April 13. 2024. 6:29

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Tackling Russian disinformation requires cross-society effort, experts say

Journalists have been at the forefront in covering the carnage and chaos of Russia’s war in Ukraine but fighting Russian disinformation will require a societal effort going beyond the media sphere, stakeholders agree.

“On 24 February, all Ukrainian journalists became war correspondents, we worked from bomb shelters and under missile attacks, some of my colleagues had to rescue their families from almost occupied villages and some have to be careful [in their reporting] because their relatives remain in occupied territories,” Yuliia Bankova, editor in chief of the Ukrainian outlet Liga.net said

“Ukrainian journalists began to fight disinformation long before the full-scale invasion, we had a lot of fact-checking projects in Ukraine, specifically on Russian propaganda,” added Bankova who was speaking at the EURACTIV-organised policy debate “On-the-ground reporting – Can it help combat Russia’s disinformation war?” supported by the European Media and Information Fund (EMIF).

Nevertheless, one of the barriers Ukrainian other international media had to face early on was on social media.

“We faced the challenge of banning our posts on social media when we started covering this war,” Bankova said, adding in many cases they were considered as hate speech by certain social media platforms.

“We were banned even for some real photos from Bucha or Irpin or Kyiv as platforms like Facebook and Instagram recognised this as violence and blocked our posts,” she said.

“We also couldn’t promote some of our articles on social media because they mentioned the words ‘war’ or ‘Russian war against Ukraine’ or ‘Russian atrocities’,” Bankova added.

The solution for her publication, and many other media, was establishing contacts with those corporations.

Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and Twitter hastily rewrote their rules on hate, violence, and propaganda in Ukraine, adding carveouts.

For the Ukrainian media especially, Bankova said, such challenges and the level of preparedness and skill of the media in handling these challenges will likely have a determining effect on the direction of post-war Ukraine.

“We would like to cooperate more with foreign media, we are open to content exchange and many launched English versions of their websites,” Bankova said, adding that this could also be a way to bring further understanding about facts on the ground and fight disinformation.

Information operations

“Our public opinion polls show that years of information operations where you had domestic political parties and political actors spreading Kremlin propaganda, did not disappear with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine,” Katarina Klingova, a senior research fellow at GLOBSEC, said.

According to Klingova, public opinion polls in many Central and Eastern European countries show that there is a significant part of the population – between one-third and one-fifth depending on the country – that believes pro-Kremlin propaganda.

“This is connected to long-term information operations, but also has a lot of historical cultural drivers that the Kremlin itself, but also pro-Kremlin domestic actors, have been actively utilising,” Klingova said.

“Resilience building takes time and is something that cannot be the responsibility only of media or journalists, but it needs to be that of the whole of society, a whole of government approach, with the sense that you will need to take time to dedicate significant financial and human resources to achieve it,” she added.

Making societies resilient

“If we focus on the behaviour of the actors who have the intent to manipulate, if we can expose them, if we can sharpen awareness for that and if we have also the necessary regulatory tools in place, we can address the issue quite effectively,” Lutz Güllner, head of strategic communications at the EU’s diplomatic service, the European External Action Service said.

“Where we can draw the line, and that is the main point are the manipulative techniques that are used – we need to look at the actions and the behaviour of these actors,” he said.

“Our adversaries have done this very well, they are extremely well-connected, in what we call the disinformation ecosystem – we need to do the same on the other side,” Güllner said, adding that this would require bringing together actors that have a benign intent.

Last year, the EU decided to ban Russia Today as well as the online Kremlin-funded news service Sputnik by restricting their access to the European media market regardless of their distribution channel.

“We didn’t censor it, we have not sanctioned a media, we have not sanctioned an opinion, but we have sanctioned an instrument of the Kremlin that has been used in this war,” Güllner said.

“We imposed the sanctions for a very simple reason, RT is the arm of the Kremlin, it’s an instrument of the Russian security system that they have used to support its illegal action in Ukraine and it is not in media in the sense of all the criteria that we think media should have,” he added.

Open source tools

As documenting, investigating and advocating for the end of the war in Ukraine has become the focus of the international community, other organisations have started to heavily invest in open-source information gathering.

“We are in this dichotomy at the moment of needing to create more engaging content to compete with the disinformation, but at the same time, we need to improve and verify and engage with audiences with factually correct information,” Ross Burley, co-founder of the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR) said.

The ambition was to make verified and reliable information public, and to support media, humanitarian, research, justice and accountability organisations.

The project now includes a database of 20,000 entries, each of which has been stored and archived, which investigators can now go through and investigate and verify.

However, Burley believes that one of the current challenges is the exploitation of the ‘Ukraine war fatigue’ by malign actors and Russian propaganda channels.

“We will only win on the battlefield of the information spaces, if we’re all working as one – as policymakers, as journalists, as civil society, actors as open source community,” Burley added.

Making media resilient

“Fact-checking activities have enabled us to gather an important corpus of evidence of various actions taken by the Kremlin to distort the information and influence public opinion, but they are not an easy task,” Paolo Cesarini from the European Media and Information Fund said.

“The first challenge is about channelling funding for fact-checking activities that are the most needed to establish the facts as they unfold,” Cesarini said.

“There is also another issue here which is an issue of trust in the news, it is a vital role that on-the-ground reporting has to fulfil,” he said.

“And that requires again, not only money but also coordination, and there the concept of networks of media outlet comes into play,” Cesarini concluded.