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24 January 2024

'Fake news' a powerful propaganda tool for authoritarian leaders

In the age of social media and online news, censorship and control of information has become increasingly difficult for authoritarian regimes as they seek to influence populations.

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In response to this burgeoning access to news, despots are increasingly seeking to discredit political rivals and critical media with accusations of ‘fake news’ and disinformation - relying on a mixture of confusion and distrust to shape attitudes and control messaging.

To test the impact of this shift in approach, a new study co-authored by King’s College London academic, Dr Maxim Alyukov, examines how disinformation discourse can shift opinions in people exposed to news both critical of and in support of regime narratives.

For the study, Dr Alyukov, a research associate at the King’s Russia Institute, and Dr Magarita Zavadskaya, a research associate at the University of Helsinki, conducted an experiment involving about 3,000 people in Russia.

Participants were all shown war-related or economy-related news stories with pro-Kremlin or anti-Kremlin framing. Subjects in treatment groups were then shown matching debunking claims with pro-regime or anti-regime framing containing disinformation discourse, to see if the debunking claims affected the participants’ perceptions of the news they had seen.

The researchers found a “strong and significant” effect of disinformation discourse, allowing authoritarian propaganda to undermine the credibility of critical news stories and confuse citizens, making them less able to apportion blame for the policies of the government.

Dr Alyukov said: “While an authoritarians can effectively control major national television networks and key online media outlets, citizens still encounter information that challenges regime narratives via social media or smaller media outlets, which are too numerous to control.

By pre-emptively debunking alternative information, authoritarian propaganda can decrease its credibility. It can also confuse citizens. An avalanche of opposing claims and disinformation accusations debunking these claims makes citizens less able to attribute responsibility for the regime’s policies.

Dr Maxim Alyukov

The researchers added that their findings had implications for democratic governments when attempting to counter the propaganda of authoritarian regimes in Russia and beyond.


You can read the pre-print in full here.

In this story

Maxim Alyukov

Research Fellow