Attacking fact-checking, victimization, and shouting “censorship” whenever your internet connection drops are not new, but they have increased in visibility, buttressing many other categories of disinformation. Purveyors of falsehoods found an easy way to dismiss criticism by integrating it into their conspiracy theories claiming they are validated by all the reports and factchecks - “you know you are over the target when you start catching flak” [1].

Manipulating with truth

Most misinformation influencers are rolling their eyes at the idea of that disinformation can be spread using information that is technically true. But the academic research is solid in showing this reality. This is one of the reasons why the main concept used by experts in dealing with broad issues of manipulation is information disorder and not fake news.

In fact, the best false narratives are not unhinged conspiracy theories, but false interpretations that start from a grain of truth. Going a step further, true information that is taken out of context is one of the best ways of manipulation, since the context is not usually immediately clear but needs intentional effort and patience to be discerned.

One of the main narratives spread by Cristian Terheș, Romanian Member of the European Parliament, currently leading the candidates’ list for the 2024 European elections proposed by AUR - the Romanian radical right-wing party.

Mr. Terheș often speaks against climate and environmental policies, and has frequently claimed human-made climate change is not a real issue. Among his arguments, he has denied the science behind climate change, denying the connection between CO2 and global warming by claiming the CO2 concentration in Earth’s atmosphere is too low, only 0.04%.

The value is correct. However, mr. Terheș does not provide any context information: what does small mean in the case of CO2 concentration, what are we comparing it to, and what are the implications?

In fact, CO2 is relatively dangerous: a 0.1% concentration (in our room, for example) can already cause dizziness; it it gets over 0.2%, it causes headaches, sleepiness and nausea; a concentration over 4% can lead to brain damage, coma or death. In comparison, O2 concentration in the air is 21%, and health problems would start only after 50%.

Also, it is relevant that the CO2 concentration has grown by 50% since 1900, and all estimates for the previous 10.000 years show a stable level, of around 0.028%. Because all rates are so small (4% means humans cannot survive at all!), climate scientists even use a different measurement unit - parts per million (ppm), that allows more accurate measurements and more relevant comparisons.

Thus, by the simple observation that Mr. Terheș uses percentage instead of parts per million to highlight a small value without giving any reference point, we can infer he is trying to manipulate, even though the factual data he uses is correct.

Other categories of manipulation

Using a correct information in the wrong context is also a form of subtle manipulation. This usually involves taking real statements, images, or clips and using them in a new context.

An image from 2018 showing a child in a cage went viral and caused an uproar online, suggesting it shows the child of an immigrant family that had entered the US. In fact, it was part of a protest against migration policies, not a real situation.

After the October 7 attacks in Irael, disinformation targeting both Israel and Palestine has been rampant. One narrative claimed Palestinians had been using cris actors to film people pretending to be wounded or killed. One specific post claimed to show one of these propaganda clips being made: people were running around on cue, a little girl was being applied makeup, to look like she had been hurt. The clip is real, but was made in Lebanon, a behind-the-scenes view of shooting a short art film called “The Reality”.

Misleading content is probably the most common type of manipulation using true information. Quote mining is an example, extracting a part of a public statement to try and change its meaning.

During a January 2023 talk show on Romanian TV station Antena3, the host claimed that Australian authorities used actors to pretend they were sick with COVID. As proof, the talk show producers played a clip from the Australian TV station ABC, that discussed this claim, presented how it appeared, then debunked it. However, the Romanian show decided to cut the Australian report right after the claim, before it was shown to be false. By simply making the right cut, the Romanian station manipulated its public with technically true information.

Finally, there are cases when the content is not only selected in a specific way, but slightly altered to convey a different message. This is called manipulated content and works best with minor alteration, such as changing or taking out a couple of words from a statement.

A video claiming to show Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla admitting they are planning to “reduce the number of people in the world by 50%” was actually changed from “reduce the number of people in the world that cannot afford our medicines by 50%.


All these examples show that the issue of disinformation is very nuanced and complex, not limited to unhinged conspiracy theories, outrageous propaganda, and fabricated information. People who try to dismiss this complexity, do so for their own interests.

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Background illustration by: tostphoto

[1] The expression started in WW2 and became a metaphor used by politicians to claim criticism means they’re on to something important. Recently it has been used increasingly often by conspiracy theorists to claim that the more people dismiss their ideas, the more it means they’re right.