Customised Lies: The Sophistication of Disinformation Narratives

Disinformation is a pervasive global issue affecting every country by distorting narratives about current issues such as the global pandemic, economic crisis, military conflicts, and immigration. While we are well aware, and so may believe we have become immune to online manipulation, the reality is that we are still far from that. This is due not only to the technological and AI developments but also the conceptual sophistication of disinformation narratives.

The interactive documentary Trolls vs Elves I-doc explores the cyber war between activists called Cyber Elves and internet trolls. By speaking to activists in Lithuania, the motherland of Elves, as well as in the Czech Republic and Poland, the research drew some interesting conclusions. The mission of all elven legions operating in the CEE countries is the same at its core: counteracting pro-Kremlin propaganda and taming the (dis)information chaos. With the same goal, the collaboration between the various legions seems obvious. But here is the catch: disinformation is carefully tailored to each nation. And so, activists are limited in their international operations, not only due to the linguistic dimension but perhaps even more because of the complexity of the cultural and historical context.

That said, yes: regardless of origins, we can all successfully list, for example, the main disinformation narratives about the war in Ukraine. Starting with the idea of the special military operation aimed at de-Nazifying Ukraine and ending with the campaigns related to the energy crisis and high prices caused by sanctions. However, considering disinformation on such a basic level does not properly illustrate the sophistication of these creations. Only by examining them more closely, on a local level, can we see howcarefully they are customised for various audiences.

The i-doc investigated disinformation narratives regarding the war and Ukrainian refugees in Poland. To draw a context, Poland is a former Soviet Bloc country, historically showing Russophobia and a lack of trust in Russian politics. Additionally, it has a common history with Ukraine, rich in good and bad events, sometimes unresolved, such as the Volhynia Massacre. Furthermore, it not only became the biggest asylum for refugees, but it is also on the front line between the West and East.

That said, pro-Kremlin propaganda targeting Ukraine directly, which could be effective in other countries, simply cannot break through the Polish distrust towards Russia and Putin. But there are other ways to get through. Aiming at the biggest Polish values (f.e. family) or unresolved historical problems (the massacres of Poles by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in the 1940s) is much more effective. That said, one of the most interesting campaigns happened not within the political discourse but on the beauty and lifestyle media channels. It targeted Polish women, and it could solely happen in a country where the number of refugees is in the millions. And so, to sow discord between citizens and refugees, the campaign passed a simple message: arriving Ukrainian refugees are, in the majority, beautiful women without partners (left in Ukraine), so they will steal Polish men and threaten Polish families. It may seem absurd, but it worked because it operated on a subconscious level. It triggered irrational fear or at least anxiety and targeted modern social concerns such as family, marriage, relationships, and women's self-confidence. Additionally, it didn’t use facts but only opinions and heard stories, that are impossible to debunk by fact-checkers.

That’s only one example of a campaign perfectly tailored to the current situation in a specific country and customised for a specific audience. All over the world, disinformation may use the same (or similar) topics, but the arguments vary from one place to another. In a very finessed way, it gets through to the subconscious, targeting our biggest fears, emotions, and values. Some might be universal and global, but many depend on the national context. There is no doubt that we are all facing the disinformation crisis together. Yet, simultaneously, we are alone within our national and cultural cyberspaces. Trolls vs Elves invites the audience to explore disinformation techniques and discover how to counteract them. Guided by activists and experts, players delve into the world of network analysis and documentary materials, actively investigating campaigns that target Ukrainian refugees. Through a playful and interactive mode of participation, Trolls vs Elves aims to increase mental resistance to online manipulation. So, join the fight against disinformation and discover how you can become a more informed and resilient participant in today’s digital landscape.