On Monday the 15th May 2017, 11 students from the Euroculture Master’s degree at Uppsala University organised a half-day conference on the use and misuse of information in politics.
The first panel of the conference dealt with the EU-Russia relationship with a special focus on the so called “Russian threat”. Marek Neuman, an assistant professor at the University of Groningen, kicked off the session by introducing his latest research called “The Politics of Perception: Russian Perspectives on the European Union’s External Democratization in the East”. He stated that the lack of knowledge regarding the Russian perspective on the Eastern partnership motivated him to undertake this research project. Marek presented his main findings. The first finding was that Russian officials have expressed a highly hostile attitude towards the Eastern partnership. As Russia believed that the EU presented the Eastern European neighbor countries with a zero-sum game option: that these countries either choose integration with Europe or with Russia and that is why (among other reasons) it rejected participating in the EaP. The next observation was that there are two normative powers which conflict in the countries which participate in the Eastern partnership. It is noticed that Russia did not devote much attention to its normative force in the beginning, while on the other hand the Normative Power Europe notion was quite influential. The final finding was that Russia is starting to work on its normative communication by promoting its values abroad. As Marek explained, the conclusion of the research emphasized that perceptions have serious implications. Moreover, the clash of normative powers is present not just in the countries of the Eastern Partnership but also in some EU Member States.
After Marek finished his presentation, the participants had a chance to listen to the second presentation of the panel. Sebastian Åsberg, co-author of a report on Russian disinformation campaigns, presented his work on the report. He elaborated that we can notice some common elements of the Russian disinformation tactics. In Russian disinformation articles, Europe is depicted as being constantly in crisis. It is portrayed as an organisation in decline. Although this narrative stays the same, the topics which support it change: focus on the influx of refugees and terrorism, the economic crisis, etc. Moreover, outright fabrications do occur: the Malaysian Airlines case, the fake letter about the plot to install Carl Bildt as Prime Minister of Ukraine, etc. Sebastian explained that these tactics are quite cheap and that it is difficult to know whether and how much are they effective. What came up as a recommendation is that governments should strive to empower institutions and raise public awareness. Also the comprehension of the Russia’s foreign policy strategy and goals is vital.
During the moderated panel and Q&A session, some interesting points were raised and discussed. Among other things, the possibility of creating a counter narrative was evaluated as being a slippery slope to creating your own propaganda. But again it was stressed that education plays a significant role in creating public awareness about objective reporting and truthful news. One other point which was raised questioned the relationship between identity and foreign policy making. On the one hand it has been said that we should understand Russian foreign policy in the context of Russian identity formation. And on the other, as it was noted, the EU foreign policy is specific because it relies on certain core values which form the so-called EU normative basis. It was concluded that foreign policy formation has very much to do with internal identity formation. The participants were also interested about whether, and if so to what extent, are we as Europeans biased against Russia. The responses to this question were quite mixed. It was noted that there was a clear break after 2014 when aggressive Russian policy showed its face during the Ukraine crisis. In this sense the sometimes mentioned “Russophobia” stems from the actions which Russia takes in the international arena. But also it was observed that by seeing our values as universal we are biased against Russia. In this regard, it would be highly beneficial to try to better understand it and acknowledge its legitimate interests. To some extent this was also the goal of our first panel: “Russia’s Involvement in the European Media”.
The second panel of the conference, “Countering Misinformation in the “Post-Truth” society”, started with the presentation of the well-known Swedish journalist Jack Werner. The participants had the chance to hear about the current trends in world media and special focus was placed on the issue of “fake news”. Jack explained one side of the phenomenon in which certain stories may very well be fake, but their making and influence is quite real. In a sense he elaborated that these news and stories reflect feelings and sentiments which already exist within a society. In this regard, by looking at these fake subjective news and storytelling we could understand how these actors perceive the world around them. Right after Jack finished his presentation, Thomas Nygren, an associate professor of history and education at Uppsala University, delivered a presentation about Digital Civil Literacy. Thomas talked about the challenges in the age of social media and exemplified its good and bad sides, also explaining what the role of critical thinking is. He pointed out that it is crucial to examine the trustworthiness of every source. By adhering to the principles of Digital Civic Literacy, Thomas reminded the participants that it is important to find out who is behind the information, what is the evidence and what do other sources say about the information in question. The last presentation of the panel was delivered by an interaction designer and creative software developer Martin Törnros. Martin talked about “echo chambers” in today’s social media. He explained how social gathering in digital places reaffirms one’s own worldviews. Furthermore, he presented his website “Ekokammaren” which visualizes echo chambers in social media and presents examples of how various people’s news feeds might look on Facebook, and how it affects one’s political view.
Overall, it was a lively conference with plenty of interaction between our speakers and our participants, featuring lively debate and productive discussions that arose from the panels and interactive workshop. We’d like to thank all our excellent speakers for lending us their time and expertise, and thank our participants for engaging in the topic and the conference so wholeheartedly, making the event a useful forum and great opportunity to exchange ideas and debate issues regarding the fast-growing “War on Truth”.