‘Colour Codes of the Coronavirus: a Case Study of RT Deutsch’ | Guest Blog

By Maria Zhukova

Electronic microscopes allow us to see SARS-CoV-2 only in black and white. In principle, the colour of this virion (or virus particle) can’t be seen with the human eye. The proteins, ribonucleic acids, and phospholipids that make up the virus particle absorb light almost exclusively from the ultraviolet spectrum, invisible to us.[1] Nonetheless, it didn’t take long before people’s creative imaginations had painted this new enemy of civilisation in all colours of the rainbow. This kaleidoscope of colour can be seen on the pages of online news networks around the world, where the new sections about COVID-19 that appeared in the spring of 2020 were often accompanied by coloured icons depicting a virus particle. For example, RT Deutsch sported a new heading — “Aktuelles zu COVID-19″/”COVID-19 news” — accompanied by a red icon.

The German-language news portal RT Deutsch was launched in 2014. This service of the Russian state-funded international broadcaster RT (formerly Russia Today) explicitly positions itself as an alt-media outlet within the German media system. The content produced by RT Deutsch tends to be particularly hyper-partisan. Its output actively and overtly attempts to manipulate people’s emotions. This blog looks at how the service uses specific colour codes for this purpose.

Despite the growing interest in digital information culture, the vast majority of recent publications on the effect of colour don’t pay particular attention to online news resources. Research on visual perception in human–computer interaction (HCI) tends to be addressed to web designers, and doesn’t investigate the relationship between the content of a digital resource and its colour effect — the features of colour perception depending on nationality have provoked greater interest. Amid the wide-ranging responses to the coronavirus pandemic by academics, few publications have addressed the issue of visualisation in pandemic-related content.[2]

Attempts to influence readers via the anticipated emotional effect of certain colours and colour combinations can be seen in a significant proportion of the “Aktuelles zu COVID-19” output. This large body of material requires further research. The focus of this blog is one of the first reports featured in that section, entitled “Over One Thousand Corona Cases in Germany Already: DAX Drops”.

The article contains updates on the impact of the virus on events in Germany and around the world, such as upcoming Bundesliga matches to be held behind closed doors and Saudi Arabia’s suspension of air travel with nine countries. Besides its basic informative function, this material undoubtedly also has other, underlying aims. One of these is to attract new audiences, since, in comparison to other German-language news outlets, RT Deutsch’s reach is relatively small. Another aim is to convey and underline the danger that coronavirus poses to Germany. The text is dated 9 March, when the WHO had not yet declared a pandemic (11 March) and Germany had not yet introduced social distancing measures, which followed only on 17 March. However, this early article already shows how the precise and well-thought-out interconnection of themes, linguistic techniques, and visual features — especially colour choices — contribute to exacerbating the impression of fear and danger. Let us look in detail at how the relationships between the colour, graphic, and textual elements of this material work.

During the course of the pandemic, almost all German online publications introduced a specific section dedicated to the spread of the new virus, but not all of them came up with a corresponding icon. In the case of RT Deutsch, the graphic design and colour of the icon are obviously particularly significant.

The new “Aktuelles zu COVID-19” section heading has a strong presence on the RT Deutsch page precisely because of its colour: the red icon contrasts with the green of the RT logo. According to the experiments of a research group led by Russian avant-garde artist Mikhail Matyushin, as discussed in his Guide to Colour (1932), pairs of contrasting or complementary colours are not perceived equally quickly. The recognition of red as the corresponding colour to green is second only to violet and pale yellow, in terms of how quickly the viewer perceives the colour contrast (see pages 22–23). That is to say, the green of RT’s logo is associated with red in the reader’s mind. In other words, the page (green) begins to be naturally associated with the virus (red), compelling an audience craving information on the topic to return to this section again and again.

