Here’s an experience you may be familiar with. You’re browsing social media and come across a screenshot of a news article headline that’s damaging to Ukraine or countries supporting it. It seems to be from a reliable news outlet, but sometimes something feels not quite right. Perhaps the grammar is bad or the style doesn’t match how a journalist would write it. You try searching for the actual article but it’s nowhere to be found.
One prominent recent example are images depicting covers of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The cover stories promoted anti-Ukrainian narratives in its distinctive cartoon style. Those images earned Charlie Hebdo praise among Kremlin supporters and outrage elsewhere. However, Charlie Hebdo never created those covers.
While this example required considerable work to emulate the cartoon style of the magazine and produce the fake covers, this tactic is more widely used because it can be very quick and easy to mock up a fake headline and share it as if it was screenshot from a news outlet. The propagandists know that most people browsing online will see the screenshot and scroll on without interrogating it further.
Hostile propaganda online, primarily spread by the Russian and Chinese state, aims to distort and disrupt information – and is increasingly reliant on these kind of impersonations of real media outlets and people to achieve this.
That’s one of the conclusion of the first information manipulation monitoring review conducted by the European External Action Service (EEAS), which was carried out from October to December 2022.
During the review, 100 different cases of information attacks were found and analyzed. Due to the small size of the sample, the results of the study do not provide anywhere close to a comprehensive overview of information manipulation, but based on these results, it is possible to better understand and analyze other cases. Propastop outlines the main results of the report, the entire report can be read from here.
• Activities related to information manipulation are strongly dominated by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Ukraine and its representatives were the targets of 33 cases. 60 cases out of 100 were in favor of the Russian invasion and considered it justified.
• Diplomatic channels are one of the most important parts of the spread and success of information manipulation cases. Russian diplomatic channels regularly enabled and amplified them. Similarly, diplomatic channels are used by China, which mainly uses them to attack the United States.
• Impersonating someone/something else has become high-profile. This occurs both in the impersonation of international and reliable organizations and in the use of Russian actors. Print media and television have been the biggest victims of this. Sometimes it goes much further than mocked up screenshots. In some cases, the entire style of a well-known publication has been completely and convincingly copied just for one or two fake news links before the site is taken down.
• In such matches, the use of official Russian actors took place on 88 occasions. 17 times Chinese actors performed. In five cases, actors from two countries cooperated.
• Information manipulation is multilingual. The content of the cases is translated and amplified in several different languages – a total of 30 were counted based on the sample, 16 of which are languages spoken in the European Union. Russia used more different languages than China, but a full 44% of Russian content was aimed at Russian-speaking audience and 36% at an English-speaking audience.
• The main goals of information manipulation are to disrupt and distort. Russia (42%) and China (56%) try to shift attention or blame to something else (distract, redirect). However, Russia (35%) tries to distort the content framework and narrative much more than China (18%).
• Information manipulation is mainly image and video based. Because it is so cheap and easy to create and distribute images and videos on the Internet, they are also the most used.
What can we conclude from this?
By now, many people are used to the fact that various media publications or posts require a critical approach in order to verify the truth of its content. However, none of us have enough knowledge or experience to do the same with visual media. From the results of the report, we can conclude that in the future we need to put more emphasis on both the critical analysis of visual media and the ability to identify an imitator of an organization or person. In addition, we must remember that propaganda appears intentionally in many different languages, so it is important to be able to find parallels between a single message and a possible known propaganda narrative.