The blog for the Institute of Modern Languages Research
COVID-19 and America’s Russia Gate scandal highlighted the threat posed by disinformation, generating multiple counter-disinformation initiatives – fact-checkers, monitoring organizations, legislative restraints, and online literacy initiatives. These reflect legitimate concerns implicating authoritarian states, but they also point to what a respected US journalist recently termed a ‘Big Disinfo’ knowledge industry.
An enduring ‘Big Disinfo’ fallacy posits ‘disinformation’ as a mid-20th-century English translation of the Soviet term ‘dezinformatsiya’, coined deceptively to resemble a French word, and a practice of non-Soviet origins. Disinformation is thus fundamentally inflected by (mis)translation, and history. The conventional wisdom is flawed (the term first occurs in early 20th-century English parliamentary disputes), indicating further that, rather than designating demonstrable falsehood, to identify something as ‘disinformation’ is a communicative, historically contextual act either inculpating other states or ‘othering’ internal critics. This explains why, when it is discovered locally, we have, since the Cold War, tended to seek evidence of foreign co-production; why the presence of non-Latin script on digital platforms can be over-interpreted as evidence of hostile state involvement; and why we often differentiate domestic ‘misinformation’ (unintentional falsehood) from foreign ‘disinformation’ (deliberate falsification), despite the impossibility of corroborating distinctions in an online world replete with camouflage.
Since English still dominates the digital realm harbouring most contemporary disinformation, it is the main target for disinformation producers. Conversely, its trackers prioritise anglophone examples of it. But what do we miss by disregarding disinformation’s hidden journey across multiple linguistic borders and communicative and conceptual contexts, its calibration for and interpretation by multilingual audiences, and its associated fluidity as a term of accusatory practice?
The main American and British English language corpora suggest that, excluding the world wars, from the term’s first appearance in the 1880s two historical points witnessed dramatic increases in western attributions of disinformation to foreign adversaries: the early 1980s and the 2016-2019 period. The relevant adversaries were respectively the USSR and Russia. Similarly, in both periods the initial obsession with foreign disinformation eventually gives way to concerns with internal culprits. Both periods, too, start with high-profile polarizing votes (the elections of Thatcher and Reagan; that of Trump and the Brexit referendum).
While in the early 1980s, the English language corpora’s examples primarily invoke KGB/Soviet disinformation, the mid-1980s saw annual increases in the term’s usage (continuing into the 21st century), but now as insults traded among internal opponents – Labour and Tory MPs, Democrats and Republicans.
In the second period, 2016 witnessed a sharp spike in accusations against Russia. This is unsurprising, given the Kremlin’s well-documented interference in the US elections. However, by 2019, according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English, only 15% of examples name Russia, with the majority of disinformation culprits internal to the US.
Accusations against the USSR dropped after 1985 despite the most effective Soviet disinformation campaign ever – claiming that HIV/AIDS originated in a US laboratory – peaking in 1985-1988. The campaign’s failure to penetrate anglophone public debates reflected improvements in Soviet-Western relations under Gorbachev. Internally, disinformation allegations now, however, benefited from polarization generated by Reagan’s and Thatcher’s policies. Similarly, by 2019 disinformation discourse again targeted internal divisions within anglophone societies. Significantly, peaks and troughs in instances of ‘dezinformatsiya’ in the Russian national corpus follow patterns similarly dictated by international relations, alongside episodes involving the inverted mirroring of Western accusations. .
What of disinformation’s contemporary translingual trajectories? One narrative branded as disinformation by its leading European tracker is the ‘Russophobia’ accusation levelled by the Kremlin at western powers. Deployed recently to rebut allegations of demonstrable Kremlin involvement in the Salisbury poisonings this narrative sometimes involves deliberate deceit but more often reflects Russia’s historical defensiveness vis-à-vis the West and residual imperial rivalry (‘Russophobia’ featured in 19th-century English and Russian). That the same term is used polemically by opposing sides both to exemplify and to disprove current disinformation demonstrates why it works poorly as a forensic tool. Interestingly, despite the equivalent term’s minimal presence in German, ‘Russophobie’ is a search term on the RT Germany website, seen as a prime disinformation culprit. Moreover, the EU disinformation tracker lists as a source propagating the Russophobia narrative a Sputnik France article from which the term is entirely absent. The unacknowledged migration of concepts across languages and history, between allegation and rebuttal, and from rhetorical device to forensic tool, proves deeply problematic.
