From Abstract Words to Real Life Action? – The Behavioural Effects of the Fake News


About the Author: Petriina Matilainen is a master’s student in Social Sciences from the University of Helsinki with an academic stay at Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University. In her bachelor’s thesis she studied Finland’s neutrality, and she is fascinated by media, propaganda, disinformation and fake news. Besides studies she has a journalist background. She has been an active student journalist in a political historical magazine and is currently working in a magazine concentrated on energy supplies and innovations, and on technical and economical issues.


Sometimes one can end up in situations where they realize that something that is the truth and self-evident for them is not the same for someone else. For example, I was in a trip in Georgia, in Borjomi with my friends and we started to talk about European politics with our driver. He thought that “the European Union is capitalistic therefore it is communistic.” He also said that in the European Union we do not have the freedom of speech. On another occasion another Georgian driver said if you go to a praying position, on your knees and head down, the Covid-virus is going to go out of your body.
For me as a citizen of European Union, this all sounded absurd. It also made me think about how people live in completely different realities, usually due to disinformation and fake news. It also shows the real-life effects of fake news.


The fake news as a phenomenon is known but the effects of the fake news are not widely studied. Also, the concepts of information warfare, disinformation and fake news are under a debate like many other concepts. Nowadays some of the prominent themes in fake news are about are Covid-19 pandemic, Russian disinformation, and Anti-Western propaganda. In this text these themes are considered in the context of effects of fake news.

Debated Issue – Debated Concepts

Edward Lucas and Peter Pomerantsev connect information warfare to disinformation in their study made in 2016. According to them, disinformation differs from traditional forms of propaganda. These concepts do not try to convince or persuade like traditional propaganda. Disinformation keeps the audience passive and paranoid, hooked and distracted.

Disinformation refers to politically driven messages aimed at generating uncertainty, public cynicism, distrust, apathy, and paranoia, all of which disincentivize citizen engagement and mobilisation for social or political change. It is always purposeful and part of an agenda or a larger plan. Usually, disinformation is a mix of false and true facts. Misinformation is easily mixed with disinformation, but misinformation generally refers to generally to the inadvertent sharing of false information.

The concept of fake news does not have a universal definition. Generally, it refers the content found on the internet, especially on social media, that has misleading elements. Dean Jackson has noted that according to one analysis, they laid out five types of fake news. These types include intentionally deceptive content, jokes taken at face value, large-scale hoaxes, slanted reporting of real facts, and coverage where the truth may be uncertain or contentious.


The concept of fake news can also refer to both disinformation and misinformation. These concepts do overlap especially in a sense that something intentionally spread will turn into a viral phenomenon on social media. Fake news can also refer to misinformation presented in the form of a news story.

Covid-19 Debate in the Context of Fake News

In the ‘post-truth’ era we live in, many of us have probably heard people use of fake news. Some of us might even use it sarcastically when referring to some story that is not true: “Oh that must be fake news!” But what is concerning about fake news, is the aftermath they have. At the worst it is assumed that they can have terrible health consequences.

The behavioral effects of fake news are not so widely studied. Ciara M. Greene and Gillian Murphy conducted a study about quantifying the effects of fake news on behavior in 2021. They used Covid-19 misinformation as the case. According to them, besides their study, there is only one study that has attempted to trace the behavioral effects of fake news in any context. In the study Greene and Murphy created novel fake news stories that were related to myths about Covid-19. The created fake news included stories about whether or not certain food might help against the decease, if the vaccine is safe or about the privacy issues of tracing application.

A single exposure to these made-up stories only had little effects on the intentions to engage in some of the activities that the stories were aimed at. To give an example, the stories concerning the national tracing application and its privacy issue, the participants were 5 precent less willing to download the app. The researchers also investigated if a general warning about the fake news will reduce susceptibility. They put two different kind of warning signs. Nevertheless, this had no effect on responses to the fake stories. Participants were recruited via article posted in the Irish news and current affairs website TheJournal.ie. What the researchers highlighted in this study was a first step to quantify the potential harms of fake news exposure. More empirical research is needed to trace the impacts of fake news in the real world since this was a conducted study.

