New research has taken a look at the factors that could make people more susceptible to misinformation from Russia. According to their findings, people who believe in conspiracy theories, distrust governments, and don’t follow politics tend to be vulnerable to false information and propaganda that involves anti-mainstream messaging from an “illiberal regime.”
Reported in the journal Comparative Political Studies, researchers ran a number of experiments on a diverse group of over 2,000 people in Germany. Participants were asked about their beliefs and attitudes before being given a short description of a real-world event. This included both domestic and foreign issues, such as Germany’s handling of the refugee crisis and Putin’s dubious financial arrangements.
After dividing the participants into five groups, some were also given additional information on the issue in question, representing anti-mainstream frames and mainstream frames. Some were then also told where the information came from, whether it was a Russian or “Western” source.
Crunching the data revealed that people with “strong beliefs in authoritarianism, conspiracy theorists, people with low political knowledge, and government opponents” were more likely to blindly accept anti-mainstream propaganda. This, they argue, highlights the type of people that appear to be more susceptible to Russian disinformation.
Concerningly, the research found that providing a pro-Western, mainstream viewpoint and outing the Russian source was not enough to convince people the information may be suspicious and needs further research. This, they believe, could help to explain why the problem against misinformation is so difficult to address.
"Our study suggests that it is more important to increase the public's resilience against illiberal propaganda in the first place. To put it starkly: Once they are alienated or disconnected from mainstream politics, the battle seems to be lost," Dr Matthias Mader, lead study author and Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Konstanz in Germany, told IFLScience.
"This obviously begs the question of how to interest people in politics and keep them away from the fringes of democratic politics... The answer to this question likely lies in long-term factors rather than quick and easy fixes; early civic education, endowing the vulnerable with the resources necessary to participate in politics," Dr Mader added.
Given the recent use of disinformation about the deepening Russia-Ukraine conflict, this study has a particular resonance.
Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, recently announced it had dismantled a network of accounts and pages pushing fake news about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As part of this network, the group ran a handful of websites masquerading as independent news outlets, publishing false claims about Europe and the US betraying Ukraine and Ukraine being a failed state.
This is just one of many attempts to influence public perception of the Russian-Ukraine conflict. Investigative journalism group Bellingcat, for instance, has already highlighted a handful of sophisticated media campaigns designed to spread incorrect or misleading information about the crisis.
However, the researchers from this new study claim that the current situation in Ukraine could be testing the limits of disinformation, arguing that the grim reality of the ongoing conflict may mean that Russian disinformation won't stick as effectively as it has in the past.
"The current situation points to potential limits of illiberal propaganda. The Russian actions in Ukraine are so crass, and there is so much attention and evidence, that the type of propaganda tools we study in our paper might be less effective – if effective at all," explained Dr Mader.