Over the past few years, Russia’s increasingly confrontational mood towards the West has been accompanied by narratives reminiscent of the Cold War, which are sustained by the explosive growth of lies and fake news. These are disseminated worldwide by a wide range of means, from the Kremlin’s masters and spokespersons, through a huge number of all types of media channels, so-called “NGOs” etc., down to ordinary internet trolls, “useful idiots” and agents of influence. In fact, this all is a grandiose anti-Western psychological operation that is designed specifically to weaken or even disrupt our liberal democratic societies and organisations (especially the EU and NATO) by dividing, disorienting and antagonising populations, thereby paralysing political decision making. Everything that serves this purpose – including populist or extremist leaders, movements and parties – is good.
The very basics of the Kremlin’s main narrative are quite simple. The West is bad: NATO is “aggressive” and willing to “encircle” Russia, the EU has adopted and prolonged “unjustified” sanctions against Russia, the CIA has “organised” the Arab Spring and the Coloured Revolutions (including the Maidan), the West supports “fascist” Ukraine, the “failed and Russophobe” Baltic states are “rewriting” history etc. By contrast, Russia is good: it “saved” Crimea from “civil war”, it does not threaten the West militarily, it is the main “peacemaker” in Syria (and in the “frozen conflicts” around its periphery), it “liberated” the Baltic states – which have “always” been “Russian lands” - at the end of WWII, and so on.
Each message - often presented in the form of a conspiracy theory that is richly blended with fake news, lies and half-truths - is carefully tailored for the specific targeted audience, home and/or abroad. Russia’s main foreign propaganda channel, the RT, has spread like cancer all over the world, and broadcasts in all six official languages of the UN. The Sputnik “news” agency produces stories around the clock in 33 languages. A myriad of Russian disinformation websites spread fake news articles that are often copied – virtually unchecked - by many other sites. The West is like a human body which is bombarded with all types of malignant viruses. Its antibodies have started to react, but serious symptoms of disease are already present. It seems that the attack is too severe for us to be confident about recovery without urgent medical treatment — and without an active fight against the source spreading the viruses.
We can and should fight back
One might say that we have entered the third phase of this one-sided information war. First, about ten years ago Russia initiated a fast-growing propaganda avalanche that took the West almost by surprise and found it totally unprepared. While Western governments did take cyber-attacks fairly seriously, they largely ignored Kremlin tactics like dezinformatsiya and provokatsiya. Next, especially in connection with Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the subsequent adoption of counter-sanctions, Western nations started to understand that they are actually under attack, and made their first assessments of the situation, as well as potential risks and damage. Many simply shrugged their shoulders: “What can we do? We have to defend media freedom in our societies!”
Eventually, in the last two years or so, more and more self-defence initiatives have at last appeared in the West: non-governmental anti-disinformation groups, fact-checking teams of experts etc. However, the fight against Russian disinformation is doubly asymmetric. Russia not only exploits Western media freedom to the maximum extent possible, but it also pours huge financial and human resources into its propaganda machinery; by contrast, Western self-defence initiatives are mostly not supported by governments and have very scarce resources. Our governments and intergovernmental organizations, most notably NATO and the EU, have gone a long way in building up their cyber defences, but they lag behind in the fight against disinformation in nearly every way.
We have to agree that Russia is essentially an undemocratic state with an insignificant free media in comparison to state-controlled TV and other media channels. However, we do not have to agree that Russia has a “right” to export its fake news and conspiracy theories to our countries on a large scale by abusing our free media, while at the same time sealing off its own domestic informational space (besides the Internet, which is monitored more and more at home by the Kremlin, which is likely to imposed further restrictions in the future). Should we limit ourselves to self-defence? Or can we take advantage of active possibilities to counter Russian disinformation and propaganda? Clearly, it is the latter.
In fact, the Western governments do not have to reinvent the bicycle, i.e. to ask Russia to do anything new or extraordinary. We only have to use international frameworks that include Russia (even those where it has veto power, such as the UN or the OSCE), and appeal to its political commitments to respect freedom of the media, including within Russia. If Russia demands fiercely that RT, Sputnik etc. must be allowed – as “alternative channels” – to act freely in the West, then why not demand from Russia – on a parity level, again insisting that it respect its own commitments – to allow continuous free access throughout the country for the Russian-language services of BBC, Deutsche Welle, and other Western media sources? Dmitry Kiselyov would certainly ridicule them on a daily basis, and the Kremlin would not have difficulty designing bureaucratic obstacles, but it would nevertheless feel extremely threatened by the perspective of losing its domestic monopoly on information (especially concerning TV). Both sides have their vulnerabilities, but we simply do not even attempt to exploit Russia’s weaknesses.
To sum up, we can and should fight back. However, the West needs the courage and solidarity to take this issue – the fight against disinformation– to the highest political level. Otherwise, our self-defence resources will be increasingly overwhelmed. Without further action, it may soon become hard to tell the difference between the news on April Fools’ Day and any other ordinary day.