Foreign disinformation campaigns have been successful in weakening public trust in democratic mechanisms, while bolstering feelings of anger and frustration among certain groups, but have little impact on voters’ decisions and electoral results, according to a presentation by US journalist James Geraghty in Vienna earlier this week.

A senior political correspondent for the National Review, Geraghty presented his research into the systematic dissemination of disinformation by the St. Petersburg-based the Internet Research Agency (IRA) in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. elections during an event.

The conversation on “Countering Foreign Disinformation in the Modern Media Landscape” was hosted by the Canadian and U.S. Missions to the OSCE and moderated by International Press Institute (IPI) Executive Director Barbara Trionfi.

Highlighting the strategies adopted by the IRA to spread disinformation among US audiences, Geraghty opined that these were successful in strengthening existing political positions among voters, rather than influencing undecided voters.

Reports presented to the US Senate in 2018 found that sowing division and “exacerbat[ing] discord against the government” appeared to be the primary goal of the IRA campaigns; however, they also noted that that a “substantial portion of political content articulated pro-Donald Trump sentiments” and “anti-Hillary Clinton sentiments”, according to a whitepaper by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

“[I]t was absolutely intended to reinforce tribalism, to polarize and divide, and to normalize points of view strategically advantageous to the Russian government on everything from social issues to political candidates. It was designed to exploit societal fractures, blur the lines between reality and fiction, erode our trust in media entities and the information environment, in government, in each other, and in democracy itself,” the Tow Center report concluded.

Geraghty noted that the challenge we see today is that the IRA’s model of foreign disinformation campaigns is being emulated in other countries, such as Iran, and that the quality of the messages disseminated, which up until now has been rather poor and easily detectable as inaccurate information by the majority of readers, may actually improve. According to the journalist, to combat this, journalists should employ rigorous fact-checking, source verification, and expose disinformation without being condescending to its believers.

The current push for a stricter regulatory framework to counter disinformation campaigns, as well as less protection for anonymity online is problematic from a press freedom perspective, Trionfi pointed out.

In reaction to disinformation campaigns disseminated on social media platforms, legislators around the world have been looking into the need to develop legislation aimed at countering the flow of doctored messages. The 2017 NetzDG law passed by Germany to combat disinformation and hate speech on social media has raised serious concerns about excessive removal of content by social media platforms, in an effort to preempt potential sanctions against them. Even more concerning are so-called “anti-fake news” laws passed in countries such as Singapore, Egypt or Russia, which give government agencies a de facto power to censor content they dislike.

Asked whether journalist safety has been impacted by the spread of disinformation, Geraghty agreed saying that was the case, as disinformation campaigns rely on maligning journalism as an untrustworthy force, which in turn leads to a hostile climate towards members of the press. Such is the case of many journalists, whose critical interviews with populist political leaders have resulted in massive online campaigns of intimidation.