Every day, through media, public opinion, interests, and motivations of people, consciences are influenced, misguided or diverted, even beyond the boundaries of their own wills and senses. This paper analyses the implications of propaganda and disinformation in the context of undermining, in general, the exercise of human rights, mainly through the use of online platforms, as it can disseminate information on a scale and speed unprecedented it erodes trust in the media and institutions. I address the problem from the Ukrainian civil society perspective, focusing on how the magnitude of such events influenced its mechanisms throughout the last decade together with nowadays society. In this context, this article aims to address the perspectives and the ramifications of “fake news” as a source of starting point in distinguishing the measures intended to guarantee the neutralization of this large-scale threat.
Today, more than ever we live in a fast-forward peace dictated by technological innovation in all the societal areas. A myriad of information facilitated by the fast development of technology products and online media has led to suggestions that we currently witness a Fourth Industrial Revolution that threatens to blur even more the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres, altering the way we live, work, think or behave.
Now more than ever nations, regions, people are in danger as these developments not only lead the path to innovation but are used as means to encourage and spread a much complex threat landscape. The 21st century challenges the established norms and procedures as it is the breeding ground for fake news, propaganda, and disinformation that allow interested groups to exploit the social fabric for disruptive purposes. It triggers different emotional responses in the form of verbal manipulation that infiltrates today’s social media platforms at unprecedented speed. So fast that human abilities have become inadequate to recognizing, following, and wrecking them to avoid the hazard and harm it might bring about and fast enough to put the analysts and agents in a struggle to finding meaning by deciphering the reliable sources from the masquerade.
When a new era where the fragile trust in media and public opinion is the rule has emerged, the burst of social media platforms has amplified and multiplied the already existing process of destabilization. Thus, disinformation sets itself to be one of the many challenges it is imperiously needed to be faced with, as it extends beyond the political sphere, flooding all the aspects of information, highlighting a new dimension for law enforcement, OSINT activity, and civil society resilience.
With the global picture evolving daily, the particular, stable elements of this phenomenon are related to the increased levels of fake news distributed via social media that has the ability to potentiate the chances of global reaching. Although the strings of past manipulation were held by the political elites, it is now that social networks turned each consumer into a potential manipulator, lowering the levels of message filtration. Thus, the emergence of fake news and disinformation has gradually become a major concern to democratic societies, as it can be used for a broad spectrum of damage: it can be used as a leverage to political campaigns, spread propaganda of terror or ethnic groups and it is an overall concern for the intelligence units and national security and law enforcement units worldwide. It has the power to create the momentum for political upheavals, riots, anarchy, terror and it can instigate other forms of detrimental crime. Moreover, the use of bots allows the creation of realistic posts and real-time conversations that imitate human behavior, along with the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning are bound to create an environment of deep fake technology.
Yet is fake news a new phenomenon we have never dealt with? What is so special about the times we live and in what measure does it influence the communities, especially in countries where distrust in governmental and EU institutions are undermining the effort to counter such activities, such as Ukraine? These are the topics of my focus in this paper and I am looking forward to answering them in a manner concentrated in two parts. The first one seeks to briefly define the terms forwarded to analysis while the second part focuses on the dynamic landscape of fake news propagation in Ukraine. Finally, the conclusion sums up all the ideas enlisted in the first two chapters while at the same time offering suggestions over how the civil society communities should overcome such a nemesis.
Moreover, this policy brief tried to underline three particular characteristics of the current context in relation to the information gathering and its challenges in such an environment. First is the difficulty to assess the truth from falsehood, mainly because of the over-saturation with information from all the directions, followed by the polarization and politicization of the debate about what can be really a source of truth and what are the conditions in order to discern the truth from lies or hidden truths. And last but not least, the powerful campaigns waged by interest groups against certain authorities designed to decline the confidence among the decision-makers. But first, let us start with the beginnings.
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IT WAS THERE ALL THE TIME
With the appearance of the Internet in the late twentieth century, followed by the rise of the social media environment in the 21st century, the dangers of falsehood drastically increased, disinformation, propaganda, and scams. Both errors and deceitful content presently circulate around the web through peer-to-peer dissemination while at the same time satire news are falsely mistaken as true.
