Atticus co-hosts event with NATO on ‘Strategic Communications in the Fight Against Disinformation’

By Sarah Hodes, Junior Consultant

Last week, Atticus had the privilege of hosting a joint event on Strategic Communications in the Fight Against Disinformation as part of our co-sponsored project with NATO. This featured a panel with Bob Seely MP, member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and Chair of both the Ukraine and Russia All-Party Parliamentary Groups, Mariia Zolkina, Research Fellow for International Relations at the London School of Economics, Andy Pryce, Head of Counter Disinformation at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and Dominic Nicholls, Associate Defence Editor for The Telegraph. 

The event focused on disinformation, a part of NATO’s Strategic Concept, primarily on its use as a means of hybrid warfare by Russia in the war on Ukraine as well as how it can arise in our daily lives.  We had the privilege of welcoming stakeholders from across sectors, including political, diplomatic, public sector, media, industry, academia and civil society.

Highlights from the panel include:

“The old active measures KGB model of undermining Western society, demoralisation […] destabilisation, normalisation. The Russian military […] has effectively got a six-stage operation rather than a four-stage," said Bob Seely MP. "That for me shows the influence of Putin, the presidential administration and the FSB, or the former KGB, on Russian military thinking. And so that's why modern concepts of Russian warfare is stuff that's almost been dictated to the Russian military in order to force them to think more creatively about the use of war." 

Mariia Zolkina spoke on the invasion of Crimea in 2014 stating, it "was, unfortunately, the biggest Russian political diplomatic success, or disinformation success, after 2014 because Russia persuades not only people in non-Western societies but also, unfortunately, a significant share of political elites in the  West that Crimea is Russian."

"We all are […] on the front line of the disinformation war," said Dominic Nicholls. "[Social media trolls will] discredit me as a journalist […] They'll discredit the paper. They'll discredit the Western press. They'll aim to discredit the message and it's like fighting smoke." 

Andy Pryce spoke on the use of disinformation by Russia stating: "There's been a range of [...] different narratives, they're aimed at one thing and that's accelerating compassion fatigue for Ukraine. Compassion fatigue is a real thing, we see it with lots of conflicts around the world, lots of disasters around the world and there has been serious academic studies that demonstrate that this really has impact on people, and so the meta goal for the Russians is to accelerate this."

The fight against disinformation and the role that strategic communications can play in it could not be a more pressing topic for our times. The increasing role social media plays in people’s lives has meant that viral online disinformation has become an instrument for radicalisation and support for violent or illegal political action. Authoritarian leaders now see disinformation campaigns as useful tools in their political influence arsenal, seeking to deceive the public by spreading disinformation and fake news specifically leveraging and exploiting emotional and social issues and impacts.

Disinformation refers specifically to the deliberate creation and dissemination of false and/or manipulated information with the intent to deceive and/or mislead. There are three key criteria, deception, potential for harm and intent to harm.  Accelerated by social media, actors, both foreign and domestic, weaponise deception to gain political influence and cause harm. By exploiting emotional topics and existing social cleavages these actors are radicalising populations through false information, stoking violent or illegal political action.

In their 2022 Strategic concept, NATO outlined the role which they see disinformation playing in the global strategic environment. It sees the “open, digitised and interconnected” nature of Western societies being exploited by authoritarian actors to interfere with democratic processes, undermine international norms and promote their style of governance.

To counter disinformation, NATO suggests two tactics. The first is content correction, which takes numerous forms depending on the stakeholder:
  • Content moderation: the removal of problematic content based on guidelines, most typically associated with web pages and social media
  • Content flagging: identifying and signaling problematic content to the platform owner
  • Content labelling: labelling accounts/content for context
  • Content demotion: the ceasing of algorithmic promotion of certain content to diminish its reach 
  • Fact checking: relies on independent, non-partisan reviewing of content by organisations 
  • Debunking: a much more targeted exposure of falsehoods
  • Counter-messaging: targeted, direct exposing of falsehoods and presentation of a counter narrative
  • Elves: organised networks of anti-trolls actively correcting false information 

Public resilience is the other tactic suggested to counter disinformation. This refers to work specifically related to informing the public about the risks posed by false or misleading content and strengthening their ability to recognise it. 
  • Public awareness-raising campaigns: domestically focused information campaigns about the threats and their methods
  • Media literacy: training on how to critically interpret media
  • Source criticism: training in critically analysing information source
  • Prebunking: a targeted effort to prepare audiences to reject falsehoods designed to pre-empt likely fears
  • In an age of connectivity and social media, and with the rise of AI capabilities, such as ChatGPT, it is not only the Government’s role to protect citizens from malign actors but also the responsibility of all of us to learn to spot and counter disinformation. As a collective effort, we can play our role in the fight against disinformation and, in turn, for freedom and democracy.

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