Skip to main content
Identifying disinformation: An ABC approach
Image Source:
Pexels

Identifying disinformation: An ABC approach

Author(s):
The Integrity Initiative

One of the key challenges in countering information warfare is identifying when it is taking place. The concept of disinformation is widely understood and has been exhaustively defined; however, the currently available definitions do not allow for the operational identification of disinformation in a sufficiently rapid manner to allow for effective countermeasures.

This paper argues that disinformation can be identified according to three key criteria: the accuracy of factual statements, balance in reporting and the credibility of the sources chosen. This ABC approach is intended to give academics, analysts and policy-makers an operational method to determine whether disinformation has been committed in a given case.

Definitions of disinformation

Definitions of disinformation are widely available and largely agree on the essence.

The Oxford English dictionary, for example, defines it as 'False information which is intended to mislead, especially propaganda issued by a government organization to a rival power or the media’.1 Online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, based on the Merriam-Webster dictionary, defines it similarly, as 'Intentionally false or inaccurate information that is spread deliberately. It is an act of deception and false statements to convince someone of untruth. Disinformation should not be confused with misinformation, information that is unintentionally false.’ 2

Writing in American Psychologist, Academics Stephan Lewandowsky, Werner Stritzke, Alexander Freund, Klaus Oberauer and Joachim Krueger define disinformation as 'information that is incorrect by intent', contrasting it with misinformation, which is 'information that is incorrect by accident’.3

These definitions all agree that there are two key aspects of disinformation:

  • The falsehood of the information
  • The intention to mislead

However, while defining disinformation is relatively easy, identifying it in practice is a more challenging problem. The truth or falsehood of the information given can generally be proven in time, through reference to sufficient evidence; this has especially become the case with the advent of social-media analysis, which has opened up new avenues of evidence and greatly enlarged the available palette of witnesses.4 While establishing that falsehood in an operationally significant timescale is challenging,5 the accuracy of the information can generally be identified.

However, it is much harder to identify the intention to mislead, as this requires, at the extreme, an insight into the mental processes of an individual. Yet it is crucial to be able to distinguish between deliberate and accidental falsehood, because the deliberate spreading of false information is, in essence, an attack on the integrity of the institution concerned.

Deliberately spreading lies about the performance of a publicly-listed company is an attack on that company and the integrity of the investment market; deliberately spreading lies about a person is an attack on that person; deliberately spreading lies in the course of a debate on government policy is an attack on the integrity of the democratic process. It is important for the integrity of those institutions to be able to identify the attacks and respond to the attackers.

It is therefore vital to find a way of establishing the reasonable probability of whether any false information was deliberately conveyed. This paper argues that deliberation can be inferred by examining the accuracy of the information given, the balance of commentators interviewed and the credibility of the sources chosen. 

Accuracy 

The first duty of those who speak to the public from positions of authority, such as politicians, journalists and academics, is to make sure that they are telling the truth. This is a duty of care, and it can be stated in the following terms: 

Those who speak from a position of authority have the duty to ensure: 

1) that any statement of fact which they make has been subjected to a reasonable degree of verification to ensure its accuracy; 

2) that their reporting ensures an appropriate balance in its use of commentators; 

3) that due care is taken to ensure the credibility of the sources quoted.

Those who fail to exhibit a reasonable degree of care in these areas are committing disinformation. 

A 'reasonable degree' is, of necessity, a flexible term. For example, where a speaker is found to have given false information, a number of factors will play a role in determining whether there appears to have been an intent to mislead: 

- Could the speaker have found out the correct information easily? 

- Was the correct information readily available from multiple sources? 

- Did the speaker issue a correction once the error was identified? 

- Did the speaker qualify their statement at the time? (E.g. by the addition of qualifiers such as 'apparently' or 'allegedly'.) 

Consider, for example, the statement made by New Jersey governor and Republican presidential hopeful Chris Christie on 16 December 2015, in an attack on U.S. President Barack Obama's foreign-policy credentials: 

"This president's not trusted ... but I'll tell you this: When I stand across from King Hussein of Jordan, and I say to him, 'You have a friend again, sir, who will stand with you to fight this fight,' he'll change his mind.”6

This statement is factually inaccurate: King Hussein died in 1999. It is an error which is readily identifiable, with multiple online sources identifying the current monarch. However, Christie subsequently admitted in public that he 'misspoke', correcting his own error.7 As such, it is reasonable to suppose that his initial inaccuracy was not an act of deliberate falsehood, but a factual slip. 

