Why ignore the classics? Public relations and persuasion contribute to disinformation dissemination, too.
Much of contemporary research focuses on renewed interest toward propaganda, disinformation, and misinformation. Little attention has been given to the fact that decades of research investigates these phenomena, albeit using different terminology. For the most part, recent literature on disinformation and misinformation lacks references to foundational work in the field of communication, let alone propaganda itself. In most recently published studies, most citations are of research from the past few years—and almost exclusively within particular sub-fields, such as strategic communication. Such ahistorical and compartmentalized research results in a hazy, if not revisionist, history of persuasive communication, with long-ago lessons learned lost in time. The dawn of quasi-research, where so-called new discoveries and innovative research areas cover old ground under new, popular terms, such as “hybrid warfare” or “fake news,” prevails.
I argue that classic rhetorical approaches to public relations, issue management, and strategic communication can inform new directions in contemporary misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda research and may contribute to building a rich landscape for the next generation of academics. Specifically, in this piece, I examine a phenomenon of Mediated Distraction in Shared Spaces, or MDiSS, rooted in strategic communication research, to demonstrate how aforementioned rhetorical approaches can further shed light on the formation of the contemporary disinformation landscape. What should a focus of the current research on disinformation and misinformation be, now and in the future? Why should public relations scholars be included in discussions around misinformation? These are the questions I seek to answer. Since a research bubble can quickly develop its own closed system, a critical review of and reflection on the existing literature across sub-areas is warranted.
Much academic energy is spent on defining new terms, often shrouded in the name of discovering democracy-saving perpetual concepts (Abbott & Tsetsura, 2021). We often hear declarations that Western democracy and freedom of speech are being threatened by propaganda (e.g., Humprecht et al., 2020). However, democracy itself is a constructivist phenomenon, founded on rhetoric and persuasion—the core elements of persuasive communication (Dillard & Pfau, 2002). Various governments outside Western democratic traditions tend to control information at various levels. As a result, the public sphere, in which freedom of speech exists, becomes the most vulnerable to authoritarian propaganda that engages in mass production of disinformation.
False information, deliberative lies, and half-truths are nothing new (Lewandowsky & van der Linden, 2021; Tsetsura & Kruckeberg, 2017). Digitalization, however, has added a novelty factor and sped up the ways in which untrue information now spreads with incredible ease (Bovet & Makse, 2019). This digital information pollution is a type of toxin (Fulgoni & Lipsman, 2017), provoking organizations and institutions to create strategies to limit the spread of falsehoods online (e.g., Castellani & Berton, 2017; Phillips & Milner, 2021). The very environment and the context in which governments, organizations, and public institutions operate today are changing as they become more and more polluted with irrelevant, questionable, partially untrue information. Still, all these entities still seek to effectively present and argue their own position. Thus, it is essential to understand how public relations and persuasion relate—and potentially contribute—to disinformation creation and dissemination.
One of the large drivers of misinformation is the current mediated construction of multiple realities by public relations and strategic communication specialists (Merten, 2004). The idea behind these constructions is the impossibility of having only one certain reality—hence, all realities have their own partial truths and are mediated and constructed through shared discourses. This idea of construction through deliberation has been hijacked by authoritative governments and, in some cases, has been disfigured beyond recognition to benefit kleptocratic, authoritarian status quo. Since the mid-2000s, for instance, the Russian government has been engaging in a mediated construction of multiple realities by blending Western notions of public diplomacy and public relations with Soviet strategies of creating alternative realities (Kux, 1985). Modern construction of this blend is manifested in Russia’s ongoing efforts to engage Russian and non-Russian speakers throughout the world in sharing narratives constructed by the Russian government’s mediated strategic communication efforts (Klyueva & Tsetsura, 2015).
I argue that such rhetorical construction is a multi-layered process, done through a systematic use of rhetorical strategies, which together create a system of what I define as Mediated Distraction in Shared Spaces (MDiSS) (Tsetsura, 2019). Soft power builds an enabling environment (Klyueva & Tsetsura, 2015) to buy into the goodwill of Russia as a crusader against Western dominance in the world. Russia’s cultural diplomacy efforts support Russia's global interest toward promoting Russia's rich cultural heritage and its place in the world culture. As a result, the MDiSS system creates a systematic, rhetorically enabled process of developing and distributing strategic narratives to maintain a visible presence of Russia in a variety of mediated spaces.
The MDiSS system works tirelessly to create alternative realities and question the West in conversations with internal and external audiences. The case of Ukraine is perhaps the most illustrative and striking in that sense. Since the 2014 occupation of the Crimea and Donbas regions, Ukraine has been actively working to counter pro-Russian propaganda and disinformation narratives. The challenges brought by Russia’s hybrid warfare in Ukraine and efforts to spread disinformation have also been shaping mediated discourses about misinformation in recent years in Europe (HybridCoE, 2020).
Most recently, Russia has upgraded and elevated its hybrid warfare to the disinformation hysteria, particularly inside the country, against the backdrop of deploying massive military troops in the greater part of Ukraine. Today, six months after the start of another active war phase in Ukraine in February 2022, we witness an unprecedented deployment of MDiSS efforts by Russia online at a global scale.
In response to the increasing concerns about the rise of alternative mediated realities and the loss of trust in what traditionally have been authoritative sources of information, the Western nations have engaged in supporting numerous countering disinformation efforts (DRI, 2018). However, evaluation of effectiveness of such efforts is proven to be challenging. But assessing the effectiveness or relevance of disinformation programming is crucial as such evaluation leads “to questions pertaining to what the disinformation is about, who (or what) is spreading it, how and why the information is considered ‘bad’ information, and what were the motivations (or intentions) of those seeking to spread it” (Abbott & Tsetsura, 2021, p. 3).
Inevitably, problematizing the very nature of disinformation and misinformation studies by bringing our attention to what we do when we study disinformation and what we do when we counter disinformation leads us to investigating misinformation and disinformation within the realm of public relations (Raupp, 2004) and examining how misinformation is constructed in issue arenas (Luoma-aho & Vos, 2010).
Acknowledgments: The author would like to thank Anna Swafford and Dave Waterman for help in preparing the early draft of this paper.
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 It can be effectively argued that Russia started an act of war against Ukraine back in 2014, with the occupation of Eastern territories and annexation of Crimea.