Hearts and minds: Combating Disinformation

Philip van Engeldorp Gastelaars is one of the ten 2015 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar. Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2015 Seminar discussions.

2014 witnessed numerous triumphs and tragedies regarding the role of the media in global events, which made the topic an especially apt central theme for the 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar. In my view, the rapid increase in disinformation was one of the greatest tragedies, especially the disinformation originating from Russian-based government-controlled media including both international (e.g. Russia Today and Sputnik) and domestic news channels. Those interested in combating the flow of disinformation originating from these media outlets have put forward a succession of proposals within the EU over the last year, yet concrete responses have not yet materialized.


Combating Disinformation

Last March, the European Council requested that Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, prepare an action plan on strategic communication to challenge “Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns.” The Council’s request has been characterized as an attempt to counter the Russian government’s “weaponization of information.”  One of Mogherini’s first steps in office was to create a joint task force charged with monitoring Russian media to identify disinformation.


Earlier in 2015, the Latvian government presented a bolder counter-measure to the Russian disinformation campaigns: the creation of a Russian-language television station. As ethnic Russians form roughly a quarter of the Latvian population, Latvia’s government is one of the most hostile towards Russian media, but it is not alone. The media regulator in neighboring Lithuania even went so far as to temporarily ban a Russian-language broadcaster for warmongering and spreading propaganda.


I have been well aware of the spread of disinformation by Russian media outlets since the start of hostilities in Ukraine in 2014. Even before that, I was shocked by reports of an increase in homophobia in news reports within Russia. Especially poignant was a discussion I had with a Russian student studying in Vienna, who, although educated in and a resident of the EU for many years, actively defended the then-recently enacted Russian anti-gay law. In retrospect, that particular discussion was the first time that I was personally confronted by the effectiveness of Russian disinformation.


Ukrainian Encounters

Together with nine fellow students, I partook in a study trip to Ukraine in April 2015, organized by the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. While there we had the opportunity to meet with a number of Diplomatic Academy alumni now living and working in Kiev. One of those alumni, Ian Bateson, is currently a co-host of the Sunday Show on Hromadske. Hromadske is an internet-based Ukrainian television station that started off as a civil initiative in 2013, one that has proven to be very successful.


Bateson referred to stories that he had heard of Ukrainians receiving telephone calls from concerned friends and relatives in Russia. The Russian relations had heard shocking reports in the Russian media on the situation in Ukraine following “Maidan” in 2014. The “Maidan” is often referred to as a “coup” by the Russian media, and as a “revolution” by Western media. Despite reassurances that the new government was not an oppressive fascist regime, according to Bateson, Russian friends and relatives simply did not believe their relations in Ukraine because these Ukrainian accounts contradicted media reports. This is but an example, and one of hearsay at that, yet it exemplifies the potential effects of the weaponization of information. As Bateson tweeted this April: “Age of information becoming age of disinformation. Matters most whose narrative wins.”


During the sleepless nights on the night train from Kiev to Odessa, and later from Odessa to Lviv, I had the chance to talk with a few Ukrainians with whom I shared a compartment. I met Konstantin, a young, ethnically-Russian entrepreneur returning home to Odessa from Israel. According to Konstantin, most Ukrainians and Russians distrust both the government and the media, whether it be Ukrainian or Russian. Despite this fact, Russians are most familiar with Russian media and therefore more inclined to believe Russian news reports.


Two nights later, on the train to Lviv, I had a lengthy discussion with Olga, an ethnically Ukrainian teacher on her way home to celebrate Orthodox Easter with her parents. She reaffirmed the distrust of both the government and the media that Konstantin had mentioned. Perhaps more interesting was her response to my question about why the Russian student that I had a discussion with in Vienna continued to strongly support Russia’s anti-gay legislation, despite her otherwise progressive views and EU-based education. According to Olga, many Russians have a completely different understanding of the world, and their place in it, compared to the West. Making a comparison with the Russian language, Olga explained that the Russian psyche has a certain depth, a different way of understanding than most in the West. These discussions have shown me that there is a considerable disconnect between how many in Western Europe and many in Russia and parts of the Ukraine interact with and rely on the media.


Militarization of Information

In an interview with Hromadske, former Russian TV Insider Peter Pomerantsev explained that the weaponization of information is part of the Russian military doctrine of Information Psychological War, a mechanism through which the Russian government seeks to “trash the information space.” This is achieved by utilizing various forms of media, both classic and new, including, newspapers, television broadcasts, and social media. Cynicism plays an important role in this doctrine, as, according to Pomerantsev, the Russian government openly admits, “that it is not a proper democracy” whilst simultaneously “shedding doubt on the credibility of other [Western] governments and [their] values systems.” This approach clouds and undermines the belief in the “truth” of any media reports.


Russian governmental attempts at undermining the truth certainly occurred in the wake of the downing of MH17. Russian media outlets proposed a wide array of scenarios, ranging from an alleged mix-up with Putin’s presidential jet to accusations that Ukrainian fighter jets were responsible. A more recent Russian government version of events accepts the Western belief that the plane was in fact downed by a “BUK” surface to air missile, but holds that the missile was in fact fired from Ukrainian Government-held territory. The resulting effect remains the same: confusion.


