Historically, the countries of northeast Europe have contended with more than their fair share of disinformation. Every government official I met with emphasized the importance of disinformation awareness—an understanding among officials, journalists, and the general public that they needed to be on guard against foreign propaganda. “We all thought in Poland that 300 years of partitioning and 50 years of communism made us immune to propaganda—not only Russian propaganda, but any kind of disinformation aiming at influencing the behavior of larger parts of society,” Jan Hofmokl, an official with Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, explained. “However, we have to admit it: We were caught off guard, and it took some time before we were able to admit there is a problem. Because there clearly is one.”
Academic research around disinformation isn’t new, but our empirical understanding of how to cope with the tactic remains limited. Northeastern University’s Briony Swire-Thompson researches the cognitive psychology behind disinformation effectiveness. “It is important to let the public know as soon as possible where the information comes from,” she explained. “This is because when deciding on whether information is true or false, people place a great deal of weight on the source of information.”
This was a common refrain in all of my conversations. Andris Mellakauls, the head of Latvia’s Information Space Integration Division, cited the government’s “permanent” campaign to promote media literacy as its proudest achievement. The campaign includes training for teachers, librarians, and municipal youth specialists; providing educational tools; and forging international partnerships to share best practices among journalists, researchers, civil servants, and NGOs. “Democracy can only function properly if citizens are able to make informed decisions,” Mellakauls said. “They must be aware of the sources of information they base their decisions on.”
Elina Lange-Ionatamishvili, an official at NATO’s Strategic Communication Center of Excellence in Latvia, agreed that education is essential, but argued this long-term approach should be matched with efforts to educate current voters, such as “social-advertising campaigns helping citizens to recognize fake news, disinformation, and also propaganda.” The EU’s East StratCom Task Force’s Disinformation Review is one example of such a campaign. “Governments have a great responsibility in setting the right policy priorities and allocating resources to enable the citizens to defend [themselves] from foreign disinformation campaigns,” Lange-Ionatamishvili said. “But at the end of the day each citizen is on their own when faced with the 21st-century information ‘deluge.’”
Given the emphasis on cyber defenses and social-media algorithms in many American conversations about disinformation, I was surprised by how rarely northeast-European officials emphasized technical solutions to the problem. While officials in many countries noted the relevance of technology, most were far more focused on their populations’ “psychological resilience” and viewed technological developments with a dose of fear. NATO’s Lange-Ionatamishvili worried about extremely realistic audio-video editing, as did Geir Hågen Karlsen, director of Strategic Communication and Psychological Operations at the Norwegian Defense University College. “In the future we will have to deal with Troll Factory 2.0: human trolls replaced by advanced bots and a few operatives,” and also “artificial intelligence, algorithms like natural language generation, manipulation of speech, imagery, and soon also video, higher speed, and most importantly, more sophisticated manipulation,” he said.