Observing a simultaneous waging of several information wars, the author of the article often wonders why it happens that obvious fabrications are spread in the media. His conspiracy-addicted mind usually draws a picture, in which the chief editor of a propaganda newspaper instructs a journalist to write something dreadful, and the latter energetically elaborates a news-plant. Perhaps, this is how it used to work in the past. But today the mechanism of the elaboration of especially remarkable rumors looks something like that.
A certain conflict between two countries has sparked. It could be an undeclared war, which can last for years as on the Korean Peninsula or just for several months as in Ukraine. Mutual rejection has already accelerated, while bilateral propaganda continues bashing the opponents. A certain background information and the general context are created, and news appears in the media. What we call “intelligence officers,” they call “spies.” People whom we tag “insurgents,” they refer to as “militants.” And overall, the other side wages an unfair war and is potentially capable of brutality that only an enemy could commit.
Let us take a look at some closed zone of conflict. It does not really matter whether they fight in that zone, or whether they just have an authoritarian government ruling. What is important is that it is dangerous “to meddle in the affairs of the other side.” As a result, we find ourselves in a position when we can learn about the situation in the closed zone either from the official enemy propaganda (which, of course, is nothing, but lies) or from defectors.
Let us take a closer look at an imaginary female defector, who fled from “them” to “us.” She probably fled to escape the devastation or maybe she had other, more personal and, therefore, more painful reasons. She expects to find a better life on “our” side and be granted the status of a political refugee. However, there are dozens or even hundreds of similar defectors. What should she do to be singled out from this stream of people? She can tell either something important or something scary. Since she does not know any military or political secrets, her other option is to fabricate a heartbreaking story that she has experienced or at least eye witnessed. What’s important, the story must be “a tear jerker.” It could be a story about how they boil newborn babies of the prisoners in the camp. Or how they crucify or burn to death little children of those suspected of the antigovernment sentiment. Everyone read stories about brutality of fascists and has basic knowledge of how to elaborate a thriller like that…
Let us take a look at a reporter. He does not necessarily works for the central TV channel; he can be just an average reporter. He came to the closed zone to collect first-hand information and comes across our defector, who tells him her dramatic story with tears in her eyes and her voice breaking. What immediately comes to the reporter’s mind is that “it could make a breaking news. I cannot just ignore it. She is reporting something very important. However, I cannot or do not know how to verify the facts. Maybe I am just reluctant to do that, as this difficult task is time consuming. I am a news reporter and not an investigator. She told a story. I wrote it down and transferred it to the news agency. If they decide that the story is false or that it does not fit the newspaper format, they will not publish the material.”
Let us now follow the train of thought of an editor or another responsible employee who got the “breaking” news. The story seems to be dubious. Perhaps, it is a lie. But it might as well be true. Therefore, we should publish this news or broadcast it. There are several reasons for us to do that.
First, in the market of sensational news, the one who publishes the news before everybody else wins. Investigations, on the other hand, take time. Not to mention the situation when you got suspicious information and decided not to publish this news, and it turned out to be true.
Second, viewers and readers love sensational news. They enjoy savoring somebody’s misfortune, no matter if that is a piece from the crime news or a story about atrocities of the regime in some remote country. Such news draw attention and increase sales. As for the audience being so undemanding, well, we do not have another one, do we?
Third, the propaganda component makes its impact. And it is not necessarily the stance of the newspaper. It could be just that the editor advocates the following logic: those who are on the other side are our enemies; therefore, theoretically, it is quite possible that they could do something terrible like that. If “our” side was accused of such unhuman behavior, it would definitely require analyzing such accusations, performing an investigation and only then deciding what to do with this news. But, since it concerns our enemy, it is not really important whether such behavior is in line with their state policy or whether it is an isolated incident. After all, we have a witness. We make her testimony public. According to freedom of expression principle, the more people find out about the crime, the better. In addition, by making this fact public, we discredit our enemies.
In the situation described above, the rest of the mass media assume the role of bloggers reposting and spreading the news signed to print by the editor often without even reflecting on its content. After all, the attitude and stereotypes have been introduced to public long time ago, and it is a common knowledge that (theoretically) “the enemies” are capable of doing something terrible. This piece of news does not contradict the general perception of the problem, which has been formed by hundreds of other similar pieces of information. And the fact that some of them turned out to be false, in most cases does not change anything.
In addition, replicated information may be distorted or expanded with new details. Sometimes it happens unintentionally as in the “broken telephone” game. Sometimes it is made on purpose: a journalist of the newspaper X just does not want to copy the news published by newspaper Y and he adds some additional details to it or claims that he has his own source of information, which has rendered the same story, but with a new twist. All the same, nobody can verify that.
As simple as that! As the rumor has gone public and it does not matter anymore, whether it happened because of laziness, incompetence or whether it was a news-plant.
The period of time during which the news will be considered credible depends on how easily the information can be verified and/or on the intensity of the mutual information war. If the rival has excelled in the counterpropaganda, or if the story can be verified using alternative sources, the truth can be exposed promptly, as it was in the case with a boy, who was allegedly crucified in Ukraine. If there is no transparency, the rumor may continue spreading for a long time. The series of “scary fairy tales about North Korea” is a good example of such a scenario. It is not by accident that an American reporter Isaac Stone Fish invented a law and named it after himself: any information (even the most fantastic one) about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea will find its audience, will be accepted as truth, and will circulate in the western mass media. Aren’t you still convinced? Read the Ukrainian press. There you will find lots of news about executions, including those stories, which have already been denounced as not credible.
Even if a rumor is discredited, will it change anything? First, such news has audience ready to embrace it. The audience sees this terrifying story not as some weighty fact that helps shape an opinion, but as another proof strengthening a long-standing opinion. Secondly, a refutation of the sensational news rarely appears on the same page and in the same bold font.
Nonetheless, rumors are injurious: demonization of an opponent is easily sparked, but it takes a lot of effort to heal wounds. It is hard to spot a bird of another species in a flock of canards. Having once realized that spooky news are nothing more than mere rumors, the person might brush aside an important and truthful news as just another fabrication, not even trying to verify it. Rumours that become commonplace and the aforementioned algorithm of their creation degrade professional competence. Fellow reporters, please, proceed with caution!
Konstantin Asmolov, candidate of historical sciences, senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.