Countering propaganda: international perspective

Jul 20, 2020 | Judiciary, Justice

Misinformation is not an isolated phenomenon in Ukraine alone. False information has been countered at the state and supranational levels around the world for decades. How do countries like Lithuania, Germany and France counteract misinformation in general and in particular? How useful is NATO's communication strategy for Ukraine? Why learn from social network Facebook? Ukrainian and international experience in countering false information was discussed at the Fourth National Forum "Independent Courts and Free Media: Countering Misinformation" at the initiative of the High Council of Justice with the support of EU Project Pravo-Justice.

Let's puzzle out the phenomenon of propaganda. Darius Remeika, expert in propaganda/counterpropaganda and psychological operations shared his vision of why misinformation is purposefully used. "False information is aimed at reducing critical perception of the facts presented. In general, propaganda tries to target people's thoughts and feelings and in some way change their perception of reality and behavior."

Sometimes a person is so saturated with false information that he/she convinces himself/herself that all subsequent false information is true. According to Darius, this is how propaganda is dangerous. After all, when it enters the mind, it can, in fact, stop and do nothing further. The person will do it himself/herself.

How to deal with this phenomenon? The expert suggested the following, "It is necessary to shape a strong national identity, an identity that helps resist propaganda. Identity includes various constituent elements inherent to each country. It is culture, historical memory, history of relations with neighboring countries, language, traditions and even national cuisine."

Thanks to our national identity, we can always restore the broad picture of our reality because we know who we are and where we are going. In order not to fall victim to unreliable data, a person must cultivate this identity. In this way she will be able to independently determine where it is the truth and where it is not.

EU Code, focus groups and media training: countering propaganda in European manner

There is a lot of distorted information that can undermine democratic systems through manipulation of social systems and the media. Martin Klaucke, Head of Operations Section 1 "Good Governance and Democratisation”, EU Delegation to Ukraine said that “Ukraine is at the forefront of this phenomenon. That is why it is very important to know about all the risks and how to deal with this problem."

The European Union has been working for several years to address the issue of propaganda. The EU is shaping a common approach to communication which sets out certain measures to deal with misinformation. EU Information Code has also been formed which is also accompanied by action plan against misinformation and information about urgent alerts to counter false information.

"We also have a very thorough monitoring of the code of practice which was signed with an international perspective within the EU External Action Service. As back as in 2015, we created a kind of focus group on strategic information in order to identify misinformation and refute it in the European Union. This is necessary to see how the information works and to understand how best to convey the message," says Klaucke.

The EU supports Ukraine to deal with misinformation. Work is ongoing is respect of trainings for journalists to raise awareness on these issues. In a broader regional context, the EU is proposing a survey on hybrid risks. This is done to identify hybrid threats that involve misinformation. According to Martin Klaucke, this issue is very relevant in Moldova, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Georgia.

NATO's three principles in countering propaganda

Barbora Maronkova, Director of NATO Information and Documentation Centre in Ukraine introduced methods of countering misinformation in the North Atlantic Alliance. "We are a military and political alliance, so we have heard a lot of propaganda for decades. And in this phenomenon NATO is presented as a representative of so-called West, and there is so-called East. Every day a lot of false information is poured on us." The North Atlantic Alliance has three main principles in countering propaganda. They apply to any governments, states, institutions.

  1. Powerful communication strategy. There must be history, narrative about who you are, what you do and what you don't do. A strong narrative, a strong voice and coordination in all NATO structures and in NATO Member Countries are enshrined in the strategy. Otherwise, if one spokesman in one country says one thing and in another says something else, it will be of no good to anyone. "We have to work together, be coordinated in our efforts and have the same narrative. Then our communication strategy will be really powerful and effective."

  2. Strong cooperation, interaction. "NATO members can be targets of propaganda and only together can we help each other and overcome misinformation." It is a whole network of institutions and agencies that support each other. Parts of this network are independent experts, communities, NGOs which are engaged in checking facts, refuting false information. "We managed to establish it in 6 years. Now the network covers the whole world."

  3. Effective technological backup. Strengthening our own technologies and technological capacity to counter cyberattacks. "I have no doubt that if we have a strong communication strategy and, moreover, tools to implement it, we can achieve the best results. We need to develop these methods during calm times, not during upheavals like now, for example, with COVID-19. As when a challenge arises, it is difficult to master new tools".

Similar views as to misinformation were expressed byŽivilė Navickaite-Babkin, international expert in communication of EU Project Pravo-Justice and communications consultant. "It is important to understand that the fight against propaganda is counter-propaganda. And counter-propaganda can serve both for defense and proactive action".

