The Baltics at the front-line of hostile Russian disinformation campaigns

  • 2018-08-30
  • Michael MUSTILLO

European Values is a Prague-based non-profit, non-governmental policy institute, a think-tank whose mission it is to defend liberal democracy throughout Europe. The institute publishes the annual Prague Manual, which reviews the 28 Member States within the European Union and their allies, and rates their response to the threats of Russian disinformation campaigns. The institute‘s work has been quoted by numerous world media channels, including CNN, Politico, The Economist, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, and BBC News.

According to Veronika Vichova, the co-ordinator and analyst at both the Kremlin Watch program, and European Values, the institute recently published an edition of the Prague Manual, which placed Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the lead within Europe. The Baltic states were given the highest score of 15 for their efforts in combating Russian disinformation. The Baltics, according to Vichova, received a perfect score for their political acknowledgement of the threat from Russia’s disinformation efforts, for government counter-activities, and their counter-intelligence activities.

The Baltic Times spoke with Vichova in Prague about  Baltic leadership.

In your institute’s latest edition of the Prague Manual, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania received the highest score in Europe for their efforts in combating Russian disinformation. What criteria did you use to reach the rankings, and how was the data collected?

The ranking of the EU Member States is based on three criteria. The first is political acknowledgement of the threat. We look into strategic documents and political statements to evaluate if the political leadership of each country is admitting that the threat of Russian influence exists, if they understand the scope of it, and if they also take it seriously. In ideal cases, EU countries have the pro-Kremlin disinformation and hostile influence coded into documents as a national security priority.

The second criteria is governmental counter-activities. We look into specific initiatives launched by the government in the area of countering hostile influence and disinformation operations. These can be specialized institutions, strategic communication units, investigations, or media literacy programs. 

The last criteria we use, is publicly known counter-intelligence activities.  We go through annual reviews and other documents published by counter-intelligence services, and see if there is any public activity, such as the expelling of Russian agents.

What were the most common disinformation methods employed by Russia in the Baltic states?

The research focused more on the counter-measures implemented in the countries, not the specifics of disinformation campaigns in each country. However, to my knowledge, the disinformation concerning the Baltic states often targets NATO, portraying it as an aggressor because of the military enforcement in the Baltics.

How are the Baltic states effectively combating Russian disinformation? And, importantly, what could they do more effectively to further combat disinformation efforts?

I would divide the positive developments within the Baltic countries into the following areas.

First: participation in European institutions – the EEAS East StratCom Task Force, and the NATO strategic communication CoE in Riga. Support of these institutions and participation in them is very important, since these are ideal platforms for co-operation between EU Member States, and for the exchange of experiences and coming up with new common responses.

Second: Russian media channels. Politicians from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are not known to support propaganda channels or quasi-media channels from Russia, and they do not give them interviews. There are also some cases of banning these channels. These steps are however, often criticized as being controversial. A good example of best practice is in providing the Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic states with Russian-language media channels which are independent and objective (i.e., the public TV channels broadcasting also in the Russian language, and support for independent media from Russia).

Third:  generally, the Baltic states have been aware of the problem for a long time, and this is why they have taken many precautions and measures before the Russian influence even became a topic of European debate. They have much better evolved strategic communication frameworks, and work very well with civil society and the private sector in countering disinformation, cyber-security and in other areas.

Fourth: the activities of the civil society are also considered to be one of the best examples of countering disinformation. I mention one specific example – the Baltic Elves – citizen journalists fighting disinformation by engagement with trolls on social media, but also in investigating and exposing them.

According to our opinion, the main goal for the Baltic countries right now is even more international advocacy, sharing experiences in countering Russian influence with other concerned countries, and the teaching and sharing of the region’s best practices.

Is the European Union politically acknowledging the threat of disinformation to its Member States i.e., Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania?

Any meaningful action on the part of the European Union, like the establishment of the EEAS East Stratcom Task Force, has been upon the direct request of the Member States. However, since then, this unit has been under-resourced, financially and in terms of personnel, and the leadership of the European Commission (EC) is doing its best to keep it that way, despite regular calls for more funding of the unit by the European Parliament.

In its recent communique on on-line disinformation, as well as in the report by the High Level Expert Group on disinformation, the EC is avoiding calling out Russia as being the main culprit of disinformation and only suggests very vague measures – a code of conduct for social media platforms created by the platforms and advertisers themselves, strengthening media literacy, and a network of fact-checkers. Most of the measures are already way too weak or are already in place. Therefore, I must conclude, that the European Commission either does not have a sufficient political acknowledgement of the problem, or declines to do anything about it.

What have been some of the effective government counter activities and counter-intelligence measures used by the Baltic states to combat disinformation? And how did you find the Baltic states ranking in these areas?

I have already noted the government counter activities in a previous answer.

When it comes to counter-intelligence, the counter-intelligence services of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are quite active in the public sphere. They often expel or apprehend Russian agents (i.e., the Estonian KAPO) or describe the threat in great detail in their reports, regarding Russian influence one of the main national security threats.

