In an interview published this week on bernardinai.lt, Vilnius University professor of Economics and Busines Administration Dr. Mangirdas Morkūnas spoke about the difference between disinformation and propaganda. Here is a summary of the interview.
According to Dr. Morkūnas, disinformation is a distortion of facts, while propaganda is the fabrication of facts. Disinformation is the conscious, methodical spread of misguided information, while propaganda is the use of false facts for a purpose. Propaganda is often accompanied by coercion.
Deliberate distribution of false information for some form of personal gain is as old as the world, says the professor, and was as popular in the Middle Ages as it is today. Victims of propaganda, disinformation and information wars in general are usually less-educated, lower-income, anti-social people of fairly primitive thinking. They often tend to be angry, disappointed and envious of others, quick to blame others or “the system”.
Understanding their mentality makes a disinformation campaign fairly simple to launch Such persons will easily accept disinformation as well as other “products” forced upon them, so they are easy prey for marketing specialists, whether they are selling folding chairs or a disinformation narrative.
Disinformation is mostly abstract, so that its recipients cannot test it and say they were lied to. If targets of disinformation can examine, measure, and check the facts, they will eventually have questions its distributor cannot answer. The target of disinformation is generally a narrow-minded person, who does not have the means or desire to socialize with others, to belong to a club or travel abroad. Disinformation can be a substitute for social contact, because humans are social beings and have the need to belong, to feel the strength of being part of a larger community.
Russia, experiencing increasing conflicts and more enemies, is dedicating substantial
resources to disinformation in the Baltic region. Why is this so important to Russia and what is its goal?
In Prof. Morkūnas’ opinion, the Baltics have been a continuous thorn in Russia’s side and a painful reminder that the Soviet Union was not an ideal system, and the Balts managed to escape from it to join Europe, NATO and the Western world. The second reason Russia cannot let go of the Baltics is their intellectual potential, which Russia has not been able to retain, and still needs.
Ultimately, Russia is aiming to recruit the greatest number of supporters, and is chipping away at Lithuania from within. He notes that there are quite a few people in Lithuania who are already poisoned by disinformation. Russia needs them to make noise and express discontent with the government and the system. In its attempts to quell these complaints, the government wastes time it would otherwise use to continue developing. Unfortunately, Western Europe and Brussels are aware of this internal “noise” and may begin to question whether the Baltic States are truly trustworthy – and worthy of investment, or might they turn back, as Hungary has? To Russia, the minutest sign of weakness is useful.
There are many scenarios that could allow Russia to succeed. For example, a malcontent hired to work in an energy plant could easily be made to press a button and shut down the electricity in an area of a city. Panic ensues, public transport comes to a standstill and the arrival of support is thwarted. Or a prison guard subjected to disinformation, releases a few hundred murderers…
Having researched Russian disinformation and its effect on the economy of the Baltics, Dr. Morkūnas delineates three trends. The first is limiting career possibilities. Lithuania has a social system in place, where even people from lower-income families can attain higher education, and eventually – well paying work. In Russia, there is still a system where connections and bribery are dominant, so that better practices seen in other post-Soviet countries are viewed in a negative light. The target of disinformation does not take responsibility for his or her lack of success, but blames the system. For example, a child who has trouble in school is not to blame, but it is the system that overburdens him or her with useless assignments, according to the disaffected parents. If such a child continues without using the “elevator” strategy of attainging success created by the government, Russia will continue to have a fertile field of targets for disinformation.
The second very clear direction of current disinformation is the allegedly corrupt justice system, provoking feelings of insecurity and injustice, which engender anger – and angry people are more easily affected.
The third disinformation trend is the threat of war, which increases fear, mistrust of NATO and Western partners, and promotes a submissive attitude, with negatively effect on potential investment in the country. It discourages active citizenship and taking on responsibility for one’s country.
NATO exercises and the presence of troops in Lithuania have been instrumental in countering this narrative, because facts speak louder than rumours. Professor Morkūnas is optimistic that there has been some improvement over the past 15 years, and disinformation is at a similar level as in Germany, which is a hopeful sign.