Fight the lies and ‘alt-truths’

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Frauke Petry's Alternative für Deutschland party is often accused of being a vehicle for Moscow. [Metropolico.org/Flickr]

The Kremlin uses our internal grievances to force a wedge between different groups of people in our societies, writes Tomáš Prouza.

Tomáš Prouza is State Secretary for European Affairs in the Czech Government Office.

It seemed for quite a long time that the security situation in Europe after the end of the Cold War had changed to a more peaceful and stable state. However, the 21st century and especially the new decade have brought a changing international environment and new threats. Challenges stemming from globalisation and regional conflicts in our neighbourhood have had significant security and economic impacts. There has been mass immigration to Europe, terrorists attacking our way of life, far-right radicals gaining popularity in our elections and aggressive actions of the Russian Federation meddling in the internal affairs of sovereign states. We also know that Russian bombing of Syrian cities actually worsens the migration crisis.

The Kremlin uses our internal grievances to force a wedge between our people and democratic politicians, between different groups in our nations, between our citizens and the traditional media, between our countries as allies, and between our countries and the international organisations.

Kremlin-led and inspired disinformation operations are a widespread and dangerous phenomenon. The ongoing scandal with the Kremlin trying to influence the US presidential election is only one of many examples. The Kremlin’s so-called “media” such as Russia Today and Sputnik tried to poison the debate on Brexit. Troll factories engaged in the Dutch domestic discussion on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. The goal of modern disinformation is not to create positive feelings towards Russia but to simply relativise facts and create a world where there is nothing we can trust. That is when extremists take charge.

Then there is an impactful role being played by disinformation projects – usually websites offering lies and manipulation as a so-called “alternative point of view”. But a lie is not a legitimate alternative opinion. There are approximately 40 disinformation projects which are very active in the Czech media space, attacking democratic politicians, the EU and NATO, or manipulating stories about migrants. There are politicians who simply copy and paste the position of the Kremlin. They simply poison our public debate.

Let’s examine some data to illustrate how successful pro-Kremlin propaganda is in using the fears of our citizens. Half of the Czech public thinks that the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees coming into Europe are the responsibility of the United States. 28% of Czechs think that the Russian military intervention in Syria helps to solve the European migration crisis while in reality, Russian military actions force thousands of people to flee their homes in Syria. The impact of alternative media and disinformation campaigns is strongest in the Czech Republic, compared to Slovakia or Hungary. Already 25% of Czechs believe disinformation stories and outlets. In the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, about half the populations see their country’s position between East and West, and therefore this segment of the population could become the easiest target for disinformation.

Democratic response

We as democratic societies should take several steps.

First and foremost, we need to put hostile disinformation operations on the domestic, EU and NATO foreign and security policy agenda. To be able to solve the problem, we firstly have to recognise it. That is why the Czech government is currently finishing a process called the Audit of National Security. We are screening our security infrastructure to find blind spots to fill in. This process will establish the influence of foreign powers and hybrid threats as legitimate threats to our internal security, next to more traditional areas such as extremism or terrorism.

Second, we should enhance the capacities of the EEAS East STRATCOM team as a part of our joint European response. They also need counterparts in the member states who would focus on this agenda on a daily basis. Only a few people know about it but a network of over 400 volunteer experts throughout Europe has emerged during the last year. Those people help the EEAS STRATCOM team to create its weekly Disinformation Review. This is an infrastructure we should develop.

Third, we need to publicly challenge those who spread disinformation. It should be a part of an honest public discussion that once somebody lies, he or she must bear the consequences. Alternative opinions are a natural part of any democracy, but when somebody keeps lying systematically, we should start asking why.

Fourth, states themselves must respond in the policy area, but sometimes non-governmental activities are more flexible. That is why our governments need to find ways to support independent fact-checkers such as the Ukrainian StopFake or other institutions countering these faked narratives and exposing tools of disinformation.

Politicians cannot and should not do everything. A good example of a healthy reaction by a democratic society is the joint statement of 21 editors-in-chief of the main Finnish media. They exposed the so-called “alternative media” for what they are – tools for spreading lies and disinformation. We need journalism professionals to react to those who simply hide their disinformation agenda behind a journalistic label. The state can do very little in this field – only the media themselves can self-regulate to defend their profession.

Fifth, I believe that each European government should have an inter-institutional analytical centre, which can work with open source and intelligence reports to analyse and challenge disinformation operations. It would monitor and gather knowledge on the domestic situation, and closely cooperate with EU and NATO structures and its counterparts in other countries. That is why, based on Baltic experience, the Czech government is setting up a new Hybrid Threat Centre. It will monitor the disinformation battlefield and propose rapid reactions by authorities.

We are democratic sovereign states. We need to take on difficult discussions on how we want to run our countries and what our foreign policy should be. Sovereignty means that we must and we will decide on our own and no hostile disinformation operations are acceptable.

Nobody is calling for censorship. We simply need to name and expose hostile disinformation operations, which share common goals with our own extremists – to undermine our democratic systems. No matter who does it whether the Kremlin, its allies, or ISIS, it is unacceptable. We need to restore our sovereignty and oust systematic hostile disinformation operations from our countries.