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Russian propaganda uses the same tools to spread disinformation in Central & Eastern Europe – research

Kyiv, February 27, 2017.

Russian propaganda uses practically the same tools and messages to spread disinformation in Central & Eastern Europe and in Ukraine. Just some accents differ in the overall narrative, with regard to peculiarities of situation in a given country. These trends were revealed within the research conducted by experts from Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Moldova and Ukraine. Within the discussion “Information warfare in the Internet, revealing and countering the Kremlin propaganda in Central and Eastern Europe” held at Ukraine Crisis Media Center, they presented their findings for each particular country and suggested what should be done to counter the disinformation.

The research was conducted by partner think-tanks from six countries. “We tried to analyze the selected portals. Every partner has been doing this at their home country. We have covered several hundreds of such portals and found several hundred pieces of information which was fake or manipulated. This is quite frightening, because this is really a lot, and we did it only in July – October last year,” – said Malgorzata Bonikowska, president of the Centre for International Relations.

The materials commonly employ deceptive manipulation of facts and emotions, playing on fears and painful topics, inflating problems. The spread of misinformation is facilitated by the modern information environment: the availability of Internet and social networks, a high level of anonymity. This is further promoted by the lack media literacy in most of the population and journalists not always following professional ethics.

Poland

The network of propaganda media includes websites, social networks and YouTube. Internet “trolls” are very active, especially in the comments to news concerning NATO, Ukraine, relations between the US, Russia and EU. Manipulative materials usually present a mix of facts and opinions of the authors.

The narratives spread by these media persuade that “Poland is becoming “the vassal of the USA”, that NATO is “a tool of the US” aimed “to back interests of a small group of elites” and NATO is provoking Putin, that if the war starts, Poland again will be left to fend for itself despite all the treaties, as on the dawn of World War II. In addition, propaganda uses the topic of Volyn massacre, claiming that now “these Bandera supporters came to power in Kyiv”, that Ukraine is going to lay claims on Polish territories. At the same time, they remind that “Lviv is a Polish city” and call to unite efforts with “brothers-Slavs”, the Russians, instead of the “homosexual West”.

Sometimes there are absolutely blatant lies, such as two fake interviews with two Polish generals published on the eve of Warsaw summit. In fact, these interviews never took place. One of them said, for example, that sending NATO troops “with homosexuals and transvestites” to Poland was an attempt to “make a laughing stock of Poland.” Another interesting example is the message claiming that Ukrainian right nationalists allegedly believe that Przemysl should be part of Ukraine. It was published as news July 14, 2016, just three days after the anniversary of the Volyn tragedy, but the bulk of the article were excerpts from an interview with the Speaker of “Right Sector” Taras Tarasenko to daily newspaper “Rzeczpospolita”, which was published in January 2014.

“Common characteristics of such articles is that they are usually written by anonymous authors, which hinders exposing these “journalists”. This is very important fact, given that one of our recommendations to counter pro-Kremlin propaganda is to name and shame the authors of those disinformation by putting them in the public spotlight,” – said Antoni Wierzejski, an analyst of Centre for International Relations.

Polish mainstream media are rather resistant to fakes, however, they retransmitted the news about Egypt allegedly transferring to Russia warships “Mistral”, which France refused to sell to Russia.

Slovakia

The main source of misinformation is the so-called “alternative media” and social networks, said Iveta Varényiová, Visiting Fellow of Slovak Foreign Policy Association. The study analyzed 6 online media, labeled for spreading misinformation. They are characterized by poor quality of the materials, which are often a machine translation of the Russian text.

Disinformation techniques are the same as in other countries: distorted coverage of events, manipulation of facts, address to emotions such as fear and concern, manipulation on sensible topics, merging in one context the events which are not interconnected, reference to doubtful sources or complete absence of reference, reference to would-be experts, mixing facts and personal opinion of the author. The messages are typical as well: praising Putin as a strong leader, condemning NATO as the aggressor, support of Russian interference in Ukraine and Syria, and others. “There is an interesting and dangerous trend that Slovak politicians started to share pro-Kremlin propaganda opinions and thus encourage their voters to read these websites, rather than the mainstream media. One of such politicians is the leader of the parliamentary faction “We are family”,” said Iveta Varényiová. Meanwhile, the influence of propaganda began to wane thanks to the association “Conspirators” who created a “black list” of resources.

 

Czech Republic

There are about hundred misinforming resources, said Ivana Smolenova, Visiting Fellow, Programme Manager with Prague Security Studies Institute. One of them is the Russian “Sputnik”, another to a Russian who lives in Prague. The rest look like a local initiative, but their structure is extremely opaque.

The experts classified them in two sub-categories: “conspiracy theories websites” and “alternative media”. The first are very unprofessional and manipulative, they usually have few readers. The latter position themselves as an alternative to “biased mainstream media” and have a bigger audience.

Common features for both are the focus on events abroad and a looped repetition of the same topics (immigration crisis, terrorism, etc.). The materials commonly resort to distorted interpretation of the facts, manipulative use of photos, references to “internal sources”, playing on emotions. “We studied almost 3,000 articles from the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Every fifth article incited hatred, every fourth induced fear,”- said Ivana Smolenova.

The messages are similar to those promoted in other countries. The particular feature of the Czech Republic was a campaign to discredit the personality of Václav Havel to discredit the values ​​of freedom and democracy along with him. According to Ivana Smolenova, the general impression all these materials give is that their goal is to “deconstruct rather than promote any ideas.”

 

Czech Republic

There are about hundred misinforming resources, said Ivana Smolenova, Visiting Fellow, Programme Manager with Prague Security Studies Institute. One of them is the Russian “Sputnik”, another to a Russian who lives in Prague. The rest look like a local initiative, but their structure is extremely opaque.

