Do Russian fake news stories work?

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Fake News: The narrative battle over the Ukrainian conflict

Fake news stories can be more than mere fbs; they can be an important tool in waging information warfare in the modern Internet-connected world. Russia devotes signifcant resources to control both its mainstream media and discussions online. Russia seems to be engaging in a new level of information warfare by managing both the mainstream media and Internet discussions during the Ukrainian crisis. State backed fake news stories may have shaped national and international perceptions of the confict in Ukraine. Fake news stories can resemble propagandistic entertainment and might use shocking material, accusations, dramatic music and misleading images to support pre-fabricated ideas. These stories can form part of “strategic narratives”, or planned messaging that presents a position to infuence audience perception.

Khaldarova and Pantti were interested in exactly how people receive and refute fake news stories. They conducted a study in two parts. The frst part involved fnding alleged fake news stories. The researchers collected 339 stories in Russian and 260 in English from ‘StopFake’, a website dedicated to debunking fake news. They identifed about 30 fake news reports in both languages that originated from Channel One; a popular, state-run Russian television network. They then selected the 10 most popular of these Channel One stories on social media. The researchers looked for strategic narratives in these stories and interpreted the StopFake debunking of these reports as counter-narratives. For the second part of their study, the researchers analysed 6043 tweets related to the selected 10 stories containing links to the Channel One reports or to the StopFake counter-reports. The researchers then determined whether people seemed to trust or distrust the news story they were tweeting about.

People in general seemed skeptical of these news stories and aware of their strategic narratives. The researchers found that 50.7% of the tweets distrusted Channel One news. Most of the tweets were from Ukraine, Russia and the United States. All the comments showing trust were from Russia, while those from Ukraine exclusively expressed distrust. The most frequently expressed emotions in distrusting comments were sarcasm and disgust with Channel One propaganda in general or at the content of a news story specifcally. Those seeking to debunk fake stories included various messages highlighting the lack of evidence, inconsistencies and counter-narratives that contradicted or disproved the fake news.

Diffuse media environments contain many opinions, rapidly changing stories and response-provoking material. Strategic narratives require ongoing engagement and interaction to survive diffusion by the numerous opinions of a broad audience exposed to multiple news sources. In order to keep shaping the perception of emerging events, they aim to provoke emotional responses and blur the line between reality and fction.

In this case, Russian news narratives often included emotive references to World War II. They focused on the connections between the atrocities witnessed by and achievements of the Russian nation in the confict against Nazi Germany. They often used terminology referencing the war or directly linked persons with those known from the war, such as Nazi collaborators. These narratives also encouraged stereotypes and put complex issues into binary terms, such as ‘the West vs Russia.’

It is possible that Russian fake news stories represent a state strategic narrative instead of factual reporting on events. Despite public awareness of strategic narratives, these environments blur the line between what is real and what is not. Even irrational and unfounded strategic narratives can have an effect. A news environment that requires constant independent fact checking may fuel confusion. The public is not a passive consumer of incredible news. It will both contribute to and contest reports to either perpetuate or dissolve narratives by contributing sources, testimony and video to an increasingly confusing mix of media.

Fake news can form part of strategic narratives but can also fuel confusion. Even when irrational and unfounded, they can blur the line between reality and fiction.