This week, the Russian Defense Ministry tried to discredit the official findings that a Russian missile downed a Malaysian Air flight (MH17) in Ukraine in July 2014, killing 298 people.
In the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, tech giants testified before Congress that the Russian Internet Research Agency used fake social media accounts, often posing as concerned Americans, to manipulate the American public. According to Facebook, the covert campaign may have reached the news feeds of as many as 126 million U.S. users.
We know some of the top-down regime tactics and strategies, but far less about who actually spreads digital disinformation and who counters it. To understand who spreads disinformation on social media, we looked at the MH17 debate on Twitter.
In our research (with Mareike Hartmann), just published in International Affairs, we find that citizens and civil society groups play a crucial role in both spreading and combating online disinformation. In fact, citizens outperform both mainstream media and state actors in some cases.
Social media and the MH17 flight crash
We examined the social media engagement generated by the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) crash on July 17, 2014, to explore who was the most active in disseminating information about the cause of the passenger plane crash.
There was an immediate global consensus that the crash was a tragedy, resulting in the deaths of all 298 passengers and crew members on board. Within hours, social media began to circulate rival explanations of what brought the plane down. Western media outlets claimed pro-Russian separatists shot it down. The Russian government, on the other hand, blamed the Ukrainian military.
In September 2016, a Dutch-led joint investigating team (JIT) presented the results of its extensive investigation. The JIT found that flight MH17 was brought down by a missile from an area controlled by pro-Russian separatists. The investigators later revealed additional findings indicating that the missile originated from the Russian army.
We assume that the JIT’s findings are reliable and accurate. Accordingly, we labeled social media posts that question the JIT findings “disinformation.” However, as mentioned, our focus is not on the reliability of the JIT or the Russian government, but on who spread the competing stories.
How we conducted the research
Our data consists of 941,028 tweets about MH17, starting from the day of the crash, July 17, 2014, and ending Dec. 9, 2016. We analyzed a random sample of 10 percent of all tweets that contained one or more keywords related to MH17.
To identify which Twitter users engaged the most in the MH17 debate, we focus on those profiles that retweeted — or have been retweeted by — at least 10 other users, which puts them at the core of the network of retweets related to MH17.
Citizens are highly engaged in the MH17 debate
As the figure shows, the MH17 debate is highly polarized in two opposing clusters. To the left, the most-retweeted users in the cluster support the JIT findings: The plane was shot down from territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists using Russian weapons. The most popular users in the cluster to the right blame Ukraine or the West for shooting down the plane. However, some users merely expressed their condolences, without spreading or contesting disinformation.
We divided the Twitter profiles into state, civil society (citizens and NGOs) and media accounts. As a combined group, citizens have a much higher impact when it comes to generating popular content than previously assumed. We also found that a majority of the citizen accounts are unlikely to be bots.
Citizens are directing traffic more than we thought
Our findings challenge the concept of a state-orchestrated information war over Ukraine and point to the importance of citizen activity in the global struggle over truth and information.
Many citizens are highly engaged on Twitter, but it is striking that they are also the most influential at the core of the retweet network among the most engaged users. In this case, we measure influence as the number of users who have retweeted the individual.
Even during international conflicts such as the one in Ukraine, in which regime-controlled media and information campaigns compete over particular narratives, influential bloggers and citizen journalists outperform journalists and large media corporations such as CNN and BBC. RT (formerly Russia Today), the Russian government-funded television network, appears to be an exception. The question of why RT is exceptionally influential is an important one and should undoubtedly be the subject of future research, but for now we do not know why this is the case.
If we rank the 50 most influential Twitter profiles related to the MH17 debate in the core of the network, 25 of them are citizens, while six are civil society groups. Among less-engaged users, though, established media is much more influential.
Individuals do not act in isolation
We are not suggesting that citizens are isolated from discussions propagated by governments and mainstream media. Citizens often spread information originally produced by governments or state-controlled media. However, many of the most prolific disseminators of disinformation and counter-disinformation use sophisticated arguments that they construct — or partly construct — themselves.
We cannot offer a decisive answer to the question of why citizens play such an important role in spreading disinformation and countering it. Given declining levels of public trust in government and media in recent years, citizens may attach more credibility to their fellow citizens.
Citizens are also the most engaged in opposing disinformation
When we looked at which profiles were most active in countering disinformation (and supporting the JIT findings), we found that citizens also play an important role (19 out of the top 50 profiles).
It’s easy to think that the Kremlin and Western authorities generate strategic campaigns to “weaponize” information to win over local and global public opinion. But this view reduces citizens and civil society to mere targets, to be manipulated for military or strategic goals. In the digital age, social media enables ordinary citizens to do more than passively receive news — they are also as active and influential in opposing disinformation as they are in spreading it. Any efforts to fight digital disinformation thus may find it useful to mobilize the resources of engaged citizens and civil society.
Yevgeniy Golovchenko, a PhD fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, uses computational social science to explore disinformation, censorship and political participation on social media. He is a member of the Digital Disinformation research group. Find him on Twitter: @Golovchenko_Yev.
Rebecca Adler-Nissen, professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, focuses on international relations, diplomacy and social media, most recently as director of Digital Disinformation, funded by the Carlsberg Foundation. Find her on Twitter: @RebAdlerNissen.