By Jared Beltran, Jake Sweeney, Willian Zhao
In recent years there has been a widespread circulation of fake news causing lasting repercussions. Fake news are news stories that are fabricated, with no verifiable facts, sources or quotes. Due to the rise of fake news, people more than ever are believing in the false information being spread. With so much information, the line between fake and real is starting to blur. To further understand this underlying issue, we decided to conduct a survey to find out how many people believe in fake news. However, before we can delve into this issue, we need to understand more about the topic and so we decided to interview Professor Ricard Valencia to get a better comprehension on fake news.
Dr. Ricardo Valencia is an assistant professor of public relations in the Department of Communications at California State University, Fullerton. Dr. Valencia is a seasoned global communicator and scholar. He obtained a doctoral degree in Media Studies at the University of Oregon in 2018.Between 2010 and 2014, Dr. Valencia was the head of the communication section at the Embassy of El Salvador to the United States. Previously, he worked as a reporter covering international and domestic politics for Salvadoran and global media outlets such as La Prensa Gráfica, German Press Agency (DPA), and El Faro. Dr. Valencia’s research focuses on activist strategic communications, immigration, public diplomacy, and sports communications.
Speaking about disinformation about the war in Ukraine
“What we are looking at now, in terms of public relations and disinformation and propaganda, is the war in Ukraine is moving this communication thing as a secondary. All these struggles and fights between countries, before the war in Ukraine, was happening on social media. Influencer bots, trolls, and websites are created to spread a specific, geopolitical goal, especially from Russia and China. Everything tends to be concentrated in social media and be nothing about public opinion and image. What’s happening now with the war in Ukraine is things are becoming more real and the way that it is affecting the economy, its effect on politics is reshuffling geopolitical patterns, regional balances is making the whole relation between the United States and China be rethinked in a moment that they have to be rethinking, but also the relation between other countries and the United States, and the European Union has become stronger. We’re trying to say all these discussions about fake news and disinformations are becoming a little bit more real, more than words, more than likes and retweets. It’s becoming a political and an economic thing that is affecting people’s lives and reality.
For example, people who want to invest in Russia and live in the United States won’t be able to do it. People who want to use a MasterCard in Moscow won’t be able to use it. There is an American basketball player who’s trapped in Russia because [Russian authorities] say they found some substance in her suitcase, but it’s very obvious that it was a retaliation against the United States. What I’m trying to say is this discussion about fake news and disinformation is very important now not only because it’s happening in terms of images and reputation but also affecting people’s lives. A country’s life.”
How did you conduct research on your topic?
“Analysis of social media, but I connect social media with analysis of narratives and the history of specific countries that I’m researching. For example, it’s not only about the data I collect. I don’t collect a big sample of data, but a small sample of data that can be complemented by information on the history patterns and geopolitical patterns. What I’m trying to say is I’m not only looking at the data but looking at what’s happening outside in the world to come to understand how that data that I find on social media tells you about a country’s strategy towards another country. What is the strategy behind this data in social media? That is telling you what it’s suggesting. That’s what I had conducted, I conducted social media but also, I conducted history analysis and I also conducted interviews sometimes. I interview people that tells me what’s the thought behind the data I collect.”
What persuasive strategies make fake news seem to be true?
“What I believe makes fake news effective is that attacks reinforce an idea you have had before about something. The people who believe in some of the fake news are people who have an idea at least about the issue. For example, people who have been hesitant about vaccinations or people who have been hesitant about the role of government in vaccinations, the fake news targets them and reinforces their ideas. Fake news doesn’t affect people, for example, who believe a lot in vaccines. They might not be as affected as people who have some hesitancy, doubts, or are skeptical about the role of vaccines and the safety of vaccines. That’s what makes fake news effective. It reinforced an idea that was in individuals before [fake news] existed. That’s why people who develop those strategies understand what are the cultural things that can resonate in specific audiences. We tailor different content for different audiences.”
What similarities or differences do you see currently in the war in Ukraine?
“I think there’s a big consensus against the war in Ukraine. Even if the Russians have tried to control the narrative that Ukraine is full of Nazis, what has been so powerful for the west, the United States, and Europe is the images on CNN and the internet about the bombing of cities with casualties and civilians. That’s why I think it’s a big narrative happening now, that the big consensus is that Russians are the aggressors in regard to Ukraine. Even if Russia’s fake news machine has been effective for years, I think the United States and the European Union has moved fast to choke and control those machineries because they are even banned from YouTube and labeling Twitter. A few countries or a few audiences might be skeptical of the United States and the purposes behind helping Ukraine but that might not be enough to support Russian aggression. That is the big, big discussion that’s happening in the [U.S.]. We are witnesses of a big narrative struggle about Ukraine because it’s a big issue. There are some countries who don’t want to be that obvious against Russia for many reasons but that doesn’t mean they condone the offensive. And depending on the narrative and how strong your economic ties are with Russia; your messages will be different.
For example, it’s not the same in Latin America where the economic relations are weak, or in countries from the former Soviet Union who are closer to Russia and have a big border with that country. They will manage the official messages in a more nuanced way.”
Fake news is driven to push a specific narrative on the topic of discussion. With news sources being tethered to political and financial programs, information is often skewed to favor the patron. In the light of the Russo-Ukrainian War, it is difficult to decipher truth from deception. From the eye of a Russian citizen, the media portrays Ukraine as a direct threat to Russian sovereignty. From the American perspective, we see an invasion of an autonomous state. There are two sides to this story. Both Russia and Ukraine have distributed fabrications to instill influence to push their own agenda. This information can have a myriad of effects on public support on the crisis. According to Professor Valencia, the best way to interpret the truth is to examine reports from multiple independent sources. This method allows for the impurities of bias and duplicity to be filtered out. Another way fake news can be effective is by reinforcing previous ideas or feelings that an individual has on a particular subject. For instance, a Russian citizen may have a certain level of animosity towards Ukraine. By Russian media publishing false information of genocide and nationalism inside Ukraine’s borders, the Russian citizen will feel a congruency between their feelings of aversion and ultimately support the invasion. Situations like this play with the feelings of the individual who indulges in news.
With fake news stories being published daily, there is no doubt these fabrications hold direct influence over the populace. Truth is difficult to distinguish from fiction which is what makes this era of misinformation so dangerous in the hands of evil. Thanks to Professor Ricard Valencia and our survey, we now have a clear understanding of what fake news is as well as what kind of person is susceptible to the seduction of fabricated content. All things considered; the issue of fake news must be underscored to protect the rationale of an individual from deception.