April 23, 2015

The Challenges of Information Campaigns in Estonia: the Warfare for Hearts and Minds

Reuters/Scanpix
Visitors walk past TV sets during Russian President Vladimir Putin's live broadcast nationwide phone-in at the DNS electronic shop in Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk April 17, 2014.
Visitors walk past TV sets during Russian President Vladimir Putin's live broadcast nationwide phone-in at the DNS electronic shop in Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk April 17, 2014.

The Ukraine crisis reminded us in a dramatic manner of the problems posed by Russian information campaigns. Estonia and EU experts were both forced to think about ways of countering Russian disinformation. Estonia, Denmark, Lithuania and Great Britain appealed to the European Commission requesting the creation of a new Russian-language channel and communication strategy for combating disinformation from Russia. As EU and European think tanks started tackling information warfare issues, Estonia announced it would move to set up a new Russian-language television channel. The new media project will be launched in autumn 2015, but media experts are already split into two camps.

The problem of Russia disinformation cannot be resolved solely in the information sphere. It is a hard nut to crack, consisting of components such as education, historical and cultural heritage, changes in the social and political sphere and community activity –all facets of a problem that must be carefully considered in designing a communication strategy. The first angle that Estonian and European experts decided to take was to make available an alternative point of view: creating a new TV channel in Estonia and an EU project that will monitor and expose the worst false reports in the Russian media.
There is a deep-seated opinion among Estonia’s Russian-speaking population that everyone has their own truth, both Estonia’s and Russia’s media. Yet going by the definition of truth that holds that it is a logical conclusion made from all known facts and empirical data, Russian media really should not even be in the running for the title of reliable information source, due to all the facts that have been fabricated. One of the most striking examples of disinformation related to Estonia is a March report aired on Rossiya 1 TV station about Estonian MP Jaak Madison. The TV report used shots from the Estonian satirical special programme “Tujurikkuja” in 2008 to allege that the deputy attended a school that held an Idol-type competition called “Estonian Is Searching for a Neo-Nazi” Estonia has, of course, never had such a competition and there is no such school, but the channel managed to build a whole segment around a comedy skit recorded in Tartu city centre. Another example of disinformation is when the Russian-language site baltnews.ee ran an edited version of a clip that was aired during Estonia’s national round of the Eurovision song contest. It was a self-deprecating social critique, one of an entire series of clips on key topics in Estonian society, but the Russian-language site passed it off as an instructable for how children are supposed to interact with local Russian speakers. Based on the baltnews.ee report, the “instructional video” was also covered by a number of Russian media outlets.
These are far from the only examples of disinformation that can be found in Russian media outlets. To fight back against the tide of misinformation, a project called www.stopfake.org was launched in Ukraine in 2014, which checks videos, photos and facts in the press and mass media. The initiative has been going on for more than a year and the main fakes found have originated on Russian media outlets.
News broadcasts and websites are not the only sources of false information. In recent years, the mass media has started to be used widely for campaigns of misinformation. Russia has what might even be called troll factories –shills paid to keep up an incessant stream of commentary on websites and thus demoralize others in the mass media. The objective for the trolls is to goad undecided people to adopt a certain opinion in the belief that it is held by the majority.
Considering the increased activity of Russian media outlets in spreading false information and the abundance of disinformation tactics, a wave of scepticism has come to surround the new Russian-language channel in Estonia, for quite a number of reasons: the low number of Russian-speaking media experts on the Estonian market, doubts as to TV channel quality, the lack of demand due to the existence of proper TV channels (such as the Russian-language Euronews), and even the opinion that if the channel were to be state funded, the media content and experts would not be found by the TV channel itself but from “outside.” At the same time, Euronews is not meant expressly for Estonia’s Russian-speaking people – no channel is, currently – and this is the gap the new local information source is trying to fill. In terms of quality, the new TV channel may of course not measure up to its competitors, but it has to compensate for the gap through ambitious TV projects and interesting guests, Estonian- and Russian-speaking inhabitants from Estonia with a range of views, some who share the political establishment views on the international arena and some who do not. Those sceptical about the quality of the future channel may be sure that specialists from other countries will help to resolve at least this aspect. For instance, Germany has already signalled consent to offer journalists and J-school students additional training and to share the Russian-language programming of the German public broadcaster with the new Estonian channel.
In pursuing its domestic and foreign policy, every EU member state develops its own communication strategy and decides to what extent to participate in policies for improving the EU’s Russian-language media space and fighting disinformation. Estonian experts saw the problem above all through the prism of Estonian society’s social cohesion and offering an alternative independent medial project. The objective of the new TV channel is to increase the Russophone community’s awareness and knowledge of the various sides of Estonian life and in this manner to bring the Russian-language media space closer to the Estonian-language one. The new TV channel is not just an alternative angle, it is also a symbol that shows that the Estonian state is interested in integrating the two local communities. With the Estonian social cohesiveness policy being shaped step by step, Russia’s information campaigns will over time lose its influence.

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