Konstantina Vasileva is a Bulgarian media analyst with experience in local and foreign companies and research projects. Currently, she’s a PhD candidate in New Zealand and is witnessing first-hand how the country has been tackling the coronavirus pandemic.
In a 2021 study on disinformation and propaganda published by the European parliament, researchers note that disinformation is getting harder to combat, as it is increasingly interweaved into genuine content and therefore, more difficult to identify. Disinformation is particularly dangerous when shared by individuals with a high level of public authority.
In an article on the mechanisms of disinformation, published in January 2022 in the journal Nature Reviews, Ulrich Ecker and his colleagues also point to the significant role digital infrastructure plays in spreading disinformation, particularly the way social media allow for the precise targeting of people with specific interests and attitudes. The authors note that the current model of treating disinformation as information deficit no longer works. The solution is not to provide more information. There are a number of cognitive, affective and value-related mechanisms that skew the way people filter information, especially when it runs contrary to their beliefs.
In such an environment, it is of great importance not only whether the media provide information, but how they do it. There are a number of ways in which the news media can contribute to the disinformation landscape.
The facts without the context
Incomplete information, reported without sufficient context, can sometimes be misleading. The reports about record numbers of COVID-19 infections in New Zealand in Bulgarian media this year are one such example. In February, even the national news agency BTA focused on the sensational angle (“1160 new COVID-19 cases, the largest figure since the start of the pandemic”), adding that the infections come “at a time of ongoing protests against the government’s anti-COVID measures and vaccination policy”. The facts themselves are not incorrect. Outside of context, however, they could be misinterpreted.
To begin with, the way they are framed creates the impression that New Zealanders are polarized and oppose the government’s policies in large numbers. In fact, the country’s vaccination coverage is nearly 90%. In a February Ipsos poll among a representative sample of the population, only 25% said that the anti-COVID measures were too strict, while a Kantar poll in March found that only 12% supported the protests.
The protests themselves were started by about 100 citizens and did not attract more than 2000-3000 people, even at their peak. Then, a large number of protesters did not turn up spontaneously. They traveled in organized groups from different parts of the country, rallied around Brian Tamaki – the pastor of a fundamentalist church which has been described by one of New Zealand’s veteran journalists as fitting the definition of a cult. Even though Tamaki’s party Vision NZ is active in staging all protests against the COVID restrictions, Tamaki actually profits off… leasing church property to the government for mobile testing and vaccination centers.
Second, the record number of infections in question is due to the fact that during the first two years of the pandemic the daily new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand were usually below 10, with very few instances of numbers rising above 200. This changed in February 2022 as the country opened its borders to travelers from abroad, lifting the main barrier that halted the spread of the virus. Having more than 1000 infections per day is a record only locally, given the extremely low numbers of new infections in the past two years. The figures are significantly lower when compared to the rest of the world. For example, on February 16, when New Zealand reported their record 1160 cases, Bulgaria detected 6589 new infections (only three weeks earlier it reported more than 12 000).
Some Bulgarian media went beyond the “insufficient context” zone straight into serious disinformation territory when they interpreted New Zealand’s numbers as “proof” that vaccines are ineffective. They did not bother to look at any local statistics or studies, and it seems that they did not consult any New Zealand media, either, as local outlets always check with scientists and statisticians before publication.
Finally, the number of new cases daily is not the most significant figure, as it depends on testing rates (which at the time in New Zealand were very high). The number of confirmed COVID deaths is a better indicator of whether the population is well protected from the most severe COVID outcomes, which is, in fact, the goal of the vaccination campaign. According to WHO data, a total of 53 New Zealanders had lost their lives to the virus prior to the “record” new infections in February. Currently, the total number of confirmed COVID deaths in New Zealand – for the entire period of the pandemic – is slightly above 2100. For context, the country’s population is 5,1 mln people, 89,14% of whom have received at least one shot of the vaccine. Bulgaria, on the other hand, has reported 38 000 confirmed deaths since the start of the pandemic, according to its official coronavirus statistics. Only 30% of its citizens are vaccinated.
Media legitimacy “on loan”
Trust in legitimate media can be co-opted and used to spread fake news that they did not report. It is now common to see screenshots of “news” on social media that are supposedly published by respected outlets. In reality, these are doctored screenshots of existing articles whose titles, photos or accompanying text have been changed.
