A study of Russian disinformation campaigns in Central and Eastern Europe reveals some scary data. But it also suggests some effective countermeasures and the role journalists can play in the battle for hearts and minds.
The study, Disinformation Resilience in Central and Eastern Europe, reminds us that effective responses to disinformation will vary. Each country, region, and local community differs in terms of its leading media, dominant languages, vulnerable groups, internet connectivity, and legal environment.
Disinformation is difficult to combat because it takes so many different forms and spreads through so many different channels. In that respect, they are like the numerous viruses that threaten our physical health.
According to its “resilience index” of 14 countries, based on data collected by the European Union’s East StratCom Task Force, Disinformation Resilience shows how unprepared our democratic systems are to respond.
On the metric of influence of Russian media (metric A, in the graphic at left), it was highest in Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, and Moldova, where Russian language media are popular and widely available. Russian influence was lowest in Poland, Hungary, and Romania because of a low presence of Russian speakers.
On metric B, the quality of “systemic responses”, Estonia stood out for its media regulations, attention to vulnerable groups, and activities of civil society, which often occur at the grass-roots level. This is where relationships are important.
Other countries that had quality systemic responses were Armenia, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Romania, and Ukraine.
On the metric of vulnerability to digital warfare (C), an important countermeasure was a country’s debunking initiatives. In other words, fact-checking organizations play an important role. Here journalists help students and voters sort out credible sources from the untrustworthy. Again, this involves building trustworthy relationships.
The authors of Disinformation Resilience admit the limitations of their metrics: they are relative, subjective, and not absolute. And their study focused on “intentional falsehoods” published to achieve “political goals”. But as Claire Wardle of First Draft has reminded us, many spreaders of disinformation do it simply to make money or to prank authorities.
At the same time, the methodology of this study could be useful to media and political leaders in other countries. One of them might be a new European Union research effort, Iberifier, in which 23 Spanish and Portuguese institutions will study disinformation in those countries (more on Iberifier, in Spanish.)
In my own work with media entrepreneurs in Latin America, I found that there was a demand for media literacy campaigns and a supply of willing funders. Fact-checkers and news media working together can educate students and adults on how to identify trustworthy information.
The Argentina-based fact-checker Chequeado is a prime example of relationship building as a countermeasure to disinformation. Their objectives are “to raise the cost of lying” to the public and “to improve the quality of public debate” by verifying information provided by politicians, public figures, and institutions.
Among many initiatives, Chequeado publishes explanatory journalism and offers media literacy classes in person and online. Its team solicits suggestions from the public and frequently includes them in its publications. It also collaborates with major media in Argentina in a campaign against disinformation called Re-verso.
Chequeado’s creativity and multi-pronged approach have attracted funding from individual donors, foundations, NGOs, and businesses. It has earned an international reputation and has trained media leaders in Latin America and beyond.
Wrapping up. One of the requirements for journalists in countering disinformation is humility. We have to recognize that the public doesn’t necessarily view us as an authority. In fact, the news media are ranked in some countries as among the least trusted institutions: we’re down there with politicians and bankers.
We have to earn the public’s trust. By helping people filter through the tsunami of information available to identify the credible nuggets, we will be providing an important public service. This should help us gain more credibility. And that can translate into significant support.
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