Disinformation and diverging narratives: an interview with Jakub Kalensky

In a troubled period of pandemic, Western democracies are also struck by the current “infodemic”, the massive flow of disinformation and spread on all kinds of media and sponsored by state and non-state actors. Disinformation campaigns are not a recent phenomenon, and the EU along with NATO have been addressing this issue since at least 2015. That is why we asked Jakub Kalenský, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, and a leading expert in Pro-Kremlin disinformation campaigns to explain us what we are facing. 

Disinformation and diverging narratives: an interview with Jakub Kalensky - Geopolitica.info

1. Would you kindly introduce yourself?

My name is Jakub Kalenský, I work in the field of countering disinformation since 2015, before that I was a journalist in Czech Republic. In 2015 I joined the “East Strategic Communication Task Force”, which was a newly formed team in Brussels, within the European Union External Action Service. This team was tasked with countering disinformation, based on the Council’s conclusion of March 2015, where 28 heads of state tasked the EU to do something about the ongoing Russian disinformation campaign[G1] . It took a few months to get hired and we started working in September. The main objectives of the task force were:

  • Positive communication about what the European Union has been doing in the Eastern Partnership countries, since the framework of action, was the EU External Action Service, the core of the task force was directed outwards the EU. The thinking was that if the EU manages to clearly explain its actions, there would have been less space left for disinformers.
  • Supporting the independent media in these six countries.
  • Countering disinformation campaigns.

I was responsible for this last objective and it was kind of a hybrid since it was also directed towards European audiences given that most disinformation campaigns were also targeting European leaders and states. We came with a product called “Disinformation Review”, which evolved in a whole campaign project called “EuvsDisinfo”, with a website and social media accounts. The aim was to identify and expose the most recent Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns, mainly by following the Russian Federation’s state media. We also tried to highlight how these messages spread, identifying sources that were not directly affiliated with the Kremlin, but nevertheless spread Russian disinformation messages. Typical examples are SouthFront, ZeroHedge, Infowars, these are outlets, not affiliated with the Kremlin but they very often spread the same narratives.

In 2018, I joined the Atlantic Council, a think tank in the US, which I consider the leading research institute when it comes to disinformation research and countering. Firstly, I worked in the Eurasia Center in which I followed a project to monitor external influence targeted towards the Ukrainian elections. After this experience, the Atlantic Council decided to unite its research on disinformation and merged two projects: the “DisinfoPortal.org” and the “Digital Forensic Research Lab”, where we again aimed at explaining and exposing disinformation globally, even though my expertise is mainly Russian disinformation campaigns.

2. Since the start of the project, how have the EU Stratcom Taskforce changed over time, and have you seen a change also in Russian disinformation campaigns? 

The nature of objectives has not really changed. When it has been agreed on paper, and member states agree, it stays in place for many years, which is both a disadvantage, because it is difficult to change but also an advantage since now the course has been set despite efforts by some member states to stop this project. What has changed are the resources allocated: in the first year it was only me and one trainee with 0 budget, while currently, at least 6 people are working on it with over a million euro budget, enabling them to monitor Russian sources like RT and Sputnik in some European countries. Now, these efforts have been professionalized and broadened. I think that the information they are providing is getting more precise, which is the best development. 

Regarding the second part of your question, I believe that the major development since 2015 is that Russia has gotten better about it, on many levels. For example, when you start a disinformation campaign, in the beginning, you learn how to understand your audiences, and sometimes you make a mistake. For example, at first, Russia opened Sputnik’s offices in all Scandinavian countries but after several months they had to shut them down since they were not close to any followership or readership and seemed to be extremely unsuccessful. However, this does not imply that they would abandon Nordic states completely, it only means that they focus on different channels. In Scandinavia they are focusing on personalized trolling on social media and the worst case of online bullying in the whole European Union is what has happened to the Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro, who exposed the breadth and scale of the fake news and trolling coming out of a single Russian troll factory in St Petersburg but she encountered a significant backlash from pro-Russian trolls, forcing her to leave Finland. 

