Opinion In the global meme wars, it’s time to side with the elves against the trolls

(Washington Post staff illustration; photo by Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

Thomas Kent teaches at Columbia University and is a consultant on combating disinformation. He is a senior fellow of the Jamestown Foundation and former president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The Kremlin’s intensive use of lies and conspiracy theories to defend its invasion of Ukraine has once again dramatized the need for smart policies to counter disinformation.

The conflict has also brought some valuable lessons for those who wish to fight back. Perhaps the most notable successes have come from nongovernment activists — pro-democracy campaigners in threatened countries — who have been mounting their own response to Russian propaganda.

In recent years, the U.S. government’s efforts to confront disinformation have often fallen short. Some officials oppose “becoming ‘propagandists’ ourselves” — when in fact combating hostile messaging requires no disinformation of our own, just telling the truth in an assertive and coordinated way. The recent exposure of a covert social media campaign promoting U.S. interests abroad has demonstrated the shortcomings of government operations done with little skill.

Perhaps it’s time we learned something from Eastern Europe’s online armies of nongovernment activists — many of them volunteers. They possess authenticity and expertise that outside governments cannot match.

(A post on the Facebook account of Sebavedomé Slovensko — which translates to “Self-Confident Slovakia” — compares Adolf Hitler’s 1938 seizure of lands in Czechoslovakia with Vladimir Putin’s recent annexation of Ukrainian territory. “But there is one difference: Ukraine is successfully defending itself and the Russian occupiers are being driven back from where they came.”)

Volunteer activists fight it out with trolls online, penetrate and disrupt conspiracy chatrooms, campaign for companies to stop advertising on disinformation sites, and post memes ridiculing Russian propaganda — as in the case of this Lithuanian post, with its caption reading: “Is there anyone in your family with mental illness?” “My grandfather thinks that Russia will win the war.”

Lithuania’s “elves” are perhaps the best-known such group. Organized eight years ago, the elves now claim thousands of members. Similar bands operate in other Baltic countries, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. Here’s another post from Sebavedomé Slovensko:

Other citizen efforts have spontaneously sprung up, such as the North Atlantic Fellas Organization campaign that has taken off since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Elves often repost work from other activists and cartoonists, adding to the volume of pro-democracy messages. But in many countries, such efforts consist only of small numbers of volunteers, often in unconnected organizations. They might lack skills to produce compelling videos and memes, and detect disinformation campaigns in the critical early hours. Many activists come from urban elites and have limited credibility with rural and less educated citizens who are prime targets for disinformation.

In countries where democracy is at risk, campaigners can have difficulty raising money. Corrupt actors denounce them as the tools of foreign interests, making citizens and businesses reluctant to support them. Some activists make a point of refusing donations from abroad, but others accept support from foreign governments and foundations. Such aid can be helpful, and some donors run excellent assistance programs. But, too often, assistance comes in short-term grants for individual projects, not for the ongoing costs of staff and activity to keep an organization alive.

Some Eastern Europeans have told me their work has fallen off because they cannot afford even one full-time person to monitor disinformation and recruit and organize volunteers.

A grant as small as $50,000 or $100,000 that continues reliably year after year can make a big difference in keeping a team staffed and operating. Activists also need professional, always-available help to design information campaigns and target them to critical audiences.

Amid the debate over what kind of information activity the U.S. government should run directly, we should not lose sight of the potential of these committed activists.