By Miriam Lexmann
Public opinion data is crucial to understanding how and why disinformation is gaining ground. A recent series of public opinion surveys by the International Republican Institute (IRI) of the Visegrad Four (V4) countries and Germany revealed fascinating insights into areas of vulnerability and resilience to Russian disinformation. The polls were commissioned by IRI’s Beacon Project, an initiative that equips European stakeholders with the tools to counter Russian meddling and protect European democracy from the corrosive effects of disinformation.
More than 4,000 respondents from the V4 responded to questions including their views on Russia, the European Union and Euro-Atlantic institutions. The research also studied citizens’ attitudes toward media and revealed interesting correlations between public trust in media and patterns of consumption— hinting at why alternative media may have an outsized effect in some countries and segments of the population. On this point, the results of the V4 polls differed significantly from the survey of German public opinion, the latter of which appeared more resistant to disinformation.
According to the polls, citizens of V4 countries have limited trust in mainstream media outlets. It is true that significant minorities say their media is “professional and unbiased” (ranging from 27% in Poland to 38% in Slovakia), and a larger share says the media “tries to be unbiased” but that their biases affect their coverage (ranging from 36% in Poland to 46% in Czech Republic). But roughly 25% of respondents believe the media is totally biased—a sentiment which appears to correlate with negative views of the country’s trajectory. Respondents who felt that the media is “biased” are much more likely to say the country is on the wrong track or that young people do not have a good future in the country. While such a correlation does not in itself indicate a susceptibility to disinformation, it does suggest a potentially vulnerable target.
The polls also reveal interesting insights into the manner in which non-mainstream or “alternative” media spreads and becomes influential. When respondents were asked how they learn about major news stories and who they trust to inform them about what is going on, a significant proportion reported that they relied on “friends and family” for their news rather than to traditional media (27% in Poland; 36% in the Czech Republic; and a shocking 45% in Slovakia) – heightening the risk that people are consuming inaccurate information filtered by the biases of their social network. A sizeable minority also report reading alternative media (from 21% in Hungary to 30% in the Czech Republic) because it is more “fun and exciting” than traditional stories.
Thus, social media is likely to transmit the most “entertaining” news rather than the most accurate news, and deliver that news to “friends and family” who are likely to trust the source more than they do mainstream media. Here is one explanation why alternative media messages “stick” better than some higher quality, fact-checked stories.
In contrast to the V4, Germans expressed far greater trust in mainstream media sources. 44% of Germans believe the media is “unbiased” and only 19% believe it is biased. Germans also turn to state media for their news at a much higher rate than residents of the V4 (57% in Germany compared to around one-third in the V4 countries), and fewer Germans consume alternative media (just 25% of Germans compared to between 39% and 55% of V4 citizens), and only 16% of the few Germans who read alternative media do so because it is “fun”, entertaining or sensational. Additionally, only 11% of Germans report consuming news from social media (as opposed to a quarter of V4 respondents).
The results of the V4 polls certainly raise questions about the vulnerabilities to disinformation in these societies, and reinforce a fear that this will stoke a rise of extremist sentiments and some fear that this will stoke extremist sentiments that play into the Kremlin’s hands. In designing appropriate policy and civic responses to these challenges, it would be unwise to blame those who are victims of long-term and very well-targeted disinformation efforts and those whose concerns and fears are not being addressed by the mainstream political leaders. Both foreign and domestic actors have been using disinformation to erode the still fragile democratic structures in post-communist states for at least a decade. Such tactics—designed to exacerbate divisions and weaken democratic structures and alliances—are a longstanding component of the Kremlin’s tradecraft, dating to the earliest days of the Soviet Union. Yet this challenge did not begin to receive the attention it deserves from either the EU or the wider international community until relatively recently.
Any effective response to these complex phenomena—many of which share similarities across countries but have different triggers depending on individual circumstances—must be informed by targeted research that identifies vulnerabilities, tactics and sources of resilience to disinformation. In 1971, Zygmunt Nagorski observed that “Frustration and doubts are the prime targets for Soviet propaganda, and simplification is their instrument.” The same is true for Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin; it has always been the nucleus for any totalitarian regime in the country. It is vital that politicians understand the frustrations and fears of their voters and craft policies that take these views on board, as disinformation thrives when populations feel disaffected and disconnected from their political representatives.
Miriam Lexmann is a former Slovak diplomat and currently the EU Program Director for the International Republican Institute, where she oversees the Institute’s Beacon Project – an initiative dedicated to documenting, analysing and combatting disinformation and Russian soft-power and their erosive impacts on European democracies.