The documentary film “Navalny” depicting the events surrounding the poisoning of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was awarded an Oscar earlier this week. This event triggered a massive propaganda campaign against the movie and the decision of the Academy. We used this example to illustrate how our Propaganda & Disinformation Pyramid Framework exposes such campaigns.
The Propaganda & Disinformation Pyramid Framework
Certainly, two of the main tactics to manipulate public opinion or promote a particular agenda are propaganda and disinformation. A framework for analyzing these tactics can help us better understand and identify instances of such information influence campaigns.
Hereby, we used our extensive expertise in the field to build a comprehensive Pyramid Framework that allows for the detection of propaganda and disinformation examples.
The Pyramid Framework consists of three main tiers, characterized by certain authorship (or lack of any), publishing patterns, and quality of the content.
The Three Tiers of the Pyramid
Mushroom Websites & Blogs
The lowest Tier 3 includes the so-called mushroom websites, whose sole purpose is to seed and distribute disinformation and propaganda. They attract a wide variety of visitors by simultaneously pushing conspiracy theories, lifestyle news, astrology and fortuneteller predictions, and other click-bait news. These “impostor” online media websites sometimes serve as an entry point for malicious content. They usually publish content with disinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories, rumors, and wild speculations. These articles are without stated authors or cited sources, with unclear dating, and with manipulated or “deep fake” visuals. Usually, titles are provocative and formulated as “click-bait” to trigger emotions and knee-jerk reactions.
This type of content is amplified through social media “trolls” and bots that reshare it. This fools Recommendation Engines that the content is organically viral, which leads to its organic popularization among average users, who also engage with the content. This methodology allows for the elimination of any need for advertising and it boosts the feeling that “this is all over the news”, while the lack of paid advertising ensures the popularity of the campaign and the lack of a traceable lead to its source.
Regional Media Outlets
The medium Tier 2 of the Pyramid typically comprises regional media outlets with relatively higher credibility and known publishers. They spread disinformation in the form of “rinsed“ fake news. These are usually mixed with some real facts, taken out of context, and spiced up with comments and “analysis” by “independent experts“. The content is again often anonymous and it cites unclear sources or other sources also engaged with the disinformation narrative.
International Media & Newswires
The top Tier 1 includes presumably prominent international media outlets and newswires, which publish “refined and polished” propaganda and disinformation. They often quote Tier 2 outlets and add statements from affiliated politicians, public figures, and academics. Such media outlets are either owned or controlled indirectly by state actors and follow up closely on the narratives pushed by the lower tiers. They also act proactively and publish original works in the form of manipulative high-budget reports, analyses, and “investigations”.
Each tier of the pyramid builds upon the content published by the previous tier. The role of “mushroom websites” is to implant the narrative that the campaign is trying to push. Then more familiar regional media outlets “rinse” and enhance it. And finally, international media outlets with large audiences publish its “refined and polished” final version.
Real-Life Propaganda Example – “Navalny & The Oscars”
Alexei Navalny is a critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government. Furthermore, he is a vocal advocate for human rights and democracy with substantial influence in Russia. In 2020, he was poisoned with a nerve agent believed to have been administered by Russian intelligence agents. Subsequently, he was treated in Germany. After returning to Russia, Navalny was arrested at the Moscow airport and later imprisoned.
The movie “Navalny” follows the investigation that Navalny and his team began with the help of journalists like the Bulgarian Christo Grozev. Their primary purpose was to expose the involvement of the Russian government in Navalny’s assassination attempt.
Unsurprisingly, Pro-Russian and state media outlets have attacked the film as a “smear campaign” and a tool of Western propaganda. We applied our Propaganda & Disinformation Pyramid Framework to expose this concrete example of propaganda.
Tier 3: Mushroom Websites & Blogs
Firstly, numerous mushroom websites appeared during the lowest Tier 3 of the propaganda campaign against the documentary. They all published semi-identical anonymous articles, without stating an author and propagating the idea that the movie is Western propaganda. The articles suggest that the decision of the Academy to award the movie with an Oscar is also anti-Russian propaganda. These publications receive little to no organic audience reach and they rely on social media activity to receive any attention. You can learn more about that in our article on mushroom websites.
Tier 2: Regional Media Outlets
In the second Tier 2, pro-Russian regional media outlets publish more refined propaganda examples. These articles include fake facts or real facts taken out of context. Seeking somewhat higher “credibility” authors support these with comments or analysis that is often misleading. A common approach is to “analyze” the documentary and the facts presented in the movie. Usually, this analysis includes the refutation of those facts by presenting contradictory facts or misleading pieces of information.
Tier 1: International Media & Newswires
Lastly, state-owned media outlets or such strongly affiliating with the Russian government come out with “refined and polished” propaganda example pieces. Supported by claims of Russian politicians, these articles seem like neutral informational pieces. However, their primary purpose is to inject a particular negative agenda toward the documentary, its authors, and the award. Namely to propagate the belief, seeded in the previous tiers, that the movie is Western anti-Russian propaganda.
The Common Narrative
Propaganda and disinformation usually rely on the layering method. They repeat the same narrative over and over again, add fake facts on top of each other, and multiply their exposure through the use of many sources and social media trolls, thus creating the so-called viral effect. In the use case that we examined, it is safe to say that the campaign also followed the layering method. Propagating the notion that “Navalny” is anti-Russian propaganda, various sources repeated the same narrative and build upon it at every tier of the campaign.
The propaganda campaign against “Navalny” is a troubling example of the Russian government’s efforts to influence public opinion. Its primary purpose is to divert public attention from the movie’s findings, exposing the lavishness of the Russian President and the participation of the Russian government in an assassination attempt. However, it is also a reminder of the importance of independent media and society, exposing the truth and holding those in power accountable. Prepare yourself to face the endless sea of information and filter out the misleading content. Check out the rest of our publications on the topic of disinformation or book a meeting with us to learn more about our solution!