This blog returns regularly to theme of disinformation, drawing attention to the fact that the most prevalent sources of disinformation in any country are domestic, not the product of ‘foreign meddling’. For instance, whatever ‘fake news’ Russian bots may have placed on the internet prior to the 2016 American presidential election pails into insignificance with the daily well-publicized deluge of nonsense which came out of the mouth of candidate Donald Trump. Brexit didn’t happen because of ‘Russian interference’, but (among other things) because of the deceitful claims of pro-leave British politicians, such as the notorious claim that the UK would be able to spend 350 million pounds more a week on the National Health Service if it left the European Union. And so on. When you’re looking for disinformation, it makes much more sense to look close to home than somewhere in far off lands.
Despite this, numerous commentators believe that we can learn a lot from one country’s efforts to combat foreign disinformation – Ukraine. A few days ago I mentioned former Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy. This is what he has to say on the matter:
There’s some lessons to learn for Canadians. I think Ukraine’s on the front line, and there’s a wake-up call that anybody’s election, including ours in six months, could be altered, disrupted or problems could be created in terms of disinformation if you’re not very watchful about it.
Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul shares Axworthy’s point of view, saying the following on Twitter:
Just attended a fascinating discussion on Russian disinformation efforts in Ukraine. We Americans could learn a lot from our Ukrainian colleagues.
Various Ukrainians are keen to support this perspective. ‘While unique, Ukraine’s experience holds broader lessons for how to tackle these emerging phenomena [i.e. disinformation],’ writes one. ‘Britain may well face more of such challenges in the future – it should learn the lessons from Ukraine if it wants to deal with them effectively,’ says another.
Ukraine is currently in the middle of a presidential election campaign. So let’s take a look at how the struggle to protect the Ukrainian democratic process from disinformation is going. An article in today’s Kyiv Post has a lot to say on the matter. It tells us:
Amid increasingly fierce competition, the big guns are coming out: negative campaign ads, so-called ‘black PR,’ and online disinformation. … ‘I think there’s a lot of playing hard and fast with the rules of the information space,’ says Nina Jankowicz, a Global Fellow at the Kennan Institute and an expert on disinformation. … ads and social media posts intended to mislead and scare voters have come to play a central role in the presidential race.
Apparently, therefore, Ukraine isn’t doing as well as McFaul, Axworthy, and co. would have us believe. So, let’s take a look at what this ‘black PR’ and disinformation consists of. The Kyiv Post provides some examples, including:
a website with ties to the Ukrainian security agencies has accused the Zelenskiy campaign of receiving financing from the Russian security service and a Russian-backed militant who fought in Ukraine’s occupied Donetsk Oblast. … social media users have long complained of facing harassment from porokhobots — i. e. Poroshenko bots — who vocally defend the president. Some, they allege, are not just ordinary citizens expressing their honest opinions, but paid ‘trolls.’ … In late March, the 1+1 television channel broadcast a program which accused Poroshenko of corruption and implied he had killed his own brother. … On April 10, an organization associated with Poroshenko sent subscribers to its messenger app accounts a video which showed Zelenskiy being hit by a garbage truck and strongly implied he was a drug addict. … In the last week, at least two entities have published information suggesting that the Zelenskiy campaign is tied to or receiving financing from Russia.
In short, it seems that both sides in the Ukrainian election are using both the mainstream media and social media to spread false stories about their opponents, and that these are getting a wide distribution. The thing to notice, though, is that this is something that Ukrainians are doing to one another. As the Kyiv Post comments:
So far, however, domestic disinformation has largely overshadowed foreign. ‘I think most of the disinformation that we can confirm was actually distributed by the campaigns themselves and by domestic Ukrainian actors for political purposes,’ Jankowicz says.
Perhaps, then, Axworthy and McFaul are correct after all. Ukraine does have something to teach us about the role of disinformation in democratic elections, namely that it’s widespread, and that for the most part it is produced domestically, and not abroad. The Canadian Security Establishment (CSE) produced a report a few days ago highlighting the threat from ‘foreign interference’ in Canadian elections. I will comment separately on this in a few days’ time but, dare I say it, if CSE and others are really concerned about the integrity of our electoral processes, they’re looking in the wrong direction.