The growing prevalence of disinformation or ‘fake news’ is harming societies, undermining democracy and threatening freedom of the media.
Dissemination of false information and manipulation of public opinion have always existed as propaganda, but in recent years they became much more insidious and difficult to detect.
According to Freedom House’s ‘Freedom on the Net 2017’ report, the use of paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda, once pioneered by China and Russia, has now gone global.
Freedom House, assessing internet freedom in 65 countries, found that “governments in a total of 30 countries deployed some form of manipulation to distort online information, up from 23 the previous year”.
Among them, Turkey, reportedly had 6,000 people enlisted by the ruling party to counter government opponents on social media.
Most governments try to sway public opinion in their own countries but a few excel in targeting those beyond their borders.
The Russian interference in Europe and elsewhere is, by now, well-documented. The EU’s External Action Service East Stratcom Task Force has a database of over 3000 cases of disinformation.
In Britain, too, Prime Minister Theresa May accused Russia of meddling in elections and “weaponising information” in order to sow discord in the west.
In addition to social media manipulation, the presence of the Russian media, like RT and Sputnik, is another reason for concern.
This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the Baltic states where the Russian propaganda machine has been in overdrive for many years.
Brian Whitmore, a senior Russia analyst at Radio Free Europe, told the AEJ’s Congress in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Friday 17 November, that the West needed to listen to the Baltic states. “What the Russians are doing to us now, they have been doing to the Baltic states for years” he said, adding “during the last 10-15 years, Russia has been trying to internationalize the system that exists in Russia itself”.
Addressing the AEJ delegations from 20 countries, Lithuania’s Vice Foreign Minister Darius Skusevičius explained his government’s 4-point approach to tackling Russian-led hostile disinformation campaigns.
The most effective ways to deal with ‘state-sponsored news and actions’ were to expose the nature of disinformation broadcast by Russian state-owned stations; tackling the funding sources of those media; having an adequate response by promoting independent, high-quality media and maintaining western cohesion to disrupt the flow of false information.
Propaganda and disinformation work best where the civil society is weak, media literacy is low and media freedoms are stifled. Strengthening critical thinking in society and ensuring strong ethical standards and transparency in media are the best antidotes to disinformation.
As Marius Laurinavicius of Vilnius Institute of Policy Analysis told the Congress, the way to mobilise societies against black propaganda is to focus on solving their own pressing problems. “Russians are not creating them, they are exploiting them”, he said.
Brian Whitmore had a similar view. “Russia is holding a mirror to weaknesses that the west is going through in its latest period of angst”, he said.
Disinformation campaigns by Russia to influence elections and sway public opinion have prompted the European Union to map out an EU strategy to counter the spread of false information. The EU has launched a public consultation initiative, inviting news media companies and civil society organisations to take part.
Turkey, too, is an obvious target for intentional disinformation and manipulation by Russia. Since the failed coup attempt, anti-western sentiments are visibly being whipped up.
As a matter of fact, Turkey is no stranger to fake news. After years of Gulenist manipulation, and now the pro-government media working overtime fabricating and twisting information, trust in news is already very low.
There seems to be little public interest in “cross border info wars”. Instead, the buzz word in Turkey, nowadays, is “perception operation”.
This post is also available in: Turkish