We need to get smarter about our sources of information, says Jakub Kalenský, specialist on Russian hybrid activities, disinformation campaigns and countermeasures against them.

Read in this interview:  

  • How countries on the EU’s eastern frontier (and further west) have underestimated the need for strategic communication 
  • How mental resilience can be built in central and eastern Europe 
  • Whether we would be better off without social media  

How do you imagine news about the attack on the Slovak prime minister was received in the Kremlin? 

Jakub Kalenský*: In the Kremlin, they usually follow the motto: the worse for them, the better for us. Regardless of the fact that perhaps Robert Fico is one of the people who helps their narratives to spread, I think they must be happy about the level of hysteria, polarisation, and violence that it brings. The more irrational and emotional the audience, the more fertile is the ground for disinformation or information operations. And events like this bring a lot of emotions. 

Is it too straightforward to link the spreading of hate to the hybrid war that Slovakia has been subjected to over the past decade? In other words, is it wrong to say that the attack on the prime minister is a consequence of the hybrid campaign directed at Slovakia? 

An event like this cannot be the result of only one factor. The US Capitol riots were obviously amplified by Russian operations, but we can't pin them down just to the Russian influence, can we? There were obviously internal American factors at play as well. And this is the same case. We obviously saw some Russian influence aiming at a higher polarisation, but we cannot blame it all just on them, because there are internal factors at play. Unfortunately, some of the internal factors are more or less aligned with Kremlin interests. Some people would say that we have internal problems and actors like Russia and China are only abusing them, so they are not to blame, we are to blame. I don't like this logic. It sounds like blaming the girl who got raped: she shouldn't have gone to that place, she was wrongly dressed. No, we want the girl to be able to dress however she likes, go wherever she likes. We want people to be able to be vulnerable, so we have to make sure that the external aggressors cannot abuse this characteristic of a free society. They are to blame, though we cannot say that they are 100-percent responsible for this. 

Have countries on the eastern frontier of the EU and NATO underestimated strategic communication? Do we even understand what it takes? 

I'm not sure we can put all these countries in one basket. Ukraine, which faces the most Russian aggression, both in the military sense but also in the information domain, was not prepared for what was coming in 2014. But when it comes to strategic communication, Ukraine in 2024 and Ukraine in 2014 are two completely different countries. Maybe there was underestimation at first – but can you even call it that, when there was a pro-Russian government and the civil service was infiltrated by Russian agents? Those guys did not want to counter Russian influence, did they? They were part of it. 

So Ukraine is a special case.  

Yes, and currently Ukraine is the leader in countering Russian influence activities. I don't think we would see a lot of underestimation in Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania, either. Their problem might be the resources, and that they are much smaller than the very big aggressor. Estonia is a country the size of Prague and, still, they are doing a good job. Also, their problems are different to the problems we are facing in Slovakia, the Czech Republic or Hungary. They have a very big Russian-speaking minority that lives in a completely different information universe, consuming Russian pseudo-media and believing completely ridiculous stories. 

What about the Visegrad Group countries?

We could have done more. Part of the problems we are facing might have occurred because we underestimated the situation. On the other hand, it would be too simplistic to say that our countries have done this wrong, because when I look further west, I don't see that it would be much better. 

Many western European countries thought that Russian disinformation is a problem only for Ukraine or maybe only for Eastern Partnership countries, or maybe only for the former Soviet-bloc countries, but definitely not for western Europe. But it is a pan-European problem.  

Russians are very skilful at trying to feed us the narratives that even if we are doing it, maybe it has no impact, so why even care? This is a copy-paste of what they were doing during the Cold War. And you see the same pattern repeating now, which is why I don't like people pinning it all on new technologies. Russians were doing exactly the same before social media and it still brought success. 

But compared to the West, the impact of their efforts is much stronger in central Europe. Were we unlucky because we hadn't had enough time to build our resilience after the fall of the totalitarian regime? Were western societies simply much more resilient to start with? 

There is definitely this factor at play. You can clearly see that disinformers have a harder time in those countries where the trust of the audience towards institutions is higher – Sweden, Finland, northern Europe generally. The level of trust in institutions is a big factor, and you can't achieve it just through strategic communication. You also need to strongly depoliticise the civil service. In Sweden, all the government agencies cannot fall under ministerial rule, including the office responsible for psychological defence. The minister can't tell them what to do. The government sets the course, but how to actually do this is up to the civil servants. This is also how you build trust, because people know that the civil service is not subject to political pressure. 

