Presentation by Antonina Cherevko, Adviser, International Media Support ( Weaponization of information and attacks on “information sovereignty” – would freedom of expression standards suffice to tame the “information wars”?

About the talk

A liberal stance, traditionally supported by the intergovernmental and non-governmental actors and confirmed by the international courts,[1] suggests that insulting, offensive and shocking speech should also be protected, especially as in line with the theory of the ‘free marketplace of ideas’, we are accustomed to believe that truth and reason are destined to win over harmful and/or false speech.  This is, however, not exactly what has been happening at least since the end of 2013, when both traditional media, online outlets and social media networks started to be actively used for the purposeful, well-organized and coordinated disinformation campaigns. For instance, the massive research of Twitter posts proves that disinformation largely outplays true messages,[2] which makes it an easy and attractive method for pursuing various political purposes via dissemination of ‘weaponised’ narratives.

The term ‘weaponization of information’ was coined to define the use of information (and free speech rights) as a weapon in the framework of Russia’s aggressive foreign policy:[3] first, as a response to the EuroMaidan protests in Ukraine in late 2013, then in the course of the illegal annexation of Crimea and subsequent conflict in the east of Ukraine, and finally as a means of meddling in Brexit, the US presidential elections of 2016 as well as various elections and political processes in Europe (French and German elections, Catalonia unrest etc.). While the term originated in the European region and is currently closely associated with Russia’s state backed media and foreign policy, it has been gaining global popularity during the past several years, and can be easily replicated by other authoritarian regimes with international ambitions (like, for example, Iran and its recent disinformation campaigns)[4] because it allows for a great deal of asymmetrical influence and is heavily enhanced by the mere nature of modern instant communications.

There has been little attempt to explore the phenomenon of weaponization of information in the context of human rights and the concepts of freedom of expression, legitimate limitations of it, and abuse of rights. Whether the existent international legal framework is able to protect the very essence of freedom of expression from abuse by ill-intentioned actors in times when ‘theories of speech and society are under intense examination’[5] is not merely a theoretical question, it may well become the question of further preservation and survival of the value-based system that we currently rely upon.

[1] Handyside v. the United Kingdom, Application No.5493/72 (ECtHR, judgment of 07 December 1976), para 49

[2] Robinson Meyer, ‘The Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News’ (The Atlantic, 8 March 2018) <> accessed 19 March 2018.

[3] P Pomerantsev, M Weiss, The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money (The Institute of Modern Russia 2014) p.14.

[4] Gabrielle Lim, Etienne Maynier, John Scott-Railton, Alberto Fittarelli, Ned Moran, and Ron Deibert, ‘Burned After Reading. Endless Mayfly’s Ephemeral Disinformation Campaign’ (THECITIZENLAB, 14 May 2019) <> accessed 29 June 2019

[5] Monroe Price, Nicole Stremlau, Speech and Society in Turbulent Times: Freedom of Expression in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge University Press 2018) p.317.

Zoom Webinar Info

When: May 14, 2020 14:00 London
Topic: PCMLP Global Seminar Series: “Freedom of Expression & the Weaponization of Information” (with Antonina Cherevko, Adviser, International Media Support)

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Recommended Readings

⁕(where it concerns longer reports suggested below, reviewing executive summaries and/or recommendations would suffice):

  1. Wardle C, Derakhshan H, Information Disorder. Toward an interdisciplinary framework for research and policymaking (Council of Europe 2017)

This report is an attempt to comprehensively examine information disorder and its related challenges, such as filter bubbles and echo chambers. While the historical impact of rumours and fabricated content have been well documented, we argue that contemporary social technology means that we are witnessing something new: information pollution at a global scale; a complex web of motivations for creating, disseminating and consuming these ‘polluted’ messages; a myriad of content types and techniques for amplifying content; innumerable platforms hosting and reproducing this content; and breakneck speeds of communication between trusted peers.


  1. Pomerantsev P, Weiss M, The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money (The Institute of Modern Russia 2014)

Russia has hybridized not only its actual warfare but also its informational warfare. Much of the epistemology democratic nations thought they had permanently retired after the Cold War needs to be re-learned and adapted to even cleverer forms of propaganda and disinformation.

  1. Timothy Snyder: ‘Cyberfascism’

In one corner of the culture we have a conversation about fascism, and in another a conversation about cybersecurity. There is an unnoticed but basic overlap: the internet affects the human mind in much the way that fascists hoped their own rhetoric would.

  1. Timothy Snyder: ‘The Road to Unfreedom: Democracy, Neofascism, and the Importance of Language’

At this joint event with Intelligence Squared Germany, Yale historian Timothy Snyder addressed the dangers to democracy from deliberate manipulation of the media and the spread of disinformation by authoritarian governments and their supporters. Snyder talked about the growing threats to democratic systems in Europe and the United States, including Russian interference in the 2016 US elections and manipulation of the media during the invasion of Ukraine. In particular, he discussed how authoritarian leaders use language to delegitimize opposition. And crucially, how citizens can resist.

  1. ‘Disinformation and Electoral Campaigns’

This publication on disinformation and electoral campaigns is a rather recent one, solicited by the Council of Europe in mid-2019, and would be relevant not only in the electoral context (though, it is a primary aim of it). First of all, you can find in-there brief descriptions of the regulatory responses to disinformation from France, Germany, the UK and the US (this inter alia gives us a rather unique opportunity to review the outline of the French “false news” law in English). Secondly, unlike many other publications on disinformation that mainly focus on “mapping the problem”, this one provides for some concrete recommendations. In particular, it considers self-regulatory approach to the problem insufficient and suggests that: “There is therefore a strong need and a significant demand for regulations which would go beyond a simple self-regulatory regime”. It is not free of charge though but 6 EUR is a very modest price for this really good work.

  1. ‘Taming the Hydra: How to Resist Kremlin’s Information Aggression?’

This paper is based upon Ukraine’s experience of facing Russian information warfare, placed into a global context. For the international audience, this document may be useful because it explains how Ukrainian experts have come up with solutions to problems which Ukraine began to face earlier than many other countries in the world — but which have since become global. For the Ukrainian audience, this document may be useful since during our research we talked with many foreign experts and studied foreign practices.

  1. Kruk K, ‘Analyzing the Ground Zero. What Western Countries Can Learn from Ukrainian Experience of Combating Russian Disinformation’ (European Values, 2017)

  1. Gabrielle Lim, Etienne Maynier, John Scott-Railton, Alberto Fittarelli, Ned Moran, and Ron Deibert, ‘Burned After Reading. Endless Mayfly’s Ephemeral Disinformation Campaign’ (THECITIZENLAB, 14 May 2019)

  1. Tatiana Stanovaya: ‘The first world cyber war’

Will Vladimir Putin give the command to influence the American elections again? What are the new technologies and tactics and how can they be thwarted? Framing questions in this way leads to mistakes. It pushes an answer that Russia will meddle, but the reasoning is incomplete. The use of cyber is more than a logical and inevitable outgrowth of Kremlin attempts to influence Western democracies since the annexation of Crimea. The reality is much more ambiguous and less subject to top down control.

  1. Pomerantsev P, ‘Why We’re Post-Fact’ (Granta, 20 July 2016)

  1. White M, ‘I started Occupy Wall Street. Russia tried to co-opt me’

(The Guardian, 2 November 2017)