In my Soviet Studies focus at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy with Professor Shultz in the late 1980s, Dezinformatisya was required reading, focusing as it did on the propaganda and active measures campaigns of the then government in Moscow which were manifest around us. Forgotten on my bookshelf for several academic generations, I was struck as I leafed through the book at just how much it seems that everything old is new again, if you’ll forgive the All That Jazz reference, mainly as IRI tracks Moscow's efforts to destabilize government and societies across Europe in its Beacon Project.
In London this past week, the Government of Prime Minister Theresa May continued to delineate its accusations against the security services of Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation and their wide-ranging active measures activities inside the UK, only the most blatant of which was the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter. UK Secretary of State for Culture Jeremy Wright said that, since being outed for the crime, the Kremlin and pro-Kremlin media have come up with 40 different narratives about the Skripal case, and called on public broadcasters to defend democracy against in a “battle against disinformation.”
Additionally, Ofcom, the UK’s broadcasting, telecommunications and postal regulator, has launched at least 11 investigations into the outlet’s activities in the UK, which is only one of the many media tools it employs in the US, including Sputnik, the official Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in London, bots and multiple fake accounts. In this regard, it is important to note that Ofcom has previously revoked the license of PressTV, the mouthpiece of the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to operate in the UK. Perhaps RT is next.
Further East, among the new democracies that have entered NATO and the EU, Moscow continues to meddle in elections large and small. This past weekend, citizens in the Czech Republic chose their representatives for one-third of the Senate, together with members of municipal councils. The second round of the Senate elections, where the top two vote-getters compete, will be held this weekend. Usually, the Czech population does not pay much attention to Senate elections, with voter turnout in the second round generally at or below 20 percent of the electorate. Media coverage typically also focuses on the municipal ballot.
Here, platforms that IRI and its regional partners have seen spreading Moscow’s narratives using IRI’s >versus< media-monitoring tool acted mainly in a similar manner as the mainstream media and did not pay too much attention to the Senate vote, with one notable exception. Unsuccessful presidential contender and now Senate candidate Jiří Drahoš was singled out for his positive attitude towards migration— the same narrative that was used by Drahoš opponents in the presidential elections in January 2018. Disinformation platforms also provided significant space for anti-establishment candidates, such as anti-Islamist activists Martin Konvičk, a or one of the country’s best-known conspiracy theorists, Ladislav Jakl. All of this, of course, to focus on divisive issues or fringe policies designed to further undermine the Czech population’s faith in democracy as an institution.
But in the Czech case, not all went well from Moscow’s perspective. Given the fact that Drahoš received more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round of the elections and none of the anti-establishment candidates made it to the second round, it seems Moscow’s disinformation machine had little impact on the results. One could argue that editors of these platforms did not attempt to influence the elections but instead used the opportunity to satisfy their audience by supplying favorable opinions corresponding to their already existing prejudices and criticism of the unpopular (at least in their social bubble) Drahoš.
In these two cases, as well as in almost every other election in Europe this year, we see that discussions about foreign malign influence, disinformation and misinformation remain at the heart of the political debate in the European Union (EU) and across the Transatlantic space. This will be all the more the case as Europe moved toward elections to the European Parliament in May 2019. In response, IRI’s Beacon Project, together with its partners in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland and elsewhere continue to develop and strengthen a networked response to addressing disinformation and its causes on both the Transatlantic and national levels.
Over the past months, the Beacon Project worked with the European Parliament’s rapporteur on disinformation and propaganda, Anna Fotyga MEP (Poland) and her team, on measures which can be taken on the European-Union level, and how to secure the forthcoming elections, while ensuring an open dialogue. The team’s efforts culminated in a high-level conference in the EP, collecting a group of leading experts, and crucially bringing together a cross-party group of MEPs, including the Greens, the Socialists & Democrats, the European Conservatives & Reformists, and the European People’s Party. The report will be presented at the Parliament’s December plenary session, with the Beacon team supporting the effort by continue building cross-party responses.
Further, working with Transatlantic donors, international experts, and a Polish Government/NGO working group, for example, IRI will be leading a side-event at November’s annual Warsaw Security Forum designed to bring together key state officials, researchers, activists, and tech experts. Here, using input from IRI’s Beacon Project, participants will examine how state institutions and NGOs can best work together, as well as where their actions can complement one another on a range of issues from election campaign regulation, to enhanced privacy laws, to more NGO-driven initiatives, including research and analytics, developing new technology, legislation scrutiny and fact-checking.
Just as in the 1980s, democratic societies and governments across the Transatlantic space find themselves gearing up to defend democratic institutions against attempts by Moscow to subvert them. And while the opponents of democracy certainly have a broader palette of technologies at their disposal than they did in the Cold War, so to do the Western allies have innovative ways to respond. Central to this effort, as in the days of the original dezinformatsya effort is coordinating a democratic response that strengthens the gaps in our own democracies that Moscow seeks to exploit.