Rob Van Leeuwen
What we can learn from Ukraine about countering disinformation
Concern about the use of disinformation to influence politics became widespread in 2016 after the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election. But the phenomenon itself is much older and Ukraine, in particular, has been a testing ground for Russian-sponsored disinformation since at least 2014. As a result, Ukraine has more experience than almost any other country in countering disinformation.
When we asked our Ukrainian partners about the impact of Russian disinformation on Ukraine, the answer surprised us. Years of being targeted by false narratives, investment in media literacy, and technological innovations in debunking have helped make Ukrainian audiences resilient to Russian-sponsored disinformation. Organisations like Detector Media, Internews Ukraine and We Are Ukraine have a wealth of experience and expertise debunking false narratives and providing access to reliable information. You might even say that Russia’s efforts have been counterproductive, helping Ukrainians to define what kind of country they want and strengthening support for values like openness, transparency, and democracy. It is also likely that the full-scale Russian invasion undermined many of their own propaganda efforts, because propaganda is much less convincing when it is accompanied by bombs. In short, our Ukrainian partners are less worried about disinformation targeting their country, and more worried about the susceptibility of Western countries to false narratives and propaganda.
It is still common for disinformation about Ukraine and the war in Ukraine to make its way into Western media. It usually works in subtle ways, through false narratives which are based on logical fallacies and prey on cognitive biases. For example, portraying the war as another Afghanistan or another Syria, thereby sowing seeds of doubt in the minds of those who were critical of Western involvement in those wars. Or co-opting the anti-war movement into calling for peace talks which involve Ukraine giving in to some of Russia’s demands, a strategy which calls to mind KGB efforts to influence the Western European peace movement during the 1980s. But there are also more direct approaches, such as casting doubt on the integrity of Ukrainian leaders, a narrative which feeds on the perception of Ukraine as a corrupt country, despite the significant progress Ukraine has made in fighting corruption.
These narratives have huge potential to undermine the solidarity of Western citizens with Ukraine and cause societal division. When Western politicians or public figures question support for Ukraine in the war, this can then be weaponised in Ukraine to damage morale, damage trust in the international community, and undermine commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration.
So what should Western countries be doing to break this cycle and counter false narratives about the war in Ukraine? We asked some Ukrainian experts about what has worked in Ukraine and what other countries can learn from their experience. Here are some of their suggestions:
- Personal connections are often more powerful than media narratives. Most people are much more likely to believe information coming from someone they know and trust, like family and friends, than something they read online. Creating opportunities for connections between Ukrainian and European citizens, communities, and civil society organisations is a powerful way to neutralise disinformation and correct false narratives about Ukraine. Young people and NGOs can help to make these connections.
- It is important to know what we are dealing with by studying the content and provenance of false narratives, identifying patterns, and tracing them to their source. Russian-sponsored disinformation efforts are often systematic campaigns with aligned messages. Knowing what the messages are and what channels are being used to spread them makes it easier to expose and spread awareness about common false narratives. In Ukraine, independent media outlets and NGOs have made great strides in raising awareness about manipulation techniques, and other countries can do the same by investing in media literacy and critical thinking.
- People will always look for alternative sources of information, especially when the prevailing narrative does not align with their existing views. Measures to restrict the dissemination of mis- or disinformation, whether through legislation or content moderation, should be treated with caution because of the potential implications for civil liberties like freedom of expression and media. It is better to foster a diverse and pluralistic media landscape in which independent media can thrive and which includes reliable sources of information for people of different political affiliations.
Information integrity is a precondition for healthy, fact-based public debate in democratic countries. The open nature of democratic societies can be exploited by using disinformation to exacerbate societal polarisation and undermine trust in democratic politics. But this openness can also be a huge advantage in building resilience against disinformation, by forging connections between people, building media literacy, stimulating critical thinking, and cultivating a pluralistic media landscape. There is much that we can continue to learn from Ukraine when it comes to countering disinformation.
This blog was written following a WFD-hosted discussion on democratic aspects of Ukraine's recovery at the Ukraine Recovery Conference.