Disinformation to the Streets

Russian state-controlled outlets operate in several different countries. One most common theme in Pro- Kremlin disinformation in media is Anti-Western propaganda. This Russian leaded disinformation also provokes fears about that the West cannot be trusted, and Nato that is aggressive. One example of the victim of this kind of disinformation attacks is Georgia. According to Stopfake’s article, especially Sputnik Georgia is one of the Russian state-controlled outlets that creates narratives focused on alleged Western threats to Georgia’s traditional values, Georgian statehood and security.

Also, Alt-info is worth mentioning. This outlet is famous for its supposed Western threats towards Georgia’s traditional values, Georgian statehood and security. When speaking about effects of the disinformation, this outlet has its own stake. There were violent protests against Tbilisi Pride in July 2021, and the hosts of the outlet were part of organizing this event. Many journalists injured. These were the first news I read about Georgia in Finland before I came to Georgia for the exchange. Even though I was not in the country, I still got scared about the power of what disinformation can have at its worst.

Georgia has been also targeted with Covid-related disinformation. For example, pro-Kremlin media has been accused that Covid is a bioweapon or source of dangerous pathogens. As said, the effect from this kind of fake news is hard to detect. However according to the polls in July 2021, 47 per cent of Georgian refused to get vaccinated. Disinformation on Covid-19 and the vaccines might have had an impact on the public’s behavior which can be seen in the number of rallies against the mandatory vaccination, the green passports and so called the “Covid terror”.

Abstract Trolls on the Internet, Concrete Threat in the Reality

Jessika Aro is a famous Finnish journalist who has investigated Russian’s cyberspace war and propaganda and trolling as warfare tools. ‘Trolls’ are an army of fake Putin fans in social media. Trolls are part of Kremlin’s propaganda system and technique of information warfare. These paid aggressive and anonymous social media commentators have an impact on Finnish public debate. Aro herself has been a target of information warfare. Especially the journalists who covering conflicts, are usually the first target for propagandists and information war campaigns. Trolls created a false narrative, spread lies and dug deep into her personal life. In general, Pro-Russia trolls systematically visit in many online forums or spread disinformation. This aggressive pro-Russia propaganda has an impact on many Finns and on their attitudes and even on their actions. For example, some Finns have stopped discussing about Russian politics online and some Finns cannot tell what is true anymore and what is not. Latter had led that some Finns have started to spread pro-Kremlin disinformation without fact checking. In this case the chaos is not only in the information sphere but also within the society itself.

Finland is an open Western democracy, and its education system is world known. The education, especially the system Finland has, is brought up when considering how to deal with fake news and educate people to notice them. Even though, the fake news and Russian’s information warfare are issues Finland are also struggling with. Considering all of that, the issue is worrying. This also highlights the fact that Russia’s hybrid warfare and especially disinformation and fake news are also a threat to open Western democracies. Nevertheless, a lot of work and co-operation among authorities, the business communities, organizations, nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s), and individuals against these issues is and will be done, and more studies are needed.

References:

Aro. (2016). The Cyberspace War: Propaganda and Trolling as Warfare Tools. European View, 15(1), 122. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12290-016-0395-5

EU vs Disinfor (15.12.2021). Pro-Kremlin Outlets Try To Create An Alternative Anti-Western Reality In Georgia. Stopfake.org. https://www.stopfake.org/en/pro-kremlin-outlets-try-to-create-an-alternative-anti- western-reality-in-georgia/ (last seen Jan. 2022)


Greene, & Murphy, G. (2021). Quantifying the effects of fake news on behavior: Evidence from a study of COVID-19 misinformation. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Applied. https://doi.org/10.1037/xap0000371

Jackson, Dean. (2017). Distinguishing Disinformation from Propaganda, Misinformation, and “Fake News”. October 17. https://www.ned.org/issue-brief-distinguishing-disinformation-from-propaganda- misinformation-and-fake-news/ (last seen Jan. 2021)

Lucas, Edward & Pomerantsev, Peter. (2016). Winning the Information War: Techniques and Counter- strategies to Russian Propaganda in Central and Eastern Europe. A Report by CEPA’s Information Warfare Project in Partnership with the Legatum Institute, August 11.


From series of MCERC Academic Blogs on "Information Warfare and Security" created by Georgian and International students.