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Narrative laundering: the new face of disinformation

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Narrative laundering has become the latest tool for spreading disinformation, seeking to sow confusion, doubt, and influence history by deliberately masking information sources and actively promoting disinformation. The ambition is to capitalise on a confused and unclear narrative, feeding conspiracists and distrustful users, and encouraging a reactive response. The desire is not to sow truth, but to legitimise disinformation and propaganda, by making it look ‘trustworthy’.

Not only do we need to prime ourselves to encounter fake news, but we also now need to hone our awareness for the fake accounts taking part in this narrative laundering. These accounts have a dedicated agenda to spread fake news in a bid to control the overall narrative. An emerging tool in disinformation campaigns, ‘narrative laundering’ is part of modern warfare and manipulative propaganda techniques for which we all need to have heightened awareness!

Remember: disinformation is information which is deliberately produced to mislead e.g. propaganda, as opposed to misinformation which is false information that unintentionally misleads e.g. rumours.

Narrative laundering can be used by any group that seeks to peddle a fake agenda. It takes advantage of limited security measures on social media platforms, enabling fake personas and profiles to be created. These low barriers to setup mean that any group can create a series of proxies, designed to specifically gain notoriety and acclaim, and in doing so, peddle a specific agenda.

It is a tactic being heavily employed by pro-Russian supporters, as part of the cyber and information warfare connected to the Ukraine conflict. The technique is not limited to geo-political tensions however, with a number of high-control groups ’employing’ fake profiles to give them the edge. The specific purpose is to cloud the original source of the information, shrouding it in so many proxies that it becomes difficult to trace and / or verify. In doing so, the original source is able to distance itself from the information, while ensuring the information’s notoriety through the sheer volume of posts. What’s more, many mainstream and state-run media struggle to verify sources, but trust in the volume, meaning that the information leaves the original platform e.g. social media, or messaging services, and makes it into the mainstream broadcast media. In doing so, it gains further credibility, despite never being true, and never being verified.

The same technique also takes advantage of the algorithmic nature of the majority of these platforms. As we explore in our piece on algorithms, algorithms are designed to run and operate programmes, and to present information to meet a specific objective. That objective varies per algorithm, but could be to present the original source, or the most credible source, or the most popular source. In the case of search engines, the algorithmic objective is to drive ‘engagement’, which is about presenting the information that you are most likely to click, not the source which is necessarily most credible, legitimate, or truthful. Similarly, on search engines, the ambition is to present the ‘most relevant’ information, which means that it theoretically treats all content and content creators equally, and also relies on popularity to determine the relevance of the source. Throughout the years, everything from anti-vaccination narratives to far-right propaganda, conspiracy theories to full-blown hoaxes have been ranked at the top of search engines, despite those platforms’ efforts to counter the impact.

Note: we know that the more people see information, the more they assume it is true – see illusory truth effect.

Although the Russian State denies any state-funded disinformation activities, and has denied all knowledge of the circulating propaganda, several investigations have linked state-funded groups to anti-Ukraine and anti-West narratives. In September 2022 for example, an investigation by Meta identified a disinformation campaign that originated in Russia, distributing more than 60 fake websites in order to gain credibility. Fake versions of The Guardian website in the UK and Der Spiegel website in Germany suddenly appeared, among others, peddling everything from ‘evidence’ of natural gas shortages to doubts about Russian war crimes, in a bid to sow confusion and undermine Western narratives. “It’s an attempt to smash and grab,” Ben Nimmo, Meta’s global threat intelligence lead, told POLITICO. “They set up these very sophisticated spoof domains. And then they tried to blitz them out across as many different platforms as they can.”

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