The graphic design of the icon also lays the foundation for convincing the audience of the extreme danger of the virus. The RT Deutsch icon, which was also used on RT’s English service, mimics the virus’s spherical shape but considerably exaggerates its structural features. The so-called S-proteins, which help the virus attach itself to the surface of the cell, are often called “spikes” by scientists but are nonetheless more likely to be depicted visually as something that looks more like a mushroom (see the model developed by the Thomas Böttcher research group, University of Konstanz) or plant forms (such as the model designed by Markus Hoffman, of the Leibniz-Institut for Primate Research, Göttingen) (top row, respectively, left to right, in the illustration below). In the RT icon, the repeated rows of identical spikes or teeth, both around the outside of the circle and within it, suggest the motion of a circular saw and give the image an aggressive character. For comparison, see alternative images of the coronavirus in the equivalent section of the website of major German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a parody of the logo for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (now postponed to 2021), the image used by Russian news outlet Meduza, and the icons used by RT’s Spanish and Russian-language services, which all depict the S-proteins in a way much closer to the scientific models (bottom row, respectively, left to right).

The headline, placed immediately underneath the section heading, begins instilling the idea of the extreme danger that the virus poses for Germany in particular, by referring to economic factors that will be directly relevant to the German reader. The construction of the sentence implies that the second part, after the colon, is a direct consequence of the first. That is, that the drop in the German stock exchange (Deutscher Aktienindex, usually abbreviated as DAX) is due to the number of coronavirus-related deaths, a connection that is not mentioned at all in the text of the article. The headline’s emphasis on the unstable financial situation is intentional: according to surveys conducted in January 2020, this is considered an important issue by 30% of German citizens.[3]

The photograph that follows the headline intensifies the effect of its first part, exaggerating in visual form the idea of illness and disease. The red circle with an arrow (directing coronavirus patients to an outpatients reception) resembles the virus icon in its colour and shape, but is much larger in size, while below, in a separate image but placed in relation to the photo of the sign, depicts the yellow triangle containing three circles which since 1966 has been the recognised standard symbol for biohazards.

The exponential increase in SARS-CoV-2 cases, which was already being discussed in the media in March, is even embodied in the specific visual forms used to represent this topic: the red dot of the icon has turned into a giant red circle in the first photograph (the effect of which is enhanced by the burgundy tones of the background). The “spheres” also increase in number, as depicted in the yellow biohazard symbol, where there are already four, if not five, of them — according to Matyushin’s observations on colour and form, the “warm range of the spectrum, from yellow to red, gravitates towards wide, round shapes”, “so, swollen, a yellow pyramid loses some of the sharpness of its corners.”

The threat that the virus poses to Germany is thus established on a textual and a visual level. The photograph of the yellow biohazard sign is attached to an article discussing the New York stock exchange. However, this American content isn’t illustrated with the famous Charging Bull sculpture of Wall Street, by Atrturo Di Modica, but animals more familiar to a German reader: bull and bear figurines, based on large sculptures designed by German Rainer Dachlauer for the 400-year anniversary of the Frankfurt stock exchange in 1988. It’s not especially important whether the average reader is familiar with the financial jargon in which Bullеnmarkt/bull market and Bärenmarkt/bear market mean, respectively, an increase and decrease in stock prices. It is more important that the biohazard sign between the two figurines is associated with recognisable features of the Frankfurt urban environment, familiar from television coverage, and consequently with the situation in Germany as a whole.

In this way, the idea of the virus as a threat is located on German soil, as implied by the figurative and symbolic associations of the typically “German” animals, the bull and the bear. A third animal joins the bull and the bear in this row of zoological allusions: the badger, which is referenced in the headline. The Deutsche Aktienindex (DAX) was introduced in 1988, the same year the bull and bear sculptures were installed. The acronym DAX sounds similar to the German word for badger — der Dachs — making it easy to remember (more so than the equally plausible but unused acronym DAI). This example of linguistic homophony — words that happen to sound similar despite different spellings — is commonly utilised in journalism, including taking advantage of its humorous implications (see also another example related to animals: the acronym PIIGS introduced in 2010 to refer to five economically-disadvantaged EU countries, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain). In summary, we can state that the animals indicated here, both visually and phonetically, not only create subsidiary meanings but also infantilise the audience, diminishing their analytical faculties and stimulating an emotional response.

