Information: V4's New Security Threat

  • Tomáš Čižík, CENAA
  • 18.9.2017 17:01

Russian propaganda and disinformation campaigns are nothing new across post-Communist countries but they remain the most vulnerable ones. What can V4 states do to fight this security threat?

Since March 2014 Visegrad countries are experiencing massive Russian propaganda flowing into their territories and it seems to be very effective. Recent Russian propaganda differs from propaganda from Soviet times. “In Soviet times the concept of truth was important”, but nowadays the main goal of Russian disinformation campaign is to create chaos, undermine the trust of citizens to democratic institutions and to invoke fear among citizens. Propaganda is generally spread by so-called alternative media and social networks, but what is more disturbing, is that high-level politicians such as Czech President Miloš Zeman, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán contribute to this by their pro-Russian stances. It is alarming that political leaders of V4 countries are contributing to the creation of chaos and state institutions are not taking counter-measures.


“Nationalism found its way back into European states.”


But what makes Russian information warfare so dangerous and why does it have to be perceived as a security threat for Visegrad countries? It is mainly the asymmetric nature of possibilities in information domain, Russian ability to use democracy against democracies and the freedom of information to inject disinformation into various target groups under the label of freedom of speech. Information warfare blurs the border between peace and war and between fact and fiction. People feel betrayed by the West, by the EU and it seems that the first generation that doubts democracy as a viable political system is growing up in Europe. On the other hand, nationalism found its way back into European states.

According to the latest report by the Globsec Policy Institute “support for a pro-Russian (Eastern) orientation is marginal, just above 12% […], the pro-West camp is relatively weak, with only 23% of support”. In the Czech Republic, 30% of citizens prefer pro-Western orientation and only 4% eastward orientation. In Hungary, 32% of citizens prefer pro-Western orientation and only 6% eastward orientation. The support for the NATO membership is also decreasing in comparison with the year of their accession to NATO. Currently, 30% of Slovaks, 44% of Czechs and 47% of Hungarian citizens think that NATO is a good thing, while support for NATO accession was higher in the past (Hungary 85%, Czech Republic 57% both in 1998 and Slovakia 51% in 2004).


“More and more young people believe alternative media.”


Even more disturbing than the decreasing support of pro-Western orientation across V4 countries is the fact that still more and more young people believe alternative media. Alternative media contribute to the spread of disinformation and chaos with various narratives: that Russia is threatened by NATO’s enlargement and the movement of military hardware towards Russian borders, the EU supports LGBT communities and force member states to apply same-sex policies, Islamic State is supported by the United States and many more. Most of these alternative media just copy articles prepared by Russian news agencies like RT, Sputnik News or Ria Novosti. Further, the biggest Russian news agencies do have a dedicated considerable operating budgets. A case in point, the budget for the RT agency (formerly Russia Today) in the period 2007-2015 was approximately 120 million USD, reaching its height in 2013-2014 with 400 million USD. Sputnik News in conjunction with Ria Novosti have a combined operating budget of 200 million USD per year, not to mention local media involved in the spreading of propaganda. As an example of how young people are manipulated by propaganda, we can mention Slovak political party Ľudová Strana Naše Slovensko (National Party Our Slovakia) that obtained 8% of votes in the parliamentary election in March 2016. Many of these votes were reportedly given by first-voters and young people.


“The combination of insufficient education and lack of media literacy makes citizens and young people very vulnerable.”


Russia’s massive investments into information warfare allow to prepare propaganda for each region or state in its national language, so news can be easily accessible for anyone. Sole investments into disinformation campaigns will not be enough to influence peoples’ minds. But the combination of insufficient education and lack of media literacy makes citizens and young people very vulnerable. Educational systems in Visegrad countries are inadequate and reforms need to be undertaken. It is important to teach citizens how propaganda works, how media works, how to look for reliable sources of information and how to think critically.


“An educated young generation is the cornerstone of the society.”


There are many possibilities how states can make its citizens more resilient against Russian propaganda. First of all, states should educate young people how to think critically and how to select and acquire information. An educated young generation is the cornerstone of the society and will be more resilient towards disinformation, hoaxes or conspiracy theories. States should also invest in quality investigative journalism. Journalists can hugely contribute to the fight with propaganda. Simple fact checking information can differentiate classic media from alternative ones. States should also develop comprehensive and coherent communication strategies to promote our shared values and visions. A common approach to counter-propaganda will also contribute to the renewal of trust into democracy and democratic institutions. States should develop their own positive narrative. Very important is also the debunking of disinformation coming from Russia. States should show their citizens how propaganda in Russia works. Such knowledge can be eye-opening for many of them. At last, but not least, states should take the threat of information warfare seriously and create institutions that will be able to protect their citizens against disinformation campaigns. Only governments have the resources and real possibilities to successfully counter propaganda and make their citizens more resistant towards any element of information warfare.

This text was created thanks to the support of International Visegrad Found.
Tomáš Čižik is the Director of the Centre for European and North Atlantic Affairs (CENAA).

About author: Tomáš Čižík, CENAA


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