Disinformation and new propaganda can take many forms—from the use of false visuals or misleading headlines, to social media techniques that create an impression that the “majority” understands an issue in a certain way. In the echo chamber of the modern information space, the spreading of disinformation is as easy as a 'like,' 'tweet,' or a 'share.' The following are some of the Kremlin’s most commonly used techniques for spreading false stories and disinformation:
Ping pong – The coordinated use of complementary websites to springboard a story into mainstream circulation.
Wolf cries wolf – The vilification of an individual or institution for something you also do.
Misleading title – Facts or statements in the article are correct, or mostly correct, but the title is misleading.
No proof – Facts or statements that are not backed up with proof or sources.
Card stacking – Facts or statements are partially true. This occurs when information is correct, but it is offered selectively, or key facts are omitted. The Kremlin typically uses this technique to guide audiences to a conclusion that fits into a pre-fabricated or false narrative.
False facts – Facts or statements are false. For example, an interview mentioned in an article that never took place, or an event or incident featured in a news story that did not actually occur.
False visuals – A variant of false facts, this technique employs the use of fake or manipulated provocative visual material. Its purpose is to lend extra credibility to a false fact or narrative.
Denying facts – A variant of “false facts,” this occurs when real facts are denied or wrongly undermined. The facts of an event might be reported, but an attempt is made to discredit their veracity. Alternatively, the facts may be re-interpreted to achieve the same effect: to establish doubt among an audience over the validity of a story or narrative.
Exaggeration and over-generalization – This method dramatizes. raises false alarms or uses a particular premise to shape a conclusion. A related technique is totum pro parte.
Totum pro parte – The “whole for a part.” An example: portraying the views of a single journalist or expert as the official view or position of a government.
Changing the quotation, source or context – Facts and statements are reported from other sources, but they are now different than the original or do not account for the latest editorial changes. For example, a quotation is correct, but the person to whom it is attributed has changed, or a quote’s context is altered so as to change its meaning or significance in the original story.
Loaded words or metaphors – Using expressions and metaphors to support a false narrative or hide a true one; for example, using a term like “mysterious death” instead of “poisoning” or “murder” to describe the facts of a story.
Ridiculing, discrediting, diminution – Marginalizing facts, statements or people through mockery, name-calling (i.e. argumentum ad hominem), or by undermining their authority. This includes using traditional and new media humor, in order to discredit on non-substantive merits.
Whataboutism – Using false comparisons to support a pre-fabricated narrative or justify deeds and policies; i.e., “We may be bad, but others are just as bad” or, “The annexation of Crimea was just like the invasion of Iraq.” This technique is often accompanied by an ad hominem attack.
Narrative laundering – Concealing and cleaning the provenance of a source or claim. When a so-called expert of dubious integrity presents false facts or narratives as the truth. Often, this happens when propaganda outlets mimic the format of mainstream media. A common technique is to feature a guest “expert” or “scholar” on a TV program whose false fact or narrative can then be repackaged for wider distribution. For example, “Austrian media writes that…” or “A well-known German political expert says that…”
Exploiting balance – This happens when otherwise mainstream media outlets try to “balance” their reporting by featuring professional propagandists or faux journalists and experts. The effect is to inject an otherwise legitimate news story or debate with false facts and narratives. This technique is common in televised formats, which feature point-counterpoint debates. Propagandists subsequently hijack a good-faith exchange of opposing views.
Presenting opinion as facts (and vice-versa) – An opinion is presented as a fact in order to advance or discredit a narrative.
Conspiracy theories – Employing rumors, myths or claims of conspiracy to distract or dismay an audience. Examples include: “NATO wants to invade Russia;” “The United States created the Zika virus;” “Secret Baltic agencies are infecting Russian computers with viruses” or “Latvia wants to send its Russian population to concentration camps.” A variation of this technique is conspiracy in reverse—or attempting to discredit a factual news story by labeling it a conspiracy.
Joining the bandwagon – Creating the impression that the “majority” prefers or understands an issue in a certain way. The majority’s presumed wisdom lends credence to a conclusion or false narrative; e.g., “People are asking..,” “People want…” or “People know best.”
False dilemma – Forcing audiences into a false binary choice, typically “us” vs. “them.”
Drowning facts with emotion – A form of the “appeal to emotion” fallacy, this is when a story is presented in such an emotional way that facts lose their importance. An example is the “Lisa case,” in which Muslim immigrants in Germany were falsely reported to have sexually assaulted a Russian girl. While the event was entirely fabricated, its appeal to emotion distracted audiences from the absence of facts. Common variants of this method evoke post-Soviet nostalgia across Central and Eastern Europe, or stoke public fear of nuclear war.
Creating the context – Most commonly found on broadcast news programs, it creates the context for a pre-fabricated narrative by preceding and following a news story in such a way that it changes the meaning of the news itself. For example, in order to send the message that recent terrorist attacks in Europe were the result of EU member states not working with Russia—which is helping to fight ISIS in Syria—commentary broadcast before the news on the March 2016 Brussels attacks described Russia’s success in Syria and its ability to fight ISIS effectively.
CEPA StratCom is an online journal covering crucial topics in strategic communications in the transatlantic community. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.