If we return to Matyushin’s colour experiments, which showed that yellow and violet are instantly perceptible as contrasting colours, it is not difficult to see how the following photograph, depicting brown coronavirus particles on a light-violet background (which links to an article entitled “Two Months Before Outbreak Coronavirus Simulation Predicts 65 Million Deaths”) rhymes perfectly with the yellow biohazard sign.

The eye is guided by colour indicators, adequate for ordinary perception, to glide towards the bottom of the page. The video report embedded at the end of the main text — “Coronavirus: Opinions on Worldwide Stockpiling” (lit. “hamster buying”) — replicates the same aesthetic techniques (animal imagery, red–yellow–violet colour scheme), reinforcing these already-formed blocks of meaning in the different and more easily comprehensible format of video. Thus, colour choices in the visual design of news material are far from accidental. Skilful use of colour, synthesising the graphic and textual layers of meaning, acts as a powerful factor in shaping the reader’s response.


[1] I thank Thomas Böttcher (Zukunftskolleg, Univ. Konstanz) for clarifying the structure of the virus to me, as well as providing his graphic model.

[2] Latter source reproduced from The Conversation, where it is currently inaccessible.

[3] I refer here to data in the “2020 Security Report”/”Sicherheitsreport 2020”, a survey conducted by the Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach on behalf of the Zentrum für Strategie und Höhere Führung. 33% of respondents over the age of 16 said they fear poverty in old age, 27% fear loss of earnings, and 26% inflation. Only senile dementia and climate change were cited as greater causes of concern (42% and 40%, respectively). According to the 2020 Security Report’s special investigation into coronavirus (Sicherheitsreport 2020 Spezial Corona), conducted in mid-May 2020, 76% of respondents were concerned about the economic consequences of the pandemic.


Maria Zhukova is a Research Fellow at the Slavic department and Associated Fellow in Zukunftskolleg at Konstanz University in Germany. She leads a postdoctoral project ‘TV Discourses in Print Media, Film, and Literature in Late Soviet Russia of the 1950s-1980s‘.

‘RT takes libertarian anti-lockdown stance’ | Guest Blog

By Natalie-Anne Hall

This month, as the world has been debating how and when to lift Covid-19 ‘lockdown’ and Boris Johnson set out the UK’s moderate (if confusing) easing of restrictions, RT has published a series of anti-lockdown op-eds. Since 1 May, nine opinion pieces (by six different authors) have been published on RT’s website criticising the UK’s restrictions, compared with just one in support of them (back on 1 May). All of these op-eds have also been posted to the RT UK Facebook page, increasing their visibility. Many of the authors of these pieces, like Damian Wilson, Robert Bridge, Rob Lyons and Norman Lewis, are regular contributors to RT online, writing from politically and economically right-wing standpoints including attacks on climate activism, refugee programmes and ‘PC culture.’

These pieces have a distinct libertarian tone, evidenced in incendiary language like ‘riding roughshod over basic freedoms’. Much of the language used is provocative, with words like ‘authoritarianism’ and ‘socialist experiment’ conjuring images of communist dictatorships. In his piece following the 10 May announcement, Norman Lewis calls Johnson’s policy ‘patronizing and demeaning,’ eluding to a small-government, free-market approach. Mitchell Feierstein in his piece twice likens the government’s furlough scheme to the fiscal irresponsibility of ‘Zimbabwe and the Weimar Republic,’ and stokes anxiety with lines like ‘I am frightened by what I have been hearing, and you should be, too’. A third piece published on the same day (13 May) by Damian Wilson compares the UK’s current situation with the poverty and rationing experienced by Cuba in the 1990s, saying ‘the UK has sleep-walked into socialism without a single tank bearing cigar-smoking, khaki-clad revolutionaries rolling up Whitehall’. There are arguably dangers, as well as political benefits, of invoking such alarmist and militaristic analogies.

