Friday, February 14, 2020

Nina Jankowicz Shares Insights on Democracy and Disinformation

Nina Jankowicz

At the February 13, 2020 Human Rights Workshop, Nina Jankowicz, a Disinformation Fellow at the Wilson Center, discussed the challenges democracies face in effectively addressing disinformation in the age of social media and fake news. Jankowicz has dealt extensively with disinformation through her work to understand and combat campaigns to spread false information in Eastern Europe.

Jankowicz described her entry into the study of propaganda and disinformation in 2013 when she began working for the National Democratic Institute, which, Jankowicz said, “supports democratic activists around the world.” In this role, she began working on the Institute’s Russia and Belarus programs, which support democratic activists. While Russia often accused the National Democratic Institute of having interfered in the Russian political process, Jankowicz recalled, she said that the organization was “open and transparent” about its goal of encouraging more active political participation.

Later, after the onset of Russian aggression in Ukraine, Jankowicz relocated to Ukraine in 2016 to advise the government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the strategic communications tactics they could use to undermine false information spread by Russia. 

Jankowicz wrote about her observations from this work in her forthcoming book How to Lose the Information War. The book details five case studies of Eastern European governments responding to Russian disinformation and cyberwarfare that threatened their democracies. Jankowicz highlighted three ways in which these Eastern European governments failed to mitigate the threat of disinformation. First, Jankowicz said, there needs to be a “human element to countering disinformation” — she contends that artificial intelligence will not be able to address it alone. Second, she stated that unless governments “recognize the threat of domestic disinformation,” they will not be equipped to “counter foreign disinformation attacks.” Third, Jankowicz explained that governments must be willing to look at “homegrown actors of disinformation,” such as closed Facebook groups.

At the Workshop, Jankowicz applied her analysis of disinformation in Eastern Europe to the United States. She argued that, especially since the 2016 presidential election, the U.S. has been wrongly focusing on “debunking and fact-checking” to combat disinformation. Jankowicz said that officials cannot “fact-check their way out of the [disinformation] crisis.” Instead, she said, they should be asking themselves: “are we reaching any of the people that are most susceptible to these [misleading or false] narratives in the first place?”

Jankowicz argued that the U.S. is “abdicating its responsibility as a leader in setting standards around regulation in social media and standards in democratic discourse and debate.” While the U.S. is relinquishing this role, Jankowicz emphasized, other nations are devising less democratic solutions. Given our “unique attachment to freedom of speech,” Jankowicz said, the U.S. must start leading other governments in the fight against disinformation.

Because many people are not aware of the threat disinformation poses to democracy, Jankowicz explained, the American government must begin by acknowledging its existence. Disinformation in the U.S., according to Jankowicz, begins with homegrown actors that build “community and trust” in social media groups. The problem escalates when a social media group asks its members to change their profile pictures, sign petitions, and participate in protests.

“I don’t want a government to have the ability to say what is true or false,” Jankowicz clarified, because “then we would be venturing into a scary authoritarian world.” Instead, she said, combatting dinformation demands that the government work to support in us becoming more active “consumers of information” and constituents in a democracy.

“Fact-check isn’t always the antidote,” Jankowicz said. “We need to connect with people on another level and fill the gap in their knowledge...maybe it’s a more responsive government that we need.”