By Cigdem Unal
“Disinformation is sneaky and not always obvious. Know the facts, and think before sharing.” This quote is from NATO’s official twitter account on October 15, 2020. NATO is not facing only with military, economic, and political challenges to ensure its members’ security, prosperity, and democratic way of life; but also disinformation. In the Munich Security Conference 2021 (19 Feb. 2021), NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg specified sophisticated cyber-attacks, disruptive technologies, Russia’s destabilizing behavior, the rise of China, and terrorism as among the great challenges that NATO is facing. He also added, China and Russia are trying to re-write the rules of the road to benefit their own interest by using the whole range of the tools for their disposal including disinformation campaigns. As an unconventional threat to the integrity of democracies, the issue of disinformation has drawn attention of fact-checking services, social media companies, and scholars from various disciplines including political science, communication sciences, and computational social sciences.
What is “disinformation”?
NATO’s acknowledgement of disinformation campaigns as a threat to its unity and security is not new. In the 2018 Brussels Summit Declaration, the Heads of State and Government of the member nations of NATO said: “We face hybrid challenges, including disinformation campaigns and malicious cyber activities.” Not only NATO but also European Union, countries like United States, the Czech Republic, Estonia have a focus on tackling diffusion of disinformation. Hence, disinformation became one of the most frequently used words in the field of foreign policy and social media. However, there is a lack of shared understanding of what disinformation is and what it is not. The term “disinformation” was coined by Stalin in the 1920s. Dezinformatsiya is the name of the KGB unit that was responsible for deceiving enemies and influencing public opinion.
Today, NATO views disinformation as the deliberate creation and dissemination of false and/or manipulated information with the intent to deceive and/or mislead. How is it different than misinformation? Is it different than propaganda at all? Wardle (2018) clarifies these commonly misused concepts. Propaganda is spreading true or false information to persuade an audience, but often has a political connotation. Disinformation is false information that is deliberately created or disseminated with the purpose of causing harm. Misinformation is information that is false, but not intended to cause harm. For example, individuals may share false information on social media in an attempt to be helpful without knowing it is false (Wardle, 2018). Lastly, malinformation is genuine information that is shared to cause harm. This includes private or revealing information to harm a person or reputation.
Disinformation can pose a serious threat to NATO and its member states especially when used by Russian and Chinese government agencies and affiliated groups to weaken NATO. Disinformation campaigns seek to deepen divisions within and between allied countries by undermining citizens’ ability to correctly evaluate NATO’s policies. Citizens who cannot gain access to correct information are likely to lose their trust in international institutions and cooperation. Moreover, disinformation strategies may aim to weaken governments by undermining citizens’ confidence in elected governments. For example, in 2020, the Covid-19 era provided authoritarian regimes an avenue to reshape geopolitics and their sphere of influence. China, Russia, and Iran portray themselves as a global leader by highlighting and misrepresenting democracies’ failures. Their main argument is that democratic countries and international organizations failed to respond to the spread of the coronavirus effectively and that autocratic states have been better at controlling the spread as well as providing aid.
Is Turkey Vulnerable to Disinformation?
Whether these disinformation campaigns have been successful or not can be discussed in another article but it is discernible that citizens from all over the world are vulnerable to these campaigns. This is because citizens are increasingly relying on social media as news sources. For example, according to International Telecommunication Union (ITU), around 70% of the Turkish population has access to the Internet. Similarly, Turkey can be considered as one of the most vulnerable countries to such threats for two main reasons. First, it is one of the most bot infected countries with a very low resistance to fake digital news. Second, according to media analytics company WeAreSocial, Turkey is one of the top countries in terms of social media usage. More particularly on citizens’ perceptions on foreign policy, a national representative survey conducted by Kadir Has University reveals that more than two out of three people in Turkey use social networks as their main source of foreign news.Therefore, Turkey is far from being immune to disinformation, bot usage, and cyber-attacks.
