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By Jakub Kalenský, for Disinfo Portal
This is the transcript of a speech given by Jakub Kalenský at the International Workshop on Defending Democracy through Media Literacy in Taipei, Taiwan. Organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, American Institute in Taiwan, Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, Swedish Trade and Investment Council in Taipei, Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, the two-day event underscores the commitment of freedom-loving countries to combating disinformation and misinformation in the Indo-Pacific.
Dear president, dear deputy assistant secretary, dear excellencies and distinguished guests, dear ladies and gentlemen, let me express my gratitude to the organizers for being invited to this conference. It is my first time not only in Taiwan, but also my first time in Asia – and yet, I was given the privilege to give you the keynote speech and kick off this wonderful event. I am truly grateful for this, it is an honor.
It is also my first time I will be giving such a long speech – I don’t think I have ever spoken for forty minutes in one piece. I didn’t know people are giving such long speeches, at least since Fidel Castro is not with us. I will try my best not to be too boring.
As I mentioned, it is my first time on this continent, and therefore I feel the need to introduce myself properly.
My name is Jakub Kalenský, and I work for the US think tank Atlantic Council, you can see my profile here: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/about/experts/list/jakub-kalensky
I have been working in the field of disinformation since 2015, when the European Union formed the team East StratCom, which is a task force designed to counter Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaign. As one of the efforts, we were trying to raise the awareness about the Kremlin’s information aggression, and I was the team’s lead for that. You can find the work of my previous team on the EUvsDisinfo website, and I will have a chance to mention our work further during the speech: https://euvsdisinfo.eu/
In the Atlantic Council, I am again working on countering disinformation, and given it is a think tank and not a government institutions, we have a chance to communicate a bit more freely in certain regards. We are publishing articles and studies, and we are also promoting the work of other experts in this field on the DisinfoPortal. In case you would be interested, you can subscribe to our newsletter. If there’s anyone who would like to cooperate with us, we are always open to new partnerships and new cooperation https://disinfoportal.org/
For quicker and less elaborate messaging, or simply for reading recommendations about the disinformation campaign, you can follow my Twitter account: https://twitter.com/kalenskyj
As I mentioned, I have been working on Russia’s disinformation campaign, since I studied Russian and I know the Russian information space a bit. I have to admit I am not the top expert on the disinformation campaigns of other actors in the world. However, according to a recent study from the Princeton University, Russia is responsible for 72 per cent of all the foreign influence operations in the world – meaning all the other actors combined are responsible only for one third of what Russia is doing. It appears that increasingly, other actors in the world are adapting Russia’s tactics and using the weapons that the Kremlin has been using in the past five years. I hope that the experience with this number one information aggressor will be applicable also to other information aggressors of this world.
I will try to describe what are the mechanisms of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign, why is it a problem, and what can we do against it. I have elaborated these topics in my recent testimony for the US Congress, so if you want to get back to some of this, and find some more information with links to other materials on this matter, let me refer you to the testimony that we published on the DisinfoPortal: https://disinfoportal.org/testimony-jakub-kalensky/
Despite talking only about the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign, I sincerely hope that describing some of the mechanisms and achievements of this campaign can be helpful also here; and that some of the recommendations I have to offer might work also in other regions and against other actors. My wish would be that you would not repeat some of the mistakes we have done in Europe. I am afraid that we have underestimated the problem, and that the disinformers are achieving results that will not be easily fixed.
The information aggressors are not only increasing their audience, but they are also more frequently finding “domestic” actors who are helping them to spread their disinformation campaign. More and more visible European politicians are helping the Kremlin launder their disinformation campaign, which thus receives new legitimacy and reaches new audiences.
We see that the disinformers are becoming more and more aggressive. The famous troll factory moved into three times bigger office spaces. The Kremlin’s disinformation campaign is exported to new places, including Africa or Indonesia. Other actors are using similar weapons. Spreading lies and fear and hatred, manipulating audiences, and undermining and destabilizing societies – all this information warfare is apparently the favorite weapon of the last few years, and preparations are made to make it the favorite weapon of the years to come.
We see that the counter-measures that Europe has undertaken so far are simply not working. Documenting the threat, communicating the threat, and talks about strengthening media literacy or about social media fixing the problem in fact do not solve the issue, these measures do not make the threat go away. They merely mitigate the consequences of the disease, and the disease symptoms; but they do nothing against the virus, they only force the virus to adapt to new circumstances.