Another pernicious narrative of the COVID period revived the western-produced biological weapon myth. Aired throughout Russian-language media (but traceable to US ‘deep state’ conspiracists with whom Russophone extremists co-produce narratives), the theory was targeted by the EU’s counter-disinformation unit which tracked one example to a nationalist website hostile to the Kremlin. Yet the source associates the notion of COVID as ‘a British weapon’ with Western conspiracy sites , and the author concedes that Coronavirus’s probable origin is non-human. The article is highly tendentious but listing it as ‘pro-Kremlin disinformation’ is triply inaccurate.
Context – historical and linguistic – matters. For most anglophones the ‘bio-weapon’ story is conspiratorial nonsense, but for Arabic speakers sensitized to postcolonial paradigms, it re-invokes colonial aggression – hence the theory’s Arabic-language prevalence. Russian broadcaster, RT Arabic, is cited by the same disinformation tracker as concocting a claim that COVID-19 is a US biological weapon. Closer scrutiny reveals that RT merely reports the claim by an Iranian official (admittedly without challenging it). Attention to a narrative’s surrounding linguistic context is essential to confirming its ‘disinformation’ status.
Disinformation trackers combine misattribution of narratives with mis-readings of their purpose. Another Russophone outlet was accused of claiming that COVID-19 was designed to kill elderly Italians. This source, however, targeted Latvians exposed to mainstream European media and was clearly ridiculing conspiracy theories. Indeed, Russia’s French-language output absorbed much of the mainstream anti-conspiracy rhetoric, re-deploying it for polemical ends, as in RT’s denunciation of France’s leading bookseller for promoting COVID disinformation, including the bio-weapon story.
The contradictions reflect uncritical usage of the term ‘disinformation’ to demarcate the Self (as upholder of truth) and the Other (as promoter of deceit) – hence the tendency to attribute the concept to the Other’s language; the confusion of polemical and partisan bias with disinformation; and the historical oscillations between projections of deceit onto internal and external adversaries respectively. These conflations are exacerbated by Big Disinfo’s perceived need to match volumes of disinformation identified to levels of funding received.
Inattention to disinformation’s translingual contexts, trajectories and narratives bolsters the dynamic sustaining it, to the advantage of authoritarian state actors like RT, which has launched its own multilingual ‘counter-disinformation’ initiative. Like ‘Big Pharma’, Big Disinfo shows scant respect for borders (of politics, language, or state). This confirms the value of retracing the steps of disinformation’s hidden journey.
Stephen Hutchings, Professor of Russian Studies, University of Manchester
Vera Tolz, Professor of Russian Studies, University of Manchester
Transnational and decolonisation approaches are shaping the present and future of Modern Languages, which makes the dialogue between research and teaching more important than ever before. Marcela Cazzoli and Liz Wren-Owens discuss whether we are ready for the challenge.
The keystone Transnational Modern Languages project was fundamental in encouraging an overdue transformation in the discipline, identifying a set of issues that research and teaching in Modern Languages would need to challenge to remain sustainable and relevant and to ensure that the true value of the discipline was clearly legible to those outside the subject area. The TML project enabled us to reframe the disciplinary framework of Modern Languages, arguing that it should be seen as an expert mode of enquiry whose founding research question is how languages and cultures operate and interact across diverse axes of connection. Central to the debate was the interrelationship between languages and cultures and the necessity to leave monolingual traditions behind, to uphold the real picture of how languages engage with the contemporary global world.
