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Fake news and propaganda fuel Russian lies, but are people falling for it?

Posted at 6:11 AM, May 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-05 18:22:37-04

TAMPA, Fla. — A new exhibit at the Plant Museum highlighting the role of the reporters and yellow journalism during the War of 1898 shows how Tampa was at the center of some of the first accounts of fake news. And, how some of those same tactics are still in use today.

As bombs fall in Ukraine and civilians die two wars are playing out, one on the ground and the other in cyberspace.

Both sides use social media to rally their forces, bring outsiders to their side, and win the information war. Experts say Russian misinformation follows the same script— that they are the victims of Western oppression. Russia's tactic is to deny, deny, deny, and deflect; planting false narratives throughout social media, manipulating people in Russia and other parts of the world that the dead bodies on the streets of Bucha were staged, and nazishave taken over Ukraine.

Through technological advancements, we know the way people got their news in the 1890s is a lot different than today. But the way readers were manipulated then parallels what we see today on social media.

The battle between newspaper titans William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer helped shape how modern newspapers operate today. But, the quest to sell penny papers often led to misinformation, sensationalism and twisting of the narrative.

The industrial revolution was a boon for the newspaper industry. Cheaper paper and the printing press's rise meant newspapers could be churned out faster and farther than ever. And the race was on between Hearst and Pulitzer for newspaper dominance.

"They've so discredited each other that I think a lot of reasonable people would be suspicious, like, what exactly it is that they're reporting? And most newspapers did not do what they did," Dr. Charles Groh, Associate Professor of History at the University of Tampa and a guest curator for the exhibit "Stop the Presses! Fake News and the War of 1898," said.

Groh said the exhibit shows the United States' empire-building, how people reading newspapers at home were fed misinformation, and what role, if any, "yellow journalism" played in leading to war against Spain, especially after the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor.

"If people were gung ho to say, you know, yes, the Spanish are responsible, it's because they wanted the Spanish to be responsible," Groh said. "And, even though Hearst and Pulitzer immediately published very salacious stories about Spanish responsibility, most newspapers didn't. They held off for the U.S. Naval inquiry, which had a much more ambiguous answer, and a lot of reporters faithfully reported that once the information was made available. So again, people can choose to believe the salacious story because they want to, and a lot of people did, but it was easy to access alternative information."

Today, the University of Tampa is full of students heading to class. In 1898, it was the Tampa Bay Hotel. Journalists spent weeks buddying up to top brass, hoping to punch their ticket to Cuba and the frontline.

"The only way as a correspondent that you can go to Cuba is if the Army takes you," Groh said. "So you have this pass from the Army; you have to be in good relations with the Army. And so, what does that mean? First of all, it means they report what the Army wants you to report because that's the only way they're reporting."

Teddy Roosevelt and his volunteer band of Rough Riders were media darlings; and reporters did everything they could to win Roosevelt's favor.

"If you take the most famous example, Richard Harding Davis, who traveled with Teddy Roosevelt during the military engagement that we associate with San Juan Hill, I think there were two sources of misinformation. The first is Richard Harding Davis clearly had tremendous admiration for Teddy Roosevelt and a clear dislike for more traditional military figures like General Shafter. And so I think it's hard for that not in some way to influence his reporting," Groh said.

"There's a certain amount of personal heroism involved in his coverage of Teddy Roosevelt. But I think the bigger issue is simply that by nature of following Roosevelt so closely and providing all of this information, he's not reporting on other aspects of the story. So he's certainly not looking at the role of Cuban fighters in the war against Spain because he's not seeing it. He's also not seeing a larger military strategy because he's not privy to that. So he's just seeing this one selective slice," Groh said.

It was Davis' article in the New York Journal that Groh said is one of the first examples of fake news.

"We have a very, very graphic illustration. I mean, it's shocking, right, you know, a nude woman on the page of the newspaper," Groh said. "There's a shocking headline again, and that may be all that some people see. And, and again, it's a fascinating story because it shows how easily you can be misled."

Hearst hired Davis to cover the Cuban rebellion. Famous artist Frederic Remington was commissioned to sketch images of what he witnessed. In one newspaper article titled "Spaniards Search Women on American Steamers," Remington shows a naked woman surrounded by three men. But, Groh said what was drawn and what happened are two very different things.  

