When our mutual understanding of reality is broken down the consequences can be serious, explains Martin Kragh, a researcher at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and the University of Uppsala. Among other issues, his research looks at the Russian use of disinformation as a tool in its foreign policy.
“When we have a different understanding of events, this brings about a kind of friction in society. Our common understanding is eroded. This process fragments society in the long term,” he says.
That may be precisely the purpose behind the spreading of disinformation and conspiracy theories. For example, at the beginning of the year there was a story spread around concerning a 13 year-old Russian girl in Berlin, who it was alleged had been raped by migrants. The Russian foreign minister accused the German authorities of trying to conceal the story, which later proved to be false.
“It led to large demonstrations outside Merkel’s office, and encouraged more conflict on the issue of refugees.”
Fabrication of false news
False information is often spread by the Russian authorities, says Martin Kragh. There is an efficient machine for this purpose, including troll factories where dozens of full-time employees send in contributions to comment columns. Sometimes such fabricated news is picked up by the Swedish media.
One example was when Carl Bildt was said to be in the running as the next prime minister of Ukraine in various newspaper articles, including Dagens Nyheter, which was denied by Carl Bildt. The information came from the Russian state media.
“The real problem lies in Swedish media being willing to pass on information that is deliberately fabricated, without any basis in reality.”
Russian conspiracy theories
Technologies used for spreading disinformation are new, but the phenomenon itself is not. The most famous conspiracy theory of all time, the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, have been traced back to the Tsarist security service in Russia. It is a forged document describing a planned Jewish conspiracy to achieve world domination that has been spread for the past hundred years.
The KGB later spread myths about the CIA being behind the assassination of John F Kennedy, and the Pentagon being behind the spread of the HIV virus.
“These are the most famous examples. One in a thousand gains a foothold and is successful. The lingering feeling is that the West cannot be trusted. With the help of archive documents, it has later been proved beyond all reasonable doubt that the stories were fabricated. That does not matter, though, because by then millions of people believe them. It is a classic case of fact resistance,” says Martin Kragh.
The United States also spreads propaganda and pure disinformation. In particular, measures have been directed at countries in the Middle East where the United States has tried to establish an American version of military intervention that was carried out there, says Frida Stranne from Halmstad University and Uppsala University. She is one of the researchers behind the blog Amerikaanalys.se.
For example, directly after the 2001 terrorist attacks the Pentagon established a defence agency with the purpose of carrying out campaigns based on disinformation and infiltration, called the Office of Strategic Influence.
“American disinformation and propaganda tools are more sophisticated and can be more difficult to identify. In addition to this, we also have a greater tolerance of American disinformation because we share the basic values of the US and perceive that we share their security interests,” says Frida Stranne.
Fact resistance and lies
The propaganda that is seen in the American election process is different from the above description, however. Donald Trump’s campaign has clear examples of both fact resistance and outright lies.
He denies that global warming is connected with human activities, contrary to the belief of almost all the world’s climate researchers. His statements are often lies, pure and simple, such as his claimed initial resistance to the invasion of Iraq.
“But it is more difficult to get away with lies today since statements can be checked and questioned. Even though social media promote the spread of fact-resistant claims, they can also counteract false stories very effectively in various ways.”
Money and faith hold power
All the disclosures have not made Donald Trump change his style of debate. And despite the fact that he has extreme opinions, he is far from alone in American top politics regarding the denial of facts about global warming. Large parts of the Republican Party are climate deniers.
“American politics follows the money. Donors and lobbying groups have a huge influence. Many Republican-leaning politicians and voters also reject fields of knowledge related to the climate issue simply because the results from research contradict their religious beliefs. Climate change is seen as part of God’s plan – but there are other reasons for climate denial.
Misconceptions are often spread by American media, which are are often extremely polarized.
“The media machine is more for displaying opinions than running news services. Large newspapers that are known for their serious journalism, such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, only reach a small part of the population, often intellectuals,” says Frida Stranne.
Read more in Curie: When facts make no difference