We see that the approach so far is insufficient, I would even say that it has failed. There is much more that needs to be done, and that should have been done three or four years ago. It is sad to say that, but currently, the West is losing the information war against the Kremlin – mostly because we in the West do not realize we are indeed in such a war, what this war has already cost us and what will it cost us in the future, and that we need to fight back to defend our values against an aggressor that is trying to undermine us.
However, we have all the tools and capabilities that are necessary for countering these hostile information operations. All we need to do is to start using them. Unfortunately, in many places in Europe, the political leadership is not even aware of being in a conflict. We still need to explain that this information confrontation is a new reality, and that the adversary is hostile, aggressive, and ruthless.
My speech will have three parts: First, I will try to describe what is the infrastructure and mechanism of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign. Second, what are its achievements. And finally, what are the possible solutions and recommendations against this threat.
In Europe, we could see an aggressive export of Kremlin’s disinformation campaign since the war in Ukraine began in 2014. There were obviously some isolated incidents before, but the massive information aggression that is going on on a daily basis, this is something that we see only since the beginning of year 2014. NATO’s top military commander Philip Breedlove called the disinformation campaign around the annexation of Crimea“the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare” – and since 2014, the blitzkrieg has evolved into a persistent, ongoing manipulation in dozens of languages, using thousands of different channels day after day after day. Be it the Anschluss of Crimea, or the invasion of Ukraine, or murder of hundreds of civilians of the flight MH17, or the Russian war crimes in Syria, and Russian assassinations in European countries – you would see the same misleading and lying disinformation machine that whitewashes Russian crimes and tries to disable any counter-action against these crimes.
Many official documents of the Russian Federation, like military doctrine or information security doctrine, describe the confrontational approach in which information aggression is used regardless of the peace-war status. Theoretical articles by Russian military leadership discuss “leaking false data” and “destabilizing propaganda” as parts of their toolkit.
This attitude is also publicly pushed by the very top of the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, openly says that Russia is in a state of “information war.”
The pseudo-journalists dutifully serving the regime go along with this agenda. The head of the Russia Today TV channel, Margarita Simonyan, describes her network as an “information weapon,” a parallel to the Ministry of Defense. The Kremlin’s chief propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov has been even more explicit: “Today, it is much more costly to kill one enemy soldier than during World War II, World War I, or in the Middle Ages. (…) [But] if you can persuade a person, you don’t need to kill him.” Russia is probably the only country in the world where the regime’s “journalists” justify their job as a less costly alternative to killing people.
The subordinates of Kiselyov and Simonyan follow these instructions and, day after day, they keep spreading lies. No matter how many facts are presented about the Russian invasion of Ukraine; Russian war crimes in Syria; the murder of nearly three hundred civilians on flight MH17 by Russian-made and Russian-operated weapons; about the Russian assassinations in Europe, like the one in Salisbury, England; about the state-sponsored doping in sports events; about the Kremlin’s information operations and cyberattacks targeting elections all around the globe; or any other event that is of importance to the Kremlin; no matter how many facts are presented, the Kremlin’s disinformation ecosystem will continue lying, misleading audiences, and spreading disinformation stories and false counter-accusations.
And the regime in the Kremlin rewards these lies. Three hundred pseudo-journalists who were spreading false stories that there are no Russian troops in Crimea, and thus helped the annexation of the peninsula, received medals from President Putin for their “objective” coverage. Sixty Russian journalists received military awards for participating in the war in Syria. Journalists are receiving military awards. The Kremlin makes it clear that these “journalists” are simply part of the Russian Army.
But the Russian space is only the very beginning of the disinformation campaign. The lies of the official Russian state media get spread and multiplied in other languages. First, via a network of language mutations of Kremlin’s official pseudo-media like Russia Today or Sputnik. Second, similar messaging gets replicated by a massive network of websites telling their readers “we are the only independent alternative to the lying mainstream media” – but what they do in fact is just repeating the same lies that the Russian disinformation ecosystem spread two days ago. There are dozens of these websites in almost every European language, hundreds of them in total.
So we have already the top of the Kremlin, their civil servants and embassies and other state representatives spreading the same lies, the official state media spreading the same lies, the state media in other languages spreading the same lies, and also some fringe, pseudo-media and blogs in dozens of languages spreading the same lies.
