Nina Jankowicz is a 2016-2017 Fulbright-Clinton public policy fellow in Ukraine, where she provides advice on strategic communications and conducts research on anti-disinformation activities across Europe. The views presented here are her own.
In the fight against fake news, governments around the world are engaging “strategic communications” specialists to cut through the noise and come up with a magic formula to make an otherwise unremarkable communique achieve the same virality as a video of two cats playing patty-cake. (For what it’s worth, no such formula exists.)
There’s nothing wrong with teaching governments to tell better stories and connect with people, but “stratcomms” have their limit. One thing they cannot and will not do is singlehandedly win the information war with Russia that we now find ourselves fighting. Gaining any ground in, let alone winning, this struggle will require a longer and more expensive investment than the establishment of another Twitter account dedicated to debunking. To be successful, Western governments need to focus on repairing the trust gap between citizens and media, and among citizens themselves.
This gap is pervasive across the globe. The Edelman Trust Barometer recorded “an implosion of trust” in 2017, and Russia is exploiting it. In Ukraine, the Kremlin plays on citizens’ impatience with the slow pace of reforms using a barrage of fake news about the government’s purported ineptitude. In the Czech Republic, where a 2012 recession left behind many in the Czech countryside and shored up support for an anti-establishment, anti-European, pro-Russian candidate (sound familiar?), Russia filled the trust gap with messages that amplified citizen grievances and fears.
Even in countries that have been inoculated against Russian propaganda, Russia can use murkier techniques to exploit the trust gap. In the case of Poland, the Kremlin has simply held onto the wreckage of the 2010 airplane crash in the Russian city of Smolensk that killed former president Lech Kaczynski. The ruling party in Warsaw (led by Kaczynski’s brother) obsessively spreads the resulting conspiracy theories far and wide, inspiring doubt and sowing confusion. Moscow doesn’t have to lift a finger.
Russia has used these surreptitious tactics to great success elsewhere. Its interference in the U.S. election sowed chaos and uncertainty that continue to reverberate through the American political scene. Meanwhile, France and Germany have become Russia’s latest targets as they prepare for their own upcoming elections.
The West is attempting to bridge the trust gap by founding and funding a bevy of fact-checking operations. According to a study by the Duke University Reporters Lab, there are now at least 114 active fact-checking operations around the world, up from 44 since 2014. The BBC, Facebook and others have set up their own debunking efforts, joining veterans such as Ukraine’s own StopFake. Efforts such as these are important. They allow us to identify the patterns and techniques that Russia uses in its disinformation efforts. But they are also inherently reactive operations. By concentrating our efforts on fact-checking, we are allowing Russia to set the narrative and will always find ourselves on the back foot in our response.
Moreover, in societies where the trust gap exists, the truth itself has become politicized. Jaroslav Plesl, editor of the second-largest Czech daily, Dnes, told me that efforts such as his country’s Hybrid Threats Center, established in January to research Czech disinformation and debunk fakes, are missing the point. “People feel that fighting lies means fighting opinion,” he said.
Instead of funding yet more fact-checking efforts and creating a cottage industry of debunkers competing with each other for funding and attention, we should empower citizens to navigate the confusing 21st-century media market. These efforts would begin with the basics: how to establish the credibility of a news source and spot signs of emotional manipulation. One recent Canadian-funded project in Ukraine gave 15,000 citizens a crash course in media literacy. In nine months, the number of trainees who cross-checked the news they consumed rose by 23 percent.
Ideally, such projects would encompass curricula for schoolchildren, government employees and even politicians. We should also encourage journalists — particularly at the local level, where they are more likely to interact with average people — to do reporting on issues that are of immediate importance to distrusting populations.
There are no quick fixes here, but bridging the trust gap requires a global vision of what winning the information war looks like. If our efforts are successful, people will consume information responsibly, sampling a range of viewpoints to inform their daily lives and the criticism that is healthy for any democracy, while developing greater immunity to conspiratorial versions of the truth.
We live in an era in which labeling something “fake” is becoming synonymous with political inconvenience. Now, more than ever, people need access to high-quality information and the ability to recognize it when they see it. One more debunking initiative won’t do that, and without an investment in skills that can bridge the trust gap, it will have little hope of success anyway.