The NATO alliance is dealing with a new perceived threat: disinformation. Steve Inskeep talks with Janis Sarts of the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence about countermeasures.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The people working on strategies against Russian disinformation include NATO. The North Atlantic Alliance was created to counter Russian power. And an office there is focused on Russian internet activity. France’s presidential campaign was only the latest that included stories of hacking. Emmanuel Macron won, even after his email was hacked and confidential communications released from his campaign. None of this surprised Janis Sarts, who heads the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga, Latvia.
JANIS SARTS: There are fake stories claiming that Macron is gay, he’s having a secret account in other countries where he’s hiding his real wealth. There’s been a rather classical but not really very crafty stories that would certainly appeal to a certain segment in the population.
INSKEEP: Do you assume that Russia is behind at least some of that activity that you’re observing?
SARTS: Well, there is the pattern that makes us assume there is a significant chance that Russian-related actors have been behind some of this.
INSKEEP: Now, when you are researching what’s happening across Europe, how widespread is Russian interference in, let’s say, Democratic debate across Europe?
SARTS: By and large, trying to influence through, like, robotic trolling, having a fake news site circulate and laundered the information – this is happening more or less all the time. In the three Baltics, that has been there for significant periods of time.
INSKEEP: The three Baltics – Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia.
SARTS: Yes, but not only those. Finland and Sweden are increasingly feeling the pressure. Czech Republic and Slovakia.
INSKEEP: So what is NATO’s role in fighting against this kind of disinformation?
SARTS: NATO’s role is very much confined only to sending battalions to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, which are being made target of the same kind of propaganda and disinformation, like the recent stories of German soldiers raping the teenage girl in Lithuania – fake story. We try to give the knowledge to the governments and probably from that understanding, some ideas which we say are best to counter these kinds of situations.
INSKEEP: Well, there we go. What are the ideas that are best to counter these kinds of situations?
SARTS: Well, actually three simple things – first, society has to be aware that there is a risk of such an operation where a third party will try to influence their opinions. And we’ve seen where this awareness is created, there’s an instant raising of their resilience. The second is the government and the media have to understand how it happens. And I would say that in France, the way press reacted to the hacked information very much shows what happens when media understands how it is functioning and how they can react.
INSKEEP: What did the French media do right in the situation of that hack in the last days of the election?
SARTS: I think they really didn’t jump on that information because, obviously for me, there was – something like that goes out, there is an instinct to be first, or you wait until, let’s say, a certain time where the authorities verify, is there a plausible element?
So understanding that role is, I think, crucial. And the last piece in my, I would say, broad strategy is, always reacting to disinformation doesn’t lead you to a success. You have to have your story or your narrative and only choose when you react to a fake story.
INSKEEP: Is it wise also to try to go on to the offensive to, for example, feed disinformation to those who create disinformation?
SARTS: No. I don’t believe in winning propaganda with propaganda because there is a risk. We kind of start to feed into their monster. The whole core element that we’re trying to protect is our value system. We are valuing fact; we’re valuing truth.
INSKEEP: Do you feel you’re winning?
SARTS: I think, by and large, the tide is turning. I think one of the critical things is increasingly being achieved, and that is awareness. Then there is a recognition for a need of action. And once we get there, I think both from the methodology, from the technology perspective, we are stronger.
INSKEEP: Janis Sarts heads the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence. Thanks very much.
SARTS: Thank you very much.
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