Digital platforms impact the way in which citizens consume information. Meanwhile, advertisements frauds put the credibility and revenue of independent media in question. In circumstances where disinformation narratives are on the rise, what tools and responses are available?
Media have been exposed to a number of threats, such as domestic takeovers, cyber-attacks, advertisement fraud as well as foreign, illiberal narratives that are undermining information sovereignty, democratic checks and balances and the rule of law.
While small and medium enterprises in Europe suffer from related problems, journalistic outlets appear to be at a critical juncture. This requires a discussion about best practices and ways to respond to various threats, which are now exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic crisis.
The subject of a recent Visegrad Insight Breakfast discussion in partnership with the European Liberal Forum deals with both the domestic and foreign origins of malign influence on media in Europe. The regular gathering format continues to take place online, which allows for a greater number of participants to discuss ongoing developments in Central Europe and to make sense of what is happening at times of the pandemic crisis.
Tailored to selected audiences
During the online meeting, Miroslava Sawiris presents the impact of successful information operations on public perception. Sawiris is a Research Fellow of the Democracy and Resilience Programme at Globsec. She notes that disinformation and influence operations have flourished during the pandemic.
However, the COVID-19 crisis is only one reason for disinformation to go rampant. The many features of the digital information environment in which we live in today, significantly contribute to further jeopardise the quality of the information itself. In other words, digital platforms act as gatekeepers of information. Recent data shows that over 50 per cent of the populations in Slovakia and Hungary are already accessing news from digital platforms.
This reliance on digital platforms impacts the way in which we consume information. In such an environment, where all types of content are pushed into one news feed, it is very difficult to compete for users’ attention without actually resorting to more sensationalist types of content.
Moreover, Sawiris says that harmful COVID-19 related narratives are always tailored to selected audiences in a way that it works and plays into their already preconceived ideas. In practice, it is very easy to create an impactful disinformation campaign since it is sufficient to understand the right levers on which to set up an ad hoc disinformation strategy.
In the context of Slovakia, for example, she refers to the Globsec vulnerability report which shows that 69 per cent of Slovaks would be willing to trade some of their freedoms for greater security. Disinformation actors are willing to exploit this view and Sawiris notes that COVID-19 disinformation has tapped into some of the population’s fears.
There are disinformation narratives in the wider region, for instance, suggesting that the EU has failed and, on the other hand, China and Russia are the only countries helping. Most interestingly, Sawiris indicates how these types of narratives are tailored to the audience within individual countries. In Hungary, you will see that the narrative is more framed in a way that the virus is an artificial genocide conducted by the global elite, which is seeking to decimate the Earth’s population.
In contrast, one of the most prevalent narratives seen in Slovakia is that the Americans are actually using the pandemic to take over Slovak military assets. In the Czech Republic, it was about the spread of 5G technology.
Limited use of big data analytics and other threats to the digital environment
Francesco Cappelletti, a Research Fellow at the European Liberal Forum, starts by looking at the different levels of digitalisation among European Union’s countries. He indicates that only one-fifth of small and medium enterprises in the EU are highly digitised. Among European companies, only a small percentage of them is using big data analytics for business purposes.
Cappelletti suggests that this could be an important focal point: to improve artificial intelligence and fight the problem of disinformation through investment in digital tools. However, he suggests that the problem is not only of economic nature: since digital transformation also depends on many other aspects that cannot be solved during one political cycle, an even greater effort is required at the level of European institutions.
Meanwhile, speaking about this subject helps to make people aware of what disinformation is and, especially, what threat a cyber risk poses in terms of security both regarding companies and the citizens. In this sense, Cappelletti endorses that some essential practices are crucial to secure the home or work environment.
The pandemic is having a serious impact on the society and economy and as Cappelletti observes it, small and medium enterprises are perceived as a great opportunity from cybercriminals, being one of the sectors most exposed to vast scale cyber-attacks and threats.
Finally, he thinks that the EU should leverage in this focus area, through collaborative public-private partnerships on advanced industrial engineering projects. Results can also be achieved by investing in long term projects for improving digital awareness and education. High-level technical skills are crucial in dealing with cyber threats.
Free press undermined
Wojciech Przybylski, Chairman of the Res Publica Foundation, refers to the concept of information sovereignty in the thematic context of the discussion. He says this is about democracy and measuring the level of literacy. “The level of literacy in a democracy is the measurement of the health of democracy.”
In the era of the Internet and digital information, the notion of digital literacy is crucial. Why? Przybylski thinks that disinformation and fake news aim to undermine the concept of democracy.
In addition, such types of narratives are preying on those who are not properly informed. They are reading, but rather in order to reinforce their already existing preconceptions or to consolidate their ideas about conspiracies running the world.
Przybylski refers to Cappelletti in saying that being aware of the digital tools that secure and make one’s information reliable, is very important. Democracies thrive where media and the press can freely and effectively operate.
However, digital ad frauds undermine the credibility and revenue of media in Central Europe and they have had much more of an impact here than elsewhere. At the same time, this phenomenon can also be seen elsewhere in Europe and, therefore, pan-European action is needed to stop ad frauds from damaging the sector.
Moreover, even the traditional advertising market is a cause for concern. In the example of Hungary, there are continued efforts to undermine the free press that transform the media market by means of state advertising.
This is the summary of an event organised in cooperation with the European Liberal Forum asbl.