But that is not the end of the campaign. All this gets amplified by the social media operations directed from the infamous troll factory in Saint Petersburg, and it gets multiplied via a network of trolls and bots, across multiple platforms, not only Facebook and Twitter but also YouTube and Instagram and Reddit and 4chan and many others. Similarly, these disinformation stories get posted in many discussion forums, for example in comments’ sections under articles in solid media outlets.
And after these seeds are sown and the campaign works in this controlled information environment for some time, it later penetrates further, into the uncontrolled, natural environment. Yuri Andropov, the chief of the KGB and later the leader of the Soviet Union, described the mechanism of disinformation as planting opium seeds, one by one, watering them day after day until they bear fruit – at which point already new people start taking care of the plant and cultivate it themselves.
Thus, the disinformation messages planted in the controlled information environment later get repeated in the natural environment, by domestic actors – be it paid agents, or fellow travelers, or simply useful idiots. And we already see that even many high level politicians in Europe repeat the typical lies of the Kremlin’s disinformation machine – be it politicians in Hungary, Italy, Czech Republic, France, Germany and many other countries.
In the 80s, the KGB tried to spread the disinformation campaign that it was the CIA that created AIDS, and they had spent several years of work and significant resources to hide the information source and pretend that the campaign did not come from Soviet Russia. In the over-developed information environment today, similar information laundering that hides the source of the disinformation can happen much more quickly, and with a much higher frequency. New lies get repeated in multiple languages before we even realize that this new message is a lie.
To summarize what is the infrastructure of the disinformation ecosystem: it is founded in the theoretical documents of the Russian Federation, elaborated by the top of Russia’s military, and performed dutifully by the whole of the state apparatus, including embassies all over the world and the secret services, and by the thousands of pseudojournalists serving the regime. The messaging gets multiplied by a huge online army of fringe outlets, so-called alternative media, bloggers etc. This machine is further amplified by targeted online operations and social media manipulations, and by pro-Kremlin actors in Europe, be it corrupt individuals who spread Kremlin’s lies for money, ideological fellow travelers who are attracted by the Kremlin’s dictatorship, or just useful idiots who do not even understand that they are spreading disinformation – but because of their ignorance, they get exploited by the Kremlin’s disinformation machine.
We were not paying enough attention to these signs – to these official documents, to the outrageous statements of Russian public figures, to the daily export of blatant lies disregarding obvious facts, and to the European high-level politicians and other influential opinion-makers who were repeating the Kremlin’s lies. The disinformation campaign has worked basically unopposed for a long time, and it has achieved significant results that will be very hard to mitigate.
What is the aim of the disinformation campaign?
The most important strategic goal is to weaken Russia’s adversaries, be it on the most strategic level, where we would see weakening of international organisations like the European Union and NATO, or weakening on a more local level – like governments or general audience in a particular country. This weakening is done via information operations aimed at destabilizing societies and misleading both decision-makers and the general public.
To achieve this goal, the disinformers are picking the most sensitive topics that create the strongest emotions, that polarize the society the most. These topics can vary from country to country, but they are most often related to the fear of others, fear of other people – be it people from another country, people of a different race, people of a different sexual orientation, or just people from a rural area as opposed to people from the cities, or people with a different income, education, or socioeconomic status. The disinformation campaign also amplifies the dividing lines between “the elites” and “the people” – where “elites” are always plotting against “the people”. The disinformers frequently demonize and denigrate “the others” (be it other nations, or other races, or other socioeconomic groups) to create fear and hatred, since people shaken by these strong emotions can be manipulated more easily.
The Czechoslovak defector Ladislav Bittman once likened the work of disinformers to a work of an “evil doctor”, who makes a precise diagnosis of the maladies afflicting their “patients” – but then trying to make their weaknesses and illnesses worse.
Another part of this campaign is delegitimizing any solid source of information – like the mainstream media, or scientific achievements, or honest journalists, or other people who are searching for truth in think tanks and NGOs. That’s why you would see many attacks against solid media outlets and against NGOs. That’s why you would see spreading of conspiracy theories, including those threatening peoples’ health, like the strong anti-vaccination campaign – because it undermines the trust into solid sources of information. “Don’t listen to the mainstream media, don’t listen to the government, don’t listen to the people in the capital – they are all lying to you, they are trying to mislead you for their own benefit and for their secret plans, it is only us, the independent alternative sources, telling you the truth!” If you can persuade people they shouldn’t trust doctors and scientists and solid journalists, it is easier to persuade them they should also vote against their own interests.