The Prague Manual report reviews the European Union countries once a year, and rates country response to the threat of Russian disinformation campaigns. What have been your most surprising findings in relation to the Baltic states?

The truth is, that all three Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania – have been evaluated as ‘’full-scale defenders,” which is the highest-ranking group, already in May 2017, when the first report was published, their position hasn’t changed.

The Prague Manual has become an important report for monitoring Russian disinformation. How is it being used by European governments?

The Prague Manual was published just recently. The ranking of EU countries was only published last year, and an update was recently published. We have been trying to present the conclusions of both of these reports to policy-makers in several European capitals, but it is way too soon to determine if this is going to be used by governments.

Is Russia still regularly outfoxing the European Union in the information realm, e.g., ongoing manipulation of social media platforms? 

Unfortunately, we can conclude that yes, this is so. Apart from some individual Member States which are doing their best, in many EU countries, there is still little to no acknowledgement of the threat, and even if there is, it will still be a long way to an effective strategy. The EU itself is doing unreasonably little to counter Russian influence and disinformation, as I mentioned above.

There are states, including the Baltic states, which do codify the threat pf Russian propaganda and disinformation into their strategic documents. Some countries only codify cyber-attacks or disinformation campaigns generally, without any references to Russia. However, there are countries like Hungary, Austria, Cyprus, and Greece, just to name a few, which completely ignore the problem or deny it.

How is your work shared with the governments and institutions of the Baltic states?

We are trying to reach out to European governments, including those of the Baltic states, in several ways. One of these is the organization of events and conferences where policy-makers can meet; another one is the sending out the Kremlin Watch Briefing, a weekly newsletter summarizing the latest developments in Europe, including our work, to various experts and policy-makers. We are also trying to travel to European capitals to present our findings and work in person.

What are the most common ways in which Russia is engaging in information warfare, and   spreading lies in the Baltic states? 

Disinformation can be spread by official Russian channels (like RT, Sputnik and similar channels), but also by domestic websites and channels run by Europeans who admire or believe the Russian narratives for different reasons – ideology, money, or ego. There is also a significant role for social media, especially on Facebook and Twitter, where you can find huge communities of disinformation producers and consumers, trolls, and automated accounts.

What has the European Union rolled out in combating Russian disinformation efforts, especially the problem of bots?

The European Union has not really tackled the problem of bots. In the latest communique produced by the European Commission, it mentions the problem and suggests a code of conduct for social media platforms, but there are no real and effective measures proposed specifically focusing on bots.

Must the EU see “disinformation campaigns” as part of a Russian hybrid war? And how is the EU assisting, e.g., financially, or with expertise and technology, in the Baltic states? 

Yes, the EU certainly should see the disinformation campaigns as part of a Russian hybrid warfare. Disinformation can be produced by various actors, state and non-state, but the Russian Federation is probably the only country which actively uses them as a geo-political tool with the goal to undermine the EU and its member states. The Baltic nations can use the EEAS East StratCom Task Force, but the member states have to fund the institution themselves.

European Values has been recognized by the NATO military committee for its work in exposing Russian subversion activities. Does European Values support NATO assumptions, which maintain that “Russia is the greatest threat against the West today,” and with warnings that “the Russian government is interested in stirring up patriotic and religious conflicts”?

We do support the NATO evaluation of the situation. The Kremlin is also not particularly secretive about its intentions, and that it considers NATO to be its enemy. The Russian government is interested in stirring up conflicts in Europe generally, and it is willing to support (in terms of media opportunities, financing or mutual legitimization) any radical, far-right or far-left, movements, parties and organizations, which serve to divide European society and undermine public trust in democratic institutions and in the Trans-Atlantic partnership.

Is more transparency from the Baltic states the best way to combat Russian propaganda, i.e., is more information, not less, the only way to win a disinformation warfare? 

There are cases where the governments, and the national authorities cannot disclose more detailed information about their internal investigations and operations. However, the more silent we are, the more space we give to disinformation. That was obvious, for example during the investigation of the MH17 incident or during the Dutch referendum about the Association Agreement with Ukraine. European countries should have clear frameworks of strategic communication and talk to the public about the important domestic issues, including disinformation campaigns.

To ban or not to ban? Have the Baltic states banned certain media organizations, Russian websites and social media, and how can this effectiveness be measured?

There are examples like that – i.e. the Sputnik site was banned in Latvia. Sometimes, in critical times, banning can be necessary, but it should always be considered only as a temporary solution. The policy-makers, journalists, experts and the public should regard consumer news from disinformation websites as untrustworthy and refuse to support them by reading them or appearing on them.

Who provides European Values with funding?

Our funding is varied. About 30 – 40 % annually comes from private donors who consider our work useful and want to contribute. About 40 – 50 % annually comes from international organizations, foundations or governments for specific projects that we apply for (i.e., the International Visegrad Fund, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office). We have an internal rule not to accept more than 10 % annually from Czech public sources. All our funding sources can be found on our website – we have a transparent account.