Russian influence operations, which employ all means of information disorder, from fake news to the influencing of the economically disadvantaged, can be seen in diverse forms in the majority of Central and Eastern European countries, including in Estonia, it appears from the fresh foreign policy report by network-based non- governmental analytical centre Ukrainian Prism.
A number of articles were published in June about how Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian and Swedish university students attended a summer university programme which proved to be propaganda training promoting Russian propaganda. Such events can be considered influence operations, known in the field of the information war as soft power.
The term soft power was coined by American political scientist Joseph Nye and first used in a book dating back to 1990. Soft power denotes diplomatic activity which does not use direct force or economic power, but rather employs methods of appeal and attraction to achieve a desired result, such as influence over a social group, in another country.
Russia's soft power in its neighbouring countries, first and foremost in all Eastern European countries, is increasingly being studied, and the aforementioned propaganda training is just one example thereof. More and more, manifestations of soft power are cropping up in the manipulation of information in the media, by which means attempts are made to influence society's behaviour and attitudes.
Ukrainian Prism has compiled a report on Central and Eastern European countries, including Estonia, which examines both the aforementioned influence operations as well as the comprehensive ability to cope with information disorder.
What is information disorder?
The term information disorder has developed from the initial widespread use of the term fake news in 2016, when it was chosen as Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionary. Fake news is just one buzzword, however, which is why a number of researchers, including media researcher Clare Wardle, have recommended using the term information disorder instead, which is broader in scope and encompasses the subcategories of misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation.
The report on Estonia was drawn up based on 24 expert interviews as well as written documents. Based on this research, Estonia was scored on five-point scales in three categories, with five indicating a greater occurrence in society. The graph below compares Estonia's results to those of its neighbouring Baltic states.
The report highlights the fact that Estonia's most vulnerable societal group, which Russia is most interested in influencing, remains the local native Russian-speaking minority, which accounts for approximately 28% of the population.
Another target group highlighted, however, is Estonians who belong to small groups with seemingly little influence, such as entrepreneurs with business interests in Russia.
Also named as a group targeted by Russian influence is Estonians who are relatively few, but include for example those who believe that NATO is provoking Russia, or those who long for the Soviet era, as well as the socioeconomically disadvantaged and those who support xenophobic rhetoric.
The report reveals that Estonia's Russian-speaking population has long since been treated as one homogeneous community, but is in reality very multifaceted as well as multilayered, in ethnocultural, citizenship and political terms.
A greater rift and polarisation between Estonians and the local Russian-speaking community occurred following the events of the Bronze Night and April Unrest in 2007. A second larger point of polarisation highlighted was the point in 2013, when events in Ukraine began.
In the case of both turning points, the report found, these events forced politicians and policymakers in Estonia to take research on and warnings regarding integration seriously.
During the same time period, a sharp debate was also underway regarding Russian-language education in Estonia, which, according to the report, was overpoliticised as a whole, as a number of political parties utilised it as a topic in the 2017 local government elections.
Such discussions, however, provide an even greater opportunity for various social groups to end up in conflict with one another, which is easy to incite in circumstances of information disorder.
"Russian television invites native Russian speakers to join the virtual 'Russian world,' which is the same mental space in which Russian citizens live — a world united by language, culture, religion, history and blood," said an expert interviewed for the report.
An integral part of the subject of information disorder is media and journalism, or the information space.
In Estonia's case, the report highlights strong freedom of the press, referring to the country's performance in the Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) World Press Freedom Index and Freedom House's Freedom on the Net report. The fact is noted, however, that Russian media channels and media channels disseminating pro-Kremlin content call into question the freedom and objectivity of the media by means of misleading and false information. This is a tactic of conscious information disorder and hostile propaganda against Estonia.
In order to illustrate the difference in the information spaces of native Estonian- and Russian-speaking populations, the report compares the viewership of various Estonian television channels and the connection thereof to the objectivity of the channels involved.
Of online news portals followed by Estonia's Russian-language population, the report highlights rus.delfi.ee. Also popular among this population are seti.ee, vecherka.ee, ria.ru, kinozal.tv, mke.ee and kinopoisk.ru.
Reviewing research on the news media consumer habits of young people, it appears that social media does not play as significant of a role for Russian-language young people as it does for their Estonian-language peers. Russian speakers, however, comment online news articles more often. The report concludes that as a whole, there are great differences between Estonian- and Russian-speakers in the consumption of news media, and attention must be paid to the fact that harmful and false information is actively being created and spread on Russian-language social media networks.
Of the 24 experts interviewed, 14 confirmed that the local Russian-language population trusts Russian-language media. A number of local social studies have reached the same conclusion. The experts believe, however, that Estonia is underestimating the scope of Russian-led information disorder. Researchers find that the deregulation of the media, i.e. granting the opportunity for pro-Kremlin media channels to freely operate in Estonia likewise means that the local Russian-speaking population cannot be defended from misleading, false and harmful information.
The report provides an overview of state activities in both steps taken in the fields of cyberdefence and information security as well as organisations established. Likewise highlighted are national defence programmes which increasingly involve information literacy as well, which should help in coping with instances of information disorder.
Report's recommendation for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania: Cooperate
The government must actively involve civil society activists in activities that will increase national resistance to soft power. Correspondent nonprofits and volunteers should be utilised in fields related to cyber- and information security as well as in psychological influence.
The report stresses that these activities should continue for an extended period of time, and that the results thereof are likewise worth measuring after a long period of time, or in approximately 7-10 years.
It also recommends continuing activities that integrate the public and private sectors as well as citizens' initiatives in which people involved in the field could develop networks.
The chapter of the report dedicated to Lithuania, however, recommends increasing cooperation with Estonia and Latvia in the fight against information disorder, training journalists in information literacy and on information disorder-related topics and introducing similar education in middle and high schools already.
Similar recommendations were given to Latvia in the report as well, which likewise highlights the need to more frequently inspect the activity licenses of media channels to ensure that pro-Kremlin content is not possible to propagate on an unregulated market.
Editor: Aili Vahtla