The organizers of the disinformation campaign also denigrate those who are counter-acting these goals, those who are uncovering the Kremlin’s crimes and those who do not give in to the Kremlin’s aggression. They spread defamations against people who defend the fact-based world // ordered by the rule of law – be it journalists, or politicians, or even whole countries. That’s why you would see a disinformation campaign e.g. against Ukraine, or the Baltic States, or against Western politicians and institutions, against organisations like my own Atlantic Council, or against White Helmets in Syria, against journalists investigating Russia’s hostile aggression.
And on the contrary, the disinformers will try to promote those politicians and those public figures that help the Kremlin’s goals – people who weaken the rule of law and the democratic order, people who promote lies and conspiracies, people who oppose international cooperation of democratic nations that Russia is so afraid of, and people who defend the many Kremlin’s crimes and violations of law.
We have seen these tactical measures being used during many European and American elections and referenda. The information aggressors were abusing the topic of racial minorities in the US presidential campaign. They were feeding the hatred towards migrants in Europe. On a daily basis, they are inciting hatred towards LGBT people, or against the EU, against other countries, against one’s own government and institutions, against solid media, or against the whole liberal and democratic order in general. Over the years when millions of messages in thousands of channels in dozens of languages get spread with the same strategic objective, you start seeing results.
That brings me to the question: How successful is the disinformation campaign?
We are approximately in the half of the speech. I hope you are not falling asleep yet.
As with any kind of campaign, measuring the success of it is difficult. According to researcher Kevin McCauley, the KGB did not even measure the impact of its campaign – all that mattered to them was that the campaign penetrated the enemy’s information space, meaning that e.g. an article pushed by the Kremlin got published in a Western outlet. One of my friends talking about private business campaigning said that the advertisers know well, that half of their campaign does not work – they just don’t know which half, and therefore they have to try it all.
It is probably the same mindset that the disinformation organizers have. They know it is not one measure that makes the difference. It is not one article or one politician spreading their message that will manage to manipulate the information environment. It is the sum that matters. It is like the drop of water falling on a stone, which does not make a hole because it is strong, but because it is persistent, and it keeps falling for years on the same spot. Similarly, the disinformation campaign has to have many drops falling on the same sensitive spot in order to make a difference.
What we see in some of the opinion polls, the messages of the disinformers find their audience. There are many people who believe lies, be it the lies about the war in Ukraine, the war in Syria, about the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, and about other Russian crimes. And if you can make people believe these obvious lies, it is easier to make them believe the less obvious, but no less damaging lies – like that their government and their media are in fact working against the people.
We see that people manipulated by disinformation can threaten other peoples’ lives. A man in America who believed that there is a pedophile conspiracy in a pizza restaurant drove several hundred miles and shot a gun in that restaurant – a result of a disinformation campaign you might know as Pizzagate. A Czech pensioner tried to stage a terror attack, he wanted to derail a train and make it look like it was conducted by Muslims, so that he would incite hatred against Muslims – since according to him, Czechs were not hating Muslims enough and they did not appreciate the threat that Muslims are posing to the Czech Republic. There are close to no Muslims in Czech Republic, and they never threatened anyone’s life – it was this brainwashed pensioner believing in a pan-European conspiracy that brings in Islamic terrorists who threatened dozens of lives. The anti-vaccination campaign that Russian sources also spread threatens lives of millions of people on this planet.
And apart from these life-threatening examples, we see that many elections and referenda that were targeted by the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign ended the way that the Kremlin wanted to. Be it the Dutch referendum about the Association Agreement with Ukraine that weakened the EU. Be it the UK Brexit referendum that weakened not only the EU but also the UK for years ahead. Be it the US and Czech Presidential elections, or the Italian parliamentary elections – in all of these cases, the candidates who are more favorable to Kremlin’s interests succeeded, and they continue promoting Kremlin’s interests as we speak, years after the elections. According to Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the Russian influence operations were likely the decisive factor of the US 2016 election campaign. According to the historian Timothy Snyder, Kremlin’s influence was essential also in the French and Austrian Presidential elections. In my testimony, I have found at least 16 electoral processes targeted by Kremlin’s disinformation campaign only in Europe since 2014 – and I am pretty sure that the list is not exhaustive.