Those of us teaching in schools of Modern Languages have known about this first hand: we are incredibly lucky to be surrounded by different languages and immersed in a wealth of linguistic and cultural diversity that we sometimes take for granted. Yet, our curricula may still hold us back, reflecting a vision of Modern Languages teaching and research that sees culture through the lens of language, and language through the lens of skills. The (Re)Creating Modern Languages project (Beaney et al, 2020), for instance, has provided guidance on how we might think about revising our curricula, identifying areas to consider in terms of structures of programmes, engagement with the wider socio-cultural perspective, the scope of our cultural focus, and identifying (and overcoming) barriers to change.
If we are serious about engaging our students with a discipline that reflects the reality of the transnational, translinguistic, and transcultural world of today, a global understanding of languages that works in synch with decolonising approaches is crucial. Are we committed to tackling the linguistic indifference of postcolonial studies? How complicit are we in allowing Anglo words and Eurocentric frameworks to dominate the narrative of practices and identities? Decolonisation projects developed in universities across the UK have provided further support to transnational approaches, as they both aim to decentre and challenge methodological nationalism and propose an inclusive view of multilingualism and multiculturalism.
How do we use transnational and decolonising approaches to design our teaching? The Transnationalising the Word symposium began a conversation that has hopefully raised awareness and provided some reassurance that it can be done. The well-thought out presentations, linking research with practice, provided examples and insights for the way forward. We have been able to ask ourselves very useful and, at times, uncomfortable questions that can help us think through how we might revise our programmes or curricula. In his opening paper, Decolonising the Chinese Curriculum: Indigenous Epistemology and Translanguaging, Danping Wang discussed how different epistemological approaches can reframe the learner-teacher relationship and asked us to unlearn our current assumptions and open up our imaginations. This notion of unlearning and opening is a powerful notion that can shape our approach not only to questions of transnationalising and decolonising our curricula, but in thinking through our teaching more broadly. Other presentations throughout the day further probed how connections and collaborations might be fostered between languages and culture, and the ways in which languages other than English are valued as effective means of resistance to (mental) colonisation. Excellent projects were showcased which suggested practical ways of shaping our teaching and, importantly, our assessment, to enable students to engage with the ways in which culture shapes languages and both are informed by power dynamics often linked to colonial histories. Alexandra Lourenço Dias’ Decolonised Dictionary of the Portuguese Language Project, for example, explored how students can reflect on the interrelationships between language, culture, and power through the development of an exciting new resource that focuses on terms are that articulated differently in parts of the Portuguese-speaking world based on the local culture and their history. Angela Viora’s presentation, Cities, Landscapes, and Ecosystems: Exploring Contemporary Italy Through Local Responses to Global Challenges. Creativity, Interdisciplinarity, and Decolonisation and Salvatore Campisi’s Reflecting on and Challenging Narratives of Italy and Italian with Students opened up questions of how transnationalising and decolonising the curriculum might enable us to re-think the cultural materials that we study. They offered fascinating examples of how street art, itinerant performers, oral histories sourced by students from the local community, rap, and public statues and memorials can be leveraged to encourage students to reflect on transnational and decolonising histories. Viviane Carvalho da Annunciação’s work on Decolonising Portuguese Language Classes explored the extent to which the diverse backgrounds that students bring to the classroom are reflected (or not) in pedagogical practice and examined how our practice be adjusted to enable and empower students from minority backgrounds, from the study of languages in schools through to undergraduate programmes.
A few presentations offered useful insights into how the publications emerging from the Transnational Modern Languages project, in Liverpool University Press’ Transnational Series, might provide teaching tools as we re-think our approach to teaching language, culture, and history. Derek Duncan & Jenny Burns’ presentation on Thematic Cartographies: Transnational Modern Languages and Cecilia Piantanida’s Hybridity and Transnationalism in the Modern Language Class suggested ways of challenging student preconceptions of cultures and nations by adopting a transnational and decolonising approach to teaching, thinking through how idealised and essentialised notions of specific cultures can be leveraged by the far-right.
