Four years into the hybrid war, Kremlin-orchestrated disinformation remains one of the biggest threats to Ukraine’s security. Furthermore, Ukraine’s neighbors not always realize that the whole region of Central and Eastern Europe has become Russia’s test field for new propaganda methods.
What are the vulnerabilities and capabilities to withstand the Kremlin-initiated and supported disinformation campaigns in the Visegrad Group, the Baltic States, Eastern Europe, and South Caucasus? Which country is better equipped to cover the weak points and counter propaganda? What challenges are common and what experiences can be shared?
The group of researchers from 14 countries led by Kyiv-based think-tank “Ukrainian Prism” looked for answers and came up with a comprehensive overview of resilience to disinformation and the quantitative Disinformation Resilience Index. The study allows for the comparison of each countries’ quality of systemic responses, vulnerability to digital warfare and population exposure, and susceptibility to disinformation.
Elderly and minorities as major targets
In Ukraine, as well as in the rest of the researched countries, the elderly and national minorities are most often presented as groups most susceptible to disinformation and propaganda. Older people in CEE countries tend to display nostalgic feelings for the Soviet/socialist past and usually are inexperienced users of modern technology. For instance, a survey conducted in 2016 in Lithuania showed that 45.8% of the population aged 46 or older tend to agree that ‘in the Soviet Union life was better than today in Lithuania’.
National minorities are considered an easy target for Kremlin-backed disinformation as well, and this category goes far beyond ethnic Russians across the region, experts rather speak of Russian language-speaking minorities, which often include ethnic Ukrainians, Belarusians, Moldovans, etc. In the absence of systemic actions to promote minority languages in some CEE states, national minorities have adopted Russian as a proxy language and have become heavy consumers of Russian media.
Active followers of the Orthodox Christian church (most notably, in Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) are another prominent vulnerable group to Kremlin-led disinformation. For instance, in Moldova, the church enjoys the highest level of trust among all social institutions while the Moldovan Metropolitanate maintains close ideological and economic relations with Russia through ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.
An equally important group susceptible to Kremlin-led narratives is supporters of far-right ideology and so-called ‘ideologies for hire’ — right-wing extremism, racist rhetoric, fascism, ultra-nationalism, ‘conservatism’, etc. Kremlin-led disinformation and propaganda are highly successful in the identification and consolidation of such groups around these ideological constructs and issues such as identity, religious fundamentalism, economic inequality, social security, immigration, and others.
Several country experts report that young people under 25 are yet another group at risk. Individuals in this age group experience some emotional and psychological adjustment problems, usually lack skills to resist various sorts of manipulation, including information and psychological ones.
Furthermore, there are some other country-specific vulnerable groups. In Belarus, these include army officers and military personnel, while in South Caucasus countries, those with close business and economic ties with Russia.
The more popular is Russian media – the wider spread is disinformation
While acknowledging the quality and diversity of Kremlin-led disinformation methods, one should not exaggerate their sophistication. Experts doubt that Russia actually possesses a specific media strategy towards any given CEE country. Usually, only a very limited number of media products is designed for specific country-targeting. For instance, many identical narratives target the Baltic states in general rather than Lithuania or Latvia individually.
The usage and popularity of Russian-language media platforms heavily determine the degree of population exposure to Kremlin-led messages. These indicators vary greatly across the countries. While, for instance, in Hungary or Romania, Russian-language media are virtually not present, in Belarus, Russian TV channels are the main source of information for around 40% of the country’s population. In Moldova, five out of the top 10 TV channels heavily rebroadcast Russian TV channels. In Latvia and Estonia, four out of the 10 most popular TV channels heavily broadcast Russian TV content and, therefore, occasionally spread Kremlin-led disinformation and propaganda. At the same time since a Russian-speaking part of the population in Lithuania is many times less numerous than in Latvia and Estonia, Lithuanians are much less exposed to the Russian media environment, rarely use Russian social media, and generally are less susceptible to Russian traditional and digital media.
Even in countries where Russian media are nearly not as present or where their popularity is marginal, pro-Kremlin narratives occasionally reach local audiences through national media. They retransmit Russia-originated narratives or unreliable news, either unintentionally as a consequence of flawed editorial policies, or on purpose, often for political reasons. For instance, the ‘Soros’ narrative has spread well to media in the Visegrad countries and in Romania. Generally, the most popular radio and newspapers are less frequent transmitters of Kremlin-led disinformation across CEE countries than TV channels and online media.
States are slow to respond
Virtually all CEE countries lack quality systemic responses. National institutions and regulations on information security are often underdeveloped. Often, the regulatory environment is outdated, thus preventing the relevant regulatory agencies from duly scrutinizing disinformation channels for compliance with legislative norms.
Another common feature across the CEE countries is a deficiency of national long-term strategies aimed at combating foreign-led disinformation campaigns and producing coherent narratives towards vulnerable groups of the population. Only Estonia stands out with its noticeably better ranking in the respective Disinformation Resilience Index indicator among the 14 reviewed CEE countries due to its well-functioning institutional setup, regulations, and high quality of other systemic responses.
To reach its audiences in European countries, Russia exploits loopholes in EU regulations. The EU Audiovisual Media Services Directive allows media to be registered in any EU member state as long as one of the media company’s board members resides in that country. The Baltic states are vocal that this allowance prevents them from regulating media companies properly since they are subject to the legislation of other countries of registration (e.g., the United Kingdom or Sweden). In some instances, Lithuania and Latvia went as far as to temporarily block the broadcast of certain TV channels with Russia-originated content for spreading messages violating domestic legislation.
For Ukrainian Case “good” is not enough
Ukrainian resilience to Russian disinformation is very multi-layered. First, both at state and societal levels, we are conscious that Kremlin-backed disinformation and propaganda as physiological operations are part and parcel of hybrid warfare, along with military aggression, trade and energy wars, annexation and occupation, and political destabilization.
Second, since Ukraine has been placed at the core of the Russian global disinformation strategy, the state differs in the breadth and scope of the areas in which it must resist aggression. That said, both state bodies and expert communities have to deliver on information security tasks in three main fields: on the sovereign territory of Ukraine, in the occupied and annexed areas, and, last but not the least, outside Ukraine. All three areas are crucial but are very different in terms of narratives, channels and strategic tactics applied by the aggressor against Ukraine.
In quantitative and qualitative terms, the level of disinformation challenges and threats is far higher for Ukraine than for its neighbors. As a result, the number of tasks Ukraine needs to accomplish differs significantly. The number of tasks may partially explain why some of our interviewed experts sometimes feel pessimistic about the steps which have already been taken by the Ukrainian state. While other states have achieved success in countering disinformation using such methods, these alone are not enough in the case of Ukraine. This is especially true when experts refer to cooperation between state institutions, civil society, and the expert community.