Some of the pieces also use decidedly Brexit-style language and appeals. The term ‘project fear’ is resurrected with the claim that Britons have been driven to ‘existential angst’ and become ‘petrified of normal life’. Brexit itself is mentioned in a handful of the pieces, for example jibing at the irony of Remainers now ‘embracing public opinion’ over the lockdown. More subtly, the same anti-trust, English nationalist and nostalgic messaging that has been seen in Brexit campaigning both on and offline is present in many of the articles. In his 11 May piece, James Heartfield uses the terms ‘English liberty’ and ‘British liberty’ interchangeably, and stokes nostalgia for a time before the end of the Cold War, when this ‘proud tradition’ suffered a ‘strange death’ and was replaced by fear and snowflake-like vulnerability (as though the Cold War period itself was free of public anxiety and paranoia). In the same piece he bemoans the government’s having ‘caved in to the experts’ and reminisces about the days when Tories like Michael Gove boldly claimed that ‘the people in this country have had enough of experts’ during the 2016 referendum campaign.

In line with these anti-expert sentiments, the pieces also make claims about the effects of lockdown strategies that are unevidenced and as-yet unverifiable, such as that the proposed necessity of lockdowns to ‘flatten the curve and protect the health service’ has now been exposed as ‘just fearmongering and exaggeration’, or that Sweden’s soft-touch policy has succeeded in the ‘bolstering of immunity among the young and the healthy’. Conversely, one of the most recent pieces entitled ‘London’s Covid-19 R number is well below critical at 0.4, with only 24 new cases a day. NOW why can’t we have our lives back?’ appeals specifically to ‘the science’ in its call to end the lockdown. It does not, however, stop short of employing cultural logic, claiming that as Britons, ‘Social distancing is already a way of life, we are born into it.’ Rob Lyon’s piece also published 15 May calls for the UK to ‘end the lockdown as soon as possible’ and ‘conquer the fear factor’ for the sake of the economy, on the grounds that the most recent figures show ‘hardly any’ recorded deaths by the virus for under-40s.

While most of the pieces constitute direct and obvious criticisms, some, like Damian Wilson’s piece on ‘Professor Lockdown’s career ‘thankfully’ being over, use popular news stories to package their critique. Similarly, Robert Bridge’s 7 May piece began by predicting the unfortunate loss of customs like handshaking, only to move dangerously close to ‘plandemic’ conspiracy theories by pointing to Bill Gates’ financial interest in vaccines. He then uses such logic to proclaim emphatically that being ‘forced to endure endless lockdowns and quarantines behind surgical masks’ is a strategy that ‘cannot last forever’.

If this wasn’t enough to convince readers of RT’s position, a standard news article with the innocuous headline ‘PM Johnson says UK hopes to EASE some lockdown measures on Monday’ published on 6 May was accompanied by an image of protesters holding signs that say ‘No more lockdown’, both on RT’s website and the RT UK Facebook page. Like such strategic choices of photographs, the publication of op-eds can be conveniently non-committal. ‘Op-eds’ are just that, opinion pieces by those whose views are allegedly ‘their own,’ to some extent absolving RT of journalistic responsibility around their accuracy. But given what is at stake in a pandemic that has already claimed over 300,000 lives, this one-sided promotion of anti-lockdown viewpoints by the outlet could be a dangerous game.


NAH


Natalie-Anne Hall is PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Manchester. She is currently conducting research for the ‘Reframing Russia’ project on how and why RT’s content appeals to Facebook users.

‘Defence Against Disinformation is a Team Sport’ | Guest Blog

By Keir Giles

A friendly-fire incident between counter-disinformation researchers shows that in defending Western democracies against malign influence, no one team or organisation has all the answers.

Malign influence is a complex and multi-dimensional issue, and adversaries that seek to harm Western societies through information operations select from a wide-ranging and constantly evolving toolkit, adapting and developing their tactics, techniques and procedures as they go. It follows that defences against information attack need to cover a similarly diverse range of approaches, spanning different disciplines, theoretical and applied, and from strategic down to tactical level.

In April 2020, two teams from two of these different disciplines came into direct collision, as academic researchers from Reframing Russia took aim at the methodology of counter-disinformation practitioners from EUvsDisinfo. Despite the fact that both groups are notionally on the same side, the incident highlighted a polarisation of opinion on methods to counter disinformation – but also pointed the way to better cooperation between different organisations with widely differing approaches and priorities.

