Counteracting Propaganda and Disinformation: Lessons from Ukraine

Over the past years, Ukraine has been at the forefront of counteracting disinformation campaigns and information warfare, emanating from the Russian Federation. It experienced the impact of propaganda, disinformation and hybrid war earlier than most European or American societies. While unique, Ukraine’s experience holds broader lessons for how to tackle these emerging phenomena.

On 12 December 2017, the Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office in Brussels, in cooperation with the Open Society European Policy Institute, organised an event on how to address propaganda and disinformation, drawing on Ukraine’s experience. The discussion built upon Internews Ukraine’s recent publication: Words and Wars: Ukraine Facing Kremlin’s Propaganda. How is Ukraine tackling propaganda and disinformation, what lessons can we learn from Ukraine’s experience and how can the EU, together with Ukraine, media professionals and other partners can work to address this issue were the questions addressed by the panel.

Words and Wars: Ukraine Facing Russian Propaganda” is an analytical publication developed by the NGO Internews Ukraine with the support of the European Union and the International Renaissance Foundation within the framework of the Civic Synergy Project and under the auspices of the Ukrainian National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum. Its content is the exclusive responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union and the International Renaissance Foundation.

Opening the conference, Iskra Kirova, Senior Policy Analyst at Open Society European Policy Institute put the emphasis on the important role that fake news played and continue to play across the world.

Kirova: “Russia has become very good in weaponising values. In the East, but in many Western countries as well”.

Olena Prystayko, Executive Director of the Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office in Brussels, and moderator of the conference underlined the fact that Ukraine has been at the forefront of counteracting Russian propaganda. Ukrainians have been studying this information warfare from up close due to Russia’s aggression against the country. They have tested their defense strategies and tactics, and the publication presented by Internews at this conference is a way for Ukraine to contribute to fighting this phenomenon at European and global scale.

Prystayko: “Propaganda means using the best qualities of democracy against democracies”.

Following-up on Iskra’s idea, Andriy Kulakov, Programme Director at Internews Ukraine stressed that everybody is facing the threat of Russia’s interference in its everyday life. To counter this phenomenon, he shared two of Ukraine’s best practices: first, a close cooperation between civil society and state authorities is needed to fight propaganda efficiently. Second, Ukraine introduced several restrictions to Russia’s communication channels in the country. To counter Russian propaganda in their own territories, EU Member states must acknowledge that propaganda is not just about information, but rather a security issue, and raise the level of discussion accordingly. Finally, we need to promote a positive narrative of democracy:

Kulakov: “There is a great need for a positive narrative. We need to illustrate better the value of democracy”.

Developing on Ukraine’s best practices in counteracting Russian propaganda Volodymyr Yermolenko, Director of European Projects at Internews Ukraine, highlighted Ukraine’s success in creating a fashion for debunking fake news, which spread in many other countries. However, the fight against propaganda is always hindered by the dilemma between security and freedom that it causes. The security issue is often underestimated in these cases, and Ukraine and the EU should work together to find the right balance between the two. Finally, following-up on Andriy’s recommendations to EU countries, he added that propaganda shouldn’t be fought by another form of national propaganda, but rather by increasing the resilience to disinformation through the development of media literacy and transparency, and the review of journalistic standards and ethics.

Yermolenko: “You can counter propaganda with little resources, with volunteers, but it doesn’t mean that these activities shouldn’t be funded. It is always a dilemma between security and freedom, with Europeans leaning towards the latter”.

For Rikard Jozwiak, Brussels Correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Russian propaganda is extremely flexible, and that is why it can target everyone. Russia is very good at identifying how to attack the Member States through disinformation: for Germany, they focused on migration, for Lithuania, on minorities, on Brexit for the UK, on separatist issues in Spain, etc. Concretely, the EU should manage to identify where the threat lies for each Member State. It means a 24/7 monitoring of what is going on, to understand which part of the society is affected by which type of information. However, he remains quite sceptical that this can be achieved:

Jozwiak: “Propaganda is flexible, that’s why it is so efficient. However, I see little political will and not enough budget dedicated to fighting this issue in EU Member State”.

Giles Portman, Head of the Stratcom East Task Force of the European External Action Service, shared the successes of his team in the last two years: 3500 examples of disinformation identified that were explained to a continuously growing audience. As a recognition of their added value and reputation, the Stratcom Task Force will see a significant increase to its budget for the next year. This demonstrates the EU’s commitment to fighting propaganda, at the institutional and individual levels.  However, a more comprehensive coverage of propaganda threats at the regional level is still lacking, and a greater involvement from national institutions is needed. To tackle these issues, the Stratcom team, among other initiatives, recently created an informal working group with the government of Ukraine to help it define its strategic communication, and started an initiative to support Ukrainian media. They asked directly to 350 journalists what challenges they face, to allow the EU to better address them.

Portman: “With the development of new technologies, it will become even more difficult to counter propaganda in the following years”.