Russian Information Warfare in Central and Eastern Europe

June 14, 2019 | Research
Strategies, Impact, and Counter-Measures analysed by Michal Bokša, GMF US

Information warfare operates in a fast-paced and quickly changing environment. Partly as a result, it is more opportunistic than strategic. The dynamism of Russia’s information warfare is best illustrated by the fact that over the last decade it underwent at least two strategic shifts—after the Russian-Georgian war in 2008 and in 2014 when Russia went from being risk-averse and stealthy to increasingly aggressive and risk-taking. Effective countermeasures, especially those applied in Central and Eastern Europe, must reflect this reality by being highly adaptable and agile—a factor that local anti-information-warfare capacities often lack.

Central and Eastern Europe is a unique space within the Euro-Atlantic area. It can be perceived as intrinsically more vulnerable to disinformation campaigns, especially because of the wider range of narratives that Russia can exploit there for such a purpose. Simultaneously, the region faces numerous deleterious trends that are favorable to information warfare tactics. The most evident one is the continuous decline in citizens’ trust in traditional media platforms, which are the least likely to be polluted with disinformation. The inherent risks in such a trend have been exacerbated by increasing trust in online media platforms and reliance on social media networks for news, both of which are far more susceptible to disinformation and misinformation.

Nonetheless, there are also positives. Concerns about the effect of Russia’s information-warfare capabilities are vastly exaggerated. Disinformation campaigns have an impact, often particularly evident during periods of societal tensions. However, their effects begin to fade away relatively quickly once such a period subsides. Likewise Russia’s information warfare has so far proved unable to change the geopolitical orientation of targeted societies in the region as feared especially during the European migration crisis. Moreover, although information echo chambers are a real problem that should be tackled, it is worth noting that its actual scale and ramifications in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe remains to be determined, as is the number of people actually “caught” within them.

When compared with the rest of the EU, the societies of Central and Eastern Europe face the paradox of demonstrating a very high awareness of the issue of disinformation and fake news while showing only moderate concern for their potential implications. At the same time, these societies often view the authorities as responsible for taking the lead in tackling disinformation. This is auspicious as it provides governments with maneuvering space for implementing necessary regulations or establishing appropriate institutions.

Social media platforms could considerably further aggravate the implications information warfare might have. This is especially due to the still emerging field of computational propaganda or rapidly expanding technologies such as “deep fake” video and audio doctoring. Therefore, the platforms still contain unutilized potential for disinformation, unlike the disinformation portals that boomed in the region, particularly in 2015, but have become largely stagnant and unable to expand beyond their initial base.

One of the key challenges for the Euro-Atlantic area in general and Central and Eastern Europe in particular will be escaping from the circular debates surrounding information warfare that repeat—often vaguely defined—recommendations such as improving critical thinking, strengthening civil society, and reforming education. Similarly, there is still a lack of reliable and quantifiable data that would give more substance to the ongoing discussions and could play a considerable role in furthering the advancement of research.

One fact remains strikingly clear: information warfare and disinformation are inevitable. Consequently, governments and societies in Central and Eastern Europe will ultimately have to learn to live with them.

The full paper is available for download.