In an environment where Turks are vulnerable to disinformation, Russian media have sought to undermine Turkey’s political and security cooperation with the United States and Europe by exacerbating mutual skepticism and highlighting policy differences (Costello, 2018). Amplification of genuine uncertainty, creation of opportunistic fabrications, and use of multiple contradictory narratives are among the strategies that Russia employs to boost anti-American and anti-NATO sentiments in Turkey (Costello, 2018). On that account, developing counter disinformation strategies is crucial to protect Turkey’s ties to NATO and inhibit the efforts of those who aim to disrupt the longstanding U.S.-Turkey alliance. Fight against disinformation is crucial also for the truth to prevail in democracies. But, at the same time, it is very difficult, particularly in democracies since democratic governments assign high value to freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
How to Fight Against Disinformation?
NATO continues to develop strategies to combat disinformation. For example, NATO provides following tips to help citizens better detect disinformation: check the source, check the tone, check the story, check the images, check your biases. These tips could also be helpful for the citizens of Turkey who have been stated as having low level of media literacy. According to Şükrü Oktay Kılıç, a digital content strategist at fact checking platform teyit.org, the low level of media literacy in Turkey has been making its people vulnerable to fake news. “One in two internet users say they are subjected to fake news. They are not resilient to fake news. In other words, they have difficulties in understanding fake news when they see one. That’s because media literacy is low in Turkey,” he told the Hürriyet Daily News.
Moreover, as a part of its efforts towards dealing with disinformation, NATO developed a webpage called “Setting the Record Straight” to discredit false accusations. For example, the article titled “Top 5 Russian Myths Debunked” analyzes and sets out the facts on the following claims:
- NATO says Russia violated the INF Treaty to justify new deployments. - NATO exercises threaten Russia’s security.
- NATO Allies spend too much on defense.
- NATO troops are dangerous.
- NATO Allies are paranoid about Russia.
In addition to NATO, the U.S. aims to foster fact-based narratives and fight disinformation campaigns as well. For example, the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act of 2016 Bill expresses that the Department of State shall establish a Center for Information Analysis and Response to:
- lead and coordinate the collection and analysis of information on foreign government information warfare efforts;
- establish a framework for the integration of critical data and analysis on foreign propaganda and disinformation efforts into the development of national strategy; and develop and synchronize government initiatives to expose and counter foreign information operations directed against U.S. national security interests and advance fact-based narratives that support U.S. allies and interests.
Also, the Act highlights that, when selecting participants for U.S. educational and cultural exchange programs, special consideration shall be given to students and community leaders from populations and countries deemed vulnerable to foreign propaganda and disinformation campaigns. As in NATO’s own statement, “There is no single solution to disinformation. NATO cannot act alone. From international organizations and national and local governments, to private companies, civil society and a free and independent media, all actors – including NATO – have a part to play.”
“NATO’s approach to countering disinformation: a focus on COVID-19,” July 17, 2020. Available at
Betsy Woodruff Swan, “State report: Russian, Chinese and Iranian disinformation narratives echo one another,” Politico, April 21, 2020. Available at https://www.politico.com/news/2020/04/21/russia-china-iran-disinformation-coronavirus-state-department-193107
Joshua Kurlantzick, “How China Ramped Up Disinformation Efforts During the Pandemic,” Council on Foreign Relations, September 10, 2020. Available at https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/how-china-ramped-
Hamid Akin Unver, “Russian Disinformation Ecosystem in Turkey,” EDAM Reports, March 8, 2019.
Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3534770
Simon Kemp, “Digital in 2018: World’s Internet Users Pass the 4 Billion Mark,” We are Social, January 30, 2018. Available at https://wearesocial.com/blog/2018/01/global-digital-report-2018
Mustafa Aydin, “Türk Dış Politikası Kamuoyu Algıları Araştırması,” Kadir Has University, June 17, 2020. Available at https://www.khas.edu.tr/sites/khas.edu.tr/files/inline-files/DPA2020_BASIN%5B1%5D.pdf
Katherine Costello, “Russia’s Use of Media and Information Operations in Turkey: Implications for the United States,” RAND Corporation, 2018. Available at https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/perspectives/PE200/PE278/RAND_PE278.pdf
Barcin Yinanc, Poor Media Literacy ‘making Turks Vulnerable to Fake News’ (December 10, 2018). Hürriyet Daily News, 2018, Available at http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/poor-media-literacy-making-turks-vulnerable-to-fake-news-139582