The past few years have witnessed a growing obsession with the alleged dangers of “disinformation,” particularly that said to come from Russia. In response, Western governments have sponsored a large industry of organizations designed to counter efforts to deceive their populations. Canada is now set to join them, Prime Minister Trudeau having announced that his government plans to set up a special team devoted to countering Russian disinformation and propaganda.
This is unlikely to be a productive enterprise. Some psychological research indicates that exposing disinformation doesn’t convince people that it is false and may even have the opposite result. Those who are inclined to distrust authority do not believe what it tells them about truth or untruth – indeed, the fact that the distrusted authority is telling them something is untrue may even strengthen their belief that it is the opposite, and the very repetition of the false information may reinforce it in people’s minds. A meta-analysis of debunking studies concluded that debunking “often inadvertently strengthen[s] the misinformation,” particularly when lacking in detail, but that even a “detailed debunking message also correlated positively with the misinformation-persistence effect.” Furthermore, the term disinformation is much abused. Strictly speaking, it refers to information that is not only untrue but which is known to be untrue, but which is nevertheless spread due to a malign intent to deceive. But much of what is designated disinformation is more accurately “misinformation” – in other words, false but not known to be false and not spread with malign intent. Much alleged “disinformation” also falls within the category of opinion, there being a tendency to believe that one’s opinions are “truth” and that contrary views are objectively false. The labelling of things as disinformation serves to stifle contrary opinions and legitimate public debate. If one was a cynic, one might even think that that was the point.
Were counter-disinformation organizations careful with how they use the term, and were their members very knowledgeable about the subjects they discuss, they might produce decent analyses. Unfortunately, they have a bad record in this regard. Rather than being neutral guardians of the truth, they tend to be guardians of a given version of the “truth,” presenting biased and inaccurate pictures of what others are saying. They also tend to display poor knowledge of the chosen topics, and the intellectual standard of their analyses can be painfully low. Consequently, their output is often so poor that it deceives the public rather than enlightens it.
An example is the US State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), whose reports contain a number of provably false assertions. For instance, a GEC report entitled RT and Sputnik’s Role in Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem provided a link to an article published in RT as evidence of “disinformation narratives describing the Ukrainian government […] as either fascist or Nazis.” Yet the linked article specifically said that “Ukraine remains a relatively free and open society. It’s not remotely fascist,” in other words, the exact opposite of what the GEC claimed it said. The irony of a report denouncing “false narratives” itself spreading false narratives is striking.
This is far from a unique case. A study by British academics of the European Union’s anti-disinformation organization EUvsDisinfo revealed serious shortcomings including “blatant distortion.” “Our analysis demonstrates that EUvsDisinfo’s headlines and summaries border on disinformation according to [its] own definition of the term,” the study concluded.
Previous counter-disinformation work by the Canadian government suggests that its new organization is unlikely to prove any better. This can already be seen through a government webpage entitled “Countering disinformation with facts,” which lists “Russia’s false claims” and then seeks to counter them with “facts.” Unfortunately, many of the “facts” used to rebut the “false claims” are completely irrelevant to the claims themselves. For instance, the website counters a Russian statement that its air assets have targeted Ukrainian military positions by citing the completely irrelevant fact that “Russia’s air force has failed to establish air supremacy over Ukraine.” But the latter does not in any way preclude the former.
Examples of misleading information abound on the Canadian government’s website. These include a rebuttal of a Russian claim to have achieved the operational encirclement of the Ukrainian town of Lysychansk by means of a statement that “Ukraine continues to control the city of Lysychansk.” Though true at the time of writing, this response didn’t negate the claim of operational encirclement and in any case ceased to be true very shortly afterwards and thus misrepresented the military situation. Another example is a rebuttal of a Russian “false claim” that “NATO promised Russia not to expand after the Cold War” with the statement that “NATO has never made such an agreement.” But the Russian argument has never been that NATO itself promised not to expand. Rather, Russians argue that high-ranking officials of certain NATO countries promised not to do so, an assertion that some Western historians, on the basis of archival evidence, believe to be true. At any rate, given its disputed nature, the claim cannot definitively be designated false, and deeming it as such is deceitful.
Given the past record in this area, it would probably be best if the Canadian government reconsidered its plan. It is doubtful that it has the expertise or objectivity to do a decent job. If the new organization’s work is on the same level as previous efforts, it is likely to do more harm than good. Unfortunately, while we have a good idea of what doesn’t work in countering disinformation, we have very little idea of what, if anything, does work. Much more research needs to be conducted. Supporting such research would be a more useful undertaking for the Government of Canada than rushing into ventures of unproven worth.
Paul Robinson is a Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a Senior Fellow at IPD.