Background

In a short article on their website, Reframing Russia provided a critical assessment of EUvsDisinfo’s methods in selecting and publicising instances of Russian disinformation for their database and analytical products. Highlighting what they described as problems of omission, distortion and terminology, Reframing Russia’s Professors Stephen Hutchings and Vera Tolz suggested that through misrepresenting source material, EUvsDisinfo “is in danger of becoming a source for disinformation itself”.

Reactions from across the spectrum of counter-disinformation activity were swift and uncompromising. Reframing Russia itself came under vehement attack, including by activist group GorseFires Collectif seeking to identify the author of a post uncritically promoting RT on the Reframing Russia website, and a tendentious and personalised attack by “The Insider”, insinuating that Reframing Russia are funded not only by the UK but also by “Russian sources”. Meanwhile Reframing Russia’s article was strongly endorsed not only by RT and pro-Russian activists, but also by RUSI, a think-tank in London, which among valid and constructive points inadvertently repeated inaccurate claims about EUvsDisinfo and its operations. Overall, neither side in the conversation emerged with credit. But a closer look at the nature of the disagreement between the two sides in the conversation – and at how little they have in common despite in theory sharing common aims – shows the way toward a far more effective cooperative relationship between the many organisations working on the problem of disinformation and malign influence.

EUvsDisinfo Output

Where Reframing Russia went into specific detail on its criticism of EUvsDisinfo, that criticism appears valid. Reframing Russia’s article highlighted reports which, it claimed, were misrepresented. Referring back to the original media outputs confirmed that their description by EUvsDisinfo was inexplicable; and Reframing Russia assert that these were just a selection from a substantial number of similarly troubling reports in the EUvsDisinfo database. According to Vera Tolz survey of Covid-19 related entries in EUvsDisinfo’s database showed that “80% contained gross misrepresentations”.

Credibility is critical to EUvsDisinfo’s role. Association with the EU gives the project a mantle of authority, reflected in the widespread quoting of its findings. EUvsDisinfo will inevitably be held to a higher standard of proof and probity than the organisations they report on. It would therefore surely be in their best interest to address doubts in their reporting directly, looking again at the source bulletins and responding frankly and honestly if mistakes have been made. If not, they risk precisely the erosion of trust of which Reframing Russia is warning.

In addition, Reframing Russia highlighted EUvsDisinfo’s “pro-Kremlin” formulation to describe the sectors of the Russian information environment whose disinformation it reports. This too seems to point to a valid problem. Each page of the EUvsDisinfo website carries a caveat that its database collects “messages in the international information space that are identified as providing a partial, distorted, or false depiction of reality and spread key pro-Kremlin messages. This does not necessarily imply, however, that a given outlet is linked to the Kremlin or editorially pro-Kremlin, or that it has intentionally sought to disinform”. The explicit equivocation may well be a necessary substitute for an extended essay on the nebulous and sometimes intangible nature of malign influence, but it presents an obvious hostage to precisely this kind of criticism.

The roots of Reframing Russia’s disquiet about the nature of EUvsDisinfo’s work lies in the latter’s remit. As described by Anneli Ahonen, head of the European External Action Service’s East StratCom Task Force that manages EUvsDisinfo, it “is an awareness raising campaign, with a disclaimer stating that this does not reflect official EU position. This provides us with distance and analytical freedom from political level, and results in more credibility.” The campaigning role drives Reframing Russia’s core concern that in the drive to raise awareness, EUvsDisinfo steps beyond objective appraisal of the material they are handling.

Unfortunately, however, in presenting their concerns over EUvsDisinfo, Reframing Russia convinced some of their readers that they had fallen victim to the same problems of methodology that they themselves were criticising. Highlighting individual examples of miscategorisation by EUvsDisinfo gave the impression of cherry-picking material. Concerned that EUvsDisinfo might be “overgeneralising”, Reframing Russia sampled one news bulletin from one Russian channel on one day (Pervyy kanal on 12 March), and then appeared to draw generalised conclusions from it. Their article linked to contentious sources to bolster its arguments, such as repeated references to an attack on EUvsDisinfo by fringe Dutch activist Arjen Nijeboer in 2018. It included the suggestion that “the East StratCom Task Force relies on as many as 400 volunteers to trace Russian disinformation” (a claim later echoed by RUSI to call EUvsDisinfo “amateurish”), despite this not having been the case for over two years at the time of writing.