Compare this with the official statement 8 of the Russian Defence Ministry announcing the beginning of air strikes in Syria. The statement was headlined, 'The Russian aviation group based at the Hmeymim air base in Syria conducted its first precision strikes against ISIL targets'; the body of the text repeated the claim that the strikes had targeted the group (also known as ISIS, IS and Daesh) twice more. 

However, a study by Russian analyst Ruslan Leviev analysed the press release and the accompanying footage, and proved by comparison with open-source videos and satellite imagery that the attacks in fact targeted two moderate opposition groups fighting Assad: Jaish al-Tawhid and Tajamu al-Aaza. 9 This assessment was later confirmed by investigative groups and Western governments.10 Thus, the initial Russian claim that its strikes were explicitly against Daesh targets was factually false. 

The question then arises whether the Defence Ministry could have provided more accurate information by taking reasonable care. If it could, but failed to do so, it can e considered as having committed disinformation.  

Firstly, it must be acknowledged that the Syrian civil war has been characterized by such fluidity that a margin of error must be left for all air strikes. As such, it is theoretically possible that the Russian Defence Ministry mistakenly believed that its aircraft were striking Daesh targets. However, given the close and long-standing relationship between Russia and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the length of time Russia had spent preparing for its strikes (with a diplomatic campaign of some weeks' duration), the probability of such an error appears small.

Secondly, the Syrian civil war has been extensively covered by multiple independent sources, many of whom have produced maps showing the territory held by the various parties to the conflict.11 Thus, any classified information held by the Russian Armed Forces could readily have been cross-checked against open-source information. 

Thirdly, the Defence Ministry did not issue a correction. As of 5 January 2016, the three-month-old statement still carried its original headline and opening paragraph, with the explicit claim that it had struck Daesh. Indeed, the Defence Ministry subsequently attacked its critics and defended its claims in a series of press conferences, while describing subsequent airstrikes as being more generally 'against terrorists’.12  

Thus, the Russian Defence Ministry, which spoke from a position of authority, could have verified the identity of its targets through its own sources and those of Assad. It could have qualified its statement at the time to be less definite in the description of the groups targeted, or corrected it afterwards. By not doing any of these things, it failed in its duty of care to make sure that its statement was accurate. As such, this paper would argue that the Ministry can be presumed to have committed disinformation with its press release.

Balance

A further duty of care falls upon the media to ensure balance in their reporting. This is because a false impression of events can be conveyed, even without the dissemination of false information, if the reporting only reflects one side of a dispute. 

An example of this concerns a report published by the China People's Daily on 1 February 2016.13 The report analysed the presence of a U.S. warship close to the South China Sea islands known in Chinese as the Xisha, and in English as the Paracels, with reference to four commentators - two experts and two officials. All four commentators accused the U.S. of violating Chinese territorial waters and stoking tensions in the region. The unnamed journalist opened their story with factual statement that, "according to observers," the U.S. move was an attempt to return tension to the region. 

In terms of pure fact, there is no indication that this report falsified any of the information presented. The story states prominently that it is reporting the opinions of observers, rather than the journalist's own opinion; the observers are named and their positions identified; all four have expertise relevant to the story. 

However, two of the four "observers" are researchers at facilities subordinate to the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) - respectively, the PLA Naval Military Studies Research Institute and the PLA National Defence University. The other two are officials from the Chinese foreign and defence ministries. All four are thus employees of the Chinese state and representatives of the state's point of view. 

The question then arises whether the reporter could have provided balancing quotes by making a reasonable effort. In this case, a Pentagon spokesman issued a statement on the same incident, giving the U.S. justification.14 The U.S. stance on the South China Sea has been made publicly available in a variety of policy documents posted online.15 It would have taken no more than a swift Google search to provide a number of balancing quotes. 

Thus, the journalist and editorial team could, very easily, have found alternative sources to provide balance to their story. There is no indication that they made the effort to do so. As such, their report can be considered a piece of deliberate disinformation.

Credibility 

A report can also be considered as spreading disinformation if it relies for part or whole of its effect on a commentator, or group of commentators, who cannot be considered as credible experts on the issue in question, when other, more credible experts could have been found easily. 

A striking example of this comes from Russian state-run TV station RT (formerly Russia Today). In a news report on the forthcoming Dutch referendum on the EU's Association Agreement with Ukraine published on 9 January 2016, the channel quoted as its sole external analyst, "legal expert and international affairs editor for Russia Insider, Alexander Mercouris.”16 Mercouris was commenting on the political significance of the referendum: 

"My guess is that people in the Netherlands are opposed more to the EU expansion, which leads to more immigration into western Europe from eastern Europe. And they don’t want thousands upon thousands of people coming from Ukraine... One of the reasons why people in Ukraine have wanted it [the agreement], is precisely because that’s exactly what they want to do." 