Take republican Ted Cruz, for example. He recently tweeted an article, supposedly from The Atlantic, which claims that Muslim parents were accused of far-right sentiments after complaining against a sex-ed class. “The left is beyond parody”, the American senator indignantly wrote, sharing a screenshot of the article. The problem is, such an article never existed, and its supposed author, Abby Ohlheiser, stopped writing for the Atlantic a decade ago. It was a doctored screenshot – the title and photo had been changed – and it was obviously created to provoke reactions.
This demonstrates how a piece of fake news can take on the cloak of legitimacy by 1) appearing with the logo of a real media outlet and 2) being shared by a politician with many followers, most of whom probably did not do any fact-checking before joining in the indignation.
In Europe things are no different. Earlier this year an article that appeared to be published by the German public TV channel ARD started trending on Facebook. It claimed that the German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier had compared the pandemic to a dictatorship. This is a fabricated story, as is the report that the grandfather of chancellor Olaf Scholtz belonged to the SS. Invented stories like these appear about all kinds of topics – from the “collapse of the American school system” to the war in Ukraine. The imitators usually choose large news organizations such as the BBC, CNN and Deutsche Welle. It is easy to fact-check such posts by looking for a working link to the article itself; while it’s easy to imitate a title, it is harder to clone an entire website.
Social media: a shortcut to disinformation
Social media plays a significant role in the dissemination of such fabricated news. Users usually speed through the vast amount of information and do not even read the articles that they share, much less fact-check them. The ecosystem of social networks makes it easy to quickly jump between topics. Algorithms make it worse as each comment and “like” under a fake news item brings more attention to it.
Photos and personal profiles create the illusion that users exist. In the last 5 years, however, the stream of disinformation has become so engulfing that it is harder and harder to discern whether accounts belong to real people, or to organized groups of online trolls. In his very public recent negotiations with Twitter Elon Musk hinted at the fact that bots make much more than the estimated 5-11% of the social network. According to data from Statista, only in the first quarter of 2022, Facebook removed 1.6 billion (yes, billion!) fake accounts from its network. This is probably just the tip of the iceberg. Even LinkedIn waged a war against fake profiles. At least that network’s focus is on marketing, rather than on politics and society.
It is not a coincidence that the Trust in Media index compiled by the European Broadcasting Union has been detecting a constant decline of trust in social media in Europe since 2014.
Undermining trust as a tactic to neutralize fact-checking
A favorite common refrain of disinformation is that social networks provide “truthful” and “authentic” information, unlike “paid” media and official sources. This statement appears not only in the conversations of users, but in the narratives spread by small media companies and independent content creators, especially on YouTube. This is a particularly convenient talking point: if you can’t trust the media, you cannot trust the fact-checking they do, either. Еxposing disinformation can thus be “neutralized” even before it happened.
Distrust in “official information” has a twofold effect: 1) it helps spread dangerous myths and disinformation and 2) paradoxically, it strengthens people’s belief in them. After all, if one can anticipate that a statement will be debunked, and it is debunked by fact-checkers, one can interpret this as “proof” that there is a cover-up. This mechanism is very effective on the psychological level, because it depends on what psychologists call “confirmation bias” – our tendency to see only things that support our opinion, and disregard contradictory evidence.
Navigating these waters in Eastern Europe is harder, because there are legitimate reasons to doubt media impartiality. Opaque media ownership, political ties, conflicts of interest and coordinated disinformation campaigns justify distrust in large media, to an extent. The EU suspended RT and Sputnik’s operations on its territory precisely because, in the absence of independent editorial policy, large media outlets can be significant vehicles for disinformation.
In the English-speaking world, the mass media that dominated the landscape before the digital age (print, radio and television) are known as legacy media. Nowadays this expression (as well as its counterpart, “mainstream media”) has acquired a new, politicized meaning. Websites and cable channels use it to critique large publications, which filter out certain points of view. The subtext is that they are either unable to “keep up with new trends”, or that they cover up facts and report only one side of the story. In this line of thought fact-checking can be seen as an attempt to impose an opinion, and even as censorship.
