social networks. Fake news and half-truths often spread faster than the grey-shaded news from serious sources and media dedicated to the search of truth. It looks like fake news providers are frequently one Pinocchio nose ahead of fake news detectors.

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