Disinformation is not an uncommon occurrence happening only in Ukraine. For decades, the fight against false information continues at national and supranational levels all over the world. How do the European Union on the whole and its particular member states, such as Lithuania, Germany and France, combat disinformation? How can Ukraine benefit from NATO’s communication strategy? What valuable lessons could be learned from Facebook? The fourth nationwide forum “Independent courts and free media: combating disinformation”, held at the initiative of the Higher Council of Justice with the support from the EU’s project Pravo-Justice, discussed Ukrainian and international experience in combating false information.
Let’s find out more about the propaganda phenomenon. Darius Remeika, an expert in propaganda, counterpropaganda and informational influence, shares his vision of why disinformation is being purposefully employed. “False information is aimed to lower critical perception of presented facts. Overall, propaganda is targeting people’s thoughts and feelings and trying to somewhat change their perception of reality and their behavior.”
Darius Remeika, an expert in propaganda, counterpropaganda and informational influence
A person can sometimes be so filled with false information that they convince themselves that all disinformation subsequently fed to them is true. According to Darius, that’s what makes propaganda dangerous, because when it penetrates the person’s mind, it can actually stop and don’t do anything anymore. The person will do it themselves.
How to fight this phenomenon? The expert proposes the following: “You need to formulate a strong national identity, uniqueness that helps combat propaganda. The identity includes various elements, which are unalienable from every country. These are culture, historical memory, history of relations with the neighboring countries, language, traditions, and even national cuisine.”
Thanks to national identity, we can always restore the full picture of our reality, because we know who we are and where we go to. In order not to fall victim to unreliable information, a person must develop this identity in themselves. This way, the person themselves will be able to tell truth from lies.
EU code, focus groups and media trainings: combating propaganda the European way
There is a lot of distorted information that could undermine democratic systems via manipulations in social and mass media. Martin Klaucke, Head of Operations Section 1 “Good Governance and Democratization” at the EU Delegation to Ukraine, says that “Ukraine is at the forefront of this phenomenon. Therefore, it is very important to be aware of all risks and know how to deal with this problem.”
Martin Klaucke, Head of Operations Section 1 “Good Governance and Democratization” at the EU delegation to Ukraine
For several years, the European Union has been working on addressing the issue of propaganda. The European Union formulates a common approach to communications, which defines measures to be taken to combat disinformation. The EU has also established a code of information, enclosing an action plan on combating disinformation and urgent notices of actions aimed to fight false information.
“We also are thoroughly monitoring the code of practice, which was signed by the European External Action Service with international prospects. In 2015, we established a sort of a focus group for strategic information, tasked with identifying disinformation and disproving it in the European Union. It is necessary to see how information works and to understand how to better convey messages,” Mr. Klaucke says.
The EU supports Ukraine in dealing with disinformation. Trainings for journalists are being organized to increase awareness of this issue. In the broader regional context, the European Union proposes surveys about hybrid risks. These surveys are held to identify hybrid threats, which include disinformation. According to Martin Klaucke, this issue is very acute in Moldova, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Georgia.
NATO’s three principles of combating propaganda
Barbora Maronkova, Director of NATO Information and Documentation Center in Kyiv, is speaking about the methods of combating disinformation at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “We are a military-political alliance, and therefore, we have been hearing a lot of propaganda for decades. This phenomenon presents NATO as a representative of the so-called West, as opposed to the so-called East. Tons of false information are being poured on us every day.”
Barbora Maronkova, Director of NATO Information and Documentation Center in Ukraine
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has three main principles of combating propaganda. They concern any governments, states and institutions.
- Powerful communication strategy
There must be a history, a narrative of who you are, what you do and what you don’t do. A powerful narrative, powerful voice and coordination in all structures of NATO and NATO member states must be written in the strategy. Otherwise, when a press secretary in one country says one thing and in another country something else, that wouldn’t help anyone.
“We have to work together, coordinate our efforts and have the same narrative. In that case, our communication strategy will indeed be powerful and effective.”
- Strong cooperation and interaction
“NATO member states can be targeted by propaganda, so only by working together can we help each other and tackle disinformation.” This is a whole network of institutions supporting each other.
A part of this network includes independent experts, communities and civil society organizations checking facts and disproving false information. “We were able to create that within six years. Today, this network covers the entire world.”
- Efficient technological preparation
Enhancing one’s technologies and technological potential to repulse cyberattacks
“I am absolutely sure that if we have a sustainable powerful communication strategy and, in addition, instruments of implementing it, we can achieve the best results. We have to develop these methods while the weather is calm, not during the storm, like, for example, in the present situation with COVID-19. For when a problematic situation presents itself, it is hard to master new instruments.”
A similar opinion regarding the fight against disinformation was expressed by Živilė Navickaitė-Babkin, an international expert at the EU’s Pravo-Justice project and a communications consultant. “It is important to understand that combating propaganda is counterpropaganda, and that counterpropaganda may serve both the defense and proactive purpose.”
