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Information as a battleground – why do we believe fake news?

What kind of information is actually being shared? Alongside traditional media channels such as TV and newspapers, the rise of social media has made it incredibly quick and easy to inform the public. Do we have a clear enough picture of the spread of disinformation? And what are the underlying motives of people who believe fake news?

Dr Honorata Mazepus, an assistant professor at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs, conducts research into the effect of disinformation and the role of scrutinising bodies, such as the media, parliament and the judiciary. She was awarded a project grant by LUF in 2019 for her research into fake news. Last year, this was supplemented by the LUF Impulse Grant, which she shares as a team with two other researchers – Wouter Veenendaal (Social and Behavioural Sciences) and Anne Heyer (Humanities). We spoke to Mazepus about these projects and where she is in the process.

It’s been a while since you started your research into fake news. Can you tell us how it came about?

The project actually evolved from a previous study, where we spoke to residents of Ukraine, Moldavia and Belarus. Within that project was an additional question about disinformation. This approach had some shortcomings, so I started a new research project that specifically focused on fake news. The grant from the LUF donations meant I could concentrate on collecting data. This was partly done by a local Ukrainian agency – Info Sapiens. Fake news in general has become a serious issue in our political system. As researchers we are trying to find out the effect of disinformation, why it is spread and whether this is on a different scale from in the past. Mathias Osmundsen and Michael Bang-Petersen from Aarhus University in Denmark helped me with this research.

How do you know if people believe fake news?

The first question you have to ask yourself is: why do people consume information? What is information for? One of the things we wanted to study is whether having a certain opinion about conflicts increases the spread of fake news. If your government considers a country its political enemy, are you more likely to accept fake news about this country as the truth?

And? Was the research thesis correct?  Yes. What we discovered is that when you see someone as an enemy, you are more likely to claim you believe fake news about this enemy and to spread it. We tested this at that time with countries with political links to Russia, such as Belarus, and countries that are in political conflict with Russia, such as Ukraine. In 2020 we got test participants in Ukraine to read fake news about Russia, the EU and Tanzania.

A fabricated conflict in Tanzania doesn’t really affect a Ukrainian citizen, so they didn’t necessarily believe the misinformation. The research showed that if you have an interest in a conflict, you are more likely to believe the fake news and spread it.

Honorata Mazepus at the Ukraine meeting in the Wijnhaven building

How are fake news and disinformation affecting the war in Ukraine?

Both sides in the conflict are making strategic use of information. Ukraine wants to inform its citizens and mobilise them against the invader. These don’t require the same kind of information. Sharing information that raises general morale is crucial, but this information does not necessarily have to be accurate. It’s about boosting people’s mood and creating heroes. Other information that has to be shared is, for example: when to take shelter, when an attack is expected, where the food supplies are and so on. This kind of information is also crucial. 

Russia has a different goal. For their own forces, and certainly for their own citizens, they limit the accurate information to such an extent that people can no longer get a good picture of what is going on. They replace accurate information with untruths. In other words: the Russian leaders just lie. The problem is that citizens cannot – or don’t want to – check this information. That’s why it is so important that companies like Instagram don’t block or boycott the information flow to Russian citizens. There’s not much point in blocking Russian media in the West. That media isn’t going to convince anyone new anyway. But banning alternative information from abroad will have a big impact on Russian citizens. Then they’ll no longer see the atrocities that we do and there’ll be less outrage about the war. 

How come you’re so fascinated by international politics?

I studied in Poland and did an MA in International Relations (Eastern/Russian Studies) at the Adam Mickiewicz University of Poznan. Then I studied research methodology in Bristol, where I learnt more about different methods. I then did my PhD in Leiden and wrote my thesis about the legitimacy of political authorities – a subject that is between history and political science. I’ve always been interested in the role of citizens in political systems, human agency. We often overlook the role of political psychology when we look at what is going on in politics. And I work in academia because I love doing research. Without research I would wonder whether a university was the place for me – I like teaching that is informed by research. 

‘One of the human things we do is to make the choices that suit us at that moment’

What are you currently researching?

In the broadest sense I’m researching when citizens take action to defend democratic rights and when they resist propaganda. We still don’t really know how people react to propaganda. People aren’t gullible. They can look up and check information. ‘Does it sound like that’s really happening?’ One of the human things we do is to make the choices that suit us at that moment. These choices may mean we harm others because we’re protecting our loved ones. At that moment we’re choosing the easy option and we try to defend our actions to ourselves. But when do you take the risk of resisting current propaganda?

Now, if you look at Russia, the risk of protesting has increased dramatically. The government has systematically shut down protest over the past two decades. Step by step, freedoms are being removed, the possibility to participate in politics, the freedom to express opinions that deviate from the current government line. On the one hand, this is the fault of the regime and on the other, it’s the fault of the people who let this happen. The risks of protesting were much lower 20 years ago, but people remained passive nonetheless, which is dangerous. It helps if you’re active, take to the streets, get your voice heard. People in Russia may not have reacted quickly enough. Plus, a large part of society has been absorbed into the political system: people are now employees of political and state-owned companies. The situation where people believe the disinformation in Russia is part of a long process of passivity, in which the unfree system is normalised and grows. 

Piano in Kyiv, 2017. In Ukrainian above: ‘Glory to the nation. Death to the enemies.’ Below: ‘Peaceful meeting for winning the information war.’

Why is this research so important?

In our research we look in general at checks and balances in the separation of state, media and citizens. In what ways can individuals or citizens keep the government power in check? What are possible ways to prevent an abuse of power? How can we create a democracy that is less susceptible to a dictatorial leader? The research field is growing. Particularly with the use of new media and the growth of social media, it is becoming more of a research topic at several universities. The focus is mainly on online hostility. We are all being exposed to this more and that can have consequences for our well-being or for the state of society, political and otherwise.

Social media also has incredibly positive and constructive effects, as the developments on the Polish border now show. The local social networks are working together to get information to refugees, aid to the border, supplies, books for children... These connections help people in need. It’s important to stop and reflect from time to time on our own political beliefs, on what kind of information we consume – and why, so we can learn at an early stage how to check and correct information.

And finally: have the LUF grants been valuable for your research?

Definitely! It’s a grant that enables me to collect data, pay participants, get a good sample and obtain good data to test my hypothesis. And it also gave me time – a scarce commodity in the academic world! Besides teaching I now have time to do research. It’s already given me so much. The LUF is a bit different from the standard grant providers. They don’t look at your CV as much as at your idea and how valuable it is. The support has definitely given my development as a researcher a push and it is the start of a larger research agenda. Ideally this research will lead to a larger grant, the next step. Anything is possible from here. I’m really grateful.

Dr Mazepus’s research was made possible by donations to the Leiden University Fund. If you too would like to donate to research, you can do so by establishing a named fund or contributing to an existing one. For more information, please contact Heiltje Boumeester at h.boumeester@LUF.leidenuniv.nl or +31 71 527 5539.

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