The structure and the effect of the disinformation ecosystem
In the last six years, the West faces a challenge that seemed to be history until 2014. The renewed confrontation with the Kremlin has manifested itself not only in the diplomatic, economic, and military domain, but perhaps most importantly, in the informational one. On a daily basis, the Kremlin-controlled and Kremlin-inspired information ecosystem spreads thousands of disinformation messages through hundreds of channels targeting millions of people; messages aiming to weaken and destabilise the West, to aggravate the problems that countries in the Euroatlantic space already have, to exploit divisions and tensions in the societies. The approach to information aggression might be resembling the KGB propaganda very often, but the tools of the digital age have given this kind of aggression a completely different strength.
But although it is the digital sphere that receives most of the attention in the last years, the informational “carpet bombing” is still affecting the offline space as well. Traditional media, political and opinion leaders, academia and expert community - all layers of the information space get targeted by disinformation.
And frequently, the targets give in to the pressure. Both in Europe and in America, we have seen multiple examples of high-level politicians or mainstream media repeating a disinformation that originated in Russia and was planted and amplified by the pro-Kremlin ecosystem. Once the message spreads outside of this controlled system and penetrates further audiences with new legitimacy, the main objective is achieved.
The effects are multiple - we see long-term subversive operations that weaken the trust of the general public into the government institutions, mainstream media and any other solid source of information, and thus widen the gap between “the elites” and “the people”. We see elections successfully targeted by Russian influence operations where we cannot know exactly how big difference they made, we can only know that they made some difference - and particularly in the close elections and referenda, some difference is all that matters to change the result.
But we also see victims of the disinformation campaign that threaten other peoples’ lives - be it terrorists believing they have to “protect” people against a non-existent threat; or be it those who fight against scientific knowledge in medicine or environment.
The threat is sophisticated, tangible, and it is growing.
Four lines of defence against disinformation
Despite the paralysis and inaction in most of the West, there are many different measures that can be undertaken to fight against the threat of disinformation, and there are a few countries, especially on the frontline with Russia, that can show Europe and America some of the best practices in countering disinformation.
The various measures can be divided into four groups:
1. Documenting the threat. The first necessary step without which it is close to impossible to make any other step in an informed way; yet, even the documenting is not being done sufficiently and systematically enough. The best examples of this approach are projects like EUvsDisinfo, StopFake, DFRLab. Still, we lack answers to many highly relevant questions: how many information aggressors are there; how many messages per day they spread; through how many channels; how many people they reach; how many people they persuade. Even the biggest database of disinformation cases in the world (EUvsDisinfo) is still just scratching the surface, mainly due to lack of resources. The high level of information aggression from malign actors demands significantly more resources only just to monitor the malicious activity.
2. Raising awareness about the threat. Once we have the knowledge thanks to documenting, we can warn various audiences about it. It is crucial to protect the audiences in the decision-making chain, like civil servants and government officials; and audiences that can affect larger audiences, like media, politicians, other public speakers; but it is also necessary to communicate with as large and as diverse audiences as possible. And some of them will never be reached by government officials or mainstream media - therefore it is necessary to attract and engage other actors who could raise awareness about the threat e.g. among teenagers, or pensioners in rural areas.
3. Repairing the weaknesses that the aggressors exploit. The malicious actors rarely create new weaknesses in our societies, more often they just exploit the weaknesses that are already present. Repairing them will reduce the target for information aggression. Media literacy programs, pressure on social media to prevent manipulation operations, or addressing the concerns and tensions in the society regarding various national, ethnic, sexual minorities will help to reduce the target. However, it will not stop the aggressors - it will just force them to find a new target. Therefore, it is crucial to...
4. … punish the aggressors. No matter how much we document the threat, no matter how we raise the awareness about it, and no matter how many weaknesses we try to repair and prevent, the aggressors will always adapt. They will find new ways to deliver their disinformation, they will find useful idiots who will be eager to help with the spread, they will find audiences that will always be susceptible to toxic sources of information. The only real measure that will stop them is punishment and deterrence. For that, we do not need to invent new rules or new laws - in many cases, we just need to use the tools that we already have. A few examples mostly from the Baltic countries can serve as a blueprint.
Jakub is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) based in the Czech Republic.
In this capacity, Mr. Kalenský helps raise awareness about pro-Kremlin disinformation campaigns via articles, reports, interviews, public speeches, and briefings for government officials and journalists in Europe. He also serves as disinformation lead of the Eurasia Center’s Ukrainian Election Task Force. Between 2015 and 2018, Mr. Kalenský worked for the European Union’s East StratCom Task Force as the team lead for countering disinformation. There, he was responsible for the EUvsDisinfo campaign and its flagship product, the weekly #DisinfoReview. This work also included briefings and trainings for journalists and civil servants, as well as background briefings for the media. Before that, Mr. Kalenský worked as a political correspondent in numerous print, online, and TV news outlets in the Czech Republic. He was awarded for his work in 2011 with a prize for promising junior journalists. He holds degrees in Philosophy and Russian language and literature.