War-related disinformation has undoubtedly gone beyond the geographical proximity of the conflict and influenced public discourse around the world through polarization, intensification of the migration debate, and the activity of Russian propaganda in a direct or indirect way, depending on historical 'opportunity'. The lens through which we will look at disinformation in this article is that of socio-affective effects – we ask what role do emotions play in determining our verdict on the information we receive?
Disinformation about the war in Ukraine - Romanian context
The debate about the cause of the Russian invasion on Ukraine has been polarized from the start. Opinions differ and start from supporting Ukraine and seeing Russia as the main aggressor. Another perspective condemns the actions of NATO and the European Union in increasing the tension in Eastern Europe through expansionist intentions. A final, smaller but present wave of opinions justifies Russia's actions and even supports them.
In the Romanian context, narratives have been volatile depending on changes in the conflict, but also on changes in public opinion and the intervention of the Romanian authorities. A year after the war, 62% of Romanians agreed that Romania should continue to support Ukraine, but we see a steady increase in detachment from the war towards a desire for Romanian neutrality - some with populist undertones that we explore below. The same fate befell the support for Ukrainian refugees, which, at the outbreak of war, mobilized Romanian society driven by the intensity of the moment. Over time, the discourse has taken on a tinge of skepticism and was reoriented towards the problems faced by ordinary Romanians.
War-related narratives are complex and require a much more comprehensive analysis, but for our discussion we can identify three stages of disinformation narratives that have traversed Romania:
1) The initial impact, represented by the fear of expansion into Romania, and the possible start of a new world war, or the interpretation of the conflict as a war between intermediaries with Ukraine as a puppet of the US colonialist power: the Americans dictate how the war evolves in their favor.
2) The populist tendency of the discourse - the narratives that highlight the awareness of the social problems of Romanians: Our children are dying of hunger and we are helping the Ukrainians;
3) Anti-Western sentiment, which has been constantly present, but with the presence of a war on the borders, the disinformation has focused on demonizing European leaders and "neo-Marxist indoctrination." Alongside these sentiments, detachment from the war intensified through narratives such as: We are fighting a war that is not ours. The European Union supports Nazis who want to control the freedom of Romanians.
The views that have gained supporters are those that appeal to the vulnerabilities present in Romania: the lack of trust in state institutions, the rise of Euroscepticism and the return of narratives from the past such as the world occult, population control through the pandemic and the neo-colonialism that has turned Romania into a puppet. Unlike other former countries in the communist bloc, Romania has a visible reluctance to Russophilia, but this does not automatically mean that we are less vulnerable to Russian propaganda. The implications of Russian disinformation are indirect, appealing to the justification of Romanians' socio-economic problems by blaming the West. Thus, illiberal values take on a more subtle pro-Russian tinge, responding to the shortcomings of Romanian society.
What contributes to the belief of “false narratives”?
We live in a time when unverified information is taking control of the media, so moderation and even individual filtering can be overwhelming. We have reached a point where the classic rule of 3 verified sources requires more reflection on our part to decide the veracity of the information, especially in a context where we have two wars present in our online feeds, as well as a rapid evolution of deep video fakes and a far-right political trend in Europe.
Research tells us that at the expense of the conscious processes we apply to our online diet, psychological processes occur, and contribute to our vulnerability to information. Even in the face of challenging the credibility of a source, the emotional manner in which the news is exposed affects the evaluation of the information received. The main social and affective processes are reactions to the credibility of the source, logical approach and emotional appeal.
The appeal to emotions is one of the most widespread factors to the vulnerability towards unverified information, especially in times of war. We are veteran consumers of Social Media and that makes us react instantly to devastating events in the world, but that comes with an increased vulnerability to information that provokes discomforting emotions such as fear, anger and frustration. The verdict we give to incoming information is closely related to how it makes us feel.
We consume a lot of content in extreme situations and if the information we receive provokes one of the emotions mentioned, we feel the need to find stability in information that relieves our discomfort - often in opposition to the initial news. In finding an emotional stabilizer, we also use familiarity and repeatability which contribute to fixing our moods.
Emotions and war
The invasion on Ukraine has put us in a situation of individual and collective testing of our resilience but most importantly, of validating the shortcomings of state response. All of this translated into a constant state of uncertainty, fear and anxiety that led to visible changes in people's lives, both psychologically and socially. The wave of negativity that has hit the media space generated a need to find a stability that alleviates the state of insecurity. This need, underpinned by low literacy skills and the need to find a reason for the devastating images seen on our phone screens, has led to the development of narratives stemming from fear and the unknown.
What remains to be done?
The question is generic, obviously, given that we are experiencing a rapid pace of evolution of the sphere of disinformation, propaganda, and fake news that we are trying to contain. The solutions can be listed and are quite intuitively related to civil society and decision-makers, but the question is more about the process of replicability of these solutions.
There are many of us, and the more information being fed to us daily. Correcting false and conspiratorial narratives takes time, commitment, and constant exposure to factual information. Constructing factual alternatives helps to combat disinformation through positive narratives and logical explanation of false information through fact-checking. This is complemented by pre-bunking interventions and preventive monitoring of narratives that may appear in the online space, thus facilitating an early mental warning process.
In case of false narratives related to the war in Ukraine, the information has already been absorbed for a longer period of time, which moves the discussion to the next interventions related to correcting disinformation beliefs. Discussions we have in the cognitive sphere move towards the implications of the continued influence effect, a process in which disinformation continues to influence one's reasoning even after exposure to credible information and sources. Here again, interventions involve constant exposure to factual information and adjusting the discourse to the specifics of the target audience. In many cases, if the discourse we choose has negative emotional implications for the receiver, the chances that the corrected information remains relevant decrease. The same is happening with the speech that attacks the receiver’s views and opinions.
On a final note, one thing I mention every time I talk about the saga of disinformation, is that change starts in our close environment - in discussions with our parents and in the wider circle of people we interact with. I invite you to take a read of the Digital Activism Toolkit and pass on what you've learned.
This article was published in partnership with Funky Citizens