Tocqueville Conversations 2022
The Propaganda Dilemma of Democracies

© Unsplash, Utsav Srestha

More than 190 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote “Men will not accept truth at the hands of their enemies, and truth is seldom offered to them by their friends”. In the past decade, propaganda and misinformation directed by hostile actors created an even greater dilemma for democracies and the lack of truth is maybe the biggest single challenge for open societies today. The war against liberal values and open societies is no longer only fought with tanks, rockets, and soldiers in Ukraine, but also in the media landscape of every country, every continent, and every platform. Today, the goal of the Russian propaganda machine is to create a belief, that everything is propaganda and that there is no truth. At the same time, our Western values of freedom of speech, expression and media tie our hands for a “counterattack”.

5 Pillars of Russian Disinformation

The US State Department identified five pillars of the Russian disinformation ecosystem, built to undermine the concept of truth. The first pillar is the spread of conspiracy narratives or even blanket lies through official Government communication. Originating from official channels, these false narratives are then picked up by legitimate journalists and enter the public discourse. While the first report in the legitimate media might include some context and rebuttals, these “side-facts” often get lost as the narrative trickles through societies.

The second pillar, a state-funded global messaging system, ensures that the propaganda ecosystem is built in a way so that legitimate journalists are not even needed to spread the fake news. A few months ago, the channels Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik (Radio) still had their places between legitimate journalistic outlets in Europe. Still today, the RT outlet is the second most shared Spanish-language “information source”.

While step one and two are easily attributed to the Russian state, the following steps seem more organic and are harder to identify as part of the Russian propaganda ecosystem. The third pillar is what the US State Department calls the “cultivation of proxy sources”. Here Russia makes use of aligned outlets with global reach, of local language media with aligned views like the German Compact Magazine and friendly states like China or Iran to amplify false narratives.

Pillar number four builds on these seeds and weaponizes social media to infiltrate domestic conversations, undermine the faith in institutions or even instigate local protests. Pillar number five is maybe the most invasive and aggressive activity: cyber-enabled disinformation. This implies the hack and release of confidential data, like e-mails of prominent candidates during elections, the paralysation of digital networks or objective media and forgeries.

Confronting the Propaganda Dilemma

All this has been happening in front of us for years. As the Spanish Entrepreneur Alejandro Romero from Constella Intelligence pointed out at the Tocqueville Conversations 2022: All the major conspiracy narratives that numbed the western world in the last few years are run and spread by the same network, or as he calls it, “the first digital cult of our e-Republic”. This cult spreads its narratives that erode the truth via TikTok, YouTube and Telegram. The cults or its members are not fully controlled or owned by the Russian State but fed with lies to spread Russian narratives via social media.

However, social media platforms like YouTube also give citizens and journalists a space to counter the state-sponsored misinformation as Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar pointed out. For him, YouTube is the problem and the solution at the same time. YouTube has been the best place to find and publish independent media within Russia for a long time and the reach is often bigger than of traditional media.

Our Western values create dichotomies that seem impossible to solve. Free press and the freedom of expression are core values of our democracy. At the same time, hostile players and enemy states use our free media landscape to spread lies and erode the belief in an actual truth. Our Propaganda dilemma is the need for a shared truth for our democracy to work, but at the same time we cannot centrally create one. We have the freedom of press and media written in our constitutions and avoid harsh censoring. But we also we fail to prevent the spread of false narratives.

Solutions to fight disinformation

First, democracies need to match state-sponsored propaganda with more global media outreach. Loud voices calling out for reason and the rules-based order are needed everywhere. Russia, China, and their allies are spending more in almost every region of the world to spread their narratives. We cannot just watch silently from the side-lines.

Second, the outreach needs to follow our values. Public broadcasters from and in democratic states are no propaganda outlet for the governing elite, nonetheless, they have a special duty to report in line with our values of truth. Free societies need to fund and support local media in all parts of the world, but when experts say that Deutsche Welle “sounds almost the same as Russia Today” we need to rethink how they are structured.

Third, the population needs to be educated. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union, the overall media literacy did not keep up with the technological progress. Not only do we forget about the information war in Latin America, India, and Africa, but we also forget about our people at home. We need broad societal efforts to increase media literacy and critical thinking throughout all age classes. Campaigns like #FreedomFightsFake from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom are a first step in this direction.

Fourth, democratic politicians need to be more accountable and authentic. Political leaders need to be honest, tell the population directly what to expect and what the government can or cannot do about it. Distorting the reality or downplaying real dangers to publicly look better belong in the book of authoritarian players – not to politicians in open societies.

The Strongest Weapon is the Truth

Fighting state-sponsored propaganda creates a dilemma for open societies, especially when the propaganda weaponizes free speech. In this fight the leaders of the western world need to prove Tocqueville words wrong and always offer the truth to their friends. The struggle to create a shared reality will be cumbersome, sometimes expensive but it is one we can win – or as Ukraine journalist Marina Moiseyenko put it at the Tocqueville Conversations: “Ukraine has a stronger weapon than propaganda, it is the truth.”

Konrad Greilich is scholarship holder of the Friedrich-Naumann Foundation for Freedom. He is a doctoral candidate at Bucerius Law School Hamburg researching the use of Smart Contracts in Corporate Governance.