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Why language matters in the ‘Disinformation’ Age

As governments, journalists and experts offer up solutions to address propaganda wars and disinformation online, many of the solutions they put forward rest on the public’s acceptance and understanding as well as willingness to learn new information-seeking and verification tactics online.

Amid the high stakes of a global pandemic, global health rests on the public’s ability to discern credible information. Amid a difficult presidential transition, the stability of American democracy rests on the public recognizing attempts to mislead. If strategies such as digital literacy efforts are to be trusted, and labelling and removal of false or misleading claims are to gain public acceptance, the need for such measures must be transparent and effectively communicated. By contrast, an emphasis on threat can be used to justify an arms race and feel overwhelming to audiences. Our research reveals how critically important it is to talk about the scale of propaganda and its potential solutions without disempowering citizens.

As the worsening relationship between the Russian Federation and United States Government became a focal point for increasingly tense public debate on propaganda (2013-2019), we researched how each country talked about this in their policy documents and public diplomacy media (RT and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty). Our recent article in Politics examines how the United States and Russia represented each other’s and their own propaganda, its threat, and power over audiences. How we talk and think about its different forms is no less important than the activities themselves and might be the key to advancing the solutions. As propaganda representations shape public attitudes, they advance particular policies. Different framing can have far-reaching consequences for public trust in fellow citizens, as well as government, journalism and digital platforms.

Russia and the US have conflicting political interests, a long history of ideological confrontation, and considerably different media systems – and yet, their discourses about propaganda are strikingly similar. Both represent propaganda as an external-only, powerful threat and a tool of foreign policy, deem citizens largely unable to notice or resist it, and prioritize responses that further empower the state. We argue that it’s important to consider the consequences certain representations have for the strategies they suggest, which in turn carry implications for journalism, public engagement, and ultimately foreign policy outcomes.

We found propaganda was portrayed as a threat to the state through society – jeopardizing national security, threatening alliances, undermining electoral systems, and destabilizing government. Audiences appear passive in the face of this sophisticated and increasingly digital influence – mere objects in a tug-of-war between the US and Russia. RT and RFE/RL present propaganda as all-encompassing, while of course insisting on their own objectivity, professional journalism, and reliability compared to the other side.

As they discuss the very real threats, independent journalists should be wary of repeating the rhetoric of extreme solutions. These interacting militarized and technocentric discourses about propaganda in Russia and the US are unlikely to lessen the tensions and foreign policy problems. An escalating arms race will not keep us safe. Such language creates opportunities for governments to use them to increase defence spending or the powers of the state, including domestically, as occurred recently in Canada. Other examples include attacks on journalism or its dismissal as ‘fake news’, opaque measures by the state to regulate ‘big tech,’ mass surveillance and retrenchment of secrecy. Above all if we use the growing mutual suspicion between populations as leverage to retrench a communication environment that enables this spiralling conflict, we will have lost the most important battle of all.

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