Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Arts Languages and Cultures


The Ukraine war, Covid-19 and the Trump presidency highlight the threat disinformation poses to democracy. Yet the implicit persistence of Cold War binaries - pitting democratic 'truth-telling' against totalitarian 'deceit', even in relation to homegrown disinformation - has seriously hampered attempts to counter this problem in the multipolar, Big Data age. The result is a glut of poorly differentiated terms: disinformation, misinformation, fake news, post-truth, and astroturfing, to name just a few. This dichotomous viewpoint heeds neither the contested meaning of disinformation, nor how the narratives it designates change across time, languages and cultures. These limitations explain the emergence of a 'Big Disinfo' industry: the burgeoning of monitoring initiatives whose success depends on maintaining the sense of an undifferentiated morass of toxicity rather than trying to draw out fine distinctions of language, meaning, culture or context. In conflating disinformation with related concepts like propaganda, conspiracy theories, and trolling, such reductionism obscures the operational modes of disinformation actors, furnishing them with counter-narratives that use the very lexicon deployed against them. By reconstructing disinformation's multiple border crossings - temporal, linguistic, cultural - (Mis)translating Deceit (MD) will radically re-orient existing approaches to disinformation. It will interrogate common misconceptions about disinformation, treating it as a translingual, historically mutating phenomenon forged within the socio-politically contingent realm of discourse. Big Disinfo's abiding focus on Kremlin malfeasance, bolstered by the Ukraine war, motivates our emphasis on multilingual narratives linked to Russia and the USSR. But by pinpointing the Russian node in a vast translingual network, we will create a model for identifying and combatting disinformation practices of diverse provenance.

With impact at its core, MD proposes a potent interdisciplinary intervention, showcasing how humanities scholars can address major global challenges. Forging a novel, cross-sectoral collaborative model involving leading academics, the UK's top think tank, Chatham House, a European disinformation monitor (EUDisinfoLab) and OFCOM, it draws on expertise in history, translation studies, audience research, media studies and security policy. Its linguistic scope combines languages paramount to the history and theory of disinformation - Russian, English, and German - with supplementary data in Arabic, Serbian, French and Spanish (all spoken in areas of significance to Russia). It is structured around case studies focused on 5 multilingual narratives recently identified by disinformation trackers and 2 historical antecedents from the Cold War period. They are underpinned by a variant of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) inflected with Bakhtinian dialogism, translation studies and digital methods designed to reveal how narratives travel online and play out in fragmented social media format. The CDA dovetails with audience ethnography, and a unique Chatham House simulation methodology designed to test policy responses to disinformation in local contexts. We will answer questions about disinformation's mutation across borders of time and language, and the roles played by translation and counter-disinformation (e.g., fact checking) in shaping its meanings. The involvement of counter-disinformation practitioners guarantees the reflexive dimension key to a transformative Critical Disinformation Studies toolset we will create to capture the full disinformation production-consumption-response cycle.

Outputs include a book, seminar series and journal articles pitched to media and reception studies, language-based area studies, history, translation studies and medical humanities. Our Chatham House-led impact programme will generate reports for stakeholders, including the FCO and DCMS, and a user-oriented version of our toolset.


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