Combating Authoritarian Disinformation

By Armando Chaguaceda


HAVANA TIMES – In communication matters, there are major differences in dealing with rights, media and public, information and expression, in autocracies and democracies.

Of course, there are no shrines in the orb where censorship disappears completely. Even in open societies there is government interference, as well as cultural and material inequalities that affect people’s ability to process and disseminate information.

Access to information in democracies is partially constrained by capital asymmetry – economic, cultural, and political. However, under structurally controlled authoritarian regimes it is highly limited or suppressed, under a social order that does not admit dissent.

In autocracies, leaders seek to legitimize themselves through spokespersons and messages from subordinate educational, academic, and cultural institutions or organizations, and state or allied media.

The public sphere amplifies official discourse, accepting controlled requests and complaints. Administrative errors of low-ranking officials are recognized. But criticism of policies and top leaders is not.

However, authoritarian regimes are now seeking to operate within democratic societies by taking advantage of the spaces and tools opened by globalization.

This process, focused on the modalities and objectives of Russian state action in Western societies, as well as possible democratic responses, are the central themeof Striking Back. Overt and Covert Options to Combat Russian Disinformation (The Jamestown Foundation, 2020, 289 pp).

In the seven chapters, based on interviews with 160 officials, academics and counterinformation activists, Thomas Kent contrasts the conceptual, ethical, political and media foundations of autocratic propaganda and civic persuasion.

It also explores the efficiency problems that hurt the dissemination of democratic information in the Russian media and the challenges of protecting against Kremlin infowar in Western societies.

Kent stresses that the democratic response to Moscow’s disinformation has been weak and uncoordinated, based mainly on reactive and defensive measures, such as communication training programs and liberal social media messages. It proposes, instead, an effort to expose the backgrounds and objectives of official Russian narratives and to promote democratic values within and outside the West.

Focusing on experiences in Africa, Europe and Latin America, the author proposes that government measures be strengthened -both officially and privately-, in support of activists and journalists. Along with better democratic communication aimed at Russia’s own citizens, it could be a significant counterweight to Kremlin operations.

Based on his experience as President of Radio Europe Free and Radio Libertad, Kent believes that substantial progress can be made against Russian disinformation operations with the resources already available, both in traditional media and in cyberspace and its platforms and social networks.

He also stresses the importance of civil organizations campaigning for democracy, transparency and informational truthfulness, as well as the role of journalists and experts directly countering Moscow’s trolls and disinformation sites.

The author considers it important that governments and non-governmental organizations disseminate positive narratives about democracy as a political regime and mode of civic coexistence. This, at the current juncture of disaffection that corrodes certain societies of the world.

He defends the value of intensifying democratic communication aimed at Russian citizens, for which their values, cultures and representations must be understood. This communication would also support Russian forces in favor of opening up the regime and demonstrating the power of information and influence from the West.

The book also raises a debate about the acceptable types of “covert action” to deal with the current offensive of Russian misinformation.

Economic support for independent journalism, as well as the denunciation of the Kremlin’s espionage, propaganda and sabotage operations, enter the panoply suggested by Kent, as well as always keeping the debate open on what is effective and ethically acceptable.

The author considers it crucial to understand the difference between the liberal dissemination of information and the effect of autocratic propaganda. These based on divergent levels of attachment to the facts, the possibility of discussing ideas and the non-aggressiveness of the promoted discourse.

It is a work that, even if it takes sides, sheds light on the ideological and political dispute over information that confronts two models of governance in today’s world.

Every policy implies a kind of nexus between means and ends, to transform power relations. If the environment is democratic, the dispute supports smooth, kind rhythms and modes. When the context is closed, under autocratic power, resources are limited, asymmetrical and precarious, to the detriment of citizens. Taking that into account, in global disputes over the expansion or defeat of human rights and freedoms of expression and communication, is essential.