As revisionist, autocratic states like Russia sharpen their use—and abuse—of disinformation, liberal democracies are failing to keep pace, says a new report by Peter Pomerantsev, Senior Fellow to the Transitions Forum at the Legatum Institute, and Edward Lucas, Senior Vice President at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Russia’s use of information as a weapon is not new, but the sophistication and intensity are increasing. Belatedly, the West has begun to realize that disinformation poses a serious threat to the United States and its European allies, primarily the “frontline states”—Poland, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Ukraine—but also to Western Europe and North America, according to Winning the Information War: Techniques and Counter-Strategies to Russian Propaganda in Central and Eastern Europe:
Across the Western world, the Kremlin promotes conspiratorial discourse and uses disinformation to pollute the information space, increase polarization and undermine democratic debate. Russia’s actions accelerate the declining confidence in international alliances and organizations, public institutions and mainstream media. How has Russia’s pollution of the information space shaped international discourse on alliances, organizations, public institutions and mainstream media? What can be done to filter these digital toxins from our democratic system?
The report’s recommendations include tactical, strategic and long-term priorities, targeted partly at Kremlin disinformation and also aiming to strengthen media in democracies and educate audiences:
1) Systematic analysis. Currently, no dedicated agency or systematic effort analyzes the effect of Russian (or any other) disinformation. Who really watches RT? Where? For how long? And why? Nor do we have the means to systematically track the content: How does the Kremlin’s message in Germany differ from the line in Sweden or Poland? Our case studies, combined with an ongoing effort at CEPA to identify and monitor Russian propaganda in parts of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) show the variety of Russia’s means and messaging. But the lack of a coherent picture constrains our ability to respond in both quantitative and qualitative terms. We recommend: Regular, targeted analysis of the reach and impact of Russian propaganda; Greater analysis of the CEE media environment to detect disinformation campaigns and understand what sources shape public awareness; and Monitoring of social media, identifying trends and personalities that are popular among polarized social groups and who could be engaged to build trust.
2) Ensuring media quality. Even with the strongest free-speech protection, broadcast media is regulated (for example with rules on nudity) and criminals and terrorists are kept off the airwaves. Political advertising, correcting mistakes and the boundaries of hate speech may also be regulated. However, many non-EU frontline states have weak or inexperienced regulators. An international commission under the auspices of the Council of Europe on the lines of the Venice Commission—which monitors adherence to the rule of law and democratic standards—could advise fledgling regulators, ensuring their independence and help communicate their decisions, and act as a broadcasting badge of quality. If an official body cannot be created, then an NGO could play a similar advisory role.
3) New agencies, new cooperation. Some are calling for the reconstruction of the U.S. Information Agency. A bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Senators Chris Murphy and Rob Portman calls for the creation of an interagency ‘Center for Information Analysis and Response. In Europe, Jakub Janda of the European Values think tank argues for strategic communications departments throughout the EU. In any case, Western governments need to find a constructive way to interact with media and NGOs, fostering a community of transnational critical inquiry and trust. Governments should show more willingness to share evidence of financial crimes, video of covert military operations and audio intercepts.
4) Deconstruct disinformation. A counterpart to organizations such as Global Witness, Transparency International and the OCCRP could investigate Russian (and other) disinformation and hybrid campaigns and myth-bust for key audiences who are receptive to fact-based argument. It could use technology to automate fact-checking and troll-busting, educate media professionals and provide “disinformation ratings” to call out those media outlets which have fallen victim to (or collude in) Russian propaganda attacks.
5) A working group on historical trauma. One of the most effective Kremlin propaganda themes exploits the heroic legacy of World War II. This employs false syllogisms, such as “Stalin fought the Nazis, therefore everyone who fought Stalin was a Nazi,” and then links these to the present: “Everyone who opposes Russia now is a fascist.” A working group of psychologists, historians, sociologists and media specialists should create an “ideas factory” to develop ways of approaching historical and psychological trauma and highlighting other narratives.
6) Targeted interaction. Facebook technology is already used to try to deradicalize far-right extremists and jihadists. Similar initiatives should be undertaken with those who have fallen victim to Kremlin propaganda.
7) Reinvent public broadcasting. In a fragmented media landscape, a strong, independent public broadcaster could grow to be the most trusted medium available, not only setting journalistic standards but also engaging in social and civic issues on the lines of Ukrainian broadcaster Hromadske.
8) Bloggers’ charter/exchanges. Signatories would signal their adherence to ethical standards, qualifying for exchange programs between core Western and frontline states to create transnational communities of trust and critical inquiry.9) Russian-language content factory. Viewers in Ukraine, the Baltics and the Caucasus tune into Kremlin TV because it is glossier and more entertaining. Britain’s Foreign Office has commissioned the BBC to develop a blueprint for a “content factory” to help EU Association and Baltic countries create new Russian-language entertainment programming. Other donors should support this initiative.
10) A Russian language news wire/hub. No Russian-language outlet provides consistently reliable and comprehensive news. The European Endowment for Democracy suggests a proto-news agency for news outlets across the region. Free Press Unlimited, a Dutch media development organization, received a grant from its government to develop a cooperative Russian-language independent regional news agency. This initiative should be encouraged and further supported.
11) Estonia’s Russian-language public broadcaster. With a budget of a few million dollars, Estonia’s Russian-language public broadcaster ETV+ focuses on town-hall and talk-show type programming to help disenfranchised audiences feel understood. It deserves further support: Estonia is a unique opportunity to pilot initiatives that can be replicated in trickier environments such as Moldova or Ukraine.
12) Media literacy. Educating media consumers to spot disinformation is an important long-term priority. Pilot projects in Ukraine, notably by IREX, have broken new ground both in the techniques used, and in reaching beyond academic environments. Future media-literacy projects should use both online and broadcast media channels.
13) Advertising boycotts. Western advertisers finance channels that carry hate speech and demonize LGBT communities while Western production companies sell entertainment content. A sustained campaign is needed to pressure them to shun such clients and business.
Published by CEPA’s Information Warfare Initiative in partnership with the Legatum Institute.