Rules, troll farms, content marking: Facebook about disinformation
Facebook, which together with Instagram and WhatsApp covers almost 3 billion people per month, has experience and the history of combating disinformation. Kateryna Kruk, Manager for Ukraine Public Policy at Facebook, shares information about it. After all, there are three large areas on which Facebook focuses its efforts in this regard.
Kateryna Kruk, Manager for Ukraine Public Policy at Facebook
- Community standards and policy. They are constantly changed and updated to make sure that these rules are conformant with current requirements and able to protect Facebook users. “In the context of our conversation, the most important aspects are the anti-spam policy and the ban on hate speech,” Kateryna says. “We see a lot of content in the context of disinformation, in the attempt to divide our society and polarize it even more.”
- Cooperation with independent fact checkers. This is the main area of combating manipulations and disinformation. Facebook offers partnership to independent experts, who check information of two types.
The first type is information reported by users as potentially fake. The other one is determined by artificial intelligence as false information. Based on their checks, the content is not deleted but marked appropriately. And even though this information does not disappear from the social media, it will be shown on the very bottom of the news line.
- Fighting bot and troll farms. This is a technology of spreading fake news and propaganda. Bot farms and troll farms are an extremely strong instrument of spreading false information. There are several methods of working with information of this type.
First method: filter, which is the antispam policy. These are the Facebook rules concerning fast dissemination of news or peak of activity in communities. When a significant activity is noticed, it is being checked and blocked.
“Another method is somewhat more complicated. It involves determination of authenticity or non-authenticity of user profiles in this social media and how coordinated they are. For cases like that we have special teams who scan Facebook to identify suspicious clusters and find out whether these accounts could be related.”
Lithuania and experience in combating Russian disinformation
“If you broadcast a lot of information, you have enough chances to push through the messages you want,” Neringa Bliūdžiūtė, ex-coordinator of public diplomacy program at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, started her report.
Neringa Bliūdžiūtė, ex-coordinator of public diplomacy program at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels
The expert says that Lithuania has already received a lesson in communications.
The country began coordinating its efforts and work in the following areas:
1) defining the end goal of communication,
2) conveying clear messages, which must gain popularity and be continuously broadcasted,
3) coordinating efforts of various institutions,
4) engaging the country’s government and international partners,
5) designing flexible information campaigns inside and outside the country.
A bit more than a few words about legislation in Germany and France
Benoît Houyet, an expert in legislation on disinformation, told the forum’s participants about the French legislation and Germany’s Social Media Protection Act. Below is an abstract of his speech.
Benoît Houyet, an expert in legislation on disinformation
In France, the first legislative act in this area was passed in the late 19th century. It was the Freedom of the Press Act. At first, it concerned printed media, but later on, it also became applicable to radio and television broadcasting, and today, to online media as well.
On the one hand, this legislative act protects interests of mass media, but on the other hand, it obliges the media to identify, firstly, the author of information, and secondly, the person who will be personally responsible for the content disseminated by the media in question. The reason for that is to uphold the freedom of speech and at the same time establish certain controls.
In France, the law does not forbid to present false information in general, for example, that the Earth is flat. However, publication of information that could affect the person’s decision making entails criminal liability.
Responsibility of web hosting providers is a very important issue. A law limiting liability of web hosting providers was passed in 2004. For example, Facebook or Twitter cannot be held liable for the content of messages posted on their platforms. At the same time, these web hosting providers themselves take initiative and moderate or delete certain content.
However, judicial system in France is not adapted to quickly and efficiently hearing complaints concerning false information. For example, proceedings in disinformation cases could drag on for two years, whereas Facebook reviews, at its own initiative, 2 million messages every day for the existence of improper content, engaging for that purpose 30 thousand workers all over the world.
In September 2017, Germany adopted the Social Media Protection Act. According to this document, social media are required to delete obviously unlawful content within 24 hours. If, for example, some user posts certain information that could be regarded as disinformation or accusation of committing a criminal offense without a court judgment proving it, the web hosting provider is obliged to delete this content. Otherwise, this web hosting provider will be penalized. Social media delete content of this kind, because they don’t want lawsuits. And usually, it is not regarded as a restriction on the freedom of speech or freedom of expression.
In France, there was an attempt to follow the example of German legislation. It was a brand new lawmaking initiative (proposed in late June 2020), but the draft law was voted down, being accused of violating the freedom of expression.
The possibility of accelerated hearing of court cases during elections is a legislation which was adopted in France in 2019 and which has already “lived through” two elections. In a nutshell, it states that a court judgment must be entered within 48 hours, if the lawsuit concerns election-related disinformation. After a positive judgment is entered, media are required to delete the relevant content within 24 hours. This is the content that could affect the outcome of election or distort objective information about the course of election. And even though this legislation has already been in force for almost two years, only one case was carried through.
By Olesia Savenko