“Fake news” is a term that has become all too commonplace. Sometimes we’re talking about a genuine piece of disinformation. Other times, fake news means simply a news report with which a politician does not agree.
Outside the U.S., disinformation is very real and pervasive, not just a partisan talking point. Fictional news stories are as normal as rain in places like Russia, Ukraine and Moldova. Russian President (and onetime KGB operative) Vladimir Putin has turned the dissemination of false narratives into a worldwide tool of influence.
The widespread distribution of falsehoods received serious scrutiny in 2015 when the European Union’s East StratCom Task Force examined the impact of Russian disinformation campaigns in the European Union’s Eastern Partnership countries, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The task force compiled more than 6,500 cases of disinformation in 18 languages.
Ukraine, the focus of so much attention these days, was the target to a barrage of pro-Kremlin disinformation. A particularly egregious example was a video ostensibly about how Ukraine’s political goal is war with Russia.
Other stories “reported” that the U.S. had evidence of Kyiv’s responsibility for the downing of a Malaysian Airlines plane over eastern Ukraine in 2014 and that Kyiv is under Washington’s control. Both stories were patently false.
In Moldova, a small, impoverished nation near Ukraine, one planted story contended that NATO controls the military infrastructure of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Another perpetrated the charge that the U.S. was plotting to overthrow Moldova’s government. Politicians and the rich were also targets of outlandish claims. One story ridiculously asserted that the entire Moldovan government is a “puppet” of liberal Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. Another lodged the false charge that a former deputy speaker of the Parliament — and the chairman of the Democratic Party of Moldova — was wanted by Interpol, an allegation the international security agency publicly denied.
In Poland, the fake news came in the form of wistful paeans to the not-so-good Soviet “Evil Empire” days. One article falsely asserted that — out of respect for Polish sovereignty — the Red Army did not participate in the Polish martial law prior to World War II and that Poland posed a military threat to the Soviet Union in the years before the Soviet invasion of 1939.
One big problem is that even debunked claims prove resistant to fading away. They linger on the internet, finding a readership particularly among those who seek out only stories that confirm their already established worldview. The globalist internet is a force multiplier, so fictional news originating in some remote location can quickly reach a worldwide audience.
As Harvard’s Nieman Foundation recently documented in its report “Trudeau’s Blackface: The Chilling Effects of Disinformation on Political Engagement,” increasingly sophisticated communications technology and social media sites only spur on disinformation and “false narratives” in the U.S., Canada and the far corners of Europe.
According to the Harvard report: “Whether they are alt-right trolls trying to trick reporters into misidentifying a mass shooter or foreign interests impersonating black activists, media manipulators come together in loosely formed coalitions to coordinate during periods where breaking news is unverified and unstable.”
In other words, disinformation campaigns that have been routine overseas have morphed in the U.S. into increasingly sophisticated attempts to plant false narratives into legitimate news stories.
U.S. media outlets need to work harder to prevent fictional news from polluting their coverage. Western governments, political parties, candidates, corporations and concerned citizens should learn to spot the growing fictional news emanating from Eastern Europe. While our government can provide some guidance and warnings about our adversaries’ attempts to influence our political discourse, the most effective countermeasure is that foundation of our democracy — a rigorous and free press, which effectively distinguishes between fiction and truth.
⦁ Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.