Russia spreads misinformation in all forms of media, including via Facebook and other popular social media sites, and that hurts the stability of its neighbors and other countries, citizens of several such nations said at a forum in Washington.
Government officials and a journalist from four countries neighboring Russia—Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, and Ukraine—said they have seen the effects of Russian propaganda through television, social media, or other platforms.
Russia’s “main objective” is to “dominate in all possible fields,” Lithuanian official Arnoldas Pikžirnis said, including in cyberattacks and “fake news.”
Helle Dale, senior fellow for public diplomacy at the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation, acted as moderator for the Oct. 3 panel discussion on Russian information warfare at the think tank’s Capitol Hill headquarters.
Three of the speakers—Pikžirnis, Anna Korbut of Ukraine, and Olevs Nikers of Latvia—are trans-Atlantic fellows at World Affairs Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit.
Aureliu CioCoi, Moldova’s ambassador to the United States, said countries such as Moldova, Ukraine, and the Baltic states are targets of Russian misinformation.
Russia’s main goal under President Vladimir Putin is to “destabilize” these countries as much as possible, CioCoi said.
The ambassador provided a few examples of the propaganda at work.
Moldova gained independence in 1991, CioCoi said, but hundreds of Russian soldiers still occupy the eastern part of the country. Moldova sent a letter to the United Nations asking the organization to discuss withdrawal of foreign troops from the region, without specifically pointing out the Russians.
“The word ‘Russian’ was never said,” CioCoi emphasized.
He explained that Russia contacted international partners, telling them that Moldova wanted to push out peacekeepers. Vasily Nebenzya, the Russian ambassador to the U.N., criticized Moldova’s request, saying the move would harm peacekeeping relations.
In truth, CioCoi said, only about half of the Russian soldiers were on a peacekeeping mission. The rest, he insisted, were there illegally.
The ambassador brought up the influence of foreign television shows to spread misinformation to the people of Moldova. He said the shows are “almost 60 minutes of crying … about how bad it is to live in Ukraine, or how bad it is to go to the European Union.”
Such TV shows try to convince viewers that Russia is the only safe place left to live, said CioCoi, formerly his country’s ambassador to Germany.
Currently, members of Moldova’s parliament are discussing a bill to limit the influence of foreign shows on the public.
Korbut, deputy chief editor of The Ukrainian Week, a magazine, said that in Ukraine, the rhetoric of Russian propaganda changed after the country’s revolution in 2014.
Social media became a key factor in making Ukraine citizens look like advocates for radical government takedown, Korbut said.
“We started having these weird accounts [online] with very patriotic and very Ukrainian names,” Korbut said. “On the picture they would not have a portrait of a person, but mostly a man in [battle] fatigue, so you can think it’s a soldier from the ATO [Anti-Terrorist Operation] or the army, or it would be a Ukrainian flag. They would be promoting and administering groups like the Patriots of Ukraine or [tell] everybody, ‘Let’s go and fight against corruption of the government.’”
The online accounts would include hyperlinks to articles that criticize Ukraine’s government. The articles are mostly factual, Korbut said, but the accounts use them to spread a radical agenda.
“A lot of media in Ukraine are very critical about the government, including probably mine,” she said. “But we criticize the government constructively. We criticize the government because we want it to do the right things, not the wrong things. We do not want to topple the government in a revolutionary way.”
Korbut said journalists, with the help of information technology workers and hackers, traced the locations where the accounts were administered to places in Russia.
The accounts, she said, encourage Ukrainians to hate their government without engaging in constructive debates. In short, Korbut said, they create a “war of words.”
Pikžirnis, an adviser to the prime minister of Lithuania, said Russia’s use of social media platforms such as Facebook and other “fake news” vehicles to spread misinformation is just the beginning.
“[The] main objective of the Russian Federation is to dominate in all possible fields,” Pikžirnis said, “whether that’s cyber, whether that’s fake news or discussions.”
Having evidence to debunk fake claims isn’t enough to combat Russian propaganda, he said.
“We have to give the facts the way we can,” he said. “But most important is to [have] a communication between partners, to have … open communications about things that are happening. We have no other tool.”
Nikers, chief expert at Latvia’s Ministry of Defense, talked about a communication barrier between Russia and neighboring countries. In Latvia’s case, the main issue is a language barrier.
“Latvia still lives in a strictly divided informational space,” Nikers said.
In Latvia, he said, 37 percent of residents use Russian as their primary language with their families. Many of those Russian speakers mainly watch Moscow-controlled television programming.
Latvian and Ukrainian scholars concluded that in many of these programs, Russians use humor to undermine the credibility of political leaders, he said.
Nikers also said that 75 percent of Latvia’s population consists of those age 30 and older, who were alive before the collapse of the Soviet Union. He said the Russian media takes advantage of Soviet nostalgia to target these groups.
“Latvian government needs to do a better job explaining its policies and actions to all members of society and do not ignore its Russian-speaking community,” Nikers said.