Russia’s information war in Central Europe: New trends and counter-measures
You can download the full report in pdf here.
*Milan Šuplata drafted this report during his time at GLOBSEC Policy Institute, where he worked until 30 June 2016.
The main purpose of Russia’s information campaign, as part of hybrid warfare, is to undermine its opponents. Rather than promoting Russia itself, it seeks to achieve gradual decomposition of the institutional framework and security architecture of Europe. The key targets of the Kremlin’s divide et impera strategy in Central Europe have been the EU and NATO, as well as the United States. At the same time, the mass influx of disinformation on often serves Russia directly, presenting it in a positive light at the local level, sometimes even depicting it in the role of the only rational actor, unrecognized or misunderstood peacemaker and saviour.
Russia has managed to exploit our vulnerabilities because it understands and craftily uses the power of the Internet. The revolution in communication technologies, decentralization of information flows, and high penetration of the Internet have allowed Russia to bypass traditional media and have direct influence on public opinion in countries of interest.
Myriads of propaganda Facebook pages and websites in local languages emerged during the 2014-2015 period, in the wake of the violent land-grab of Ukrainian territory and later during the EU’s migration crisis. Moreover, professional trolls and true believers disabled Internet discussions by flooding them with their comments and emotive visual content.
The analogy of an autoimmune disease is useful in understanding what is happening in Europe. The symptoms include negative emotions (mistrust, disgust, and anger) towards our own allies, institutions, governments and values; exaggerated fears from new threats (such as uncontrolled mass migration, the alleged Islamisation of Europe, or provoked conflict with Russia).
All this is designed to create the perception that these sentiments are largely shared by vast groups of the local population (due to the overwhelming quantity of their online communication) and parts of their political elite.
This paper follows up on the work of a group of foreign & security policy and social media analysts from the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia, who have been monitoring and jointly reporting on anti-West propaganda in their national environments since Fall 2015. It also shows the results of the opinion polls commissioned by the GLOBSEC Policy Institute in the framework of the same project
In Part One, the report summarizes the main narratives of current anti-West propaganda, providing insight on their effect. Part Two consists of recommended counter-measures and solutions to be undertaken at both national and international levels.
Many of these recommendations are based on numerous debates within the international consortium composed of the GLOBSEC Policy Institute, the European Values think tank, Political Capital, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the International Republican Institute (IRI), and other organizations and individuals involved in the emerging regional network and exchange of experience in the field of countering anti-Western propaganda in Central Europe.
The information war against the West undermines cohesion and aggravates internal divisions, threatening the very existence of national and international institutions, and ultimately peace, security, and prosperity in this part of the world. However, this attack can and should be warded off, and the civilization to which we naturally belong must be defended. The recommendations listed below are the result of intense discussion within an international consortium of organizations, with the ambition of assisting policy-makers in defining national and common policies to counter the present threat.
Official recognition of the problem is a conditio sine qua non if any counter-propaganda strategy is to be successful. In addition to official political declarations, moves can be made at lower levels of state bureaucracy by identifying the threat in documents such as intelligence services’ annual reports and national security strategies. The inability of state institutions to publicly identify the problem would make it hard for the non-governmental sector and media to conduct public awareness raising activities, as their claims would be dismissed as biased and groundless. Public exposure of the propaganda network (including potentially illegal schemes of funding and cooperation with intelligence services) is an important part of increasing resilience as it delegitimizes and thus disables illicit information channels. Also, communication of political representatives from both government and opposition camps is essential. They are well suited to inform the public and advocate values and institutions to which our countries adhere, because they have exceptional communication skills, unparalleled space in the media, access to information, and authority among their voters. National policy documents conceptualising threat and response to hostile foreign influence & disinformation operations need to be adopted.
Upgrading the security system needs to include changes in the legislative, organisational, financial, and personal setup of the government’s institutions. These must undergo thorough analysis, perhaps in the form of a government-run national security audit (already conducted in the Czech Republic). Measures aimed at disrupting propaganda campaigns need to be taken, including the halting of illegal funding and rigorous prosecution of perpetrators of such illegal activities. Monitoring and continuous analysis of propaganda should be the role of intelligence services responsible for informing the government and other state institutions. Periodical briefings for members of parliament would improve understanding of the problem and decrease the penetration of disinformation in this highly influential group. However, these activities need to be conducted in the public domain as well, to build capacities for countering propaganda from the official, non-governmental, and media standpoints. Monitoring and analysis of the situation is essential in developing counter-narratives and exposing propaganda networks. For example, the Czech Government is launching a new Hybrid Threat Centre with up to 30-man team of experts by 2017.
