“Olena Zelenska spends $1,000,000 on Cartier jewelry, gets sales employee fired” — readers in Nigeria may have seen this headline on the news website The Nation in early October. The story about Ukraine’s first lady was also carried on other news sites in African nations and spread on social media. But according to researchers with Clemson University’s Media Forensics Hub, the story is a complete fabrication, created and spread by Russian influencers through a process called “narrative laundering.”
Narrative laundering is a means of spreading false or misleading information by concealing the source of that information. Professors Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren, co-directors of the Media Forensics Hub, spent months digging into the ways that Russians are working to sway public perception about Ukraine through narrative laundering methods, including planting fake news stories on foreign news websites, creating fake social media accounts and even creating entire fake news websites using artificial intelligence.
Narrative laundering uses both real news outlets in other countries, as well as fake news websites that look real, to lend legitimacy and credibility to false stories. Though the technology used to spread disinformation has changed over the years, narrative laundering is nothing new. Russia was using these techniques in the 1980s to spread false claims that the United States was responsible for the creation of the AIDS virus, by planting a fictious letter to the editor in an Indian newspaper.
“The basic strategy is the same, all that’s changing is the tactics and the tools by which you execute that strategy,” said Linvill. “These new tools that technology has offered make everything faster, easier, cheaper and probably more effective.”
Linvill and Warren say that it is becoming more difficult for people to discern which news stories are fake because of advancing technology.
“People should stick to news sources that they know are reliable,” said Warren. “Stick to sources that have a history and that follow journalistic standards. You used to be able to tell a fake news outlet by the look and feel of it, but that’s no longer the case.”
Linvill said he believe this study is a glimpse into what might be next in the spread of false information.
“This seems to be beta testing for the future of disinformation,” he said. “This isn’t just a fake social media account. That was the last generation of disinformation. This is a wholly fake organization and publication built using new technology, and that’s scary.”
Click here to read Linvill’s and Warren’s full report.
The Media Forensics Hub is an interdisciplinary team of researchers working to not only study online deception and inauthenticity but to also develop tools and educate people to recognize it and to stop it from spreading. The Hub is part of the Watt Family Innovation Center at Clemson University.
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