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Stephen Hutchings and Vera Tolz discuss how Modern Languages expertise can illuminate hitherto unacknowledged, but critically important, aspects of a major societal challenge: disinformation

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  termdezinformatsiya’, 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 laboratorypeaking 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