There is one more effect that is even harder to measure, especially because Russian disinformation campaign is not the only factor helping this effect, and there are also other factors going in the same direction – but the Kremlin tries hard to achieve this result. People in the West gradually distrust their own governments, their institutions, their media, they even distrust facts and reality. You could see families broken apart because the parents do not trust their children. The consumers of disinformation are living in a parallel reality, and this parallel reality where they know whom to blame is more important for them than facts and evidence, and they are even angry at people who are bringing these facts and evidence against lies and manipulations, even if they are their closed ones. I have several examples of that in my family.
Thanks to the patient, daily work, the organizers of the disinformation campaign gain new information about our audiences every single day, which enables them to fine-tune the messaging based on the reactions of our audiences. They also raise new speakers who will multiply their lies for them, spreading them among further audiences, giving the messages new legitimacy. With each day the disinformation campaign is working, the audiences get penetrated deeper and deeper.
And the longer the campaign goes on, the more people begin to accept it as the new normal. We have seen this effect in the recent European Parliament elections, where some of the researchers even claimed that nothing of importance happened. The only reliable number we have says that the Kremlin’s disinformation ecosystem produced twice as many disinformation messages before the May 2019 elections compared to the same period in 2018 – and yet, some people say “it was nothing special”. People are getting used to the daily presence of Russian lies.
To summarize this part: we can see results affecting opinion polls, results affecting how the general public perceives certain events, and thus affecting what policies the state adapts. We see affecting of election campaigns resulting in significant shifts of votes. We can see effects threatening peoples’ lives. We can see effects resulting in an apathy, in giving up on facts, people stop caring what is truth and what is a lie. Or, in a worse case, people start hating facts and hating those who try to show them the facts.
We can see many effects of the disinformation campaign. And we can see that underestimating this campaign was one of the most naive and reckless things that we in the West could have done in decades.
At this point, I will switch from the rather grim description to the more optimistic part – I will try to describe how can we counter the threat of disinformation, what can and should be done against it.
What is also optimistic is that we are slowly getting towards the end of the speech, this will be its final part.
In the last years, I have identified four lines of work in countering hostile disinformation. I am deeply convinced that we need all four of them, since picking just one or two of them is precisely the failure that we in Europe have been doing, and we can see that it is simply not enough.
First, it is documenting of the threat, so that we can get better understanding of it. Second is raising awareness about it, so that more people know about the threat. Third is repairing the weaknesses that the disinformers exploit – be it low media literacy, the social media environment, or simply the differences between various socioeconomic groups. And finally, fourth, is punishing of the information aggressors – something that is not done very often, but something I am sure we have to be doing, otherwise we will never stop the information aggression. Documenting the threat and educating audiences about the threat will never make it go away – just like simply documenting the number of crimes will not help us to decrease the number of crimes, we will actually have to catch the criminals in the end.
Each of these four strategic strands can be filled with various tactical measures, that can be undertaken by governments, civil society, private business, and also by the media. The specific mixture obviously depends on the local environment and on the level of understanding and determination in the given society.
As for documenting the threat, it is something that the previous team of mine, the East StratCom in Brussels, has been doing. On the EUvsDisinfo website, you could find a database of 6,000 disinformation cases in dozens of different languages. In various countries, you could see various governmental teams involved, as well as think tanks and NGOs, or journalistic projects. Our own Atlantic Council is doing a lot of this work either through the DisinfoPortal, or through the work of Digital Forensic research Lab. However, my feeling is that the comprehensive monitoring task is best done by governments, since they have much bigger resources, and since it is closely connected to security.
But despite several years of experience, we see that even the monitoring task is not performed sufficiently. We still do not have essential data about the disinformation campaign, mostly because there are not enough resources for teams like East StratCom. We still don’t know how many channels the disinformers control, how many messages per day they spread, how many people they target. Because of that, we cannot even properly say whether there is an increase or decrease of a disinformation campaign in a particular country. We have impressions, but we lack solid data. We see fragments of the disinformation ecosystem, but we do not see the whole picture. We need much more monitoring to understand what is happening in the information space, what is the disinformation ecosystem doing, how it evolves.