Unfortunately, we do not have that in the countries of the former Soviet bloc. On the other hand, we also have a big advantage compared to western Europe and that is the historical experience, so we can recognise some of the Russian operations sooner than they can. I'm afraid that in some western-European countries you would still see some level of naivety towards Russia, which is not what we would have – maybe not speaking about the general audience, but at least in the security apparatus. If the West listened to this experience, the problems we have now would be significantly smaller. 

Should mental resilience be part of the state’s strategic communication? How exactly could this be built in societies like the Czech Republic or Slovakia? Is it just about education? 

There is definitely the element of education. But this will bring results in decades, not in one year. If anybody tells you media literacy solves the whole problem, then they probably do not know what they're talking about. 

Even Finland, a country with the highest media literacy in the world, doesn't have zero problem with disinformation. So if you think media literacy is the solution, you're probably thinking of a level of media literacy that is still unknown to mankind. There also must be a certain quality of communication of the political elite, with politicians not trying to aggravate the differences or deepen the dividing lines. I don't see this responsibility towards the information space in central Europe.  

Another part is policy work on flattening the differences between various socio-economic groups. In countries with smaller differences between the capital and the countryside, between the younger generation and the older generation, between the higher educated and the less educated, you see that the problem with disinformation is smaller. Politicians trying to play on these dividing lines are making the problem worse. A more cohesive society is more resilient to information attacks. 

All these solutions work in the long run. If you had all governments listening to you right now and open to any solution, what are the immediate things you would tell them to do? 

I have a concept of four lines of defence based on years of collecting all the various countermeasures around countries on and beyond the eastern frontline. I have found four groups of countermeasures. 

First is detecting and documenting what is happening in the information space. Imagine if you had to solve the Covid pandemic without knowing how many people had the virus, how many people have been vaccinated, how many people have died. Unfortunately, this is where we stand with disinformation. Projects like EUvsDisinfo, Digital Forensic Research Lab, the EDMO task force do their monitoring, as do local actors like Konspiratori.sk in Slovakia. We have the documentation of the content more or less covered, but we have not covered very well the quantitative aspect. How many disinformation channels are there? How many messages per day do they spread? How many people do they target? How many people do they reach? How many people do they persuade? Are these numbers growing or are they decreasing? It is alarming that we do not have these numbers. How can you design solutions for the information space if you don't even know its qualities? I fear that so far, the Kremlin knows our audiences better than we do. 

What comes after the documentation of the problem? 

The second line is raising awareness about it. We need to acknowledge and accept the fact that audiences are significantly more fragmented than they were 15-20 years ago. We can't hope that the government will reach 90 percent of the audience. We can't hope that the mainstream media will do that. Disinformers adapted to this much better than we have; they have many different channels for different audiences. They know that even a channel that reaches 12 people a day has its value. The old KGB masters likened the effect of disinformation to water dripping on a stone. It makes a difference because it's persistent. So they have thousands of drops falling on the same spot. This is a mechanism we need to mimic as well: the media, the government, civil society, researchers. But also, let's learn from Ukraine and look for innovative solutions like engaging celebrities, stand-up comedians, gamer communities. In Ukraine, they are helping to raise awareness in their specific audiences. 

The third line is about trying to repair, mitigate and prevent weaknesses in the information ecosystem. This is where long-term solutions come in: media literacy, the socio-economic cohesion of society, the level of polarisation. The pressure on social media companies would belong to this part of repairing the weaknesses, because it is a weakness that often gets exploited.  

What is the role of traditional media in this process? 

If we have weak media, then we have a problem. I used to be a journalist and I remember in the financial crisis in 2008, the media had to cut foreign correspondents and regional correspondents. Foreign correspondents are the most expensive and regional correspondents have the smallest audience. It's easiest to have just the guys in the capital. But these are precisely the gaps that the disinformation ecosystem is filling. They provide you with a lot of content on foreign policy, though it's just lies and disinformation. There are many hyper-localised disinformation websites across Europe targeting a very specific community – one city, for example. They give you hyperlocal news, and add some disinformation flavour about Ukrainian fascists, migrants overtaking Europe and so on. 

