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The case for information defence
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Legatum Institute

The case for information defence

Ben Nimmo

A Pre-Emptive Strategy for Dealing with the New Disinformation Wars 

The Kremlin's disinformation campaign during the seizure of Crimea is unique in recent history in that it was deliberately exposed as a lie by the Kremlin itself. 

On March 4, 2014, President Vladimir Putin gave a press conference in which he insisted that the "only thing" Russia had done during the seizure of Crimean government buildings by unidentified gunmen was "to enhance the defence of our military facilities". When asked outright whether the forces involved were Russians, he insisted that "those were local self-defence units".1 But a year later, he openly, indeed proudly, announced in a documentary on the annexation that he had led it himself.2

Why did he admit that he had lied? 

This author believes that he did so because the lie had served its purpose. Crimea had fallen without a shot being fired, the annexation had been an enormous popular success in Russia, and it was more important for Putin to capitalise on that popularity at a time when Russian losses in Eastern Ukraine were mounting than it was to defend his own credibility in foreign eyes. 

Putin's willingness to expose his own dishonesty shows one of the key features of modern disinformation campaigns: they are not intended to last forever, but for long enough to achieve a specific effect. The effect of Putin's lie was to help obscure the presence of regular Russian soldiers in Crimea for the critical period during which they prepared the pseudo-referendum on the annexation. Once that purpose was served, the lie could be abandoned. 

The Kremlin's approach capitalises on developments in technology. Putin's denial of March 4, 2014 was reported within hours by outlets including the BBC, the Washington Post, Al Arabiya, the New Zealand Herald, and Australian news website Thus his lie literally went around the world long before there was a chance to establish the truth. 

Modern disinformation consists of lying at the speed of light. And it is not only the Kremlin that has picked up on this. ISIL is using the Internet to radicalise Western citizens; China has made disinformation one of the pillars of its Three Warfares; outlets such as Iran's Press TV and Venezuelan-led TeleSur broadcast anti-Western messages to a global audience. Meanwhile in the West itself we see disinformation spreading virally, whether it is tales about President Obama being a secret Muslim or conspiracy theories about 9/11. 

Disinformation campaigns have seriously undermined the concept of information as an objective and provable set of facts, eroding public trust in all media and all sources.3 As Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss describe Russian information warfare, "The Kremlin exploits the idea of freedom of information to inject disinformation into society. The effect is not to persuade (as in classic public diplomacy) or earn credibility but to sow confusion via conspiracy theories and proliferate falsehoods."4 The Kremlin is not alone.

Dispelling the fog: Information Defence

The chorus of voices demanding a response from democratic governments has grown to a Verdiesque fortissimo. Some insist that we fight fire with fire, demanding a "reawakening of our lost skills for propaganda".5 Others argue that liberal democracies should respond "less with a focus on countering Russian propaganda than on building attractive alternatives".6

The US recently added a dedicated counter-ISIL cell to its Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications;7 while since the start of the Ukraine crisis, NATO has published a series of fact sheets rebutting key Russian myths in detail.8 But how effective can these initiatives be when the other side is simply trying to muddy the water? After all, you can't out-debate an opponent who doesn't even take his own argument seriously, but is simply trying to confuse, distract, and delay. 

Responding to disinformation is not enough. Given the speed at which disinformation can spread through the Internet and achieve its desired effect, a responsive campaign is a losing campaign. 

In order to deal with the new challenges, I propose the concept of "information defence", sponsoring the creation of a pool of knowledge and independent experts so that the next time a lie is broadcast, it can be challenged before it has time to spread too far. The conceptual approach to adopt is not one of countering propaganda, but defending the ability of accurate information to circulate freely in the same time frame as disinformation. Crucially, this approach would be pre-emptive rather than reactive; it would focus on the defence of information sources rather than 'messaging', 'propaganda', or 'information warfare'. In effect, information defence is about enabling credible sources to find out and report what actually happened quickly enough that they can challenge the disinformation as it spreads. 

But who should be responsible for creating and upholding information defence? Is it a job for government, as was so often the case in the twentieth century? Can private media take up the slack, or are they too distracted by cutbacks and clickbait to focus on information-gathering? What could be the role of NGOs? I propose combining all three in a new information model that guarantees government support and editorial independence. 

An Information Defence model

In the current public climate, governments and elected officials are not viewed as reliable sources of information. However, other commentators are: according to the 2015 Trust Barometer survey published by PR firm Edelman, academics and NGOs still enjoy strong levels of trust, with faith in academics reaching 70 percent-the most trusted category recorded. Trust in the media has declined, but remains just above 50 percent overall.9 Governments should therefore focus on supporting the work of such credible commentators, rather than seeking to engage in information conflict themselves. In the words of Jane Harman, president of the Woodrow Wilson Center: 

The kind of kids swayed by Dabiq, the Islamic State's glossy magazine, are not the kind of kids open to the input of the State Department. Recruitment is happening on platforms where the US government has less than zero cultural capital ... The government still has skin in the game-dollars and cents, and, more important, convening power and information-sharing-that can make these public-private partnerships work. But it needs to lead from behind.10

In three areas, governmental action should be indirect and limited to providing hands-off funding:

  • supporting journalism;
  • supporting analysts;
  • supporting NGOs. 