The experts classified them in two sub-categories: “conspiracy theories websites” and “alternative media”. The first are very unprofessional and manipulative, they usually have few readers. The latter position themselves as an alternative to “biased mainstream media” and have a bigger audience.

Common features for both are the focus on events abroad and a looped repetition of the same topics (immigration crisis, terrorism, etc.). The materials commonly resort to distorted interpretation of the facts, manipulative use of photos, references to “internal sources”, playing on emotions. “We studied almost 3,000 articles from the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Every fifth article incited hatred, every fourth induced fear,”- said Ivana Smolenova.

The messages are similar to those promoted in other countries. The particular feature of the Czech Republic was a campaign to discredit the personality of Václav Havel to discredit the values ​​of freedom and democracy along with him. According to Ivana Smolenova, the general impression all these materials give is that their goal is to “deconstruct rather than promote any ideas.”

 

 

Moldova

In Moldova, propaganda uses the country’s weaknesses – the frozen conflict in Transnistria and strong separatist moods in Gagauz autonomy. The situation is complicated due to a large number of Russian agents that influence business and politics and the fact that the newly elected president Igor Dodon is a sincere supporter of Vladimir Putin. At the same time, Dodon actively resorted manipulation of the facts during the election campaign, trying to tarnish the reputation of his main rival, Maia Sandu. According to Petru Makovey, executive director of the Association of Independent Press, this helped him to win the election. The most resonant fake was that in case of victory she promised to receive 30,000 Syrian refugees to Moldova.

A lot of Russian channels, such as “Pervyi kanal”, “NTV” and “Russia” are retransmitted in Moldova; “Russia 24” was banned after monitoring by the national regulator. Other sources of disinformation are social networks and sites of “pocket” NGOs financed by Russia. Another important agent of influence is Moldovan metropolia. According to Petru Makovey, during the election campaign the church openly called to vote for Dodon and condemned the other candidates.

The study analyzed 6 portals – Actualitati.md (portal of Socialist Party), Gagauzinfo.md ​​(portal of Gagauz autonomy), “NTV Moldova”, “Panorama” and Moldovan service of “Sputnik.” “The main conclusion is that all of them are designed to establish some basic ideas that Europe is about to collapse, that the government is controlled from abroad and does not make any decisions itself, that NATO is getting ready for war with Russia on the territory of Moldova, that Moldova will repeat the fate of Ukraine, if refuses to reorient; that Moldova will never join the EU and the Association is working against the interests of the country,” – said Petru Makovey. In Moldova, as well as in Ukraine, the language issue is being speculated, and the idea of the “linguistic genocide” is actively promoted with news about allegedly closed schools that teach in Russian, or pharmacies alleged refusal to provide service to Russian-speaking customers.

Also, the opposition resorts to contrasting “LGBT Europe” to Russia as a bastion of Christian values. The materials are usually quote only pro-Russian experts and use speculations and hoaxes, distorted interpretation of the facts, labeling, division into “the good” and “the bad.”

 

Ukraine

“During four month of our research we noticed fake news in nearly 20 Ukrainian media,” said Margo Gontar, co-founder of “StopFake.org”. Among these are “Vesti” and “RIA Novosti”, which was predictable, and, unexpectedly, several rather objective media, for instance, “Novoye Vremya”. “Sometimes it happens as a result of unprofessional journalism and insufficient fact-checking. But the majority of fakes which were detected are the same that are spread in Russian media,” said Gontar.

Propaganda uses typical tools: referring to pseudo experts, manipulation of facts, creating pages in social networks “for the news”, tearing information out of context, playing on emotions and so on.

It is interesting that in Ukraine there are attempts to manipulate the topic of “minorities that want autonomy”, namely Rusyns and Gagauz. In particular, to provide the news on the latter a community in “VKontakte” was created. “Gagauz community then said that they had nothing to do with that,” – said was created Margo Gontar.

One of the brightest fakes which was immediately shared in social networks and repeated forward in a number of media was that UEFA allegedly started investigation of anti-doping violations by Ukrainian sportsmen. “UEFA confirmed that they did not start any investigation and there are no problems with this,” explained Margo Gontar. Another example is the news about “DPR” opening diplomatic offices in Europe. In fact, it was an NGO which intentionally choose the name beginning as “DPR Office”.

“In general, the situation is not that bad because people are able to get information and Ukrainian media tend to remove fake news after we publish a refutation, whereas in Russia nobody deletes refuted news,” – summed up Margo Gontar.

 

Conclusions

Resilience of the society to propaganda and fakes starts from recognition that the problem is a reality, said the experts. It would be a good idea to offer a course of “media literacy” at schools. The experts who study this issue separately in their home countries should unite their efforts and raise public discussions on the issue. “It’s not only the problem of pro-Kremlin propaganda, it is generally a new phenomenon of fake news, or manipulative news. We live in the 21st century, with Internet, social media and other means of communication, and many people, mainstream media included, are not sometimes aware that they copy or refer to the news which is fake or manipulated. This is really a huge challenge to work on,” emphasized Małgorzata Bonikowska, president of the Centre for International Relations.

“This is a complicated problem which affects so many parts of the society. The response must come from all parts of the society. On the one hand, we need to work with disinformation itself – to study the phenomenon, to debunk fake stories and conspiracies, raising awareness about the topic,” noted Ivana Smolenova. It is important to improve education quality in general, she added, because “disinformation will work as long as there are people who are willing to trust it.”

A lot depends on professionalism of the journalists. “Sometimes we are caught between the eagerness to be attractive and [the necessity] to be responsible. […] We must be very cautious not to become the tools of propaganda,” Agnieszka Ostrowska stressed.

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