Today, more than ever lies masquerading as news is making the headlines of a movement that shifts the governments’ and high hierarchical figures’ power of public opinion manipulation to anyone that has internet access, as well as eroding the ability to set the boundaries between what is and is not true. Thus, it is no surprise that the intelligence communities and analysts assumed that we are in an era of post-truth and fake news. The emergence of these two terms’ prominence appeared in late 2016, after Great Britain’s choice of withdrawal from the European Union (Brexit) and Donald Trump’s triumph in the US presidential elections. These occasions drove the Oxford English Dictionary to choose “post-truth” as its promise of the year, a term characterized as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. It is used in political talk to assault the credibility of the media and lawmakers, yet nevertheless, it entered the academic to demonstrate the simplicity with which lies, distortions, mistakes, and conspiracy would now be able to be spread on an extremely enormous scope. Such dissemination can be either intentional (disinformation) or accidental (misinformation).
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, disinformation “can include authentic material used in a deliberately wrong context to make a false connection, such as an authentic picture displayed with a fake caption. It can take the form of fake news sites or ones that are deliberately designed to look like well-known sites. Disinformation can further include outright false information, shared through graphics, images, and videos. It can also take the form of manipulated image and video content, where controversial elements are photoshopped into innocuous contexts to evoke anger or outrage”. The goals of disinformation campaigns can be wide (e.g., planting dissension) or targeted on a goal (e.g., engendering a counter-narrative to domestic protests) and may utilize all data types (disinformation, misinformation, malign information, propaganda, and true information).
The definition of “fake news” is coined by the Cambridge Dictionary as: “false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke”. Thus it is a false narrative that can be biased or can omit parts of the truth, intentionally made and focusing on the appealing and extraordinary parts which produce emotional involvement or the reinforcing of prejudices. It also can be used as a means by far-right-wing supporters, trolls, conspiracy theory supporters to increase their visibility, and a study realized by the Oxford Internet Institute between November 2017-January 2018 underlined that Donald Trump’s supporters arrange the spread of fake-news news, particularly on Twitter and Facebook.
Thus, the competitive advantage in informational wars is obtained only by the one capable of discerning the truth from falsehood and understands how to use open sources for their own benefit. Basically, what happened in Ukraine was that open source has been used as a leverage to gather data as well as exerting “reflexive control” intended to influence Western actors not to engage in the Ukrainian conflict, in the sense that it neutralized the Western reactions by using the media that promoted a constant denial of Russian military involvement in Ukraine (the “green polite men” in Crimea).
In addition to the consequences of the foreign involvement particularly in the sowing of distrust before the COVID-19 crisis, this paper intends to briefly shed light upon what is the situation now and how the interest parts are affected. The spread of COVID-19 has affected the globe at a speed no one expected, beyond its original source in China-the Hubei province creating unprecedented unrest and chaos, taking a significant toll on human mental/physical health, wellbeing, and the world economy. The pandemic fallout enabled the rise of cyber-crime and information warfare including disinformation campaigns and fake news aimed to create a strong emotional response such as fear, uncertainty, or anxiety.
Currently, the ones targeted as the source of disinformation have been Russia and China particularly from a European Parliament briefing that underlines the concealment of information coming from China and the narratives of war conveying the overall message that the democratic institutions were not enough to prevent and manage the pandemic. The “New York Times” Magazine has also highlighted the involvement of Russia and China especially in using the novel virus to wage disinformation campaigns that seek to discredit the way the United States and sow doubts about its own potential as a democratic monolith. At the same time, the March issue of “The Diplomat” has shed light upon the campaigns unleashed by China against Taiwan, yet with a poor outcome because of Taiwan’s history of hoaxes from China amid their divide, its authorities’ transparency and responsiveness towards its problems and the civil society.
Amid the crisis, people have turned to smartphones, tablets, and gadgets to substitute the immense gap of social life and with that, Internet has become their prime source of information but also of misinformation about the “true” origins of the pandemic and the cure for the virus.
