June 12, 2017

War and Noise: Russia, Alternative Facts, and Open Societies


On 25 May, ICDS and the NATO StratCom Center of Excellence hosted a seminar dedicated to the role of the media and journalists in strengthening national resilience.

The so-called “post-truth era” and the rhetoric around “fake news” have given renewed salience to the issue of the integrity of information. A fundamental aspect of today’s media landscape is the multiplication of sources. Virtually every smartphone user can instantly turn into a broadcaster, a consumer or a “fact-checker”. The information ecosystem is noisy, with a constant cacophony of breaking news and stories. News items that defy standards of journalism are now perpetually circling the globe.

Information has become immediate. The filters between raw sources of information and news consumers have disappeared. This has created a level playing field, putting professional journalists on an equal footing with amateur self-declared reporters. At the same time, truth has tended to matter less than trust to explain media consumption. Western societies are traditionally skeptical and critical towards political and media elites, while the difficult economic context has left out an increased part of the population. This situation reflects a general crisis of trust in intermediary bodies—which Russian disinformation attempts are actively exploiting.

Blurring myths and facts: Russian post-moderndisinformation

The rationale behind “alternative facts” does not originate within Trump’s White House. Presenting a general alternative to the Western view of the world is a key goal of Russian disinformation strategies. The instant and de-intermediated information flow offers the unprecedented possibility of shaping the views of global audiences at a very early stage of any given event. The Kremlin understood this reality early on; accordingly, along with its traditional propagandistic and subversive tactics, it set up strategies of saturation and alternative media coverage. Armies of trolls echo and repeat ideas in order to fabricate reality, while RT and Sputnik promote alternative and sophisticated narratives to that of major world media.

Information noise created by the breaking news rush must be distinguished from tactics of deliberate saturation and presenting alternative facts. Understanding disinformation strategies abroad requires first paying attention to the domestic Russian information landscape. The majority of news airtime on a given day tends to be dedicated to one item, offering a simplified view of the world while conveying a set of core messages: the West hates Russia and does everything to undermine it; Ukraine is a country destined to be with Russia, but has been hijacked by NATO and “neo-Nazis”; NATO is an aggressive organization positioned close to Russian borders, while Russia is an island of stability in the world. To that end, media manipulation in Russia is part of a daily routine. There are no censorship or specific guidelines for news coverage as such, but rather a set of top priorities. Russian state media is not a vertical system based on strict orders; instead, it is organized horizontally with divided responsibilities. Ultimately, the system is fully self-regulatory, with censorship starting in the minds of journalists themselves.

Russian disinformation strategies are fundamentally post-modern. They tend to abolish the distinction between myth and reality. The Kremlin’s goal is not domination of the international newsroom; instead, it seeks to promote the notion that truth as such is relative, and that no source can be fully trusted. Western societies represent incredibly fertile ground for this strategy, given that they are extremely critical while at the same time excessively naïve. Accordingly, Russia has been able to induce a state of confusion and undermine trust.

Resilience of the open society and information integrity

Western societies are open. Free speech, media pluralism and democracy may be the backbone elements of liberalism, but they represent major liabilities in the face of persistent disinformation. In order to counter it more effectively, noise has to be separated from warfare. Some information noise—misleading stories of poor quality—is simply the result of hurried journalism in an information ecosystem focused on immediacy. The difficulty is that sensational events are fertile ground for the spread of disinformation: traditional and reliable sources lag behind due to their hesitancy to report facts that are still being investigated. Moreover, the architecture of the media landscape is very prone to creating information disorder and chaos, as both verified and unverified stories compete for viewers and readers.

Combating disinformation in an open society brings difficult legal challenges. Regulating social media, limiting free speech, and defining a level of tolerable anonymity are slippery slopes that would fail if they were the only levers of defense against disinformation. Instead, attacks on trust and on the integrity of information should be treated as an opportunity by traditional journalism. There is a power struggle in the information sphere between mainstream and emerging sources of information. Perhaps the most effective way for the media and journalists to strengthen national resilience would be to demonstrate their irreplaceable value and deny an impact to unreliable sources of information. The proliferation of fake news and disinformation can be best addressed by a reassertion of the ethics of quality journalism. Perhaps this change would demand a renewed working model around fact checking and solid investigative journalism.

The inner strength of the system

Fake news, alternative facts and trolling may be new words for old realities, but the explosion of social media and the atomization of information sources are creating an exceptional level of noise, making it difficult to single out genuine disinformation tactics. Traditional media sources and the journalistic profession have an essential role to play in strengthening national resilience and preserving the integrity of information. Resilience will be fostered if journalism and mainstream media are able to demonstrate their own added value in news coverage. Fighting fake news and disinformation with more of the same would be counterproductive and would appear as a desperate self-defense mechanism of a wicked system. Systematically offering thoroughly and transparently investigated stories would best annihilate the demand for “alternative facts” and discredit disinformation—no matter where it may come from.