The symposium was a valuable source of inspiration, exchange and connection. The conversations begun on the day will no doubt develop and evolve in fruitful ways. We would like to thank all contributors, including our excellent presenters and colleagues who participated in the rich discussions. We would also like to thank the IMLR and UCML for their support in bringing the symposium into being. We are keen to use this as a starting point for further work on the way in which transnationalising and decolonising approaches can further enhance our teaching, and look forward to talking, listening, and learning more.
Dr Marcela Andrea Cazzoli, (Durham) Associate Professor (Teaching) / Director of UG Education
Dr Elizabeth Wren-Owens (Cardiff), Director of Postgraduate Research and Deputy Head of School
An Olympic Opening Ceremony with a Difference: a Spectacle of Revolutionary Struggle in the Robert Lucas Papers
As the insistence that politics should be kept out of the Olympics comes under increasingly scrutiny, Miller Archivist Clare George looks in the IMLR’s archives of German-speaking exiles, at records of an Olympics Games ninety years ago which was an expressly political act.
In July 1931 the second International Workers’ Olympiad was held in Vienna by the Sozialistische Arbeiter-Sport-Internationale (SASI) as a celebration of international solidarity rather than competition. With over 100,000 athletes from 26 countries, the event was far bigger in terms of participants than the International Olympics Committee Olympiad in Los Angeles the following year.
As with the IOC Olympics, the artistic opening ceremony to the Games in Vienna projected a cultural narrative onto the event, but unlike most such ceremonies since 1936 at least, its theme was not the host nation’s achievements and triumphs but international revolutionary struggle. Das Spiel der Viertausend (the Pageant of the Four Thousand) was created by Austrian socialist journalist and writer and later refugee, Robert Ehrenzweig, to unite participants and spectators in the story of the liberation of the proletariat against capitalist oppression.
Four thousand volunteers from the Austrian Social Democratic Party performed in the spectacle as craftsmen, farmers, soldiers, cobblers, weavers, spinners, blacksmiths, tailors, telephonists, typists and other workers. An instruction booklet published by the Party set out Ehrenzweig’s stage directions for the players, furniture and props, which included 12 tables, 24 typewriters, 4 megaphones, 40 stools and 40 distaffs. It also explained how costumes would be allocated. Outfits for craftsmen, farmers and weavers would be provided by the organisers, for example, but the 80 young socialist actors playing fascist paramilitaries would need to bring their own black shirts.
In the centrepiece of the arena a mass of scaffolding was erected decked with billboards promoting the instruments of the market system: ‘stock exchange’, ‘shares’ and ‘balances’, and topped with the cold giant face of capitalism. A Berlin newspaper reported the ‘overpowering first impression presented to the audience on entering the stadium: the vast arena, in the middle of which loomed the Tower of Capitalism, the colourful ring of the masses around the outside’.
Lucas had already established himself as a writer of political cabaret satirising the right wing of his Party, but his Olympics opening production was theatre on an entirely different scale. Das Spiel der Viertausend was one of the largest mass spectacles that had ever been staged. Organisers had planned two performances, during the opening and closing ceremonies – but the demand for tickets was so great that a further two performances had to be arranged hurriedly at the last minute. In all, more than 260,000 viewers saw the production over the course of the four performances. Around 20,000 of them had forged tickets, according to the Vienna police!
Three years later, with the establishment of the Austrofascist regime in 1934, Ehrenzweig left Austria for the UK, where he changed his name to Lucas and eventually found work with the BBC’s German Service. The records in this archive are a reminder of an international mass movement that was well-organised, strong and deeply rooted in working-class culture. The International Workers’ Olympics aimed to push back against the wave of nationalism that was then sweeping through Europe and beyond and provided an opportunity for athletes from different counties to compete against each other within the ideological context of international socialism and strengthening solidarity.
The papers of Robert Ehrenzweig /Lucas were kindly donated in 2015 by his sons David and John Lucas. A catalogue is available online here: https://archives.libraries.london.ac.uk/Details/archive/110050239 and the material is open for consultation in Senate House Library. A film of the 1931 Vienna International Workers’ Games can be seen here: http://mediawien-film.at/film/319/.
Dr Clare George, Miller Archivist (Research Centre for German & Austrian Exile Studies)