State-sponsored disinformation campaigns were once the preserve of authoritarian regimes. Without noticing, the same tactics have crept into public discourse in Western democracies.
Discussions on disinformation mostly focus on the external sources of disinformation: Russia and China. If we focus exclusively on disinformation as a foreign challenge, we are simply ignoring the elephant in the room. Democratically-elected leaders are increasingly fuelling the spread of disinformation.
Contemporary disinformation is distinct from propaganda. It is neither based on ideologies nor facts. In many ways, it is predicated on a much more pessimistic and cynical worldview where, as Peter Pomerantsev writes about the disinformation of the Putin-regime, “Nothing is true and everything is possible.”
The goal of disinformation is not to persuade the audience with one message. Rather, disinformation is intended to confuse people with multiple messages. As a result, it does not need ideology or to be fact-based at all. It can be almost anything, which is why it is so much more dangerous than propaganda.
Without the pesky requirement of being beholden to facts or ideas, one can simply throw out any sort of (false or strange) information to confuse the public. And it is increasingly being exploited for political gain. We live in an era where political campaigns are less focused on winning hearts and minds; rather, campaigns now tend to gain traction by sowing division and engendering tribalism.
Disinformation creates chaos. The public finds itself confused about what is true and reality suddenly becomes murky. Without clear and reliable information, people revert to visceral tribalism based on the narrative they like the most. Cleavages deepen. The mission of the disinformation campaign is accomplished.
The pandemic has given a dangerous boost to domestic disinformation narratives in the democratic world.
In Hungary, a NATO and EU member state, Viktor Orbán has created the most centralised media empire ever within the European Union, with more than 400 media outlets all parroting similar political messages. The Hungarian government and its media have also successfully blamed Iranian students in Hungary for the onset of the pandemic, falsely claiming that the primary source of the pandemic is illegal migration. Orban and his media have also blamed George Soros for the tanking Hungarian currency and claimed that a vocal critic of Orban’s anti-democratic tactics was descended from Nazis. These narratives are not only for domestic use: Orbán is spreading them throughout the Ango-Saxon world through his news agency V4NA and throughout the Western Balkans via media acquisitions.
Russia Today, the state-financed disinformation outlet planned to open a branch in Budapest a few years ago. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov announced the plan and the editor-in-chief was selected. Ultimately, RT abandoned the idea. Why? Most probably because they felt there was no need for such an outlet in Hungary, as the state-owned media is misinforming voluntarily for free. As a study by Political Capital - in association with Euronews - found, Euroskeptic narratives representing Moscow’s interests are present in the Hungarian media space without any efforts being made by the Kremlin (for instance, the messaging that “only Russia and China help, the EU does not”).
Meanwhile, in Poland, state-owned media have been claiming that opposition mayors have enacted policies that are contributing to the spread of the virus. At the same time, Central European governments like Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria – in order to silence critical voices - have passed harsher criminal punishment for media outlets that they claim are spreading “fake news.”
Even the United States – once a respected global beacon of democratic principles and a trusted ally of other like-minded democratic states – is spearheading massive disinformation campaigns, especially related to COVID-19. During the pandemic, which has seen a hugely disproportionate death toll in the US (relative to its percentage of the global population), we have seen democratically-elected political leaders flood the public discourse with disinformation.
President Trump is attempting to alter the narrative of the pandemic and its effects to achieve particular political ends and kickstart his re-election campaign. Rather than providing the public with clear and digestible facts, he touts wild and unproven medical treatments and puts forward man-made sources of COVID-19 without evidence, often contradicting scientists and American intelligence agencies. Trump lies repeatedly about US testing capabilities, and regularly fabricates data regarding the scope of US infections and deaths. When a journalist deigns to question him on the information he puts forth in his press briefings, he becomes agitated, casts doubt on the credibility of the journalist or media outlet, and cries “fake news!”
Trump also promotes notable conspiracy theorists in his Twitter feed. He recently accused an MSNBC anchor, Joe Scarborough, of murder and has been claiming that young children interfere with mail-in voting in an effort to call into question its efficacy and to discourage voters. Trump has also publicly retweeted conspiracy theories about coronavirus espoused by Diamond & Silk, two celebrities whose Twitter feed was suspended for disinformation, and recently argued that a 75-year old protestor in Buffalo was a member of Antifa.
President Trump will likely continue his disinformation campaign with the purpose of creating chaos and dividing constituents, as tribal politics can always benefit from more division and polarisation. The public confusion and division it breeds may just be enough to save him.
Historically, dictatorships and authoritarians have effectively utilised state-sponsored disinformation tactics and the politically-elected leaders of Western democracies have aggressively condemned them. In fact, the US government and the European Union have proactively opposed the use of such flagrant authoritarian tactics, as they pose a fundamental and profound threat to well-established democratic principles. Western democratic leaders generally oppose authoritarians who deliberately deceived their citizens to create and sustain a virtual reality: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and in the 21st century, Kim Jung-Un and Vladimir Putin.
But suddenly, state-sponsored disinformation is no longer reserved for authoritarians and dictators. It has infiltrated the Western democratic world, catching us all off guard.
In the last general election campaign in the UK, the incumbent Tories deployed a flood of fake news regarding Brexit and their political opponents until tech giants (including Google) had to step in and remove some of their misleading ads.
We must now recognise the painful truth that - even in a Western democracy - there is almost no way to stop disinformation, especially when it comes from the top. Viritually all of the funds and institutions in the Anglo-Saxon world are aimed exclusively at targeting disinformation coming from the outside - from foreign sources.
Because such extensive disinformation campaigns are a relatively new phenomenon in the West, we do not yet have adequate norms and/or institutional practices in place to combat this new challenge. There are no institutions ready to deal with domestic, homegrown politically-charged disinformation - neither in the US, nor in the UK or in the EU. As a result, we are no longer simply ignoring the elephant in the room. We have allowed the elephant to take over the room.
- Sohini Chatterjee is an associate professor at Columbia University School of International & Public Affairs and a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Péter Krekó is the Director of Political Capital Institute in Budapest and a Europe’s Futures Fellow of the Institute of Human Sciences (IWM) and Erste Foundation
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