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Pen Mightier Than Sword: Russia's Disinformation in Poland, Czechia, Estonia, and US
25 August, 2020
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Wilson Center researcher Nina Jankowicz poses with her book "How to Lose The Information War" on Russia's influence in Ukraine, Poland, Czechia, Georgia and Estonia. The books came out in July 2020. Nina Jankowicz / Facebook

In addition to the millions Russia spent on armed conflicts in Ukraine, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, it is investing millions of dollars in information warfare around the world.

Nina Jankowicz, a researcher at the American think tank Wilson Center, has been studying Russian disinformation for years. When, in 2016-2017, she lived in Ukraine and the United States was facing Russian interference in the presidential election, the analyst realized: she needs to convey the experience of Ukraine and other Eastern and Central European countries to the U.S.

This is how the idea for ​​the book "How To Lose The Information War" was born. It talks about the influence of Russia in Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic, Georgia and Estonia. The book was published in July 2020.

"In 2016, we were coming at this problem as if it were something new," Jankowicz told Hromadske in an interview. "But there's a lot of things that have been tried already [and] that we can learn from our allies in Central and Eastern Europe. So, I tried to write that story for an American audience, so that they could get into the detail of all that the countries on the frontlines of the information war have experienced."

Hromadske spoke with Jankowicz on Russia's dividing of societies in different countries and how to best deal with it. Below are the main ideas from the interview.

Russia vs. Polish LGBTQ

"Poland is a fairly conservative society. Lots of Catholics there. The LGBTQ movement has been something that really divides Poles," Jankowicz said. "This is something that – if you look at RT and Sputnik, and even some other surreptitious means of delivering this information – Russia has seized on. It will support politicians and activists who are anti-LGBTQ."

According to the author, "when there are protests or gay pride marches in Poland," Russia exploits those issues to its benefit.

And when Poland had the elections in July, this society division became a campaign issue:

"The incumbent president [Andrzej] Duda has been fairly rigorous in his anti-LGBTQ messaging. And the man that he [was] running against in the opposition is calling for a more open Poland, that is unified and represents everyone... This is [rooted] very deeply with Polish identity and Polish culture. And it makes perfect sense that Russia is driving that home on all of its state-sponsored media."

Playing Both Sides Against The Middle

Russia loves to play on all sides of the political spectrum, Jankowicz says, with its goals being "to cause chaos and drive us against each other."

So, apart from supporting U.S. President Donald Trump, Russia supported "a more liberal lefty type of voices after the election already took place." 

Far from that, Russia even supported various protesters, more prominently –  the Black Lives Matter movement.

"This was long ago, in 2016, and they continue to drive these racial issues today as the movement has gained in prominence in the wake of the death of George Floyd," the author said."And it's extremely easy for Russia to use these wedge issues, use these narratives that are grounded in truth about inequality, about racism in the United States to turn us against each other." 

A Black Lives Matter protester (right) clashes with a Conservative protester during a rally in Milwaukee Park, Wisconsin, USA, on August 20, 2020. Photo: EPA/TANNEN MAURY

Russia's "smart game"

A lot of the time Russia's disinformation style is not that obvious and, therefore, harder to detect, says the author. Sometimes Russia can, for example, use local voices in their target countries to ignite the narrative they're trying to carry.

"Rather than just putting out a fake website or fake comments run by trolls and bots, it often plants a narrative and watches it take off through authentic local voices," says Jankowicz.

The author recalls two very popular Facebook pages during the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S.: "Blacktivist" (on Black Lives Matter movement) and “Being patriotic” – "pro-U.S., pro gun, a little bit jingoistic, anti-immigrant, that sort of thing." 

"On the two Facebook pages, what they did for the first year or so was mostly positive content. It was content about black history, for instance, or on the Being patriotic page, my favorite meme that they shared was a golden retriever dog who had a bandana with red and white stars on it. And in his paws he was holding a little flag – an American flag, of course. And the text on the picture said 'like if you think it's going to be a great week.'"

The content, while not being obviously misleading or malicious, would draw various people into liking and sharing it. And then these cute images and informational posts about Black history would later change to calls to "fill out this petition”, “change your profile picture in support of our cause”, “come out to a protest.”