Comprehensive communication strategies focused on defending and promoting our values and institutions in this information war need to be adopted at both national and international levels. The documents should be based on thorough research and analysis and include modern and out-of-box forms of communication with the public. They must be prepared and implemented together with the non-governmental sector, marketing professionals, and media, as proved effective in the pre-accession period. National communication strategies should be further developed into communication strategies of the respective state institutions (especially of the government and the foreign, defence, interior, education, culture, finance, and economy ministries). Communication in national languages is necessary to overcome language barriers, especially as the other side communicates this way. Translations of foreign content (such as books, articles, videos) should be supported on a large scale. Unlike in the EU, information on NATO’s website is only available in English, French, Ukrainian, and Russian. An agreement on including more language versions is necessitated, especially when it comes to the official languages of the most vulnerable countries.
Development of our own narratives, both negative (based on myth-busting, fact-checking of anti-Western and radical propaganda, informing of the situation in Russia) and positive (based on the benefits of the Western values and institutions) is a must. We must monitor the information environment and provide evidence of the lies and hate speech spread by the other side to question their credibility. But this is not enough; the attack on our values (such as democracy, liberty, human rights) and institutions (especially the EU and NATO) needs to be counter-balanced by their active defence and support. The story of Central Europe in the EU and NATO is one of success; the public should be given sufficient arguments to stand behind these integration projects. Addressing the problem of anti-Americanism is also important, as it is one of the main drivers of the negative stance towards NATO.
Support for quality journalism can make a difference in the information war. Adherence to the basic principles of journalism, including fact checking and crosschecking of information, is what differentiates the traditional media from their alternatives, often serving as propaganda mouthpieces of the Kremlin. The role of public media is therefore indispensable. Additional support for their domestic and international news boards, discussion formats, investigative journalism, as well as increased funding for quality documentary production in related areas is important. Discussion needs to take place on the ethics of today’s journalism, as media in the post-communist area tend to lean towards balance at any cost, rather than the truth. Also, the development and improvement of media literacy skills need to be promoted, especially through the education system, and the oft-discussed problem of poor journalism education at many of our universities needs to be dealt with.
Defending the online battlefield from propaganda by developing and employing proper capabilities is necessary to counter disinformation, radicalisation, and recruitment. Arbitrary censorship is unthinkable in a democratic society, but there should be no tolerance of any illegal behaviour, especially hate speech or propagation of violations of human and civil rights. The online environment needs to be monitored and legal action taken against physical and legal entities violating the law. Also, government and non-government initiatives aimed at countering illicit narratives in the online environment need to be supported. Technological solutions and programmes countering trolling and propaganda must be developed, supported, and implemented. Last but not least, substantial strategic communication and cyber defence capacities need to be built within the military and intelligence services, to protect our institutions and societies from large-scale propaganda attacks in times of peace and war.
Adaptation of the education system is important to protect the young generation victimisation in the information war. This generation has not experienced a totalitarian regime or the integration process in Europe and is vulnerable to the attempts of the so-called alternative media disseminating conspiracy theories, hate speech, extremist ideologies, and disinformation, and an increase in support of extremism has been reported. Curriculums need to focus on the development of critical skills such as media/digital literacy, critical thinking, methodology of science, knowledge of foreign languages, as well as key formative matters such as modern history and the effects of totalitarian regimes, Euro-Atlantic integration processes and institutions, and Western values. Our education systems should help promote democratic citizenship by employing modern and entertaining tools such as video-documentaries, games, personal experience, interactive museums, and other field visits (such as to Nazi and communist concentration camps).
International cooperation is expected as many countries of the EU and NATO face the same threat of Russian propaganda. Activities may include the exchange of good practices at various levels and in various fields (intelligence, education, foreign affairs, defence, de-radicalisation, media, etc.). Cooperation between the Czech Republic and Slovakia could be very effective, as their information space and propaganda actors (as well as those opposing them) are highly connected. Also, international bodies, such as the NATO Strategic Communication Centre of Excellence and EEAS East Strategic Communication Task Force need to be supported (funding, personnel) by the EU and NATO member countries.
Finally, fixing our own internal problems, especially when it comes to corruption and the unfinished development process of the rule of law and good governance, is essential in gaining the trust of the public in democratic institutions and Euro-Atlantic integration. Our weaknesses are a source of anger and frustration, fertile ground for populist and extremist political forces, and outright anti-Western propaganda. Russian propaganda exploits our perceived historical and societal grievances and antipathies to its benefit. Extreme and radical threads are present in every society, but we need to limit their ability to expand and penetrate mainstream thinking. Comprehensive national and international strategies must be adopted and their implementation sufficiently appropriated.
You can download the full report in pdf format here.
This report is published within the framework of the GLOBSEC Policy Institute (GPI) Strategic Communication Initiative, which monitors, analyses and discloses Russian propaganda and its domestic actors in countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). In partnership with the Political Capital Institute (Hungary) and European Values (Czech Republic), GPI continuously collects and analyses disinformation campaigns and propaganda in Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic and provides policy recommendations to decision makers. This initiative was implemented with the financial support of the National Endowment for Democracy.
The opinions stated in this report do not necessarily represent the position or views of the GLOBSEC Policy Institute or the National Endowment for Democracy. Responsibility for the information and views expressed therein lies entirely with the authors.
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