Reframing Russia later explained that the challenges to its methods were based on misinterpretations, that its “Two Short Reports” on Russian disinformation on Covid-19 were rapid response pieces produced following requests by a UK newspaper journalist and by a parliamentary committee, and that the short notice at which they were produced explained the strictly limited dataset on which its survey of RT coverage was based.

But in part because none of this was made clear, the response to the reports was savage criticism, extending to questioning the integrity and motives of the project leaders. Reframing Russia’s reference to being “asked to comment” on material produced by EUvsDisinfo sparked particular concern, and speculation over whose initiative it might have been to produce an apparent hit piece on the agency. In posting what they believed was a hasty but reasoned critique of another organisation’s methods, Reframing Russia’s project leaders inadvertently stepped out of academic debate and into a hornets’ nest of accusation and recrimination.

Reframing Russia’s Contribution

Reframing Russia’s contribution to counter-disinformation efforts lies at the academic and theoretical end of the spectrum. Primarily examining RT, the project’s remit is to investigate “the processes by which RT not only reconfigures publics and audiences, but also furnishes the very conditions for unprecedented modes of international mistrust, conflict and insecurity”. Academics friendly to Reframing Russia stress that this is a creditable, serious undertaking, and Professor Hutchings points out that “we have had academic articles deriving from our research accepted for publication in prestigious outlets like European Journal of Cultural Studies” – meaningless to most people, but a significant marker of achievement for academics. Vera Tolz adds that “our project is for academics. We are not political campaigners, practitioners or activists. If our work is useful for policy analysts and practitioners, it is great, but we do not pro-actively seek this impact.”

Theoretical study of disinformation and its effects provide a necessary counterpoint to the practical and tactical focus of organisations like EUvsDisinfo. This is especially important when considering whether disinformation is in fact effective. If Reframing Russia does in the end make a contribution to the vital question of how much impact – if any – malign influence campaigns using mechanisms such as RT do in fact deliver, then their work is crucial.

But the difference of opinion between Reframing Russia and EUvsDisinfo highlights the challenges inherent in crossing the boundaries between theoretical investigation and practical application. As noted above, EUvsDisinfo struggles with the problem of scoping and defining its target material: conversely, a separate attempt by Reframing Russia to deconstruct an individual item of Russian disinformation led to yet another trail of misunderstanding and misrepresentation.

At the time of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s admission to hospital with coronavirus in early April, Russian sources reported that he would be put on a ventilator – with the implication both that his condition was more severe than was being made known at the time, and that Russian media had well-placed sources within his health care team. This was widely covered in British media as a prime example of Russian disinformation. Reframing Russia took issue with this characterisation, and set out to prove that it was mistaken. But again, its conclusion that it could find “no evidence of any attempt by Russian news providers to spread disinformation about Prime Minister Johnson’s state of health”, and its means for reaching that conclusion, sparked alarm, concern and fierce criticism.

Reframing Russia pointed out that the original Russian report said Johnson was to be put on a ventilator whereas English translations reported that he already had been, which was true; but then implied that this difference between future and past tense invalidated the charge of disinformation. Vera Tolz’s argument that the Russian phrase for putting someone on a ventilator could also mean simply giving them an oxygen mask was received sceptically by other native Russian speakers. Most strikingly of all, Reframing Russia argued that the Boris Johnson ventilator story could not be called disinformation because it was so easily deniable, and “such blatant falsehoods would seem to serve little purpose anyway”.

This would seem to indicate a gulf between academic and practical approaches to Russian disinformation, since suggesting that Russian disinformation efforts do not include blatant falsehoods runs counter to years of detailed practical research on their methods. (Again, Reframing Russia later clarified that their comment should not be taken at face value, and explained that: “We have never suggested that Russian disinformation does not include blatant falsehoods. Of course, there are numerous examples of those… But in relation to issues where Russia is not directly implicated, the Russian media still can use poor practices, but they are much less likely to disseminate direct, pointless fabrications”).

