How (Not?) To Win the Information War Over Ukraine

In an opinion piece for The Telegraph last Friday (here), writer Anne Applebaum bemoans that Russia is winning the “information war” over the crisis in Ukraine with demonstrable falsehoods.

The crude and shrill nature of the propaganda now being aired on Russian media and especially on Russia Today (RT), the international news channel owned by the Russian state, has surprised me. Until now, the tone has generally been snide and cynical rather than aggressive. With slick, plausible American anchors and some self-styled hip outsiders—Julian Assange had a regular show—it seemed designed to undermine Western arguments, not denounce them. But now it is openly joining an information war being conducted on an unprecedented scale. The bald-faced lie has now become commonplace.

To counter this torrent of lies, Applebaum argues, the U.S. and Europe need to speak more truth louder.

The only response to an all-out information war is an all-out information defence. The West used to be quite good at this: simply by being credible truth-tellers, Radio Free Europe and the BBC language services provided our most effective tools in the struggle against communism. Maybe it’s time to look again at their funding, and to find ways to spread their reach once more.

I’d say that Putin & co. are clearly winning the propaganda war over Ukraine on the domestic front and playing to a draw on the international side. Press freedom is nearly non-existent in Russia (here), and Moscow’s domestic audience skews nationalist anyway (here), so that’s an easy victory. International audiences are more heterogeneous and surely less sympathetic than native ones, but as Applebaum notes, the Russian government doesn’t need to convince everyone that its version of the narrative is true to shape the politics of the response.

Unlike Applebaum, though, I am not confident that her proposed remedy—loud truth-telling—will produce the desired result. In fact, experiments conducted in the past few years by political scientist Brendan Nyhan and several co-authors suggest that, in information wars, frontal assaults sometimes have the opposite of the intended effect. In a 2013 paper entitled “The Hazards of Correcting Myths About Healthcare Reform” (here), the authors describe the results of an experiment “to determine if more aggressive media fact-checking could correct the false belief that the Affordable Care Act would create ‘death panels.'”

Participants from an opt-in Internet panel were randomly assigned to either a control group in which they read an article on Sarah Palin’s claims about “death panels” or an intervention group in which the article also contained corrective information refuting Palin.

Findings: The correction reduced belief in death panels and strong opposition to the reform bill among those who view Palin unfavorably and those who view her favorably but have low political knowledge. However, it backfired among politically knowledgeable Palin supporters, who were more likely to believe in death panels and to strongly oppose reform if they received the correction.

Conclusions: These results underscore the difficulty of reducing misperceptions about health care reform among individuals with the motivation and sophistication to reject corrective information.

Nyhan and his co-authors got similar results in a follow-on study designed “to test the effectiveness of messages designed to reduce vaccine misperceptions and increase vaccination rates” (here). This time,

A Web-based nationally representative 2-wave survey experiment was conducted with 1759 parents age 18 years and older residing in the United States who have children in their household age 17 years or younger (conducted June–July 2011). Parents were randomly assigned to receive 1 of 4 interventions: (1) information explaining the lack of evidence that MMR causes autism from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; (2) textual information about the dangers of the diseases prevented by MMR from the Vaccine Information Statement; (3) images of children who have diseases prevented by the MMR vaccine; (4) a dramatic narrative about an infant who almost died of measles from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fact sheet; or to a control group.

RESULTS: None of the interventions increased parental intent to vaccinate a future child. Refuting claims of an MMR/autism link successfully reduced misperceptions that vaccines cause autism but nonetheless decreased intent to vaccinate among parents who had the least favorable vaccine attitudes. In addition, images of sick children increased expressed belief in a vaccine/autism link and a dramatic narrative about an infant in danger increased self-reported belief in serious vaccine side effects.

CONCLUSIONS: Current public health communications about vaccines may not be effective. For some parents, they may actually increase misperceptions or reduce vaccination intention. Attempts to increase concerns about communicable diseases or correct false claims about vaccines may be especially likely to be counterproductive.

I see the results of those studies and imagine Russian and other audiences already ambivalent or hostile toward the U.S. as the functional equivalent of those Palin supporters and vaccine skeptics. It’s counter-intuitive and frustrating to admit, but facts don’t automatically defeat falsehoods, and attempts to beat the latter with the former can even encourage some antagonists to dig their heels in deeper. Before the U.S. and Europe crank up the volume on their own propaganda, they should think carefully about the results of these studies.

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