The problem with the “all sides of the story” argument is that there are “sides” which are partially, or entirely based on incorrect facts. These sides are being filtered out in the sake of quality of information, and not in order to suppress opinions. Nowadays some people still believe that the Earth is flat, even though Aristotle opined it was round already in the 4th century B.C, and Magellan and Elcano proved this to be true when their expedition circumnavigated the globe in the 16th century. It would be absurd to grant airtime to the alternative viewpoint that the Earth is flat. Similarly, quality media refuse to disseminate information that is not backed by facts. Websites and video channels that try to attract larger viewership have no such scruples. This makes them more prone to spreading unchecked, and sometimes even straightforwardly manipulative and false information.
David versus Goliath?
Since about 2016, a new army of “independent” websites, podcasts and video channels has been actively promoting the narrative of the decline of mainstream media. Steve Bannon and the website Breitbart were among the first such crusaders. Their talking points vary – from “journalists with big publications are incompetent and beyond their heyday” to “official news is politically correct and it won’t tell you what we will”. The main idea, however, is the same: “you can no longer trust mainstream media; only a bunch of brave independent crusaders tell things “as they are”. There is only one minor detail – Bannon & co’s independence is highly questionable.
Breitbart is funded by Robert Mercer – a hedge fund manager who invested $ 10 million in Bannon’s projects while they were still blogs, according to Jane Meyer from The New Yorker. Though he is very private, Mercer is also known for another investment that caused a media maelstrom in 2018: the company Cambridge Analytica became infamous with its attempt to influence the 2016 American elections by using unethically acquired psychometric data of thousands of Facebook users in order to profile them and manipulate their vote.
Breitbart’s ties to millionaires with political interests is not an exception. Despite the fact that they brand themselves as free and independent outlets, many “alternative” information channels are backed by people who have vested interests in promoting certain topics. You may hear countless stories of brave, non-conforming content creators who stand up against “the dictate of mainstream media”. The British website UnHerd also brands itself as an alternative, but its stance against the pandemic restrictions has little to do with independent scientific consensus and much more to do with the views of its main investor – Paul Marshall. The views of this “independent website” coincide in great part with those of another project backed by Marshall with 10 million pounds: the conservative outlet GB News. It is not surprising that one of UnHerd’s favorite topics is “the myth of disinformation”.
The American website Daily Wire is also connected with a myriad of independent podcast and video channels, whose hosts are constantly guest-starring on each other’s shows. Each has its own brand, but their main messages on the pandemic and other current important topics are (coincidentally or not) well synchronized. Their funding can be traced to the oil moguls Dan and Farris Wilks. It’s no surprise that their critique of the decline of the education system in the US sooner or later leads to promoting PragerU. While U is supposed to stand for “University”, Prager is not an accredited institution, but an organization creating videos and online courses on different topics of public interest. These include climate change, which unsurprisingly they deny, given their sponsors’ business interests in fossil fuels.
Hosts and guests of such alternative channels are always a version of David facing off Goliath: the lone professor standing up to academia; the independent journalist who films his documentaries himself to avoid the commands of the producers. What this image omits, though, is that these davids are backed by huge business goliaths whose “out of the box” thinking is surprisingly in sync with the other media projects of their sponsors.
In Bulgaria messages are not that well produced, but cable TV stations, YouTube channels and online publications prone to spreading disinformation (or merging it with real facts) rely on the less-refined versions of this particular model. Their favorite guests are always “the brave ones” who “tell the truth” and whom “you won’t see on mainstream media”.
What is the solution?
Disinformation is a global problem. Bulgaria has to face some additional hurdles in dealing with it. In 2022 our country ranks last among EU members in the Media Literacy Index, 91st in the press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders (after it had spent many years 20 spots down the list) and makes the top 5 of EU countries with high trust in social media, according to the European Broadcasting Union.
There are ways to change this. Researchers who study disinformation and the European institutions who work to combat it publish new recommendations all the time. The main tools they propose are: fact-checking resources and platforms, fact-checking training (both for journalists and ordinary citizens), more effort put in the communication of science, investigative reporting to debunk disinformation, and last, but not least – media literacy training for people of all ages.
The solution is in offering more information, but in fostering skills to analyze and filter it properly.