And it is also necessary to document who are the people targeted by the disinformation campaign, how many are they, how many people believe the particular disinformation messages, who are they, is the number increasing or decreasing. We have to conduct regular opinion polls about that. Only if we measure that regularly, only then will we know how big part of the society is actually infected by the disinformation virus, how successful are the information aggressors, whether they are getting more or less successful, and whether our countermeasures work.
The second line of work is raising awareness. It is again a line of work my previous team was working on, and we are also doing it with the Atlantic Council via publishing articles and studies, and through public speeches like this one. In many countries you would see many different initiatives – the Swedes are probably leading in raising awareness among the government officials and journalists, the Ukrainians probably have the most projects done by their vibrant civil society. This line of work is very closely connected to documenting. Only if we collect the data about the disinformation campaign, only then do we have solid data that we can talk about.
If we expose a disinformation message soon enough, we have a chance to vaccinate the audiences against particular disinformation viruses. If we manage to raise the awareness high enough about particular disinformation sources – be it the pseudomedia, or other speakers – we don’t even need to discredit each and every of their messages, we can just point out to an already discredited source, which is obviously more time-effective.
In this line of work, we need activity from every part of the society – from the governments, journalists, NGOs, media, and private business. Each of these actors has different target audiences, and we need to raise awareness among as many as possible. Men in suits have only a limited audience, we need other actors who reach out to other people. In Czech Republic, we have a young influential Youtuber raising awareness about fake news and media literacy among teenage audience. In Lithuania, they have a comedy show similar to John Oliver that parodies Russian propaganda. These are formats that reach audiences that governments won’t reach. The more formats, the better the chance for success.
There are some good examples in Europe from several governments, the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency is trying to educate civil servants, the Czech Ministry of Interior is trying to do the same. The best example is probably from Lithuania. Two and a half years ago, the Kremlin disinformation campaign tried to spread a disinformation that NATO soldiers raped an underaged girl in Lithuania. A mayor of a small town immediately sensed that something is not right, he alerted the Lithuanian Armed Forces StratCom – which is one of the best teams in the world for countering disinformation – and this team investigated the story and prepared a reaction with a lightning speed. There was a similar story in 2016 in Germany, and it resulted into thousands of people demonstrating against the government. When the disinformers tried the same thing in Lithuania, the information system was prepared for that and the first story in the media was not that a little girl was allegedly raped, but that there is another information attack on Lithuania.
But to get to such a level of awareness, you need a great team with proper resources, with political backing, and years of patient work. Such a level of awareness does not come overnight.
Third line of work, Repairing weaknesses.The information aggressors are rarely inventing new weaknesses in our societies. More often, they are using the existing ones. By repairing the weaknesses that the disinformers exploit, we raise the chance for a successful defense against disinformation. Some of these weaknesses will be repaired by proper documenting and communicating about what the disinformation campaign is doing. But more systemic weaknesses will need more engagement from other specialists.
Media literacy is definitely one of the weaknesses that get exploited and that need to be repaired. Education of the whole population will probably be more a role for the government, but also media can try and adhere to the highest possible journalistic standards, and the private business can promote the work of solid media, and ignore the toxic, disinformation-oriented space.
Other weaknesses that get exploited are the differences between various socioeconomic groups. We will never overcome all these differences, there will always be people who are more rich than other people, there will always be a younger and an older generation, people with higher and lower education, people from bigger cities and from villages. Overcoming the differences in a society should be a part of any sensible policy, but it will also help to make the target that the disinformers aim for smaller. Less polarization and less friction between different social groups means less space for the disinformers. And on the contrary – exploiting the weaknesses, polarizing and antagonizing one part of the society against another, that makes the job of disinformers easier.
Another weakness that is exploited is the social media environment. There is much more that the big tech companies can do, and they should start by stopping promoting the disinformation-oriented outlets, deranking it from the search results, labeling the content as toxic. They should also disable the sophisticated information operations that the social media platforms get abused for.
However, we will always have some weaknesses, and that means the information aggressors will always have some weaknesses to exploit. Therefore, it is necessary to start systematically punishing the disinformers. It is in the nature of the aggressor to be aggressive. If we want to stop aggression, we must punish it and do our best to dissuade any further incidents. This is not an appeal to create new rules or new laws. In many cases, we just need to use the already existing ones. However, we are still not doing this enough.
