02 September, 2016

disinformation1200x600px.tmb-th-spotThe latest ‘Beyond Propaganda’ paper looks at Ukraine as a laboratory of information war. Authored by Marina Pesenti and Peter Pomerantsev, this publication examines initiatives undertaken by the government, media, and civil society and seeks to identify techniques that can help other democracies counter new forms of disinformation. The summary was first published at the Legatum Institute


Information war and next-generation propaganda are among the most important challenges facing the world today. They manifest themselves in different forms in different places. Among them are the far right’s deliberate spread of conspiracy thinking in the US and Europe; China’s use of disinformation to extend its power in the South China Sea; and the online activities of violent extremists such as ISIS. The challenges are far different from those of the Cold War. Thanks to the globalisation of information, media and messages move easily across borders and into smartphones.

Movements and interests join and separate in constantly shifting trans-border alliances, making talk of “offence” and “defence” outdated. Inside democracies, the continued rise of political PR and candidates who reinvent reality at whim has led some commentators to claim we are living in a ‘post-fact’ world. Ukraine has been at the cutting edge of these challenges since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, described by the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO as the greatest “information blitzkrieg” in history.

Domestically, Ukraine’s information space is deeply distorted by oligarch-controlled media with scant respect for accuracy or objectivity. What can we learn from Ukraine’s responses? Did any of the strategies created in Ukraine succeed? Did others backfire? This paper looks at Ukraine as a laboratory of information war, examining initiatives undertaken by the government, media, and civil society and seeking to identify techniques that can help other democracies counter new forms of disinformation.


1. Tactical Aims: Direct Confrontation of Disinformation

During the Cold War, government agencies such as the US Interagency Working Group on Active Measures swiftly analysed and rebutted Kremlin disinformation. What should today’s approach involve?

  • Government and multinational bodies to step up their strategic communication activities: The EU and other such bodies need to give timely responses to disinformation and to provide fact-based narratives. Both the EU and NATO have begun, modestly, to co-ordinate their responses to information attacks. A similar US initiative, perhaps an inter-agency co-ordinating body, should be welcomed. However, governments will never be wholly trusted as messengers. To become more effective, they will have to work in an open and transparent way with information activists, civil society, and media.
  • An OCCRP/Global Witness to combat disinformation: The Panama Papers leak shows that an international consortium of journalists and activists can be extremely effective in confronting international corruption. A similar approach is needed in combating contemporary disinformation campaigns and active measures. Instead of sporadic and disjointed research, we need international, linked investigations and campaigns which seek to understand how the Kremlin’s “soft power” toolkit fits into Moscow’s broader strategic aims.
  • Targeted myth-busting: Myth-busting and fact-checking have to be targeted at relevant audiences, media, and policy-makers. Current efforts rarely have a clear aim. International myth-busting projects need to be united and co-ordinated for maximum impact. They should be aimed at informing policy debates and correcting mainstream media inaccuracies. Broader “lecture tours” on Kremlin or other forms of disinformation can be aimed at educating important audiences such as international journalists.
  • European network of media and social network analysis centres: Kremlin propaganda aims different messages at different audiences. Funding should therefore be directed at creating a network of analytical centres which will, among other things, conduct targeted audience analyses in order to understand local needs; map the media environment in particular countries in order to detect disinformation and measure its impact; examine social media; and identify trends and personalities who are popular among polarised social groups and who could serve as a point of contact.

2. Strategic Aims: Rebuild Trust in Fractured Societies

Kremlin disinformation campaigns are aimed at fostering divisions in democracies, undermining trust and destabilising countries by increasing polarisation. This is increasingly easy in media spaces that are growing ever more fractured and which are flooded with a deluge of disinformation from many sources. Initiatives that could rebuild trust and improve the information space include:

  • Reinventing public broadcasting for the 21st century: Support for the development of public broadcasting is included in the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine and is a high priority for other Association countries. The challenge facing public broadcasters in fractured countries such as Ukraine and Moldova, as well as in many Western European countries, is not merely to “set standards” but to actively unite and build trust in the country, perhaps by improving people’s daily lives and involving disparate groups in common activities. For a public broadcaster this will mean campaigning around social causes. Whether it is improving roads and healthcare or confronting corruption in the judiciary, such “solutions-oriented” journalism will have to highlight issues through investigations and help build campaigns to lobby for change. It will also need to employ the latest in social media analysis to ensure its relevance online.
  • Using public broadcasting and entertainment to attract and include alienated parts of society: Kremlin propaganda is powerful because it mixes entertainment, emotions, and current affairs. For alternative broadcasters to flourish, they need support in purchasing and creating entertainment content which inspires democratic values. They also need to reach out to disenfranchised communities, such as Russian-speakers in the Baltic states, and to represent them and their concerns.
  • A “Venice Commission” for media: A strong regulator is key to ensuring broadcasters maintain journalistic standards. To be effective, regulators need clear guidelines about when to sanction channels for violating laws on “hate speech”, “incitement to violence”, and inaccuracy. Regulators in both EU and Association countries are often weak or captured by vested interests, and have little experience in imposing sanctions. This risks creating an environment in which censorship becomes normal and Association countries lose the moral high ground. A broader discussion of these issues, and an international body dedicated to thinking about them, could help. An international “Venice Commission” for media, under the auspices of the Council of Europe, would be able to:
  1. Advise fledgling regulators, ensure their independence, and help communicate their decisions;
  2. Act as a badge of quality for broadcasters, allowing donors to guide support for the creation of new content to broadcasters who have high journalistic  standards.
  • Aid to Association countries and others in this area is a unique opportunity to use Western leverage to improve the overall quality of media.
  • International information activists united by a “Bloggers’ Charter”: Information activists are a new breed of actor transforming the information space. In order to create international networks while simultaneously encouraging best practice, they should sign up to ethics charters, with donor funding withheld from those who use disinformation, break the law, and encourage violence.
  • Foster a community of international information activists, journalists, academia, and NGOs: Governments and foundations should create regular exchange programmes between journalists, NGOs, and academics, operating between core Western and frontline states, to create transnational communities of trust and critical inquiry. Currently, the information about. Ukraine or the Baltic states in a country such as Spain is usually seen by domestic audiences through the distorted lens of Russian propaganda. Bringing academics, journalists, and activists to and from the Baltics, the Caucasus, or Ukraine will help build networks that are able to withstand disinformation attacks. This is what analyst Ben Nimmo calls “information defence”.

About the Beyond Propaganda Series

The 21st century is seeing a new scale of media manipulation, psychological war and disinformation. The technological capacity of the information age, a more liquid use of ideology by authoritarian regimes, and the West’s own difficulties in projecting democratic values have redefined the threat of propaganda. The Transitions Forum’s ‘Beyond Propaganda’ series investigates these challenges and aims to identify solutions.

The Transitions Forum is a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.