"Russia and other bad actors have figured out that you can't just hit people with fake news from the very get-go, you need to build trust and community ahead of time," the author explains. 

Russia's Information War In Other Countries

Throughout Europe, Russia has used issues of ethnicity, politics, and economics to drive a wedge between people, says Jankowicz. 

In Estonia, that was an ethnic issue between ethnic Estonians [and] ethnic Russians. Georgia was somewhat an ethnic issue as well with the five-day war in 2008 where Russia claimed to be protecting the people in the territory that it was occupying. 

In Poland, it used the issue of the Smolensk plane crash in 2010 to drive Poles against each other, which is one of the most divisive issues in Polish society. And today, we're seeing Russia support anti-LGBTQ narratives, for instance, anti-Ukrainian narratives in Poland.

I'm sure I don't need to tell your Ukrainian audience what Russia does in Ukraine. But of course, we've heard many narratives about corruption, which is a real problem in Ukraine, about far-right movements, which have been growing recently and unfortunately – again, divisive issues. 

In Czechia, Russia uses immigration and, kind of, an anti-Muslim sentiment in order to drive Czechs apart from one another.

These types of campaigns were repeated even outside of Eastern Europe.

"That was one of the issues in Brexit related to immigration, we've seen Russia support far-right movements in Germany and in the United States," Jankowicz says.

Shop employees install a TV in an electronics store in Moscow, Russia on December 3, 2015. Photo: EPA/YURI KOCHETKOV

So How Much Money And Other Resources Is Russia Put Into This?

"Probably millions [of dollars], but we have very little idea," Jankowicz says. "All we can say for sure is what the Mueller investigation (which talked about the budget of the Internet Research Agency -ed.) was able to find out in 2018. And that's already outdated information." 

The author adds that from the same criminal complaint, it emerged that it was "millions of dollars a month by 2018, with several hundred, over 100 people working there." 

However, to get a fuller picture of Russia's financial and resource expenses, the world would need to also know how much Russia's state bodies – such as the security services – are involved in the country's disinformation campaigns. And"we don't know their budget," Jankowicz says. 

What we do know, she continues, is that Russia uses state-funded media, such as RT, to promote their preferred messages. And RT has a "fairly high budget itself."

The "full extent to which it's going on" we may never find out because the world is lacking more transparency from social media – in the instances where they remove accounts and pages that engage in disinformation. 

"Facebook will say 'we took down several hundred accounts, they were targeting Ukraine', or 'they were targeting Estonia'. And they'll give some examples, but we don't know exactly what pages, exactly which accounts they took down and why," she says.

Rather than keeping this stuff on a separate press releases section of the website that only people like you or I will seek out, I think it would be a great thing to have an open museum of disinformation online.

- Nina Jankowicz, researcher, author of "How To Lose The Information War"

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with his Estonian counterpart Kersti Kaljulaid during a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia on April 18, 2019. Photo: EPA/ALEXANDER NEMENOV

Are There Solutions?

Estonia is a good example of somewhere where fighting disinformation has worked pretty well, Jankowicz opines. 

"They've been fighting Russian disinformation for decades. When we talk about the modern Russian disinformation campaign, certainly since 2007, it took them a while. And certainly, the invasion of Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea – I think – help them really double down on these efforts." 

These days, Jankowicz says, Estonia invests in Russian-language media education for Russian-language speakers, Estonian citizens.

The author worries about the countries where "domestic disinformation is being embraced by the ruling party" – such as Georgia, Poland, Czechia to some extent. 

It's a warning and a call to arms that democracy needs participation to work, [and] disinformation attempts to undermine that. So it's up to all of us to keep engaging, to keep holding our politicians to account, and that's the best way that we can fight back.

Finding a solution to Russia's disinformation has to involve people themselves, she says. 

"I think this is clear in Ukraine. There have been a lot of efforts to pursue media literacy in Ukraine – civic and digital literacy. [Investing in people] is something that, I think, needs to be at the core of our response because these are generational solutions," says Jankowicz.

Russia and the other bad actors have been out there at this for a while, the author adds. 

"We need to do our best to equip people with the tools necessary to navigate the information environment."

/By Maria Romanenko