How can it be done? It is necessary to name and shame those who are part of pro-Kremlin disinformation campaigns, either wittingly or unwittingly. It cannot be normal or acceptable to spread and repeat Kremlin lies about Ukraine, Syria, MH17, about the alleged crimes against humanity that Europeans and Americans supposedly conduct. Individuals who are helping the Kremlin to spread these lies should be named and shamed – by the media, politicians, NGOs, academics, and anyone else.
The most aggressive and most visible propagandists should be sanctioned. On the European Union sanctions list, there is only one “journalist”, Dmitry Kiselyov, who is something like Vladimir Putin’s Joseph Goebbels. Another pet journalist of Putin, Vladimir Solovyov, uses his show to spread hatred against the West several times a week, yet he freely enjoys the pleasures of luxurious villas in Italy. And there are dozens more who deserve to be on the sanctions list. Punishing the most visible propagandists and periodically adding new individuals who participate in Kremlin disinformation would send a clear signal that we do not tolerate the spreading of lies and hatred. Those who propagate lies and hatred about our world in order to break it down simply should not enjoy all the benefits our system and our values offer.
Similarly, the disinformation-oriented organisations must be sanctioned. Then, the Western companies would have to pull their ads from the disinformation outlets. It is mind-blowing to see companies from democratic countries among the top advertisers on Russian TV that tries every day to destroy democracy. A quote ascribed to Vladimir Lenin said, “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” Those companies that are buying advertising time in Russian media are doing exactly that.
Democratic countries and politicians should limit access to the disinformation-oriented outlets and cut them off, with no accreditation, no access to press conferences, no statements for them, and no answers to their questions. These restrictions would make it clear that they are not media, as they themselves admit, but weapons in an information war, as noted above. Estonia made the correct decision not to allow Russian pseudo-reporters to cover an EU foreign ministers’ meeting in 2017, and I find it horrible that the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in European, and the European Federation of Journalists reproached the Estonians for this. This is the equivalent of professional medical doctors defending the right of quacks and charlatans to harm people with bogus treatments.
European countries should also be inspired by the US example and have such media register as foreign agents.
In many countries, it is possible to use existing laws and regulations to force pro-Kremlin pseudo-media to adhere to industry standard. In 2016, Lithuanian authorities punished a Russian TV channel for inciting hatred based on nationality. At the beginning of this year, a Latvian broadcast regulator temporarily restricted a Russian TV channel because of hate speech and incitement of war. This May, Lithuania kicked out the head of Lithuanian Sputnik since he is considered a threat to national security. Britain’s media regulator, Ofcom, has punished RT several times already, primarily for not upholding media impartiality. The pro-Kremlin disinformation ecosystem regularly spreads lies, defamation, false accusations, and false alarms—I believe there are many cases when they might violate the laws or regulations of different countries.
In order to be able to identify those who deserve to be punished, it is also necessary to conduct official investigations, similar to the one conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. This is an area where the United States is far ahead of Europe—the Americans are investigating the attack on their democracy, and a proper investigation is the necessary prelude to a just punishment. Despite the long list of European elections and referenda that have been targeted by Kremlin disinformation in the past five years, I am not aware of a single similar investigation in Europe. We Europeans are basically saying that we do not care whether someone attacks our democracy, we will not react. As a result, logically, we thereby invite further aggression. I would strongly advise that you do not make the same mistake.
Punishing the information aggressors will have one more desirable effect: it will deter other potential aggressors. We already see that other state and non-state actors are adopting the Kremlin’s playbook, apparently because they have calculated that the weak reaction of Western societies is nothing that would deter them. A resolute punishment of the number one information criminal would send a clear signal to other potential criminals.
In closing, there is a lot we can be doing against the organised information manipulation, against this ongoing, daily, persistent disinformation carpet bombing. And we do not need to abandon any of the values that we as free and democratic societies have. We just need to understand that these values have to be defended. That there are aggressors who are trying to destroy these values, and that we must not allow them to operate freely.
If we in the free world wake up, there is still a way how to save it. It just needs hard work and at least half of the determination that the aggressors have.
By Jakub Kalenský, for Disinfo Portal