A recording of our Global Media Policy Seminar with Antonina Cherevko is now available on our YouTube channel!

You can view/download her slides here.

Below you will find an abstract for the talk, and Antonina has kindly answered remaining questions from the webinar as well.

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) <https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/03/largest-study-ever-fake-news-mit-twitter/555104/> 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) <https://citizenlab.ca/2019/05/burned-after-reading-endless-mayflys-ephemeral-disinformation-campaign/?fbclid=IwAR2mWzf91EYhckgjwbHP9ARiX-RQSRnaYlW3qWeDzOBWPdYMtE_r7XtzP-c&utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=kremlin_watch_briefing_major_iranian_disinformation_campaign_exposed&utm_term=2019-06-30> 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.

Remaining questions from the webinar:

Hi, my question relates mostly to balancing FOE with the need to combat weaponisation. When we are balancing the two, could it be argued that false information should be allowed, as long as it is not stated to support a narrative? If it was an opinion for instance. And in that line could false information ever be useful? And then could we argue that if it has the unintended effect of supporting a harmful narrative, then it should then not be allowed due to the potential harm it could cause to society?

Thank you for the question. In principle, international standards do not strictly prohibit false information, though the European Court, for example, on multiple occasions underlined the need for a journalist to be diligent and accurate in his/her work as well as special role of the media in our societies. The issue is that weaponization of information has a systemic character. It is never simply a single-shot opinion or reflection, there is an underlining long term political goal. If certain actors are continuously pushing for the narratives like “Ukraine is a failed state, it is so corrupted, it couldn’t succeed in any reform” etc., they are not simply sharing an unpleasant opinion, they aim at suppressing resistance and nurturing the culture of pessimism and passivity which can help to occupy the country even without the use of force. In a similar vein, if today Russia and China are promoting the narratives like “democracies are unable to deal with Covid-19, they fail their own people”, they are not merely criticizing Western governments, they are  quite convincingly arguing that their ruling regimes are more effective and thus, more attractive to the people. So, yes, I would agree that the systemic character is an important indicator here, though I am not sure that it would be easy to transform it into the criterion for prospective regulations. But it is worth giving a thought. Regarding the value of false information, I suppose it depends on your personal cultural and political stance. For me personally, in the age of mounting information pollution and increasing information fatigue, false information has No value as such. Others may eventually disagree. 

One of the problems is creating a category that is enveloping: i love the treatment of “strategic” communication but that will encompass more and more.  How extensive is the privilege to respond if a state is subject to WOI.  do you treat the articulators of woi as not speakers or their content not “speech” or “expression.”

Thank you for the question. At the moment, legal responses to weaponization of information have been rather scattered and lacking a clearly formulated, systemic approach. We have discussed in the presentation certain challenges that states are facing when trying to contain weaponized narratives “inspired” from abroad. This is still the area where broader discussion is needed between policy makers, legal practitioners, security experts and human rights lawyers. In my very personal opinion, weaponized information is not a “genuine expression”, not the least because it is normally directly or indirectly “translated” from the state authorities of the country which employs weaponized narratives to pursue foreign policy goals. The speakers are also not always “genuine speakers”, rather they are, as President Macron once said about Russia Today and Sputnik, “agents of influence”. 

 

Thank you, Antonina – where do we locate a case like India, where we have state sponsored narratives being used to discredit dissenting voices and at the same we have also had cases of misinformation leading to cases of public lynchings?

Thank you for the question. I would say that in both cases in India we deal with internal disinformation where national government either weaponizes narratives to attack its opponents or fails to protect citizens from the effects of viral disinformation. In my view, it is ill-intention and negligence respectively. 

 

Well, if there are national security agency which controls flow of information that does not comply with international human rights, then who controls national security agency?

Thank you for the question. We are not really talking about national security agency in charge of regulation, rather about a national security argument used to respond to weaponization of information both politically and legally. Regarding the question of which authority would be the best positioned to take decisions on/regulate weaponized narratives, it is a debatable issue and due to its relative novelty, we can only look for certain analogies at  the moment. For example, Council of Europe in its Recommendation on the roles and responsibilities of internet intermediaries proposes that determination of illegal content online could be done “either by law or by a judicial authority or other independent administrative authority whose decisions are subject to judicial review”. As you can see, the latter option may be expected to better meet the requirement of urgency given that everything that is happening online is happening instantly and could also produce instant but lasting damage. 

**Disclaimer: the opinion of the presenter is solely her own opinion and does not represent the views of International Media Support (IMS) and/or PCMLP.**