Watching a live broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual question session Yegor Aleyev/Getty Images

Learning from Russia’s Other Media War

With the global proliferation of fake news threatening democratic institutions, "media literacy" training is more important than ever. Gains made by consumers on the front lines of Russia’s propaganda war with Ukraine demonstrate that with practice, it is possible to navigate the fog of a post-truth world.

WASHINGTON, DC – Misinformation and propaganda have been around for as long as mass communication. What has changed is the speed and scale of the delivery. Social media platforms have intensified the spread of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories, threatening democratic institutions in frightening new ways. One only has to Google “Russia” and “Trump” to see the impact of so-called fake news on democracy. But the best way to fight disinformation may be to follow the example set by Ukraine, a country that has faced its own barrage of Russian-funded deceit.

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Around the world, people who believe that facts still matter are fighting back. US news organizations are fortifying their positions by emphasizing core journalistic practices such as source verification and fact checking. Independent verifiers and fact checkers have also become important resources for the public.

But as the line between news producer and consumer blurs, it is becoming increasingly difficult to navigate the swamp of misinformation. While a number of new initiatives – such as the News Literacy Project’s Checkology training courses, and Factitious, an online game that tests users’ ability to identify fake news – are trying to bolster the public’s filtering capacity, the impact has so far been limited. Owing to confirmation bias, exposure to concepts that conflict with ingrained beliefs may entrench assumptions, rather than leading us to revise them. And, in a media landscape where even politicians rely on data mining and neuroscience to craft messages based on voters’ state of mind, it is hard to separate truth from falsehood.

Against this background, training in “media literacy” – skills to help analyze and evaluate news – has become almost sexy. Media literacy programs have been around for decades in the US, focusing on issues like media bias and the impact of violence on children. But media literacy for today’s world means equipping people of all ages with the means to navigate an increasingly convoluted information ecosystem. And, as my organization’s recent experience in Ukraine demonstrates, formal training in media literacy may be the best means of winning the war on state-sponsored, politically motivated propaganda.

Russia’s propaganda war on Ukraine – a well funded, widely distributed, and highly sophisticated media drive meant to undermine the Ukrainian government’s legitimacy – has been ongoing for years. The Russian effort has been so aggressive that, in 2015, the Ukrainian government reportedly warned officials at Facebook and within the US government that a similar strategy could be used against the US.

Facebook appears to have dismissed that warning, but media development organizations like mine did not. In October 2015, experts from IREX – backed by funding from the Canadian government and the support of local Ukrainian organizations – launched a nine-month media literacy-training course called Learn to Discern (L2D). Through skills-based workshops and fake news awareness campaigns, we sought to equip citizens with tools to identify Russia’s fabricated stories. The results were encouraging.

Program participants reported gaining a deeper appreciation of what is needed to consume news wisely. For example, when we surveyed people at the beginning of the course, only 21% said that they “almost always” crosschecked the news they consume, a troubling rate for a country where trust in media is low but consumption is high. After the training, the percentage surged to 81%.

We also found that the program produced ripple effects: 91% of trainees shared the knowledge they received with an average of six people, such as family members and co-workers. An estimated 90,000 Ukrainians were reached indirectly.

The L2D training drew on principles developed in the US, but built the methodology from the ground up. Collaborating with Ukrainian experts, we incorporated actual media consumption, sharing, and production patterns into the course design. Most important, we imparted critical thinking skills, teaching participants how to select and process media, not what to consume.

L2D trainers worked across peer networks, building knowledge and skills on the basis of trusted relationships. Research shows that loyalty to social groups, plus shared identity and values, have an outsize influence on what we discern to be true.

Perhaps the program’s most innovative feature was its focus on teaching consumers how to detect emotional manipulation, and how to disengage from such information. In a country where emotions regarding Russian influence run high, this skill is essential. Long after L2D formally ended, trainers have continued running programs independently, reflecting growth in demand for their services. Surveys conducted this year indicate that trainees, too, remain engaged in combating the fake news phenomenon in their country.

Our experience in Ukraine demonstrates that a multi-layered approach, working at the levels of critical thinking, individual and group psychology, and social trust, provides a better defense against fake news than simple fact checking.

Clearly, more work must be done to boost healthy skepticism among news consumers and increase demand for factual information. But media literacy training, if organized with local needs in mind, can help. As disinformation amplifies threats to democracy, and the debate about how to defuse fake news intensifies, consumers can take comfort in knowing that with a little practice, it is possible to discern fact from well-concealed fiction.

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