Rules, troll farms, content labeling - Facebook about misinformation

Social network Facebook that together with Instagram and WhatsApp covers almost 3 billion people a month has its own experience and history of confronting misinformation. Kateryna Kruk, Public Policy Manager for Ukraine at Facebook shared information about this. After all, Facebook has three large-scale areas of work in this area.

  1. Community standards and policies. They are constantly being changed and refined so that the rules meet the demands of the times and can protect users of the platform. "In the context of our conversation, the most important are anti-spam policy and ban on spreading hate speech," emphasizes Kateryna. "We see so much misinformation content aimed at dividing society, polarizing it even more."

  2. Cooperation with independent fact checkers. This is the main direction of the fight against manipulation and misinformation. Facebook offers partnership to independent experts. They check information of two types. The first is "reported" by users as potentially fake information. The other is determined by artificial intelligence as false information. Based on checking such types of information, the content is not deleted, but marked accordingly. Although the information does not disappear from the social network, it will appear in the news feed from the bottom.

  3. Countering bot farms and troll farms. We are talking about technology of spreading fakes, propaganda. Bot farms and troll farms are extremely powerful tools for spreading false information. There are several ways to deal with this type of information. The first way: a filter which is an anti-spam policy. These are Facebook rules that apply to the rapid spread of news or peak activity in communities. When significant activity is observed, it is checked and blocked.

"The other way is a little more complicated. It requires determining authenticity or non-authenticity of the profiles that are part of this network and coordination thereof. In this case, we have special teams that sort of scan Facebook to see if there are any suspicious clusters and if these accounts can be linked."

Lithuania and experience of counteracting Russian misinformation

"If you broadcast a lot of information, you have a good chance to push the right messages through," that is how Neringa Bliudžiūtė, former Public diplomacy program coordinator, NATO HQ, Brussels started her address.

The expert said that Lithuania has already learnt a communication lesson.

The country has begun coordinating its efforts and work in the following areas:

1) determining the ultimate aim of communication,

2) establishing clear messages that should gain popularity and be constantly broadcast,

3) coordinating work between different institutions,

4) involving the country's authorities and international partners,

5) shaping flexible information campaigns inside and outside the country.

A little more than a few words about legislation in Germany and France

Benoît Huet, expert on legal framework for countering disinformation briefed forum participants on French legislation and German Law "On the protection of social networks". Here are bullet points of his speech.

In France, the first legislation in this area was adopted in the late 19th century and that was the Freedom of the Press Act. Initially, it concerned print media, later it was applied to radio and television broadcasting, and now to online media.

This law, on the one hand, protects the interests of the media themselves and, on the other, imposes the obligation to identify individuals on them. First, we are talking about the author of the information, and secondly, about the person who is personally responsible for the content presented in the media. This is done in order to ensure freedom of expression and at the same time establish some control.

In France, it is not forbidden to give false information in general, like that the Earth is flat. But if information that may influence a person's decision-making is published, there is criminal responsibility for that.

The responsibility of hosting providers is very important. In 2004, legislation limiting the responsibility of hosting providers was passed. For example, if we are talking about Facebook or Twitter, the platforms are not responsible for the content of those messages that are published on such platforms respectively. At the same time, these hosting providers take the initiative and moderate or delete certain content.

But the French judiciary is not adapted to deal quickly and effectively with claims as to false information. For example, proceedings in misinformation case can last for two years whereas Facebook on its own initiative reviews 2 million messages daily to identify whether inappropriate content was posted. And in this activity Facebook involves 30 thousand employees worldwide. In September 2017, the Law on the Protection of Social Networks was adopted in Germany. According to it, the platforms are obliged to remove the content that is obviously illegal within 24 hours. If, for example, certain information is published that will be considered as misinformation or as an accusation of committing a criminal offense without a court decision, the hosting provider is obliged to remove such content. Otherwise, sanctions are applied to such hosting providers. Social networks remove such content because they do not want to be involved in court cases and this is not usually seen as an infringement on freedom of speech or freedom of expression.

In France, there was an attempt to follow German law approach. This is a completely new initiative (proposed in late June 2020). But the draft law was unsuccessful, with allegations that it violates the right to expression.

There is now an opportunity to consider court cases expeditiously during elections. Such legislation appeared in France in 2019 and has "survived" two elections. Its essence is that the court decision must be rendered within 48 hours if the case concerns election misinformation lawsuits. Once a positive decision has been made, the media must remove the relevant content within 24 hours. It is the content that may affect the election results or distort objective information about the election. Although this legislation has been in force for almost 2 years, only one case has been followed through.

Olesya Savenko for