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Studying Russian Disinformation and its Effects in Europe

Report on a Workshop in Munich Discussing Theoretical, Methodological, and Practical Challenges for Studying Disinformation


On 19 and 20 June 2017 the Graduate School for East and Southeast European Studies in Munich hosted a workshop on Russian disinformation and its effects in Europe. It was organized by Dr. des. Karina Shyrokykh, a current postdoctoral fellow and former doctoral candidate of the Graduate School, and Dr. Anke Schmidt-Felzmann, a Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, to debate on theoretical, methodological, and practical challenges for such kind of research with renowned international experts. This short report gives an overview of the main questions discussed at the workshop.

The issue of purposeful distortion of facts, as well as systematic production of fake news is a much discussed topic nowadays. At present, politicians at both national and European Union levels, as well as journalists and scholars are especially alarmed by potential threats posed by the systematic production and spread of falsified and distorted information by Russian media outlets and social media activists. At the same time, there is a pronounced lack of comprehensive theoretical and empirical perspectives on both ontological and epistemological questions related to the study of such kind of disinformation. The workshop was thus aimed at systematically assessing the conceptualization, operationalization and measurement of Russian disinformation and its effects in Europe.

Political scientists, communication scientists, data scientists, policy analysts, journalists and policy-makers from Sweden, Lithuania, Belgium, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Canada, Germany, Ukraine and the United Kingdom discussed different aspects of Russian disinformation and its effects in Europe. Topics like the extent of the ongoing disinformation campaign, its effects, as well as methodological approaches and their limitations, text analysis techniques, and machine learning solutions for the studies of disinformation were addressed.

The first day was opened by an intellectually stimulating keynote by Brian Whitmore, a senior Russia analyst at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague, Czech Republic. During his talk, Mr. Whitmore drew parallels and illustrated differences between the current Russian disinformation campaign and the Cold-War era Soviet active measures. He underlined the prevalent strategies and objectives of the ongoing Russian disinformation activities, emphasising the particular damage these can cause to the public trust into state institutions in the West, as well as the principles of liberal democracy, as such.

The opening panel of the workshop entitled "What is Russian disinformation? Perspectives from the 'frontline' and different research approaches," featured three presentations that introduced the challenges posed by Russian disinformation in Europe from a variety of research viewpoints. Frederick Fooy from the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency and the STRATCOM COE, provided a review of disinformation challenges and how these may shape the responses in Europe and elsewhere. Among other, he stressed the necessity of systematic research on the effects of propaganda, the factors determining susceptibility to the propaganda and the necessity of social education regarding media literacy. Prof. Bettina Renz from the University of Nottingham tackled the current issues in disinformation research from a critical epistemological perspective, underlining the essential necessity of casting light on the related actors, institutions, coordination of disinformation efforts, and assessment of its effects. Co-host Dr. Anke Schmidt-Felzmann from the Swedish Institute of International Affairs developed a critical perspective on the issues related to methodology currently employed in scholarly work and policy analysis. In particular, she stressed the need of contextualization of disinformation rather than stand-alone assessments of individual instances of disinformation. The presentation also brought up an issue of research ethics that is oftentimes missing in disinformation studies.

The second panel entitled "Disinformation? Propaganda? Fake news? Do we (need to) know that it is 'Russia?' Approaches and challenges in practice" was devoted to the empirical challenges in studying Russian disinformation. Prof. Nikolay Marinov from the University of Mannheim addressed the role of conspiracy theories in Russian disinformation. He presented some primarily results of his project aimed at studying the factors determining the susceptibility to disinformation. Dovilė Šukytė from the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum described the Baltic States’ experience of countering disinformation, drawing the attention to the importance of adult and youth media literacy education. Jakub Kalensky from the East StratCom Task Force presented the EU’s perspective on tackling disinformation and the policy response to the latter. Among other issues, he touched upon the question of weaponization of information and emphasized the need of a holistic view on the disinformation campaign, since it constitutes only a single element of the broader strategy aimed at destabilizing the European Union.

The third panel "Analyzing Russian disinformation – Methodological challenges in qualitative research with a historical perspective" addressed the question of the language used for disinformation providing contemporary and historical examples of disinformation. Margo Gontar from StopFake summarized the Russian disinformation efforts in Ukraine and made parallels between the strategies that are used in Ukraine and elsewhere, demonstrating a value added of a holistic approach versus case-by-case basis. Prof. em. Daniel Weiss from Zurich University made a presentation utilizing the proximization theory and assessed the role of historical parallels and imprecise quotations in the context of disinformation. The following presenter, Dr. des. Gerhard Grüßhaber from the Graduate School for East and Southeast European Studies, provided the audience with a historical perspective on disinformation, demonstrating how a Turkish-language broadcasts by Bizim Radyo, funded by the DDR government, targeted the audience in the Republic of Turkey. Pretending to be an underground station located somewhere in Anatolia, criticism was directed towards the Turkish government and its NATO ties. The presentation analyzed the possible impact of the early broadcasts against the Menderes government, the reaction of Turkish and West German authorities and the role of the station in Turkey after the coup of 1960 in an environment of growing intra-societal political dissent.

The second day of the workshop was opened by two keynote talks. The first keynote was given by Dr. Normand Peladeau from Provalis Research who tackled the relevant question of the advantages and drawbacks of various techniques for text analysis. Dr. Marco Bonzanini from the Bonzanini Consulting gave the second keynote talk during which he introduced numerous use cases of Artificial Intelligence methods utilized for the spreading, detection and analysis of disinformation.

Dr. Frantisek Vrabel from Semantic Visions opened the fourth panel of the workshop, entitled "Analytical methods for identifying Russian disinformation and fake news," with a presentation of the value added of Big Data analytics and Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) means in the study of Russian disinformation in Europe. Dr. Joanna Szostek from the Royal Holloway University presented the results of her research on strategic narratives in Ukraine by means of a mixed-method approach. She demonstrated that reliance on Russian news sources predicts support for the Russian narrative. Moreover, personal ties to Russia may as well stimulate support for the narrative. At the same time, the study revealed that interviewees are largely indifferent to the quality of news and that the level of trust to both Russian and Ukrainian media is low. The panel was closed by Josef Šlerka from the Institute of Information Studies and Librarianship, who presented the results of his analysis of pro-Russian Facebook groups using a variety of techniques, such as network analysis.

The last panel of the workshop, entitled "Effects (or not) of Russian disinformation – A perspective from the frontline," featured the research on detecting the effects of Russian disinformation from a strategic communication and historical perspectives. The first presenter, Prof. Maria Hellman from the Swedish Defense University tacked a policy-related question of how European states can respond to Russian information warfare. The presentation introduced an analytical framework for the analysis of governmental strategies for countering strategic narratives, and illustrated these various strategies on empirical examples demonstrating their main features. Dr. Johan Eellend from the Swedish Armed Forces presented a historical perspective on how to deal with disinformation drawing on the past experience. The workshop was closed by a discussion of publication plans and further cooperation.

Karina Shyrokykh