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Crisis – the breeding ground for disinformation

Major events around the world ramp up the production of news and consumers grapple with a torrent of information that circulates – largely around the web. The announcement that the UK government will provide the BBC World Service with £4m in extra funding to help counter disinformation about the Ukraine war reflects the size of the challenge the press is currently facing.

In a recent study, Newsback traced the frequency with which the terms ‘disinformation’, ‘fake news’, and ‘conspiracy theories’ appeared between 2015 and 2021, across 3,000 French news publications.

These terms were used moderately at the beginning of this time period (6,741 mentions in 2015), before rising dramatically in 2016 and 2017, a year that ended with 37,185 mentions. Those booming years contained the Brexit referendum and two highly charged presidential campaigns – one in the US and one in France – revealing that these terms appear to spike during pressurised political moments.

Fast forward to 2022 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is another example of how disinformation flourishes in times of crisis – and why.

The way news is distributed today – through multiple channels and networks – makes it almost impossible to curb fake news once it’s released. The virality of social media also means that sensational stories spread at exponential rates. These conditions provide the perfect opportunity for malicious agents to manipulate the public into a certain way of thinking.

While there is often political motivation for spreading disinformation, other examples are less systematic. Aspiring social media influencers, for example, use disinformation tactics purely as a means to attract more followers. While this might seem harmless on the surface, it’s emblematic of a wider problem: the clickbait nature of modern media encourages the production of sensational stories – often embellished, fake, or downright duplicitous – warping the truth in pursuit of increased popularity, advertising revenues or personal gain.

In a phenomenon known as ‘hoax news’, for example, Io Dodds reports on so-called war scammers who are using social media accounts to pose as Ukrainian refugees, doctoring false images of their plight and extracting donations from unsuspecting people around the world. The issue is particularly acute on TikTok – a platform whose viewership is less determined by who people follow, as is the case with Twitter and Facebook.

TikTok has been flooded with clips of past conflicts and crises masquerading as images from the war in Ukraine. The very tools that make TikTok unique, such as its audio-swapping feature, are being used to obscure the truth of what’s really happening. As disinformation researcher Abbie Richards writes, TikTok is a facilitator of disinformation, ‘incompatible with the needs of the current moment.’

During times of global crisis, one story often soaks up the entire news agenda, making it impossible to avoid. When framed in this context, it becomes easy to see how cases of disinformation rise in times of crisis – when audiences are enlarged, opportunities to deceive are plentiful.

With social media being a hotbed of fake stories, traditional media has a vital role to play in providing a trustworthy source of news. The BBC and other media outlets have teams dedicated to tracking misinformation and they call out the offending stories to raise awareness of the issue. In all dissemination of news, whether personally or as a journalist, on social or traditional media, it’s the source that matters. Understanding where a story has come from - and who it has come from - is key to being able to confirm its veracity. AI powered tools are making this process quicker, easier and more accurate for news outlets.

(Photo credit: Asim Alnamat)

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