Mercouris is regularly cited in RT stories, usually providing comments on foreign affairs. The justification for invoking him is usually that he is "international affairs editor for Russia Insider". However, on one occasion more in-depth identification was given: when the story concerned the UK legal report on the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, Mercouris was cited as "a practicing lawyer for 12 years at the Royal Courts of Justice", and called the report a "farce" and "worthless". 17

The biography is true as far as it goes: Mercouris is known to have worked in the Royal Courts of Justice for twelve years, before becoming a barrister in 2006. However, he was disgraced and removed from his post in 2012 after a case in which he reportedly confessed to having defrauded a client, faked one High Court judge's signature and falsely accused another of a plot to kidnap and intimidate him.18 

The first question is therefore whether Mercouris can be viewed as a credible authority on either legal or foreign affairs. 

It is, of course, a logical editorial decision to ask a lawyer for their opinion on an issue of law. For example, when the BBC reported on the launch of the inquiry in 2014, it quoted the UK's former director of public prosecutions, Lord Ken Macdonald QC, as part of its coverage.19 

However, Macdonald stepped down from his post as director of public prosecutions to return to work as a barrister, and subsequently held a string of high-profile appointments, including heading a government review of counter-terrorism policy in 2011.20 By contrast, Mercouris was expelled from the legal profession in disgrace and is not known to have worked in it since. While he can be assumed to have expertise in the inner workings of the UK legal system, he can hardly be viewed as a disinterested and impartial commentator on the institution which expelled him, especially when his choice of words ("farce" and "worthless") is in itself a value judgement. 

RT's regular reference to Mercouris on other issues of foreign policy is more curious. According to his published biography, Mercouris spent some 18 years at the Royal Courts of Justice in a variety of roles. There is no indication that he worked part-time; it therefore appears unlikely that he could have developed in-depth expertise in foreign policy during the same period.

Since he was struck off, he could, indeed, have begun a new career as a foreign-affairs analyst. However, his official biography on the Russia Insider website makes no mention of any foreign-affairs qualification, research or experience, other than his legal background: "Alexander is a writer on international affairs with a special interest in Russia and law.  He has written extensively on the legal aspects of NSA spying and events in Ukraine in terms of human rights, constitutionality and international law.  He worked for 12 years in the Royal Courts of Justice in London as a lawyer, specializing in human rights and constitutional law.”21

According to this biography, his areas of expertise are Russia and the law. As such, there is nothing to indicate that he has in-depth expert knowledge of issues such as Dutch voting preferences, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel's diplomatic standing or the practices of European mainstream media. There is, therefore, no reason to consider him a credible expert in these fields - yet these are issues on which he has commented for RT and Russia Insider. 

The question then becomes whether RT could have chosen a more credible commentator by making a reasonable effort. Mercouris is, according to his profile on Russia Insider, resident in London.22 London is home to literally thousands of legal practices. 23 It hosts the University of London, numerous foreign-policy think tanks and most of the world's major broadcasters, and is a short train ride from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Therefore, it is legitimate to assume that an editor in London, or seeking a quote from London, could, if they chose to make the effort, find a practicing or honourably retired lawyer to comment on a legal matter, and a serving foreign-policy analyst from an active academic institution or think tank to comment on a foreign-policy issue. 

By turning to Mercouris as its commentator, RT made the choice not to refer to a more credible source. As such, it can be considered to have committed disinformation by publishing a polemic statement from a commentator whose impartiality and expertise are open to question. 

Conclusion 

Disinformation is easy to define, but difficult to prove conclusively. Yet there is a pressing need to improve the way by which the Western public and institutions can identify it in a timely manner. 

While the intent to deceive is difficult to prove, it is easier to identify cases in which a speaker has violated basic principles of accuracy, balance and credibility. Where such cases are identified, it is sufficient to ask whether the speaker could have avoided the violation by taking reasonable care in checking their facts, finding balancing quotes or seeking out a credible commentator. 

Care and judgement must be exercised in the use of this ABC paradigm: mistakes do happen, editors make errors of judgement and politicians fumble their lines. However, these errors can be corrected, and indeed should be corrected. If a speaker or a news outlet violates the ABC principles repeatedly, and does not correct their errors, they should be considered as committing disinformation.

Share this article

The subscriber's email address.