Vilnius Consultations 2018 The Art of Disinformation: Lessons Learned and Future Challenges
In response to a recent surge of various forms of disinformation in the Western countries, Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis chose to dedicate its annual conference Vilnius Consultations 2018 to a search for concrete answers to this challenge. Vilnius Consultations 2018 gathered a number of high-ranking experts from Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, the Baltic States, Finland, Spain, Israel, and the UK, seeking to draw concrete practical lessons from the experiences of East European countries, especially when dealing with Kremlin’s global information warfare. The following recommendations were proposed.
Conceptually, we still need to foster a shared understanding of the threats the Western countries face. Unfortunately, there is still a division within the NATO and the European Union on the perception of Russia and its strategic posture. To bridge the gap in understanding, we should:
- Refrain from equating the Kremlin regime with the whole Russian nation. Russian society itself is a victim of the Kremlin and Putin’s regime, and we should clearly differentiate between the two when making policy decisions;
- We should recognize that Kremlin-controlled media platforms are not real media, but part of Kremlin’s weaponry in informational and hybrid warfare. Practically, this means that the West should not grant these outlets (including Sputnik and RT) the same access to information and other privileges as they do to other media outlets;
- We ought to formulate a positive narrative about the West, which would not simply reactively debunk outright lies and conspiracy theories, but have a story to tell of its own.
In the media domain, we have seen a proliferation of fake news spread by well-funded Kremlin’s media outlets as well as smaller-scale blogs, bots and trolls. To refute this challenge, we should focus on a comprehensive set of technological, economic, and conceptual tools:
- We must continue with our fact-checking efforts, while at the same time understanding that by itself it is an insufficient answer to a complex issue. In order to set our own agenda, quality journalism (especially investigative journalism) should be supported as one of the foundations of healthy democracy;
- We should recognize that “he said, she said” type of journalism is insufficient: the public should be educated to think critically instead of merely informed about different opinions. Manipulative use of dubious information sources falls short of the fair principles of journalism;
- Information on media ownership and media funding should be publicly available and the media regulations should be more transparent, especially in the EU Eastern Partnership and Eastern Neighborhood countries, where unknown malign sources might channel large funds to disrupt the media landscape;
- Online behavior should be guided by offline normative principles. Just as no respectable media organization would publish a document stolen from someone’s desk, they should come to an agreement not to publish leaked emails or other stolen private digital information;
- At the same time, safer communication technologies and cyber-defense mechanisms should be strengthened so as to avoid leaking in the first place. This should start from rather simple steps, such as the use of multi-factor authentication, and heavier investment in cyber-defense and technological innovations;
- Social media businesses should be persuaded that automated activity on their platforms are costing them substantial sums of money through fake clicks, ads, and non-existent traffic that the ad-buyers are being charged for. By acknowledging that this online pollution makes their business models appear rather fraudulent (the ad-buyers are essentially paying for fake reach), social media platforms should invest in eliminating all fake activity in all languages.
From a societal perspective, while the Kremlin itself is not causing societal cleavages in the Western countries, it surely knows how to exploit them. To build societal resilience and immunize the public against digital disruptions, we should:
- Focus more on the vulnerable groups, such as ethnic minorities, the less educated, the geographically remote, the impoverished, and the elderly guided by Soviet nostalgia. They predominantly consume news in Russian language and/or are more susceptible to propaganda because of their social standing. Public broadcasters should be incentivized to target those groups by creating more engaging, high-quality content. For the minorities specifically, content should be disseminated in their native language to prevent the Kremlin from fully capturing the informational space;
- Russian population should be targeted via the Internet: more Western news could be produced in Russian language in an effort to counter the current imbalance where information in Russian language is predominantly Kremlin-sponsored;
- Better education is a key to a strong and resilient society. Critical and informed citizens are groomed starting from the primary school. Media literacy is a crucial competency to have, but before we start promoting media literacy right away, we also need to persuade the public they are in need of improving their media skills.
Our institutional arrangements should also adjust to new challenges:
- Since cyber-threats recognize no borders, we ought to establish a new cyber defense alliance, a sort of Cyber-NATO which would transgress the geographical boundaries and encompass all democratic countries threatened by cyberattacks and disinformation, regardless of whether they are members of the EU and/or NATO;
- The Russian delegation should not be re-admitted to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe if it continues to fail to uphold the territorial sovereignty of other countries and disregard human rights abuses in its own state. Similarly, economic sanctions against the Russian elites and businesses should remain in place;
- EU’s Eastern flank countries should focus more on promoting their anti-hybrid agenda in the Southern flank (in countries such as Italy and Spain), since strengthening those countries against Kremlin’s propaganda also strengthens the EU as a whole, and thus, reinforces the Eastern flank;
- A close network of like-minded analysts and experts from all Western states affected by the expanding threat of hybrid warfare should be established. With the help of such a network, we, the West can stay proactive in our endeavor to counter disinformation at all times instead of merely persuading the public once again that this serious threat actually exists;
- All efforts to connect international, governmental, and private initiatives to jointly fight disinformation are welcome, and should be encouraged.
Vilnius Consultations is an annual conference organized by Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis in partnership with the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This year, the event took place on September 13, 2018. These key points were outlined based on panel discussions with participation of Markku Mantila (NATO StratCom Centre of Excellence, Latvia), Nicolas de Pedro (The Institute for Statecraft, Spain), Oleksiy Makukhin, (Ukraine Crisis Media Centre, Ukraine), Yevhen Fedchenko (StopFake.org, Ukraine), Dalia Bankauskaitė (VIPA, Lithuania), Sergiy Gerasymschuk (Foreign Policy Council "Ukrainian Prism", Ukraine), Tamar Kintsurashvili (Media Development Foundation, Georgia), Irakli Porchkhidze (Georgian Institute for Strategic Studies, Georgia), Rosian Vasiloi (Institute for Development and Social Initiatives, Moldova), Simas Čelutka (VIPA, Lithuania), Rolf Fredheim (NATO StratCom Centre of Excellence, Latvia), Urve Eslas (Advisor to the President of Estonia (2006-2016) Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Estonia), Dmitry Adamsky (IDC Herzliya, Isreal), Vaidas Saldžiūnas (Delfi.lt, Lithuania), Lukas Andriukaitis (VIPA, Lithuania), Anton Shekhovtsov (Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation) at Vilnius Consultations 2018.
Full programme of the event: http://vilniusinstitute.lt/Vilnius-consultations-2018-Program/
Video recordings from the event: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DurjkKvisdM&t=1s (part 1); https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrzrhyIElqU (part 2).