From the beginnings of the pandemic, Russia’s campaign of disinformation has included undermining the trust in proved facts and credible sources of information regarding COVID-19 and concomitantly spreading various conspiracy theories regarding the provenience of the virus, as well as portraying diplomatic institutions as poor managers of the pandemic, while at the same time increasing anger and mistrust over the Western international societies and mechanisms of policy. Moreover, the targeting of Ukraine has the outcome to destabilize civic order while concomitantly to sow distrust in public institutions and Euro-Atlantic integration.
This phenomenon is described as “infodemia”, the active dissemination of unverified information, fakes, manipulations that tend to jeopardize democratic societies and polarize them against the government who takes the necessary measures which more than often restrict the rights and freedoms of democratic societies, on the premise that they take in consideration the citizen’s health.
Moreover, the operational impact of the Russian disinformation propaganda and the informational tools used accomplished instigating some Ukrainians to violently engage in street protests due to the spread of false rumors in mid-February that Ukrainian and other non-Chinese nationals infected with COVID-19 are undergoing quarantine in the city of Novi Sanzhary. Further investigations have discovered that pro-Russian groups had spoofed wanna-be-email addresses from the Ukrainian Ministry of Health, social media networks, or TV and radio broadcasts and encouraged people to organize blockades and violence to prevent the foreign arrival.
Ultimately, Russia’s aid campaign of food and medical supplies to countries like Italy or Serbia serves to potentiate its reputation on the international stage and eventually get rid of the subsequent sanctions from the disinformation actions through its humanitarian opportunistic activities in the EU and its neighborhood. Moreover, it highlighted a resilient Russia, far more capable to manage the crisis at home, providing the needed medicine and vaccine than any other Western state.
Furthermore, various pro-Russian sites, such as “Rusvesna.su” with majority reach in Ukraine present China in a far better light than the West, especially in regards to discrediting it due to the argued spread of the virus in Wuhan because the US military might have brought it there, alimenting the seeds of populism and racism in the existent societies.
Only looking at the governments in Luhansk and Donetsk, they follow unsurprisingly Kremlin’s model of not reporting the accurate number of COVID-19 cases, and Red Cross members expressed their discontent over the availability of tests in the mentioned territories. Thus, even establishing an estimated number of cases and spreading rate in these regions is close to impossible. Furthermore, the Crimean Peninsula is one of the regions of focus for Russian propagandistic narratives that aim to antagonize it against Ukraine in particular and the EU in general.
CIVIL SOCIETY: IS THERE ANYTHING THAT CAN BE DONE?
It is thought that a vibrant civil society should act in a coordinated manner in order to tackle from the grass-root level the issues present and at the same time to work with specialized stakeholders to provide means and measures as to better manage the next crisis situations and social cohesion. Another dimension of the crisis in Ukraine is represented by a somewhat common concern and civil strife in the state’s authority to provide with the basic health and aid services and similarly exacerbating tensions between ethnic groups, internally displaced people, who starting with the 2014 outbreak of war in Eastern Ukraine has made use of the existing vulnerabilities and surfaced again with a renewed spirit of self-reliance against host communities. This triggered the remobilization of the volunteers and other humanitarian networks who aim to provide guidance and aid to vulnerable groups and diminish the spread of marginalization.
Obviously, continuous exposure to such an approach from either Russia or China has mobilized the civil society to search for new tools and initiatives to assess and overcome these dire challenges Ukraine is facing. The National Democratic Institute (NDI) for instance, in partnership with the Department of State, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the Government of Canada, has designed a multiple steps program that tries to effectively and actively tackle disinformation at large scale.
This is how Texty was born, an independent journalism platform of spotting and monitoring Russian sites and platforms that spread disinformation in Ukraine sorted weekly, on different topics. It follows the goal of allowing its audience to form a security culture by acknowledging the flows of information and the persistent fake narratives/patterns in a certain period of time. Thus, by understanding these threats it is useful for the specialized stakeholders as well as for the general citizen to contribute to a more active engagement towards an effective problem-solving approach and a more resilient society to informational attacks.
