Good journalism is the key to combatting Russian disinformation

Good journalism is the key to combatting Russian disinformation
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Those seeking to counter disinformation of any kind have an inherent advantage: the true story will always be more compelling. Rather than contesting an “information war,” the top strategic priority for countering Russian disinformation should be support for honest, high-quality journalism.

Russia’s active use of disinformation tactics has created a broad consensus among Western policymakers and experts in favor of a strong response. It is certainly reasonable to treat Russian disinformation as a threat to Western political systems, interests, and even national security.

At home and abroad, Russian state-sponsored media outlets push disinformation and politically manipulative narratives, amplifying them through social media bots and paid trolls. Russia’s information strategy is an explicit part of its official military doctrine, and the Russian Ministry of Defense has gone so far as to establish a “cyber army” to support state interests.

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The U.S. government has clearly recognized the gravity of this issue, and has committed significant financial and political resources to addressing it. This includes $250 million for countering Russian influence and propaganda authorized in the Russia sanctions enacted in August, and other similar funding streams.

 

While many new resources in this field are just emerging, some of the highest-profile projects among U.S. and European think tanks have a fundamentally defensive and reactive nature. They share the same approach of working to identify, analyze, and raise public awareness about what Russia is doing, but leave largely unanswered the crucial question of how those seeking to counter these efforts should respond.

The most effective strategy for responding to Russian disinformation online is a proactive one. Identifying and parsing Russian narratives has its purposes, but it should be a lower priority in comparison with support for the vital work that is already being done by independent Russian-language media outlets and others reporting on Russia-related issues.

Fact-checkers and analysts of propaganda have a limited and specialized audience, but important, truthful stories told well will naturally resonate with the public and organically dispel propaganda narratives. Supporting the journalists reporting these stories should be the top strategic priority for countering Russian disinformation.

Despite a concerted campaign of financial pressure, legal persecution, and sporadic violence against Russia’s independent media, a small but active core of brave and talented journalists continues to investigate key stories in the public interest. On topics ranging from the Russian government’s semi-covert military, financial, and political support to separatists in eastern Ukraine, to massive corruption at the highest levels of the Kremlin, to state violence against Chechnya’s LGBT population, to the inner workings of the very disinformation machine at issue, Russian journalists have demonstrated courage and resourcefulness in providing domestic and international audiences with resonant reporting on contemporary Russia.

There is also a role here for international media reporting on Russia, as was vividly demonstrated with the story of MH17, the passenger jet shot down over eastern Ukraine in July 2014. Reporters on the ground quickly concluded that an antiaircraft missile launched from separatist-controlled territory (probably mistaking the passenger jet for a Ukrainian military aircraft) was the likely cause of the tragedy.

Recognizing the potential political fallout, Russian propaganda outlets were quick to offer a variety of implausible alternative explanations, but these narratives failed to gain traction with international audiences. Credit for the failure of this disinformation effort goes to the work of investigative journalists in establishing what happened.

Most notably, the innovative open source research group Bellingcat has spent three years conducting a technically sophisticated investigation into the incident (published in a recent comprehensive report). Bellingcat’s painstaking efforts to build an evidence-backed account compellingly dismissed alternative narratives.

This case demonstrates that strong reporting from media groups like Bellingcat will easily disarm Russian disinformation campaigns. The same is perhaps even more true of quality reporting from inside Russia. Rather than playing the Russian government’s game and trying to contest an “information war,” those concerned by the threat of disinformation should instead devote their attention and resources to supporting honest, high-quality journalism. This approach is not only more in line with American values, but can also exploit the advantage of being on the side of truth to ultimately prove more effective.

Will Wright is a program officer, and Dylan Myles-Primakoff is a senior program officer, for Russia and Eurasia at The National Endowment for Democracy.