"So were these three young Spanish women who were suspected of being revolutionaries. And so Spain being in control of the port, right, search them prior to their getting on the ship, and then once again, search them when they were on the vessel," Groh said. "What Richard Harding Davis knew was that the women were searched by a female matron in private, but he left those details out of the story. So we didn't say they weren't; he just left it ambiguous. But then, unbeknownst to him, Frederic Remington, who was the artist engaged by Hearst, added the illustration, which took the worst possible interpretation of the ambiguity. And so, of course, that's what people understood. So you can watch the fake news being constructed by following the journey to how that story goes into print."


The brutality and horror of what's playing out on the ground are heartbreaking. We talked to Antony Cousins, the CEO of Factmata, via Zoom. Cousins is an expert on propaganda and misinformation. He said his experience fighting misinformation goes back to 2007 when he tracked Taliban propaganda and Al Qaeda's single narrative to radicalize and recruit Muslim youth in the UK.

Cousins described what the software at Factmata does.

"Flags it for a human to make a decision," Cousins said. "So, we're looking at basically lexical similarities in the way the fake news is often written."

Factmata is a tech company that uses social media listening artificial intelligence to spot fake news. Cousins described it as automated fact-checking.

"Can you break through Russia's Disinformation and Propaganda?" ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska asked.

"It always boils down to a few core narratives. But, then, you've got to link that confusing top-level narrative with a consistent underlying narrative," Cousins said. "And, in Russia's case, you can quite easily identify those markers. Because it always comes back to Russia's the victim. It's perpetrated by the West. You know the West is crumbling because of, you know, their liberal values and all those kind of things. So those are very similar markers; you can identify those posts."

His work has now turned even more personal. Cousins' wife is Ukrainian but now lives with him in London. Some of her family are now part of the mass exodus fleeing the country and several friends, including one of her girlfriends with a young son, volunteered to join the Army and fight.

"My wife is Ukrainian. We are in Italy because our family has come out of Ukraine. So it is a lot closer to home," Cousins said. "And I think it's even more wounding when you see people falling for the misinformation created by Russia and sharing that content. The only thing I can say to anyone in those situations is, in some ways, you have to look at the people sharing that content as the victims, not the perpetrators. Because if you're exposed to the same misinformation, the same disinformation, time and time and time again, it is really hard to avoid it."

Cousins said each technological advancement in communication, from newspapers to the radio, television, and now the internet, impacts a society. There is a learning curve to decipher how that technology may or may not be trying to manipulate and persuade.

During the Cold War, the internet didn't exist. According to the International Telecommunication Union, in 2005, there were 1 billion people on the internet. That number is skyrocketing; in 2021, there were 4.9 billion users on the internet, about 63% of the worldwide population.

"Now, Russia can talk directly to U.S. citizens via Telegram; you can talk directly to your citizens on Facebook. So that is a that's a real threat," Cousins said. "And, so that's the game-changing advance for Russia. You can now talk to anyone on the planet. So you're not limited to only kind of misinforming your own populace; you can do it to anyone."


Do people believe Russia's lies?

"Propaganda has always been with us," Nick Cull, a Professor of Communication at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said. "As long as there have been people fighting, people have understood that culture and stories can be used as a force multiplier. And, it is an essential part of human conflict to use communication and stories or some form of culture to make yourself stronger, to make your enemy feel weaker and more divided. And that that is a story as old as organized human activity."

Cull does not think the Russian disinformation campaign is working.

"We're at a stage where people are learning how to verify information on social media," Cull said. "I don't know if people are believing them. I think that it's to be expected that the truth is, is being contested in this way. This war is playing out in a clearer way than was possible in 2014 (the invasion of Crimea). And I think Putin has had an uncomfortable surprise. He thought that in 2022, his tricks, his disinformation, and confusion would have the same effect that they had back in 2014. But this time, it was expected. People were warned in advance and have subtracted a level of credibility from everything that the Russians say, every claim they make. And so I think you're seeing the limits of propaganda in this in this in this campaign."

Throughout all of our wars, Cull said advancements in how we communicate have disrupted the narrative. That's why it's so important to learn how to identify propaganda, past and present, and one day stop a war before it starts.

"So maybe if you understand the history of events like the Spanish American War, you can approach what's happening now with a little bit of humility and a little bit of understanding of how it's possible for entire populations to be whipped up misled," Cull said. "Propaganda does not tell you something new. Rather, it plays to what you already believe to be true. So a government or a politician will tell you the secret thought you've already had, they'll affirm your inner belief, and we'll then tie that to some action in the present."