The geopolitics of disinformation and cybersecurity in Europe

Keyboard warfare. Photo by Global Voices, CC BY 3.0.

This article explores the link between disinformation and cybersecurity that could lead to different effects on society, in relation to the current events in Russia and Ukraine

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, nations across Europe rose to respond to the crisis, raising questions, not only about its consequences for the affected countries and beyond but also about various implications around disinformation and digital rights.

As technology has progressed rapidly over the years, resulting in a digital revolution, a number of security experts concluded that certain advancements could lead to “hybrid wars” in which cyberweapons and disinformation may become a type of weapon in psychological warfare around the globe. Similarly, the current pandemic has been accompanied by a so-called “infodemic” as well. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the practices of information that influence our everyday lives, as an essential part of maintaining the world’s security and stability.

What is disinformation?

Disinformation, also known as black propaganda, is the dissemination of misleading information that can undermine democratic trust, while posing a notable threat to many aspects, including security, without the target audience being aware of its influence. A strategic approach that critically understands the political context and the various ulterior motives is required to tackle disinformation. Some of the risks commonly associated with disinformation are massive false dilemmas, populist narratives, or public apathy.

It has been used throughout history, from Roman–Persian Wars (54 BCE — 628 CE), throughout WWII Nazi propaganda (when the term “big lie” was coined, describing a lie so colossal that no one would question it), to  recent years in which the phenomenon became widespread with the rise of social media platforms and the controversial 2018 Cambridge Analytica case.

According to the updated 2021 EU Policy Department for External Relations Study on Disinformation and Propaganda, the best weapon against it is “critical media literacy.” This makes it a cybersecurity issue since social media platforms often serve as its primary amplifiers.

The disinformation front

At present, the disinformation war continues in real time. According to TIME, the Kremlin ran a multi-method disinformation campaign while invading Ukraine to manipulate the public narrative. Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba stated:

Cindy Otis, a disinformation researcher and former CIA analyst interviewed by TIME, identifies one of the main tactics as disinformation in the battlefield that intimidates and demoralizes the Ukrainian military and civilian population. Russian propaganda has been especially widespread through Telegram, a popular messaging app that uses end-to-end encryption.

On February 26, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, and YouTube faced pressure over the war, which highlighted big tech’s difficulties to moderate content at scale. Facebook, Google, and Twitter removed user profiles that violated the guidelines by spreading disinformation, in addition to imposing other limitations, such as demonetization and prohibiting them from running ads.

As of March 4, Russian regulators banned Facebook and Twitter in response to their limitations on Russian state-owned media outlets, such as RT, stating that such restrictions violated the key principles of freedom of information. The Russian parliament also passed a law punishing the intentional spreading of “false information” about the military with fines and a jail term up to 15 years of prison. Subsequently, several Western media outlets suspended reporting in Russia.

Meanwhile, Russia’s internet regulator Roskomnadzor's ban of Facebook and Instagram on March 14 resulted in a 2,000% rise in demand for VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) in Russia.

Meanwhile, Western countries continuously receive an immediate stream of information from a number of different sources, which may often create an information overload — inevitably, some of it is disinformation shared from one news outlet to another, either as deliberate media manipulation, or inadvertently.

ABC has one such example: First Draft’s Australian bureau editor Esther Chan pointed out a 2020 video supposedly showing warplanes over Ukraine that was shared an hour after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declaration of war, but was not. Another viral post seemingly showing footage from battle turned out to be a clip from a video game. Croatian media outlet had also recently issued an article debunking all false information they had mistakenly published about the war, so far.

The cyber front

Experts claim that cyberattacks are a central part of modern warfare and quickly spread across the global economy through supply chains. Just before the military invasion, a group of Russian hackers carried out a series of cyberattacks targeting Ukrainian government, banking, defense, and aviation websites, which affected the systems in Latvia and Lithuania that had particular connections with the Ukrainian government.

At the same time, hackers led by the Anonymous group declared cyberwar on Russia. Afterward, was declared to be under a DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack, in which the target is flooded with traffic, thus disabling the normal workflow. The Kremlin and the State Duma websites were periodically disabled allegedly due to DDoS attacks as well.

Amid the Russia–Ukraine crisis, the ECB requested European banks across the eurozone to increase their cyber defenses, declaring that the issue should be a top priority in the midst of intensified geopolitical tensions, according to Reuters. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Russian cyberattacks on Ukraine could spread to other countries, following warnings issued by Western security officials, as did EUObserver

Map of Ukraine with plastic soldiers. Photo by Global Voices, CC BY 3.0.

In an effort to assist countries under cyberattack, the EU activated a Cyber Rapid Response Team consisting of 8–12 national cybersecurity officials of 6 European countries  —  Croatia, Estonia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, and Romania — which was deployed across Europe.

On February 26, Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for digital transformation, announced on Twitter the creation of an IT army for defense and counterattacks, calling “digital talents” to join the resistance effort.

While long-term consequences are still difficult to assess, experts say they are more concerned with institutional than personal attacks, DW reports.

Disinformation and freedom of expression

There is an ongoing dilemma around disinformation, censorship, and freedom of expression, particularly as governments introduce regulation of social media in the interest of addressing false information. Platform companies have their own moderation policies, which have sometimes drawn criticism of restricting legitimate speech. While governments can take a direct role in promoting transparent content moderation online, there’s also a risk that some governments may label critical content as disinformation, thus limiting free speech.

In the report “Disinformation and Freedom of Opinion and Expression,” Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, examined these threats in the context of disinformation:

“…the free flow of information is a critical element of freedom of expression and places a positive obligation on States to proactively put information of public interest in the public domain, and promote plural and diverse sources of information, including media freedom. It can be a valuable tool for countering disinformation.”

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) enshrine the right to freedom of expression. Freedom of expression may be restricted in accordance with Article 10 of the ECHR and Article 19 of the ICCPR which require all restrictions to be provided for by law and to be necessary for the legitimate aim of respecting the rights and reputations of others and to protect national security, public order, or public health or morals.

At the EU level, given that disinformation and misinformation represent an evolving threat, there are many initiatives against them highlighting, among other things, the need for cooperation, fact-checking, and building societal resilience and credible sources of information, especially in cyberspace.

Evidently, the rise of new technologies is heavily impacting aspects of modern-day life — the extent of this crisis still remains an open question. In the midst of the rapid growth of online information and disinformation, it’s important to foster a quality societal dialogue that aims to connect individuals, rather than isolate them from each other.


For more information about this topic, see our special coverage Russia invades Ukraine.

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