Ukraine is a valuable ally in defeating Russian disinformation

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Fake news spread on social networks remain a problem even after the EU has become conscious of the phenomenon. [Shutterstock.com/Georgejmclittle]

Ukraine, the laboratory of Russia’s disinformation techniques, wants to work closely with the EU and NATO to defeat disinformation together, writes Andriy Yermak.

Andriy Yermak is the head of the presidential administration of Ukraine.

In the beginning of October, the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, and the Vice-President of the European Commission, Josep Borrell met in Brussels for the 22nd EU-Ukraine Summit.

All parties expressed commitment to strengthening the political association and economic integration of Ukraine with the European Union.

On the agenda was also the threat posed by Russia on disinformation, which is an issue that European security experts have been warning about for some time. In Kyiv, we know that these warnings must be heeded.

Ukraine is unfortunately no stranger to disinformation. For years, we have been the laboratory for Russian disinformation techniques to weaken European societies and support hard geopolitical objectives, like the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine.

Such interference in the political processes of other nations is a global phenomenon. In the United States, France, Germany, Poland, Italy, Spain and many other countries, experts and intelligence agencies have exposed a variety of methods used to support political forces which might benefit Russian interests and/or foster social polarization to weaken our democracies.

In nearby Belarus, we now see a large-scale Russian disinformation campaign which focuses on several untrue and nonsensical claims, such as that NATO troops menace the Belarusian border and that Kyiv sent Ukrainian extremists to destabilize the situation in Minsk.

An appalling disinformation attack regarding COVID-19 was launched in my country in February, when social media posts featuring forged letters spread unease about the arrival of Ukrainians on emergency flights back from China. H

undreds of protesters violently attacked the evacuees in their coaches, creating confusion and chaos, and undermining Ukraine’s international standing.

The disinformation threat is not new. It is based on a century-old doctrine which has its roots not just in the Cold War, but going back to the KGB predecessor agency, the NKVD. While hacking and ‘deep fakes’ may seem innovative, at their roots they are not.

Forgeries of letters, documents and photographs have been used by secret services since the beginning of the twentieth century. So too for physical burglaries and other subterfuges to steal and disseminate papers damaging to opponents – a historical version of today’s “hack-and-leak”.

Whereas we used to see niche pamphlets and subversive newspapers pop up to carry these messages, now we have podcasts and new TV stations, which spring out of the ether too.

How can the EU and Ukraine mitigate these attacks? Firstly, we must recognise that most disinformation originates from real people, not just social media “bots.” Ukrainians understand that blackmail, extortion, or bribery are all being used to co-opt influencers.

Europeans should not be naive to think that these methods are not being exported to their countries too. Mainstream lawmakers, journalists and other public figures are being recruited or coerced into spreading disinformation.

Often internal forces, consciously or unconsciously, use and intensify these disinformation attacks to their advantage. And some of them do not even suspect that the organisers of these attacks are located abroad, and that as a result they help foreign secret services to harm their country.

The companies of Silicon Valley, which are being used to spread disinformation, need to take a more proactive role. Their responsibilities do not stop at the borders of the United States. We must also institutionalize and reframe the challenges posed by disinformation into a predominantly national security context.

Disinformation is a top national security threat for the EU, Ukraine and for all of our allies.

Ukrainian civil society has been at the forefront of understanding and combatting disinformation. It is essential for the state to become more engaged.

We need to create a collective anti-disinformation architecture that brings together the executive, the legislative and the judiciary, as well as non-governmental organizations, private companies and crucially independent media.

We want to work closely with the EU and NATO to defeat disinformation together. We need to identify not just how disinformation is spreading, but where it stems from, why the conspiracy theories underpinning it are so compelling, who benefits and how to counter it efficiently.

Last but not least, we must also reinforce our social resilience. For several years, the Ukrainian Ministry of Education has been working to improve the ability of our young people to spot disinformation via the school system.

Students experiencing the programme are now 18% better at spotting “fake news.” We intend to continue and expand this hugely successful initiative as well as other initiatives on promoting media literacy and strengthening independent media with the EU support.

Some autocratic regimes are trying to sap the cohesion and undermine resilience of our societies by spreading mistrust and lies. Working together, the EU, the UK, the US and Ukraine can defeat disinformation and protect our democracies.

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