March 6, 2018

Countering Disinformation: The Danger of Hype—and Ignorance


A superficial understanding of the core strategy of disinformation as well as its ways, means, and ends leads us to naivety about its real effects on targeted societies and vulnerable groups.

The last four years have brought remarkable developments and even some tangible achievements in the field of countering disinformation. As many Western societies have been—and continue to be—targeted by hostile activities, orchestrated by state and non-state entities, we are continuously improving and deepening our understanding about the tactical mechanics behind many disinformation campaigns as well as the circumstances under which actors may might operate. In general, we are becoming more skilled at uncovering the mechanisms by which information is spread and manipulated, and by which societal polarisation is deepened. Clearly, a noteworthy breakthrough in enlarging our knowledge base has come with recent disclosures regarding Russia’s meddling into US elections and some other electoral processes across Europe. All in all, this breakthrough has contributed a great deal to making politicians and decision-makers take the problem seriously—something that many experts, especially from Eastern and Central Europe, have been advising and urging for some time. Previously, it seemed that real problems seemed to be far away from the places where money and power apparently is. It took a while for the topic of countering poisonous disinformation to become so hot that barely a single serious meeting among experts goes without discussing the issue, not to mention the suggestion of countless initiatives to “solve the problem”.

However, the real danger—that is, of allowing the problem to continue, or of applying only mediocre solutions—lies in our poor comprehension of disinformation strategies applied by our adversaries. There is still too little hard data, too few analyses, and too little credible research. We ought not contribute to establishing a “post-knowledge society” by repeated speculation. Opinion polls are not enough to demonstrate what we fear: the real effects of hostile propaganda and massive disinformation, which misleads and reshapes public opinion. We just pretend to understand it, because cannot admit that we do not. Without a complete and profound understanding, there will be no real solution; at best, only an imitation will emerge. This contributes largely to the twin problems discussed here: both of making the challenges we face seem unduly simple—or overly complex. There are four main risks of under- or over-estimating the effects of disinformation.

1. Debunking so-called fake news is not a solution as it draw experts’ attention and limited resources away from real problems. We are evidently too obsessed with debunking initiatives at different levels, so we create false impressions among the public of the magnitude of the phenomenon. In other words, by seeing the only solution in refutation, we send a wrong signal to our citizens that the problem could be easily eliminated just by posting “our version of the truth”. As it is being always done retrospectively and usually with some significant delay, we are just chasing the original lie, and cannot change the framing of the issue that the original lie creates. Once a fake story is out, it begins to live a life of its own, and immediately starts to shape the perceptions of regular readers / watchers. In many cases perceptions dominate over reality, yet we are overconfident in our debunking efforts—overconfidence that will backfire on us.

2. Journalists and media in general have played too big a role in the battle against disinformation, one that simply does not correspond to their competence. By claiming themselves to be media experts, many journalists have usurped mainstream discussions about hostile propaganda, again leaving the incorrect impression that this is an issue that ought solely to be solved by and within media circles. On the contrary: countering disinformation can only successfully happen if the effort is led by much wider community of experts, among them social psychologists, security experts, political and social scientists, historians, digital experts and big data scientists. So long as the overall discussion in Europe and the United States continues to be dominated (if not driven) by journalists, our societies will remain ill-prepared to counter harmful propaganda more effectively—and will be less likely to dare to deter—or even go on the offensive against—such propaganda. Professionals from other relevant areas must be involved, and their knowledge and skills must be tailored to the specifics of information warfare. Obviously, this is not a playground for mediocrity or amateurish attempts to “do something”. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that our adversaries have been investing not only money, but also human capital and research capacity into information warfare.

3. As many Western governments have recognized their inflexibility in dealing with disinformation issues, there has been more emphasis on strengthening the role of civil society, that is, delegating to active citizens some tasks related to information security. The idea of increased involvement of civil society— whether various NGOs, local communities, or individual citizens—is indeed very promising, as it might make possible efforts at counteracting propaganda with more flexible, more innovative, and more diverse, including defensive, preventive, deterrent, or even offensive actions. Concrete proposals for engaging civil society, as expressed by many experts and widely supported by governments, range from receiving or providing training on increasing general media literacy, conducting social-media monitoring and open-source intelligence analysis to carrying out investigative civil journalism. However, given that these are all very ambitious tasks, this presents a risk of overestimating the actual ability of civil society to contribute effectively to countering disinformation in a serious way.
Again, we should not create false expectations regarding the role of civil society without supplying its members with the necessary skills and resources to combat harmful propaganda and to detect and expose hostile activities at a local, regional, or even national level. Most importantly, real physical and psychological protection is urgently required as there is evidence of civil activists being harassed or even threatened by hostile agents not just online, but also in real life. If we identify clear tasks for civil society in defending our democracies and expect a great deal of responsibility from active citizens, we must take into account their vulnerabilities in designing and providing a higher degree of protection. Otherwise, we endanger these citizens by underestimating the risks they might face while countering disinformation, whether it comes from foreign state orchestrated sources or non-state organised actors. Since protecting democracy is not just about integrity of electoral processes, we should recognize civil society as an integral part of democratic infrastructure as a whole, one that needs to be protected in the same way as freedom of speech, elections, political parties, candidates, open debates, etc.

4. Some acknowledgement and appreciation should be given to efforts aimed at facilitating exchanges of experience and improving coordination of actions both within the EU and among other like-minded countries such as Canada and the United States. However, we ought not believe that this is enough. Hostile propaganda, along with the regimes behind it, remains very opportunistic; it usually strikes local or regional targets by taking advantage of existing vulnerabilities, e.g. those caused by failures to fix certain problems in our own societies. Therefore, actions must be planned, coordinated, and executed whether locally or regionally among partners facing the same challenges. The most effective approach is one that takes into account the specifics of a country or a region; accordingly, it cannot necessarily be extrapolated to all of Europe, let alone to the entire transatlantic community. This does not mean that we should stop communicating, advising, and helping each other, but in practical terms the key for success is locality, not globality.

A superficial understanding of the core strategy of disinformation as well as its ways, means, and ends leads us to naivety about its real effects on targeted societies and vulnerable groups. With poor situational awareness and a constant fear of escalation, we are lost in a labyrinth of disinformation. We are too slow in creating our own healthy and functioning ecosystems, which could naturally generate a wide range of preventive, counteracting, and deterrent measures. These ecosystems should be based on excellence in practical tools as well as on the competence of a wide range of actors, educators and implementators—thereby facilitating the interdependencies and cross-fertilization among state, business, and civil society actors that could bring more agile responses to disinformation. Such ecosystems would also boost the instrumentalisation and operationalisation of information policies aimed at protecting our core values.

Western policymakers are hostages of short-termism and therefore prefer easy solutions that solve nothing while creating illusions among politicians, decision-makers, and citizens. This gives a remarkable advantage to our adversaries, at least in terms of time. We must not be ashamed to call things by their real names: while there may not be a cold war in the informational domain, at best we have a very hot peace. In the background, a full-fledged informational assault by guerrilla means is always going on, bringing into our societies hosts of hostile narratives. This assault should be resisted in its own specific way, not by declarative discussions or soft measures oriented on immediate yet short-lasting results. In the long term, it would be extremely unwise if we underestimate the correlation between disinformation and changes in behaviour patterns of some societal groups. The hostile becomes harmful where the cognitive, online and real worlds meet up, affecting the decision of unprepared citizens on whether to take—or, even more importantly, not to take—action when necessary.