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The information war is suffering from fatigue, yet we need new solutions

To effectively fight the information war, we have to consider many more perspectives than we are currently thinking about.

March 24, 2021 - Lesia Dubenko - Articles and Commentary

COVID-19 press conference in Poltava, Ukraine Photo: Oleh Dubyna / Shutterstock

The ongoing information war has proven to be fatiguing. On the one hand, in the past seven years, democracies in Central, Eastern, Western Europe and beyond have introduced legislation and launched multiple fruitful initiatives, such as fact-checking and media literacy products, building up the public’s resistance to disinformation. On the other hand, despite our best efforts, information distortion remains rife, showing that we do not fully understand how to counter its effect — a sentiment many parties privately share.

With the new US administration set to normalise relations with its transatlantic partners after the rocky years of the Trump Administration, now is a good time to start afresh and once again discuss how to reduce the effect of what President Biden referred to in his inauguration speech as “the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.” The violent storming of the United States Capitol, egged on by unfounded claims of the 2020 presidential election’s illegitimacy, as well as authoritarian trends in Poland and Hungary, only serve to underline the need to do so.

This time, however, we should be ready to go past the symptomatic treatment of debunking falsehoods and instead view the problem from a broader perspective.

First and foremost, we ought to remind ourselves that information distortion — be it misinformation, disinformation, mal-information, framing and manipulations or “fake news” — does not exist in a vacuum. In fact, a clearly discernible demand for it is present among certain audiences. Ukraine, which has been at the forefront of both hybrid and genuine war with Russia, is a good example of a country with a suitable breeding ground for disinformation. Despite carrying out multiple anti-disinformation programs, a substantial number of Ukrainians continue to share falsehoods on social media and elsewhere, often using the logic of “whataboutism” and refusing to acknowledge that lies are lies. The problem is particularly widespread in the east and south-east of Ukraine, where support for Ukraine’s accession to the EU, let alone NATO, does not exceed 50 per cent. This is among the reasons why Kyiv has made a decision to shut down several channels allegedly owned by Putin’s ally Viktor Medvedchuk and has created the Centre for Countering Disinformation.

Very similar is the situation concerning conspiracy theories that have gained ground over recent decades. Once viewed as the product of the marginalised, the impact of conspiracy products such as “Zeitgeist,” “Loose Change” and “alternative facts” is becoming notable. The “Plandemic” documentary that received tens millions of views before being taken down by YouTube, as well as the claims that Bill Gates is using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to place a chip in people’s necks and the rise of the QAnon movement that is now planning a new attack on the Capitol, have exposed the true scale of a problem that we can no longer afford to ignore. 

At the same time, we should also acknowledge that manipulations and distortions do not occur just in Russian- or Chinese-backed outlets. Traditional media, once praised for neutrality and objective reporting, has become noticeably more partisan and biased, arguably, in part to cater to its key audience. Such is the impression, for example, in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, in which citizens have limited trust in mainstream media and think (although to a varying degree) that the media’s biases affect their coverage.

We should also look into the current“numbers don’t lie” media culture that prefers statistics and percentages over logic and in-depth analysis. The problem with this approach is that when taken out of context or derived from an imperfect methodology, numbers become a dangerous tool for manipulation, misinterpretation and, ultimately, disinformation. Remember the famed Brexit bus with the 350 million pounds figure that Britain supposedly sent to the EU each week? With images of Dutch customs officers confiscating ham sandwiches from drivers arriving by ferry from the UK under post-Brexit rules banning personal imports of meat and dairy products into the EU, those who supported the “350 million pounds” fallacy are now likely scratching their heads.

Once we have thought about the problem from all these perspectives, the next big step is to understand what the solutions should be. From the outset, we should not perceive any of these problems as country- or region-specific. Rather, conspiracy theories are as rife in Central or Eastern Europe as they are in the US and elsewhere. Since the same goes for all other types of information distortion, this means that efforts aimed at limiting its spread among the general public should be concerted among democracies.

The solutions that all of us need lie not just in a need to understand what drives people toward consuming distorted information and what can be done to reduce that demand, but also in the ways we teach the public, especially children and young adults, to think critically. Finland has already shown what this education might look like, and it is important that other countries — Central and Eastern European ones foremost, as they are especially vulnerable to Russian disinformation — join in to expand and develop similar multidisciplinary initiatives aimed at boosting critical thinking, a 21st century survival skill. This is all the more essential as universally-accessible face and voice swappers, like Reface and Reespecher, are effectively normalising the culture of fake images and audio. With time, it will only become harder to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s fake.

That said, mainstream media should re-consider its behavior as well. Rather than attempting to fight fire with fire and catering to only one part of its audience, it should seek ways to re-engage people who are turning away from it. This can be done by reducing the embedded bias as well as encouraging authors to employ a more neutral tone for publications: not every op-ed needs to be a position paper with personal accusations.

As we seek new solutions to beef up our defence against warmongers — be it the Kremlin, Beijing, Kim Jong-Un or random social media users — we have to be prepared for a process that will be both long and difficult. Complicated even more so by the noticeable level of political polarisation in many democracies and the resistance of those who are content with the current state of affairs. Yet the sooner we realise how important it is to address a handful of inter-related information distortion challenges, the faster we can band together and work towards positive change. 

Lesia Dubenko is a Kyiv-based analyst who focuses on disinformation, the media and migration trends. She is a member of the Europe without Barriers organisation and a participant of the Visegràd School of Political Studies and the European Academy of Diplomacy “United4News” anti-disinformation programme.

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