How propaganda has learned to use the truth

The Czech Centre for Investigative Journalism analysed the information war in the Visegrad Group countries.

Migration crisis was one of causes for the rise in conspiracies and fake or hybrid news; illustrative stock photoMigration crisis was one of causes for the rise in conspiracies and fake or hybrid news; illustrative stock photo (Source: AP/TASR)

This story has been published as part of the partnership between the Sme daily and the Czech Centre for Investigative Journalism. The project has been supported by the Open Society Fund Prague.

On December 5, 2015, President Vladimir Putin approved a new Russian doctrine on information security. Former chief of General Staff, Army General Yuri Baluievsky, stated that the information war is becoming a priority. Information published in the right moment, targeted at the right people and put into the right context, will always be a strong weapon. A weapon of hybrid war.

Emotions, the right wing, migration

The first notion that comes to the minds of people from central Europe when they hear “propaganda” is often the communist-time slogan, “Send idlers from the cafes to fields and factories”. However, today's propaganda looks different. It's more sophisticated, among other things, and more covert in its manipulative methods. It's estimated that a mere five percent, approximately, of the news produced and spread by so-called pro-Kremlin websites is not true. The rest, called hybrid material by experts, represents information grounded in facts but exaggerated and put into a context that supports a certain world view. To achieve this, propaganda uses several tools.

The first and most important tool is emotions, as these can impact the public discourse. The symbol of emotional manipulation is best summed with the sentence “It is not true; but it could be, anyway”. Kamil Basaj of the Polish Foundation of Safe Cyber-space claims that emotions boost the psychological aspect of information, making it more convincing.

“It is this manipulation that makes the information much more dangerous," Basaj says. Often, it requires just a few simple tools: colours, sounds, well-handled suggestive methods and illustrations.“

The study conducted by Miloš Gregor and Petra Vejvodová of the Masaryk University, dating back to 2016, also explores manipulative methods. It analysed almost 2,500 stories between March 1 and 31, 2016, which were published on the most read disinformation websites.

The results showed that 17 percent of newscasts evoke negative emotions. Of the 17 percent, every fifth evoke hatred, every fourth evoked fear and almost one half evoked outrage.

“To affect emotions is much more effective than to target brain,“ Petra Vejvodová opined. "Psychological studies show that we are primarily controlled by emotions – or primitive instincts, if you want to put it like this.“

Scare tactics and migration

Many strong emotions are tied to stories involving the “massive migration of Islamist terrorists“ into our region. This agenda of emotional manipulation and fear-mongering provokes the polarisation of society and mistrust in institutions, further igniting a hybrid war.

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