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Russian disinformation – How worried should we be?

The Russian government’s use of disinformation, i.e. intentionally misleading content, has raised serious concern not only among Russia’s neighbors, but also in Western nations more broadly. Responses to the perceived threat range from attempts to monitor the disinformation, to U.S. court’s legal indictment of Russian individuals and companies.

How serious is the threat of Russian disinformation towards Western societies?

The Kremlin’s denial of its military involvement in Crimea offers a classical example of the potential dangers behind well-orchestrated disinformation campaigns. The relation between Ukraine and Russia has reached a new low after the violent clashes between pro-Western Euromaidan protestors and the police. As a result of this, the country’s president at that time, Viktor Yanukovich, fled to Russia in February 2014 before he was formally removed from his position by the parliament. Shortly thereafter, a group of Crimeans went on the streets to protest against new pro-Western government in Kiev. The protests evolved into something much more volatile: Unidentified soldiers began seizing the Supreme Council of Crimea, capturing important infrastructure and surrounding Ukrainian army bases.

The Russian federation denied any connection to the soldiers, claiming that they were local rebels. The seized parliament in Crimea issued a referendum. Allegedly, this resulted in a 96.77% vote (with a 83.1% voter turnout) in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea to join the Russian federation, according to the occupational authorities. Within just 4 weeks and with almost no shots fired, Russia succeeded in capturing a part of Ukraine’s territory.

We know now that the soldiers were Russian, because Vladimir Putin himself later admitted that Russia carried out the military operation in Crimea. At that time, however, the disinformation campaign may have created a fog of confusion. Was Ukraine at war and if yes, with whom? Should the rest of the world confront Russia? The overwhelmed Ukrainian forces decided to withdraw from Crimea.

The wave of pro-Kremlin disinformation struck Crimea through Russian government-controlled TV channels – television being the main source of information in both Ukraine and Russia. However, the disinformation campaign also unfolded on social media through false news and fake accounts that amplified the narratives that benefitted the Russian government. The wave of disinformation arguably created a fog of confusion at a critical moment as to whether Ukraine was at war or with whom. The use of disinformation in Ukraine would foreshadow the current fear that Russia would use of social media to manipulate with the Western audience.

Many commentators have pointed to the Russian government’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election to argue that Kremlin is capable of affecting U.S. elections through propaganda and disinformation campaigns combined with cyber-attacks. These arguments often emphasize the recent revelations, where tech-giants admitted that the Russian Internet Agency, popularly known as the “troll factory”, succeeded in flooding the platforms with fake accounts.

For example, Twitter has revealed that the Russian agency received engagement from at least 1.4 million individuals in U.S. – either through likes, shares, replies, or comments. Similarly, the agency has covertly uploaded content that reached the news feeds of 126 million users in the U.S. according to Facebook.

Often, these fake profiles posed as concerned Americans, NGO’s or news outlets. The Russian agency exploited already existing news about socially divisive issues such as race, gun control or LGBT rights. By doing so, the accounts attempted to fuel the political clashes online or to mobilize protestors onto the streets.

These revelations suggest that the Russian agency is not just willing, but also capable of reaching a relatively large proportion of the U.S. audience. However, one must keep two things in mind when interpreting the findings: 1) the scope of the Russian campaign in relative terms and 2) the distinction between exposure to Russian content and its effect.

The numbers presented by the tech firms, if we assume that they are true, still represent only a small proportion of the vast volume of online content that is generated on a daily basis. Not all of the users may have actively seen, not to say remembered, the manipulative information in their feed.

According to Facebook’s General Counsel, 11.4 million users may have seen the Russian Internet Research Agency’s fake ads in their news feed between 2015 and 2017. While the number seems large, it accounts for only 0.004% of the content in the users’ total news feed during the same period. One must note that the full reach of the campaign was higher, since users also shared and discussed the content with their friends. However, even if one multiplies the number above by 100, the agency’s content remains a drop in the vast sea of information. The fact that Russia could covertly reach 126 million Facebook users with manipulative content is highly worrisome. However, these numbers should be seen in relative terms.

Similarly, our new study on disinformation about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014, written by Mareike Hartmann, Rebecca Adler-Nissen and myself, puts disinformation in a broader perspective. We find that for each English-language tweet that supports the pro-Kremlin narratives about who shot down the civilian airplane, killing all passengers on board, there are approximately two tweets that directly challenge these narratives. The wave of counter disinformation is largely driven by journalists and civil society groups. In short, it is too early to say that Russia has won the global struggle for truth.

Lastly, it is important to remember that exposure to disinformation or fake accounts does not mean that the content has an effect on the audience’s political attitudes or behavior. Western societies are concerned with Russia’s influence on electoral outcomes. However, numerous communication studies provide a more nuanced view: Changing people’s voting behavior is very difficult. A recent meta-study of existing research indicates that the best estimate of the effect of political advertisement on US Americans’ political candidate preferences is zero. The studies that do show an effect often emphasize that the effect size is small. However, there are currently few studies that specifically examine the effect of Russian state-sponsored content on the American audience.

This does not mean that Russia’s information campaigns cannot further entrench already existing polarization in many Western societies or influence the political agendas during elections. That fact that governments around the world – not only Russia – are willing to invest resources in covert propaganda campaigns highlights the importance of the issue. State and non-state actors alike may succeed in deceiving the public and damaging our trust in key societal institutions.

Indeed, the Ukrainian experience stands as a stark reminder that disinformation campaigns must be taken seriously and understood properly. However, the debate on Russian online influence in countries such as U.S. is likely to exaggerate its effects.

Western societies need a well-informed and sober understanding of state-orchestrated disinformation campaigns if we are to address the issues at hand. Such an understanding requires more research on online disinformation and its effects.

Featured image credit: Person typing on computer keyboard by Soumil Kumar. CC0 Public Domain via Pexels.

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