Its tools and extensions are now used by the Ukrainian government, civil society organizations, and journalists in a proactive endeavor in solving this pressing issue weaponized against Ukraine’s democratic initiative. Furthermore, initiatives like the Institute of Mass Information, Academy of Ukrainian Press, and BezBrekhnias as well as sites like“stopfake.org” are facilitating media literacy and uncover propagandistic activities while at the same time monitoring the progress made among the Ukrainian community in this self-organizing effort.
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to take its toll on the health and livelihoods of Ukrainians, the abundance of false stories and headlines pose their series of grave consequences, including genuine public concern for the government ability to monitor incidences of Covid-19, lack of verifiable and reliable scientific information on disease symptoms, the likelihood of a second peak, general know-how on appropriate social distancing practices, the availability of masks and supplies health care at a fair price and measures to protect vulnerable family and friends. An important dimension of civil society’s activities has been to raise awareness of the pandemic and to address disinformation. Providing reliable information about the pandemic has become the main activity of many Ukrainian CSOs. This trend brings Ukraine in line with many other countries around the world Civil society has played a key role in providing timely and reliable information about the virus and response measures.
Due to the hybrid nature of the war in the east, Ukraine has more experience in fighting disinformation than most countries and the organizations that have long campaigned against disinformation are now using their expertise to tackle false stories about COVID-19. Well-known Ukrainian NGO StopFake is exposing Russian disinformation about the virus from foreign and domestic sources.
Civil society organizations have launched coronavirus-specific fact-checking initiatives to expose false information and conspiracy theories about the virus and monitor the media. The detector Media group has created entertaining video content with the hashtag # сидивдома –(stay home) to raise awareness of coronavirus, teach critical thinking and distinguish trustworthy news from fake news. VoxCheck, an initiative by civil society organizations verified Ukrainian politicians’ speeches, identified misinformation, and provided verified briefings on the pandemic in collaboration with the international Facebook fact-checking network. Additionally, to popularize fact-checking and objective thinking, the CSOs in Ukraine launched a project called Scientific Method to Promote Science-Based Information on Coronavirus.
Some civil society organizations have focused on providing timely and reliable information to vulnerable groups. Roman organizations have translated the information in the Romani language and disseminated them to the Roma communities through social media. A CSO coalition that protects the rights of people with learning disabilities have started a project to produce distilled information on the coronavirus
What is really needed is a comprehensive approach translated into a common multilateral security architecture that can bring together all the governmental branches as well as NGOs enterprises and the independent media in order to not just identify the misleading information but its sources and beneficiaries in order to better assess the damage and to reinforce counteractive actions. Moreover, a resilient media-literate society will certainly spot fake news and disinformation and further initiatives are needed to strengthen it as well as the independent media.
Accomplishment in doing so will be founded on how well it can utilize new advancements to stay aware of the dangers presented by criminal on-screen characters. Be that as it may, misusing the maximum capacity introduced by mechanical advancement is just conceivable if a few hidden boundaries are satisfied. More importantly, what is actually needed is a common, international effort focused on inter-disciplinary multilateralism and understanding that if the threat is global, so the solutions shall be.
As to conclude, this is just a brief analysis of the implications of the post-truth era of disinformation, manipulation, and propaganda used by the interest groups throughout history and the way state authorities and private entities are being part of it along with a few suggestions on what can be done. The phenomenon of fake-news has definitely shown how non-state entities or groups can polarize civic behavior along with shifting the political environment with minimum cost, wherever there is Internet access, on platforms with global reach, and without a trace of fancy means. It manipulates social debates, hampering one’s ability to make informed decisions and undermined the free and democratic elections process. Alternative spaces for open-source analysis, such as digital news, social media, or blogs were demonstrated to be much more antagonistic for finding precise data, thus the future of open source reliability is put under the question mark.
The decision-making mechanisms will always depend on the intelligence services and the materials they produce as being the right and truthful information. Thus, one of the 21st-century fundamental problems needs to be correctly assessed in such a manner that it will eliminate the harm produced while at the same time would prevent or be prepared for the next developments.
WRITER Varlan Codruta Third year student at Babes Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca The Security Studies, BA program
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