How Credible Research Battles Disinformation

  • Alex Tarascio

This is the second of three articles on how IRI’s Beacon Project combats disinformation in Europe. The first article on coalition building can be found here.

Disinformation is most effective when it confirms people’s pre-existing beliefs. Therefore, convincing someone that a given piece of information is false or manipulated, requires countering with credible information. Research is credible when it is accessible, transparent, easily verifiable, and communicated by a trusted source.

Beacon Project research is centered on understanding the dynamics of how certain narratives are integral to disinformation campaigns and how they are used to exploit broad societal vulnerabilities. Informed by its rigorous public opinion and media monitoring research, IRI equips members of the Beacon Network with the tools and data to conduct in-depth analysis of malign narratives and disinformation campaigns.

Understanding Narratives

Narratives are stories. They are part of how people form their identities and orient themselves to their communities, nations, and governments. If I work hard, I will get ahead. My neighbors share similar values that I hold to be important. Voting is a worthwhile exercise. I trust the government to handle important national problems. Effective political communicators tell believable stories about why the political status quo came to be, who the winners and losers are, and how their solutions will lead to a better world. The most powerful stories evoke emotion by having heroes and villains.

Malign narratives of the type we examine in the Beacon Project focus on the villains. They are intended to convince an audience (usually voters) that there are actors who are causing harm and that these actors must be stopped. Liberal elites are trying to undermine traditional values. Voting is pointless because the government doesn’t care what regular people think. Refugees are taking jobs away from hardworking people who were born here. The purpose of these narratives is to ratchet up the pressure on political discourse to the point where constructive dialogue between opposing sides becomes impossible, existing societal divisions grow deeper, and political decision-making is crippled.

Every country context has a set of predominant narratives that define the media environment in a given period of time. IRI works with local organizations in our Beacon Network to determine which narratives are most relevant and uses those narratives as the anchor of our public opinion and media monitoring research. Recent narratives tracked by the Beacon Project often center on issues of identity. Migration from non-EU countries is destroying European culture. Rhetoric from political leaders is dividing society. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has taken a stand in favor of traditional European values.

Media Monitoring

In 2015, the Beacon Project developed >versus<, a unique proprietary media monitoring tool. >versus< is used by our in-house experts and media monitors across Europe to track malign narratives and disinformation campaigns in the online media space, analyze their dynamics, and how they are discussed online. Using >versus<, we are able to monitor narratives around topics such as traditional values, the European Union, NATO, the transatlantic alliance, and migration. Narrative monitoring includes gauging how prevalent narratives are in online media and in broader public discussion. This allows us to map the online media landscape over a given timeframe. IRI publishes the analysis of >versus< monitoring conducted directly or by our partners.

>versus< scrapes both mainstream and alternative online media, social media, and under article comments, and operates in multiples languages, including Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, Czech, English, German, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Polish, Russian, Slovak, Spanish and other languages. IRI provides access to >versus< free of charge to our partners, while Beacon’s in-house experts provide guidance and training on the use of the tool as well and how to create a robust methodology to conduct online media monitoring systematically.

Providing partners access to >versus< allows them to collect and analyze information themselves and define their own research priorities. This practice increases the likelihood they will continue their work beyond the end of IRI’s direct support. The Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI) is one standout example of a partner using >versus< to produce high-quality analysis of pernicious narratives and disinformation campaigns. In more than 40 articles since 2018, PSSI has examined disinformation in the context of elections, the portrayal of NATO in Czech media and anti-vaccination movements.

Public Opinion Research

Media monitoring is useful in painting a picture of a country’s information environment, but it alone is not sufficient to understand or combat disinformation. For example, media monitoring does little to explain the impact on people who consume the information, including why one group of people might be more inclined to believe a given narrative more than another. To answer these questions, the Beacon Project has conducted nine public opinion surveys and eight series of focus group discussions to understand citizens’ attitudes toward a range of narratives that appear in media.

Since 1998, IRI has carried out polling and survey research programs in some of the world’s most challenging environments — from former Communist bloc countries following the fall of the Soviet Union to Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein. It is these relatively new democracies that are the most vulnerable to disinformation campaigns. However, even mature democracies are not free from the risk of manipulation. Public opinion research allows us to gain a realistic view — free of bias or spin — of what people think.

Innovating to Strengthen Democracy   

Battling disinformation will continue to be a pressing challenge for new and old democracies alike. At IRI, we will continue to share best research practices and latest innovations with our Beacon Network members to combat disinformation campaigns and strengthen democracy.  

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