Dispelling Disinformation: Four Lessons from Ukraine

“There are no Russian troops in Crimea. It’s a civil war in Ukraine. MH-17 was shot down from another plane. Ukraine is a failed state.”

These are all false narratives that were created to undermine Ukraine’s response to Russian aggression and sow divisions between pro-Europe and pro-Russian populations in Ukraine, according to Myroslava Gongadze, the head of Voice of America’s Ukraine Service. As a journalist covering the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, she has heard them all.

But those false stories can be incredibly useful. Russian disinformation activities in Ukraine provide a wealth of data that can be harnessed to understand the Russian fake news phenomenon and combat disinformation campaigns across the United States and Europe.

Gongadze was speaking at a discussion that was part of #Disinfoweek, a series of public events held June 26-30 that was co-hosted by the Atlantic Council and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. She was joined on a panel by Simon Ostrovsky, currently a CNN reporter; Yevhen Fedchenko, co-founder of StopFake.org; and Dmytro Potekhin, founder of CivicOS.net and CEO of Nonviolent.Solutions.

The speakers identified four key lessons for creating effective policies to undermine Russian disinformation.

Lesson 1: Debunk false narratives from the bottom up

Ostrovsky, who reported on Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine for Vice News, confirmed that Russian troops were in Ukraine by tracking Russian soldiers’ social media posts. Open-source debunking can be very effective. First, because the evidence is available online, it is often easily accessible which allows the public to verify the information for themselves. Second, social media posts and satellite imagery are more difficult to dismiss because they are rooted in evidence, rather than interpretation. Open source debunking also forces the disinformation creator to choose from several undesirable options: ignoring the debunking, providing evidence to refute the debunked theory, or shifting the frame to reestablish the narrative.

The primary goal of debunking should be to force the public to question a narrative that has been presented. When false narratives transition from mainstream belief to the fringe, debunking has done its job.

Lesson 2: Follow the money

States are often the culprits behind massive disinformation campaigns, but non-state actors also benefit from the dissemination of false information. Ostrovsky noted, “There’s an incentive beyond geopolitical interests to put fake news out there.” Simply put, the economic model of news today “encourages bad information.” Outrageous stories create buzz, buzz creates clicks, clicks create traffic, and traffic provides a quick profit for tech savvy individuals.

Ostrovsky did not offer any remedy to this model. However, any effective disinformation policy must address non-state actors. Individuals who perpetuate fake news not only profit monetarily but also help malicious actors achieve their goals of sowing discontent by manipulating the cyber-information ecosystem.

Lesson 3: Tech companies need to be part of the solution—and so do independent media companies and the public

The technology sector has an important role to play in countering disinformation. Potekhin, an activist working on IT solutions to combat fake news in Ukraine, said that search engines use data description standards to improve search results. “Google now has a very good standard called ‘claim review scheme.org,’ [which] allows fact checking projects to describe the data that is fake [and] provide anti-fake data,” he said. This helps ensure that real news sources appear where a fake new story might otherwise be the top search result. Potekhin also said that citizen involvement in combatting fake news is crucial. Social media platforms and search engines thrive on user engagement; if these platforms can utilize it to dispel fake news, they can dramatically limit the potential of a fake story to go viral.

Some media organizations are more trusted than traditional journalists or government institutions. StopFake, a dedicated fake news debunking organization, has become massively popular. Based at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, StopFake also collects data to understand the coordination of fake news and compares contemporary fake news to Soviet-era propaganda. Fedchenko, its co-founder, reaffirmed how we know that the Russians are behind fake news in Ukraine. “All those propagandistic frames we identified completely coincide with Russian government talking points on Ukraine,” he said.

Technology companies and independent media sources are essential for crafting timely and effective policies. However, policymakers must realize that there is no technological panacea for disinformation, which thrives on a complex series of interactions between reader, platform, and information. The tech sector can improve the platform, journalists and NGOs can improve the information, but intensive coordination with all key players is needed to engage the public.

Lesson 4: The Western principle of freedom of speech brings ethical, moral, and legal challenges to dispelling disinformation

What rights do Russian media outlets like RT and Sputnik have to work in the West? This question brings the conflict between free speech and disinformation into focus.

According to Fedchenko, RT and Sputnik should not be treated as normal media companies. “We look at them as instruments of information warfare and they should be dealt with accordingly,” he said. He also pointed to the European Union Court of Justice ruling that propaganda is not covered under free speech, which set a precedent of restricting media outlets from disseminating blatantly fake news stories.

Ostrovsky disagreed. “I would never advocate for any kind of ban,” he said, and instead called for US officials to be more forceful in requiring reciprocity for American journalists working in Russia and allowing foreign Russian language programming in Russia.

Recently, for national security reasons, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced a ban on several Russian websites, including Yandex, VKontakte, and Odnoklassniki. After the ban, one analysis found that Ukrainians were migrating from VKontakte to Facebook, although VKontatke is still far more popular. Rather than banning these sites, Potekhin advocated for a combination of media literacy education and fact-based reporting to inoculate the public against disinformation.

Unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all” solution to the problem of disinformation. The Western understanding of free speech makes any fines, bans, or limitations on foreign state-sponsored media’s broadcasting rights extremely unpalatable, if not impossible. Indeed, disinformation thrives because it appropriates Western values to undermine them. In the United States, where free speech is highly protected, requiring transparency and supporting independent journalists and news organizations to refute false news will be more successful than attempting to regulate organizations’ speech.

Ellen Riina is an intern with the Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and an MA candidate at The George Washington University.

Image: Paul Niland presents StopFakeNews #139 on July 10, 2017. Courtesy Screenshot