This gulf between the two approaches to countering disinformation stems not only from mutual incomprehension but also from mutual unawareness. Reframing Russia and EUvsDisinfo were only dimly aware of each other’s existence before colliding, let alone having a clear understanding of each other’s methodology. Reframing Russia could have raised their concerns over EUvsDisinfo output privately before launching a public critique: the EU’s Q&A page explaining what East StratCom Task Force is also explains how to contact it about mistakes spotted in its output. But Reframing Russia felt that the problems they identified were so systematic and significant that this approach was not appropriate; furthermore “there are no specific names on the East StratCom site suggesting who exactly is in charge of the operation, with their personal email addresses”. Therefore, in Reframing Russia’s view, a public commentary was the preferred solution.

Reframing Russia contrasts EUvsDisinfo’s awareness-raising campaign with its own research, which it says aims to be dispassionate and objective, including when this leads to uncomfortable conclusions. Stephen Hutchings suggests that “some of RT’s reporting practices are deficient… but, in the context of the Covid-19 coverage they are undoubtedly superior to EastStartCom’s [sic] own methods”. Vera Tolz adds that “We do, however, believe that EUvsDisinfo’s data on Covid-19 is an exact equivalence [to RT]. In its factual inaccuracy it is considerably worse than what RT International produced. Their database entries include systematic misrepresentations. They can be legitimately called falsifications.”

This, naturally, means Reframing Russia is faced with the need to rebut accusations of drawing false equivalence between Russian malign influence campaigns and those who seek to counter them. A statement that the Institute for Statecraft in London and the Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg follow not dissimilar tactics was, Reframing Russia explained, no more than a reference to outsourcing policies by governments. Professor Hutchings adds that “none of us would dream of drawing an equivalence between RT and BBC, there is none. However it seems to us perfectly legitimate to point out instances where the practices are equivalent.”

While EUvsDisinfo may lean too far in flagging content as disinformation, Reframing Russia may risk similar criticism in the opposite direction through presenting research conclusions on RT which inadvertently resemble making excuses for it – particularly when those conclusions echo the talking points of outright apologists. Reframing Russia stresses that “much of RT’s output is purely factual”, which critics say plays down the remainder that is distorted or manipulative.

Where the facts are in question, Reframing Russia is at risk of appearing to give RT the benefit of the doubt. This extends to falling victim to a classic confusion of balance with objectivity. Because the project’s various correspondents unanimously disapprove of RT, in order to address this perceived imbalance the project’s leaders decided to host (and later delete) an article promoting RT on their website, once again generating fierce criticism and deep, yet unfounded, suspicion of their motives.

(Mis-)Communication

The manner in which these two organisations work to fundamentally different principles is reflected even in how they present themselves to the world. The purpose of EUvsDisinfo’s public presence is specifically to raise awareness. By contrast, the part of Reframing Russia’s work which it considers most significant is largely hidden from view.

Reframing Russia’s team members have written a number of academic studies, some of which are available for public consumption despite the majority being confined to academic journals. The project has made a significant contribution to understanding of RT’s programming, content, and audiences in multiple languages, as part of its goal “to situate RT in the international media ecology”. But it has also been criticised specifically for this close focus on RT, forming as it does only part – and a relatively insignificant part – of a much wider effort of malign influence using levers way beyond traditional or social media. Practitioners argue that close focus on RT while neglecting the broader disinformation ecosystem – for example social media – means missing essential context, in particular other instruments of subversion or destabilisation like agents of influence, useful idiots, and others who consciously or unconsciously promote and disseminate Russian talking points.

But Reframing Russia points out once again that the impression that its work is limited to RT is a misinterpretation, and further that the project’s apparent emphasis on instances of direct falsification, as opposed to the broader picture of narratives and intent, is also misleading – as is the suggestion that the project does not examine social media. In each case, Vera Tolz points out, visitors to the project’s website have been misguided by the assumption that what is presented there is representative of the project. Instead, she points out, “blog posts” there are “not representative of any research we do”, and in fact “from what is currently on the website it is not easy to get an impression of what project is about”. Instead, Reframing Russia’s primary output is intended to be academic journal articles and contributions to compiled volumes, culminating in a book to be published long after the project ends in August 2020.