Online trolling on social media and manipulation of comment sections under established media outlets, especially in Scandinavian countries, are new practices in which they gained a lot of more knowledge. They know which messages resonate with each audience and what channels are more important. However, while social media are an important source of information in the West, this is not true when it comes to pensioners in Eastern Europe, for example. There, traditional media are far more important, like television, newspapers, local opinion leaders, and chain e-mails. I believe that Russia has got better at knowing the audiences and were able to personalize messages and tools according to the target. One big change in the last two years – that I think it would deserve much more research- is how they are getting better at hiding the real source of disinformation. They are increasingly focusing on finding local actors who would spread disinformation for them, in order to lower Russia’s accountability. These local actors can be either friendly politicians or media outlets but also hired locals, like the troll factory in Ghana discovered by Stanford University. 

3. Tedros Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, said that we’re not just fighting an epidemic, but also an “infodemic”, with the spread of disinformation on the virus’ origin and governments responses. France, Italy, and Spain are the most hit countries by the virus in Europe; is that a case that these countries are also the most hit by the infodemic and by the “facemask diplomacy”?

I think that this is worrying since it shows how autocracies like China and Russia are able to exploit difficult events such as this crisis. From the point of view of running an information campaign, I think it is perfectly understandable because the emotions are high, and people are more susceptible to the propaganda campaigns. I believe that there are various factors affecting this. Firstly, the EU has committed many mistakes especially at the beginning of the virus: the communication was horrible, and it looked like the Russians and Chinese were helping more than Germans or French. On the other hand, I have a suspicion that Eastern European countries are a bit more skeptical of Russian propaganda because we still have a historical memory of what it looks like. It may be for this reason but also because Southern European states are more left-oriented and for some reason, Russia and China are considered socialist paradise. Definitely, there are various factors: some are mistakes on the European side, some are the vulnerabilities of these audiences and a big factor is the emotionally heightened – almost hysterical – atmosphere which is naturally accompanying this crisis. Take for example terror attacks in the past years, no matter which one was it, during every attack you would see the same sources spreading the same kind of disinformation and people share it because they are more vulnerable. It seems that our governments still did not understand the lesson. 

4. There was something I found interesting. On March 12th, a Chinese cargo plane landed in Rome bringing nine doctors, masks, and other equipment. It was followed by a press conference by the Chinese medics, all of this broadcasted live. On the other hand, the EU has sent to China more than 56 tons of PPE, but it cannot address Chinese audience in the same way. For example, Chinese officials are increasingly using Twitter to communicate with European audiences, but the opposite is not possible since Chinese citizens are forbidden to use it. Don’t you think there is a “gap” in the communication channels?

What are you describing, is not an “information campaign” but rather strategic communication efforts in which the EU is not well performing. One example, when you ask Ukrainians who is the biggest foreign donor, they will answer you  the United States, while the EU is actually giving much more resources than the US but the Americans are good at selling the product. 

In democratic societies there are system of checks and balances so if governments try to deceive you, the media and other official institutions would most probably uncover them. This system of checks and balances guarantees that if one player tries to play foul game, the other players are kind of controlling it. Which is not the case of China and Russia, where you have symbiosis of all the governmental institutions. You highlighted the communication of Chinese diplomats on Twitter who can spread Beijing narrative and then you have the Chinese State Media, even in English, also spreading the same message. There you really have strategic communication at its finest, where all the parts of the State are working towards one goal.

Democracies do not have that, and they have to be aware of the fact that when it comes to communication campaign, this lack makes them vulnerable. Democracies will never be as monolithic, as persuasive, in communications campaigns as authoritarian states. As you said, Chinese can communicate to our audiences, with our channels, whereas the opposite is not true. This is having to do with information defense. Keir Giles, from Chatham House, divides Russian information operations according to the level of ambitions. 

So, the highest level is “Strategic victory”, like what we have seen Crimea, the overtaking a territory without firing a shot, mainly via information means. Those means not only have to overtake it, but also help to paralyze the reaction of the international societies, helping to prevent accountability. The situation in Crimea became clear only once it was a fait accompli. 

