Ukraine Crisis Media Center, Kyiv, 29 January 2016
Mr. Dmytro KULEBA
Ambassador-at-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine
Good morning everyone,
Earlier this month, I decided to go on a family holiday abroad. The day before my flight, I received a call from a relative who told me to take my military certificate with me. I asked for what reason this was necessary. She answered that, in the news, they said that border officers and custom services checked all the military certificates in order to prevent people who are subjected to mobilization from leaving Ukraine. I assured her that that was disinformation and a hoax. She said: “I am begging you please take your military certificate with you, it does not take too much space”. I decided to take my certificate in order to calm her. Of course no border officer asked me for my military certificate. This short story encapsulates the essence of disinformation.
Information and disinformation are relative concepts. What is information for one could be disinformation for another. The first rule is that disinformation will always find a buyer, it will always find an audience. The second rule is how to help people detect disinformation, ignore it and focus on information instead. Now, the nature of the information (or disinformation) is of little significance. The key element is the source. Distrust in official sources and in independent sources causes trust in media that manufactures disinformation. The success of Russia’s disinformation campaign largely rests on the fact that the targeted audience of this disinformation does not trust any other sources of information. How can we fight disinformation, then? First of all, we need to learn to discern it. Second, we must boost the trust of the audience in official sources of information. Our experience of the past one and a half years demonstrates that there is no alternative solution. If we do not build our own communication, if we do not provide a source of information which can be trusted, disinformation, like fungus, seizes more space and acquires bigger audiences.
When we started our active resistance to disinformation one and a half years ago, we felt like we were the only ones dealing with the problem. USA was the first one to join our ranks of counteraction and after a while, the EU allied with us. I reckon it is one of the key achievements in countering disinformation. Not because Ukraine is bad or weak, but because information has a trans-border quality and is broadcasted via hundreds of channels across the world, so it is impossible to neutralize Russia’s disinformation on our own. We went through a period when, in certain circles abroad, the idea that Russia should not be blamed for disinformation by fear of insulting and provoking them prevailed. We supported the argument that basically everything sharpens Russia’s reaction and insults them. But our opinion was not taken into account for a while. We are glad that this reasoning has now become obsolete.
You are all probably aware that, last autumn, the department of strategic communications was created by the EU. One of its first effective products was the investigation of the Russian disinformation campaigns. When we were raising the issue of disinformation it was one thing. We heard: “Yes, you are in a state of war so you exaggerate a little the level of threat”. But when the USA and the EU started expressing concerns over the issue, the discourse changed completely. Russian disinformation will not survive systematic attacks when they come from multiple sides, and not only from Ukraine’s.
Russia’s disinformation campaign contains several components and objectives. In Ukraine, Russia’s disinformation campaign delivers two main messages. First, it aims at undermining the trust Ukrainian have in their government. This is done by spreading ideas about the government’s impotence and that it is too weak to protect its citizens and that it will collapse soon. The second message aims at undermining people’s trust in Ukraine’s allies, by convincing the population that the allies do not need Ukraine, that they do not care about Kiev and they will never assist our country in anything.
I think that our partners did a lot for Ukraine and I am saying this not because I am a diplomat. They put a lot of efforts into helping Ukraine. However, Russia’s aggression goes on, and Ukraine, together with its partners, has to do even more in order to halt it.
In the West, Russia’s disinformation disseminates different signals. If in Ukraine it popularizes views that the state is weak, in the Western countries, it tries to convince citizens that their state is lying to them. The famous slogan of Russia Today “Question More” perpetually seeks to erode people’s confidence in their state’s institutions. The second message that Russia tries to popularize in the West is that Ukraine does not deserve its support.
In 2015, the ideas that Russia’s disinformation campaign had won prevailed; and when I tried to explain that it was not true, nobody believed me since I am a government representative, which makes me automatically not credible. But the fact is, Russia’s disinformation did not win and it will not win. Strategically, it will never win because we are aware of the disinformation campaign – and realization triggers solutions.
The last thing I want to say is that we have spent one and a half years proving to the world that Russia’s disinformation campaign exists and that it must be addressed. We dismantled the hoaxes it produced, we supported civil society institutes like StopFake and UCMC in order to disseminate the refutations of the fake information. We, however, forgot about a very important thing which is a lesson, a lesson to the world about what contemporary Ukraine is. We repeat how bad Russia is, but we did not communicate about how beautiful Ukraine is. It is very important because, after all, information if about content. Making the world understand that Russia is lying to everyone does not automatically bring about sympathy and positive attitude towards Ukraine. Thus, our new task, which we are currently working on, is the popularization of pro-Ukrainian content. I am glad that we are not alone in this mission and our Western partners help to generate and disseminate this content.
To conclude, there are three ways of countering disinformation. First, it must be clearly proven that an agent generates disinformation; second, we must ensure that our audience trusts the information we share; third, we must make sure that our own content will eclipse disinformation. I know that the Kremlin augments the budgets of its disinformation machines and I am happy about it, because increasing the budgets on disinformation signals that something is going awry and Russia is not content with the efficiency of its disinformation. Otherwise, why invest more money into something that works successfully? I am confident that we will win Russia’s disinformation war, and that we will do so through the synergy of three players – the Ukrainian government, civil society’s initiatives and our partners.