Eszter Szenes Deepens Research on Disinformation as Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Research Fellow at CEU

After being hosted for two years at Norwich University’s John and Mary Frances Patton Peace and War Center in Northfield, Vermont, Eszter Szenes relocated to Vienna in early 2022 to continue her work at Central European University (CEU) as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) Research Fellow at the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology. Her current research project, funded by the European Commission's Horizon2020 framework, investigates the linguistic anatomy of radicalization strategies in online extremist propaganda and information tactics within disinformation campaigns.

During the fellowship period, Szenes has published several articles, most recently “Terrorist recruiters’ versus ‘terrorist slayers’: Weaponizing Syria in Russian information warfare” (co-authored with Mark W. Perry) in the Journal of Peace and War Studies. This research analyzed the linguistic anatomy of Russian disinformation on Twitter in the context of the Syrian civil war, revealing how recurring linguistic patterns constructed information tactics condemning the United States and celebrating Russia.

“When Russian disinformation tactics fabricate alternative versions of events and present them as indisputable facts, they form a more permissive environment for Russia to accomplish military objectives on the ground," said Szenes, who is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Resilience and Security (CGRS) at Norwich University. "Weaponizing information tactics serves to ascribe blame for civilian casualties entirely to the U.S. and its allies and advance Russia’s larger geopolitical objectives in the information space, to undermine the influence of the West and project itself as a global superpower,” she added.

This work was preceded during the fellowship by Szenes’s writing on the links between climate change and violent extremism: “Weaponizing the climate crisis: The nexus of climate change and violent extremism” in Voices on Peace and War and “Neo-Nazi environmentalism: The linguistic construction of ecofascism in a Nordic Resistance Movement manifesto” in the Journal for Deradicalization.

“I think in developing counter-radicalization approaches and preventing violent extremism, we need to focus more on education and improving the digital literacy of students,” highligted Szenes, having written about the ways in which far right groups are deploying language around the climate crisis to influence youth. “I'm saying this because I think young people who are already worrying about climate change and the climate crisis and are very invested in this topic could be the next target group to radicalize and that’s a threat.”

According to Szenes, ecofascism links the issue of climate change to a white supremacist ideology. “What makes a movement ecofascist is not merely the group’s concern for the environment. It is their linking environmental degradation to particular groups of people,” she explained. The researcher noted that such movements explicitly blame minorities and immigrants for problems caused by climate change. Through her research, Szenes has observed a revival of this ideology and argues that its movement into the mainstream is already happening.

Szenes champions the importance of critical and digital media literacy and building skills to identify mis- and disinformation, so people can better recognize online manipulation. That said, she sees that often, issues of radicalization are approached from a law enforcement and counter-terrorism perspective rather than an educational approach. She hopes that students reading anything from news articles to memes or encrypted accounts like Telegram will pay attention to red flags, for example, catastrophizing language with a real sense of urgency, all capital letters or too much punctuation.

“There are a lot of examples of the far right using obligation modals - language of instruction rather than discussion: ‘We must rise up’ etc. Also, a lot of assertions that leave no space for negotiation or dialogue. Something is presented as factual information so there's nothing to argue with. The language of cults or conspiracy theories also sound very real and persuasive,” she said. With a belief that education and prevention are key to fighting disinformation, Szenes hopes her work can help combat radicalization and its consequences.

Szenes will present the talk "The narrative signature of Russian information warfare: A forensic linguistic analysis" on March 7, 6pm, at at the Diplomatische Academie in Vienna. Register here to attend in person or tune in to the livestream here.