In three other areas, governments should play a more direct role:

  • rebuilding foreign-language, public-service broadcasting;
  • monitoring social media and propaganda broadcasting;
  • providing satellite imagery. 

Supporting journalism

Governments and intergovernmental organisations or groupings such as the EU, NATO, Visegrád Four, and Nordic-Baltic Six should sponsor exchange programmes between journalists from areas vulnerable to crisis and disinformation and their colleagues in Western mainstream media outlets. Journalists from vulnerable areas should be awarded internships in Western editorial offices, while Western journalists should be funded to conduct study and reporting tours in vulnerable areas. 

Such vulnerable areas include areas of North Africa and the Middle East exposed to extremist radicalisation or attack; NATO and EU member states and partners bordering Russia; and the littoral states of the South China Sea. According to Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index 2015,11 these include some of the most restricted media markets in the world. 

The Western outlets should be respected organisations with a track record of reliable reporting: broadcasters such as the BBC, NPR, and Deutsche Welle; newspapers such as the New York Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine, and Le Monde; and wires such as Reuters, Bloomberg, the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, and Deutsche Presse-Agentur. 

The programmes should be established in such a way as to guarantee the safety and editorial independence of Western journalists visiting the vulnerable areas. It is vital to allow them to report what they like, how they like, when they like. 

The benefits would be threefold: 

  • journalists from vulnerable areas would be exposed to the editorial standards and practices of major Western outlets;   
  • journalists from Western outlets would gain a working knowledge of vulnerable areas, the issues facing them, and the personalities involved;
  • editors in the West would build up a contact list of former interns working in potential flash point areas.

If a crisis involving the use of disinformation were to break out in a vulnerable area, news editors would be able to call on their former interns on the ground, and their own journalists who had recently been there, from day one of the crisis. This would give them the best chance of obtaining and broadcasting accurate, independent information in real time-breaking attempts by hostile forces to establish a monopoly on information and pre-empting attempts at disinformation.

Supporting analysts

In a similar vein, governments should sponsor exchanges between think-tanks and universities in the liberal democracies and vulnerable areas; they should also fund studies on specific aspects of their vulnerability to external threats. The risks addressed by such studies could include ISIL penetration in the Middle East; hybrid warfare in the Baltic States; and legal and economic pressure around the South China Sea. 

The one condition attached to such sponsorship should be that the exchanges and study visits be followed by the publication of a report on the risks analysed. Sponsorship would have to be structured so as to guarantee full editorial independence; however, the sponsoring government could amplify the articles published to maximise their effect. 

If a crisis involving the use of disinformation were then to erupt, officials and media would be able to call on experts with personal experience of, and contacts in, the affected area, right from the outset. Ideally, such experts would be able to expose disinformation for what it is as it emerges, based on their own knowledge, experience, and contacts. The effect, once again, would be to minimise the unchallenged spread of disinformation in the earliest and most crucial hours of a crisis. 

Supporting NGOs

The third component of this hands-off support should be to sponsor exchanges with crisis-response and humanitarian NGOs in vulnerable areas. Health, medicine, disaster relief, and food NGOs could all be considered.12 This would allow the exchange of best practices and of information about the situation on the ground. It would expose local NGOs to international working standards and allow international NGOs to build up a network of local contacts in vulnerable areas. 

In times of crisis, this would give the NGOs direct access to sources on the ground, accelerating their ability to find out the facts and take the necessary decisions. It would also contribute to the early spread of reliable information, because NGOs are regularly called upon by media to give their assessment of the situation. As such, improving their access to information on the ground would also improve the overall pool of information, without compromising their independence. 

Rebuilding broadcasting

In the long term, to challenge the information monopoly of states such as Russia and China over their own populations, democratic governments will have to invest in generating attractive alternative programmes: "innovative content strategies and formats including cutting-edge documentary and satire".13 However, creating such 'content factories' will inevitably be a long- term effort. In the shorter term, the authorities can and should boost foreign-language public broadcasting in the West, such as the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Voice of America. 

Such broadcasting has been, quite simply, sliced too thin. The BBC World Service broadcasts in 32 languages on an annual budget of just over $378 million.14 Voice of America broadcasts programmes in 45 languages for just over $200 million.15 RT, by comparison, runs just six language services, but it had a reported budget of 11.87 billion roubles in 2014 (over $300 million by 2014 rates), and those six languages are English, French, Russian, German, Spanish, and Arabic, with a combined native-speaking population of some 1.5 billion. 