The contrast with EUvsDisinfo, whose aim is rapid campaigning on current issues using the website and associated database as a key communication medium, could hardly be greater. But the key point that unites both projects is a need to pre-empt or mitigate censure and denunciation on mistaken grounds by more clearly communicating their aims and objectives, and in particular the principles to which they work, not only with each other but with audiences in general.

Next Steps

The Covid-19 pandemic provides the ideal environment for malign influence to thrive as it fills a vacuum of authoritative information. The perceived lack of reliable data about the virus provides fertile ground for information and disinformation campaigns, especially feeding on fear, uncertainty and doubt. Russian sources, unsurprisingly, are making the most of the opportunities provided by coronavirus to reinforce their long-running narratives. Vigilance against these campaigns, and successful identification of where they do (and do not) have the potential to cause real damage, is essential. But the divergence in approach between Reframing Russia and EUvsDisinfo reflects the fine balance between over-reaction to Russian disinformation campaigns and failing to react at all.

One answer lies in successful collaboration, cooperation or at the very least communication between different groups. For example, flaws in EUvsDisinfo reporting or deeper problems with methodology, when pointed out constructively, should be welcomed and acted on. Meanwhile Reframing Russia could be assisted with the broad context within which their important work sits. The same principles apply to many of the disparate groups, entities and even individuals now active in the counter-disinformation industry.

The organisations working in this space are many and varied, but not all are able to share the results of their endeavours. Professor Tolz, drawing on her substantial experience of monitoring traditional media for Radio Liberty during the 1980s and early 1990s, suggests that “further lessons on how high-quality, dependable media analysis is produced can be learned from the work of BBC Monitoring whose well-trained experts follow media across the world, including Russia.” This may well be true even following BBC Monitoring’s evisceration and repurposing by the BBC in its disapproval of “doing government work”, but at the time of writing BBCM’s contract to provide services to East StratCom has not been renewed, and much of its counter-disinformation work remains accessible by subscription only. Similarly, other centres of expertise appear constitutionally or organisationally constrained from pooling and sharing their knowledge and analysis. The US Global Engagement Center, for example, reports that it has established international partnerships to facilitate information sharing and response coordination, but declines to publicise its methodology on the grounds that this would reveal “tradecraft”.

But in the absence of a broader dialogue across all sectors of the expert community, counter-disinformation efforts will remain hostage to well-intentioned but misguided efforts, such as the detailed and widely-quoted New York Times explainer from mid-April that was roundly condemned by disinformation researchers for being deeply misleading. Those at both extremes of the conversation will continue to argue from entrenched positions rather than considering issues, instances or nuances. In addition some of the most prolific writers on Russia can at times adopt a condescending tone, suggesting that all those who disagree with them do so only because they do not understand Russia as well or are incapable of evidence-based discussion and analysis; and too often this approach is used to attempt to win an argument rather than actually arrive at a sensible conclusion.

That sensible conclusion lies in the middle ground. It is not true that counter-disinformation teams don’t get it wrong and can’t be criticised because they are the good guys. Where they slip up or make mistakes, or even where their core principles of operation may be flawed, this should be highlighted to make their output better and more useful and relevant. But it is also not true that when counter-disinformation teams do get it wrong, that makes them just as bad as the malign influence they are working against. This is a false and damaging equivalence, since aims, transparency, accountability and much more set them poles apart. It is further not true that established academics should not be criticised from outside the profession, or their remit questioned, on the grounds that this constrains free enquiry. There is no reason why universities should not be held to the same standards of relevance and recognition of the real-life impact of their utterances as any other organisations. Mutual support is overdue: by seeking a cooperative, rather than adversarial approach between players on the same side, defenders against malign influence can help mitigate the effects of propaganda outlets rather than providing them with material.


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Keir Giles is a Senior Consulting Fellow with the
Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

 

 


Read more: Paul Bischoff explores how disinformation is spread on social media in this Comparitech report. “Inside a Facebook bot farm that pumps out 200k+ political posts per month”.