An information war is raging in Eastern Europe; at stake are perceptions of the situation in Ukraine. In both Russia and the West, the commentariat claims the other side manipulates gullible minds with propaganda.
In mid-May, Russian television ran a six-minute report about “battle formations” pitted “against Russia” on the internet and airwaves. By this it meant the volunteer Information Army established by the Ukrainian Information Ministry and the “myth-busters” Brussels hopes to recruit to defend its Eastern Partnership initiative against Russian disinformation.
A week later, the Latvian capital Riga hosted a conference where hundreds of journalists and assorted experts discussed how to counter the “Russian information threat”. EU officials were in attendance, promising tens of millions of euros to support “free media” across the six Eastern Partnership states.
The information war
Russian TV coverage of Ukraine is highly emotive and biased, sometimes to the point of complete fabrication. It is designed to inspire anger against the West and the authorities in Kiev who, according to the Russian line, are responsible for the tragedy in Donbas.
Unsurprisingly, the principal targets of Russian vilification – the Ukrainian and Western governments and their supporters – are keen to challenge what the Russian media is saying.
Most recently, UK think tank Chatham House joined a chorus of Russia-watchers demanding greater Western investment in communications to counter false narratives from the Kremlin.
The most prominent advocate for intensifying Western counter-propaganda measures has been British author Peter Pomerantsev, who wrote a 2014 report on how Russia weaponises information. Pomerantsev advocates generating alternative Russian language content for audiences susceptible to Kremlin narratives. Western governments are encouraged to support (in other words, give money) for a “pan-regional news hub” and a “regional content production factory” in Eastern Europe. The biased journalism paid for by the Russian state should, according to this advice, be countered by quality journalism paid for by Western states.
The problem with state-sponsored news
But countering state-sponsored media content with more state-sponsored media content (whatever its quality) is unlikely to change public opinion.
Much of the Russian-speaking audience in post-Soviet Eastern Europe already has access – via the internet – to plenty of alternative news sources. There is the BBC’s Russian Service, for a start, and US-funded Radio Svoboda, as well as indigenous sites like meduza.io and tvrain.ru.
Digital generation Russian-speakers don’t lack access to information – in fact they are inundated with options. The problem is knowing which information to trust.
Content created on the back of Western government money will lack credibility by definition among audiences susceptible to Kremlin narratives. And if Western sponsorship is provided covertly, that hardly sends a positive message about media transparency. Most Russian viewers are likely to ignore channels with clear links to the West in the same way that most British viewers ignore Russian-funded RT.
Then there is the risk of a backlash from the Kremlin. According to former British ambassador Roderic Lyne, Vladimir Putin “verges on the paranoid” in perceiving Russia as a target of Western attack over the centuries. That paranoia is shared by many ordinary Russians.
When supporting independent media is discussed in the West in the same breath as “fighting the threat of Russian information”, it reinforces the Russian view that promoting democracy in this way is just geopolitics in disguise. The most likely Russian response is more propaganda and more restrictions on free speech.
There can be no winners in an information war. Adopting the language of “weapons”, “threats” and “defence” to describe communication is harmful in itself, because it makes dialogue impossible. Listening to the other side becomes a “dangerous activity” and those who attempt to do so are accused of being naive dupes. Yet without listening and dialogue, the security situation in Eastern Europe will continue to deteriorate.
If Western governments do want to respond to Russian propaganda, they should look beyond sponsoring news content. Instead, they should help Ukraine and other countries of the region to build economies capable of supporting healthy, competitive media markets, and education systems that produce critical thinkers.