The militarization, that is to say the utilization of information as a military ploy, is certainly anything but new. In many ways it reminds me of Dutch government tactics during the post–World War II Indonesian National Revolution. The government charged a professional information bureau with essentially “juggling” information about war operations, mixing fact with fiction, engaging in “opaque language,” and altogether ignoring inconvenient information.[i]  Today similar tactics, referred to as “perception management” are still employed by state and non-state actors around the world. The Russian military doctrine strikes me as an elaborate version of these long-established tactics.


Distrust is relatively easy to sow, yet hard to combat. The Russian aim is to create confusion, which in turn nourishes distrust. As suggested by participants in the Milton Wolf Seminar, it seems that combating disinformation with “counter-information” would only serve to increase the state of confusion, and thus further Russian aims. Adhering to military terms, the weaponization of information in a way harkens to insurgency warfare. I am currently writing my thesis on Dutch counterinsurgency activities during the Indonesian National Revolution. What I have learned about insurgency and counterinsurgency can be roughly boiled down to the following: insurgency is cheap and relatively easy to create, yet very hard to fight.


French Military Officer and scholar David Galula worded it more precisely: disorder is easily created; yet order is difficult enough to maintain, let alone restore. While instituting order is a task of the counterinsurgent, the insurgent can use order (or the idea of it) as a bargaining tool with the local population.[ii] Order in this sense is akin to truth in the weaponization of information. Russia is the insurgent and the West is the counterinsurgent. It is crucial for the counterinsurgent to win the “hearts and minds” of the population to stand any chance of succeeding, yet how can hearts and minds be won in an information war?


Hearts and Minds  

In his interview with Hromadske, Pomerantsev explained the current Russian media landscape with the following analogy: “Imagine if the US only had Fox News.” Regarding the candor of Fox News, I always think of a report on the “failure of social tolerance and progressive ideals in Amsterdam” on the O’Reilly Factor, which was soundly debunked by a video response on YouTube that has been viewed over 600,000 times. The YouTube debunk proved to be so popular that the O’Reilly Factor released a response to it soon after, which in turn was debunked yet again. Spreading disinformation is not a domain reserved for the Russian media; both American and European media are anything but hallowed in this respect. However, the plurality that defines US and EU media landscapes is what sets them apart from their Russian counterpart.


According to Russia Today, a recent study demonstrated that a majority of Europeans distrust the “mainstream media’s” coverage of the Ukraine Crisis. The polls referred to in the RT article were conducted for the Sputnik News Agency, which is controlled by the Russian government. Admittedly media freedom has also come under increasing threat in various EU Member States, yet in the vast majority of Europe pluralism prevails. Besides, more and more Europeans gather their news from internet-based sources, lessening the reliance on single news sources.  Many EU citizens also can, and do, turn to unconventional media[iii] to rebuke what they perceive to be fallacies, as was the case with the example of the O’Reilly Report.


This ties in with a central theme of the 4th session of the Milton Wolf Seminar on “The “Diplomacy of Domestic Media and Information Policy”: How can one fight the flow of disinformation when a large section of the Russian population distrusts internet-based content that is critical of the Russian government? According to a study conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, Russians are far more inclined to believe TV-based than internet-based news. Moreover, TV-based news remains by far the most popular source of news for most Russians. Complicating matters further, Russians are also increasingly likely to distrust foreign media sources.


Further clouding the information space with counter narratives via an EU-based Russian-language news channel certainly will not win the hearts and minds, but rather advance the weaponization of information. Identifying disinformation is crucial, yet that disinformation must not be countered in a fashion similar to which it was first disseminated. I fear that combating disinformation can easily turn out to be akin to fighting counterinsurgency, which is in the words of Lawrence of Arabia: “messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.”[iv]


About the Author

1234Philip Pieter van Engeldorp Gastelaars is from the Netherlands and was raised on the island of Saint Eustatius in the Dutch Caribbean. He attended University College Utrecht (UCU) at the University of Utrecht (UU), majoring in political science and international law, with a minor in modern history. He graduated with honors in 2009. After graduation, he enrolled in the honors law college and the public international law master at the UU. Philip has been working toward the degree of Master of Advanced International Studies at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna (DA) since 2013. He is currently writing his master’s thesis on conventional colonialism vs. counterinsurgency in the Dutch East Indies.  He is also the teaching assistant to Professor Row, the Chair of History at the DA.





[i] Zweers, Louis. De Gecensureerde Oorlog, Zutphen: Walburg Pers (2013), P. 364

[ii] Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, Westport/ London: Praeger Security International (1964), p. 7

[iii] i.e. non-conventional media; e.g. YouTube, Twitter etc…

[iv] Quote by T.E. Lawrence, perhaps better known as Lawrence of Arabia. Source: Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, Chicago / London: The University of Chicago Press (2005), p. xii


Featured Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by dogbomb

Leave a Reply