There is an urgent and vital need to reverse this situation, focusing on the languages of communities especially targeted by those who practise disinformation, such as Russian-speakers in Europe and Russia, Muslim communities in Europe, Spanish-speakers in parts of Latin America, and the far-right and far-left communities in Europe. However, closing down apparently 'unnecessary' language services and transferring the funding to more 'useful' tongues would be short-sighted-as was shown by the BBC's 2011 decision to stop radio broadcasting in Russian and Ukrainian as a result of budget cuts. Instead, governments should bite the bullet, reach for their wallets, and provide more funding to support extra content and reporting in key target languages. 

Boosting existing broadcasters, rather than establishing new ones, would both lower the overall cost of the initiative and make use of their existing brand credibility. The funding should be made available in such a way that there is a clear firewall between government funding and editorial decision-making-the kind of separation that existed between the BBC World Service and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office until FCO funding was ended in 2014. 

Such an initiative would give vulnerable communities improved access to independent information sources, eroding the information monopoly of states such as China, Iran, Venezuela, and Russia and of groups such as ISIL. It would also give the broadcasters themselves a greater pool of in-house experts to consult in the event of a disinformation crisis, since anchors in their flagship language would be able to refer to reporters from their foreign-language services to get the latest news and analysis. 

Monitoring social media

Extremist groups such as ISIL specialise in using social media to radicalise potential recruits. Social- media posts by Russian soldiers have become one of the main sources of evidence for the presence of those troops in Ukraine. Websites such as StopFake16 and Bellingcat17 have proved immensely effective in debunking the myth of Russian non-involvement in Ukraine's conflict; they have also sparked compelling follow-up investigative journalism,18 which has proved the Russian presence beyond any reasonable doubt. 

At the same time, the proliferation of web-based media and pseudo-media has led to an unprecedented fragmentation of news. The first challenge facing those concerned with propaganda and radicalisation is simply to track the dizzying number of outlets peddling their version of events to willing or interested viewers. In terms of response, meanwhile, it is simply not enough to focus on the traditional, mainstream media; all available media must be used, and the message must be tailored to the needs of each. 

For all these reasons, governments should invest far more substantially in social-media and Internet-based monitoring and engagement. In non-crisis periods, this monitoring could be used to provide early warning of radicalisation efforts and trends, and, potentially, to engage in debate- although as Jane Harman noted on the question of counter-radicalisation, "We need to be very aware that our soft power is limited in these spaces." In times of crisis, effort could be switched to looking for early evidence of intervention by state or non-state actors in vulnerable areas. This kind of activity could be most effectively organised by governments, as private-sector actors are unlikely to have the funding required to set up a full-scale monitoring organisation. 

Such government programmes would inevitably face accusations of bias and distortion from their opponents. The monitoring units should therefore adopt, and make public, a standard working practice to deal with the evidence they encounter, if it is decided to publish it. Such evidence should first be recorded as a screenshot and then released to the media under embargo, in the form of the original web-link, a screenshot, and (where needed) a courtesy translation. This would allow editors to verify for themselves that the content exists where the monitors say it does, before it can be taken down by the authorities in the country in question. In effect, the approach would be "they spotted it, we checked it"-a far more credible message than "government monitors say". 

Supporting the provision of satellite imagery

Satellite imagery from private-sector suppliers has been a critical tool in providing accurate information on events in both Asia and Europe. For example, the Center for Strategic and International Studies has launched an Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative providing satellite imagery of China's island-building in the South China Sea;19 and the Atlantic Council has used Google Earth satellite imagery to show areas on the Ukrainian border which were fields a year ago and which are now Russian military camps.20 Such studies are a priceless resource. 

However, this resource would be most useful in countering a fast-moving and time-limited disinformation campaign if (a) it was established before the crisis began, and (b) the images were updated regularly and frequently-at least weekly. If these conditions were met, any large troop movements or construction activities on the ground (or water) could be revealed publicly at the time of their occurrence, rather than weeks later. This would make it far easier to expose disinformation at an early stage. 

The cost of generating sufficiently frequent coverage of at-risk areas is likely to be too great for private concerns. Governments should therefore find a way to support such initiatives. Given their concerns over the release of classified information, the most realistic approach would be to set up a partnership with non-governmental investigative projects and commercial providers of satellite imagery, in which governments could both provide funding and request footage of areas of special concern, without being involved in the dissemination of imagery. 

To guarantee credibility and transparency, images should be posted, unedited, in an online archive accessible to the general public at any time. In a crisis, this would allow media and experts to scan back through the archive of photos of a given area and look for any indications of external intervention while the crisis is still unfolding, rather than days or weeks later. While costly, the effect would be to give the public an intelligence capability hitherto reserved for governments, making it easier to identify hybrid attacks while they are developing and thereby making denial much more difficult. 


The information age has made it much easier to spread disinformation, and much harder to counter it fast enough to make a difference on the ground. Reacting to such disinformation will never be enough; what is needed is pre-emptive information, so that false stories can be disproved as soon as they emerge. Governments cannot credibly provide such information themselves, but they should support organisations that can.

The idea is not to counter disinformation but to defend credible sources of information, so that they can do their job faster and more effectively: information defence.

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