contradictions? It doesn’t matter at all, the Russian propaganda departments don’t care about such trifles. Nor does it matter whether individual stories are believable or blatantly insane. The only goal is to pump as much mud as possible into the global information channels and create an opaque broth. Until the audience doesn’t even know what to believe and every message loses its credibility, no matter what the source. It is said that this is the aim of this technique of Russian disinformation policy, which builds on a long tradition from Soviet times: destroying trust. This strategy is also called “firehose of falsehood” – and as a team led by psychologist Sacha Altay from the University of Zurich is now suggesting, it works as it should.
Does a high proportion of false news in the information system poison the entire media well, so that trust as a whole suffers? Altay’s team investigated this question in a study which is accessible on the pre-print server PsyArXiv, i.e. it still has to be examined by specialist colleagues. The scientists organized experiments with 2,735 test subjects, to whom they presented message packages with varying degrees of nonsense. The false news rate was 17, 33, 50, 66 or 83 percent. To ensure that the respective worldview or political beliefs of the study participants did not distort the results, they adjusted the content: everyone received statements that they would not possibly reject for ideological reasons.
“We have observed a significant, consistent impact on trust in the media itself,” Altay’s team writes. In other words, the higher the proportion of false news, the lower the level of trust in the truthfulness of any message. What else is there to believe in when so much nonsense is circulating? The effect occurred regardless of whether the subjects read the news regularly. Even the ability to think critically could not reduce the effect. Instead, a high proportion of fake news created the illusion that one could already distinguish between lies and truth, which was not the case: in the end, the participants also considered correct news to be more likely to be false – they believed almost nothing at all.
According to the researchers working with Altay, this effect can be self-reinforcing. Once trust in traditional media has been destroyed, people turn to other sources of information that have a particularly lax relationship to truth and lies or deliberately spread false news. Destroyed trust in established media drives the audience into the arms of dubious sources, a vicious circle.
In today’s world, where everyone can and may claim more or less anything, and where attention means everything, this technique is easier than ever to implement. The former adviser to the former US President donald trump For example, Steve Bannon repeatedly referred to the media as an enemy that must be defeated. To do this, Bannon said, they would “flood the system with shit.” That’s what he said, and looking back we can say: That’s what happened. The only thing that has changed since then is that many actors of all stripes have opened the floodgates even further.