The second level is “Reflexive Control”, the process of pre-determining foreign’ attitudes in Russia’s favor, by manipulating the target’s perception of the world, and it can be done by addressing particular events that decide the future of a state.

Another level of ambition would be a subversion campaign with the spread of disinformation abroad, day to day in order to gain effects in the long-term. The lowest level is directed inwards the society and that is information defense. You are trying to protect your information space so that nobody could do what you are doing to the others. Here is the asymmetry between authoritarian states and democratic ones. I’m not suggesting that we should mimic this, but we should be aware of the fact that the situation is asymmetrical, and we have to use the instruments we have much better than we actually do.

5. This emergency is changing public opinion perceptions, at least in Italy, since polls shows how 67% of Italians consider being a member of the EU a disadvantage, and 9/10 feels to be abandoned by European institutions while 36% of the interviewed wants our international relations to shift towards Beijing. What is the impact of information campaigns in shaping, not only public opinion within states, but also a state’s foreign policy?

I think this is the final aim of disinformation campaigns: not only change people’s perception but to influence their decision-making. I believe that the final goal is to change the geopolitical landscape, where currently Russia feels threatened and they are trying to change this. That would mean, for example, dissolving the EU and NATO cohesion because it would be much easier to deal with each single State separately. So, this is kind of the Endgame: changing population preference is a small step towards a bigger goal.  Because once you have a friendly population towards Russia or China, it obviously implies more pressure on governments and will lead to changes of future policies. 

6. What should democracies do? Do you think that media and social-media literacy is enough?

I do not think we should only rely on that. In the past year, I talked about four lines of defense that are ways of countering this: the first is “Documenting of the threat”, in which I think we should do much more regarding the discovery of disinformation campaign. Unfortunately, even though the East Stratcom is working since five years, they still don’t know how many channels Russian disinformation campaigns control, how many messages per day are spread or even how many people are persuaded, that’s another vital number we still lack. Currently, I have seen polls that show how 30% of Americans believe that Coronavirus was man-made despite the fact that there is no evidence for that. I would like to see the numbers in Europe, because these would indicate how successful disinformation campaigns are. We would need this numbers at least every three months, just to see whether it rises or decreases, so we could also see if countermeasures are working or not.

The second line is “Raising awareness” so that more people know about the threat. In the first line we are talking about almost academic work, broadening our knowledge, while in the second part is more about communication and reaching out. We would need not only research and academic products, but we would also need celebrities, influencer and sportsmen products, people who could reach many different audiences. We have to understand that different tools and messages work for different audiences. So, we must abandon this thinking that all we have to do is institutional communication towards mainstream media. That is not enough anymore.

The third part would be “Repairing the weaknesses that disinformers exploit”. That is media and social-media literacy, but it is also about addressing our societies’ weaknesses. You very often see that disinformers are abusing frictions within society, in countries like Georgia or Romania is disinformation about European Union and LGBTQ communities. These messages would not succeed in the United States, but there you can play the racial question while in Europe is migration issues. We have to address that there are intra-society divisions and that disinformers are playing into these. However, addressing weaknesses will never be enough because we will always have weaknesses. Precisely for the reasons that we want to preserve the democratic character of our society, we want to have people consuming different media and having different opinions, which is a weakness from the point of view of the disinformer, but we want to have this weakness. 

Therefore, the last line of defense is crucial, and that is “Punishing the information aggressor” or at least making it harder and expensive for them to pursue their goal. I think we could start with very primitive measure like stopping to buy advertisement on Russian state media since western companies are paying for anti-western propaganda. We should have sanctions on disinformers, currently we have only one Russian journalist on the list, Dmitry Kiselyov. This is nothing against media freedom, but we should be using the laws that we have against denigration, since the spread of false information can cause chaos and panic, especially in these times of crisis, it can cost lives. We have laws, we should be using them. 

So, these are the four lines we should you and all the segments of the society, from NGOs to governments, should do more about this issue. I am afraid we are a bit losing in these information confrontations so I think we should be doing more.

Thomas Bastianelli,