Read a summary of our latest event on disinformation

On 23rd November, the HCPB Hub was pleased to listen to a virtual discussion between Vasily Gatov (Annenberg School of Communication, University of Southern California) and Ilya Yablokov (Department of Journalism Studies, University of Sheffield) on post-Soviet disinformation practices.

Ilya opened the discussion by establishing that post-war practices of disinformation are now very different to the Cold War framework. Conspiracy theories are central to Russian foreign affairs because they help the Kremlin take on the role of underdog with the United States. In addition, Ilya made clear that conspiracy theories became strengthened when skilfully combined with local narratives and cited RT (formerly Russia Today) as a major source of viral disinformation. One example is RT’s coverage of the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal with Novichok in Salisbury in 2018. The organisation’s relentless promotion of an alternative narrative of events helped spread confusion and mistrust into the mainstream.

In his opening remarks, Vasily moved beyond modern Russian disinformation practices, and highlighted examples of disinformation promoted during the Soviet Union. Some of the most popular conspiracy theories centered around aid, particularly in Africa. Vasily stated that when considering disinformation, it is important to recognise the governing institutions of the modern Russian Federation are vastly different to those of the Soviet era. For example, Putin, as head of state, is not the only source of vertical power in the country. Vasily argued that the soviet system had always tried to amplify the problems people in western countries had. This is evidenced by the extent to which the Soviet Union proudly stressed its superiority to many western European nations on the early provision of pensions and universal healthcare.

In the second half, Vasily and Ilya kindly answered questions from the audience. Hub members were interested to understand more about the actual practice of producing conspiracy theories and how the use of doubt as a weapon had changed since the end of the Cold War. In his reply, Vasily argued that a diversification in the communication strategies of Russia’s senior political leadership was not an error, but a deliberate choice to try and confuse and distract the wider foreign policy establishment. To illustrate this, Vasily gave the example of the Geneva bilateral summit between Presidents Biden and Putin. Whilst Putin praised Biden for his political capabilities and co-operation, Russia’s Defence and Foreign Ministers were openly critical and targeted Biden and Secretary Blinken directly.

Ilya mentioned that the academic community has come to change the way it views conspiracy theories as no longer inclusive of everyone. Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the major structural socio-economic inequalities in our society and this exposure has become a source of both content and appetite for a proliferation of conspiracy theories. In reply to a specific question about Covid-19 vaccine take-up in Africa, Ilya suggested that there is no international-level solution to successfully counter health-based conspiracy theories and that a push for further media literacy courses in schools is the best course of action we can take to protect ourselves in the future.

We are very grateful to Vasily Gatov and Ilya Yablokov for their time and we look forward to seeing you at our next Hub event on Dec 13th!

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