Strategies for Addressing Disinformation in Eastern and Central Europe

By Anna Sienicka, TechSoup Europe Vice President and Maria Makowska, Training and Education Manager at Fundacja TechSoup

The Russian invasion and war in Ukraine has accelerated already existing propaganda and disinformation campaigns throughout Eastern and Central Europe. Together with cyberattacks and other digital incursions, this makes everyone more vulnerable — especially civil society organizations and frontline activists working in the areas of human rights, democracy, free media, and helping refugees.

I recently participated in a panel, hosted by Deloitte and moderated by Deloitte’s Elizabeth Villaroel, to discuss how to best support civil society organizations in Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, and beyond. I was joined by Maria Makowska, training and education manager at TechSoup Europe, and Tomas Krissak of Gerulata Technologies to share our perspective from the frontlines of organizations serving those affected by this war.

In what follows, I’ll elaborate on three key takeaways from our panel:

  1. Building trust between communities targeted by disinformation campaigns and civil society organizations is crucial in the fight against bad actors in the region.
  2. Civil society organizations play a critical role in countering dis- and mis-information.
  3. There are proven strategies, tactics, and platforms to be used in educating both civil society organizations and vulnerable populations on how to stop the spread of dis- and mis-information that you can use to be a part of the solution.

I also invite you to watch the recording below in its entirety if you wish to dive deeper into our discussion of this urgent matter.

Building Trust Is a Vaccine for Disinformation

Societies across our region are very vulnerable to disinformation. The spread of Russian disinformation in Central and Eastern Europe has increased significantly since the invasion. This is a Russian strategy. It is deliberate, and a tactic of the war. The scale and intensity of the information war is constantly influencing communities where we live. New challenges and uncertain situations in the region related to the war in Ukraine, along with the high number of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the area, create fertile ground for disinformation and polarization in society. Preexisting undercurrents of judgment and distrust are easily exploited and often result in enhancing fear and negative attitudes towards refugees, activists, and organizations engaged in providing support to people in need.

At the same time, there has been an increasing awareness in the region around the importance of digital literacy. The necessity of verifying news reports and sharing only accurate information is starting to be perceived by citizens as a basic and crucial set of skills.

Digital resilience is also more important than ever. A digitally resilient organization is one that uses technology in such a way that it has a greater capacity to “bounce back” from a catastrophic event — be it a global pandemic, a natural disaster, war, sudden political hostility, or any other unforeseen challenge. In Central and Eastern Europe, organizations need to be able to react to various threats due to shrinking civic space with the help of digital technology through a new form of civic activism — digital activism. Security in the infosphere is crucial.

In order to strengthen the resilience of civil society in its fight against disinformation and propaganda, we need to address root causes, not only symptoms. This begins, in part, through building trust. Civil society organizations have always played a critical role in this process.

Activists from Central and Eastern Europe learning about digital activism during MEGAPHONE 2018. Phot. M.Ratte

Civil Society Actors Play a Critical Role in Countering Disinformation

Grassroots and community-based strategies are necessary to combat disinformation. Civil society organizations are close to people most vulnerable to disinformation, as they work on the ground and build relationships. And, building trust and connection often lie at the heart of these organizations’ core values. In order to fight disinformation, we need these kinds of agents of change in order to influence people’s behaviors. That’s why we must support civil society organizations in order to strengthen their capacities to launch initiatives that are focused on building trust in local communities.

Strategies That Work: Building Bridges, Building Connection, and Building Trust in Communities

We need systemic solutions that promote digital literacy. We need to build tailored educational offerings focused on different groups and audiences. We must provide basic digital literacy for the general population, and more advanced programs targeting multipliers (like librarians, teachers), engaging influencers and opinion leaders to reach a wider population through social media.

We need to advocate for media literacy and the ability to identify, stop, and counter disinformation to be part of the core skill set of civil society organizations. This competency is as critical to the success of an organization today as fundraising, digital security, and marketing. That’s what TechSoup is doing through Hive Mind, where a vibrant community of practice brings together over 4,000 civil society actors from over 80 countries in the world into an online space where they can take specialized courses in media literacy and countering disinformation.

Today, Hive Mind is available in nine languages (English, Polish, Hungarian, Russian, Romanian, Albanian, Macedonian, Spanish, French), providing online learning for trainers and participants, self-paced courses, a toolkit, and regular blog posts, as well as additional educational and knowledge-building content.

Let’s build international communities of experts and educators who can learn from each other and identify disinformation patterns and reactions that have been used already in other countries. Let’s focus on mutual visibility, spreading knowledge and skills, and shifting focus from designing new interventions towards scaling and localizing tailored interventions to meet needs of specific groups in local communities.

Building bridges, building connections, and building trust in communities can strengthen the resilience of civil societies and can make them less vulnerable to disinformation.

Join us. You are welcome to learn with us in the Hive Mind community for digital activists. You can also attend a webinar on War-time Disinformation Landscape in the CEE on June 30.

If you’d like to contribute to furthering the reach of Hive Mind and support more civil society organizations in building their digital media literacy and security skills, please consider supporting the Civil Society Security Strengthening Initiative.

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