What about the last line of defence? 

The first three lines are about us as victims of disinformation aggression. The fourth line is actually trying to do something about the information aggressor: limiting them, punishing them, deterring them, imposing costs on them, making their lives harder. I'm happy to see that after 2022 more sanctions have been introduced, although I still fear it's not enough. And I'm very sad that it had to come to these horrible war crimes in Ukraine for us to acknowledge that something like this is an acceptable solution. 

We also need proper investigation of Russian activities. Sadly, the US 2016 election is so far the only election interference that has been properly investigated. How can we punish those who are involved in these operations if we do not even investigate it? It's an impossible task. Even in my home country, the Czech Republic, we have seen at least two elections that were very suspicious and where Russian influence was probably not insignificant. But we still don't know how big it was because we have not investigated it.  

Demonetisation is another tool. Russian sources receive hundreds of millions, maybe billions of dollars in advertising income from western companies. How come we have not stopped this? Vladimir Lenin said "capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them". It's exactly what we have been doing.  

It's also about denying access to bad actors. We don't have to invite the Russian ambassador to present another side of the story. When you mix water and poison, it's still a poisonous product. You should tell the audience what is the truth and what is false. That's the role of the journalist. 

I was flabbergasted to see the headlines after that Tucker Carlson interview with Putin [broadcast in early February 2024 – Ed.], when he said he would not attack the Baltic states or Poland. This is the guy who said he would not attack Ukraine and the media are quoting him as a reliable source. 

But it's also about social media. Freedom of speech does not mean that anyone must have the privilege to be accepted on every single platform. The Czech EU commissioner Vera Jourová often says that freedom of speech doesn't equal freedom of reach. I have the right to say some things but it does not mean that I have the right to appear on mainstream media or every single social media platform and reach millions of people.  

You said that you wouldn't blame everything on social media. I sometimes hear people sigh that we would be better off without these networks. Would we?

I recently re-read the novel 1984. Do you recall the tool that George Orwell considered to be the key to control the whole of society? In the view of the party, it was television. There were people who thought that radio was completely destroying society because it could reach incredible numbers of people. For Hitler, it was a key instrument to reaching all of German society. People were scared about the daily press that they feared would completely destroy society. I have even heard people blaming the printing press for the Thirty Years’ War. Every communication revolution brings fears that the new tool will completely destroy society, yet we have always survived. However, during the first days of the press, horrible things were published, without any regard for truth or facts. And we had to create some rules for this. The problem is that we still do not have the rules in place for social media. When people first started buying cars, I guess there was a period where there were no traffic rules. And you would probably have a lot of people killed on the streets. Then it occurred to people that it would be a good idea to have traffic rules. And I guess we are in this situation now. We need traffic rules for social media. I'm frustrated that it is taking so long. I have to admit that I have a problem understanding when social media networks claim they can't be held responsible for everything that's published. Well, that's a problem you created, right? So maybe you should solve it. 

Who should create these rules? Around the western world, politicians actually get into power with the help of social media. 

That’s a good point and it brings us back to the conversation about a strong, reliable, depoliticised civil service that will be able to do reasonable things regardless of who is currently in power. If you want to explain to people why they should care about their own institutions, maybe this is one of the reasons, so that politicians who hijacked a particular channel, a particular platform would not be able to abuse it for their own purposes. We are lucky to have the EU. The pressure on social media companies comes from Brussels. My colleagues from across the Atlantic are often quite envious that we have the Code of Practice on Disinformation and the Digital Services Act. 

We should also embrace and cherish the role of the traditional media and civil society, so it really shouldn't be just that the politician who gets into power hijacks all the power in the country. We need a system of checks and balances. Not just the opposition, but also the media and civil society should be shaping the information environment. And obviously it's a problem if you have a politician strong enough to hijack all the power. Unfortunately, it's not unheard of. 

 What can individual social media users do?  

I try to follow only reliable sources and avoid spreading narratives from sources that I cannot rely on, even if the narratives are to my liking. Don't take your news just from social media. If it's a reliable journalist from The Washington Post or CNN, then it's okay because these people are bound by professional standards. But an account called "True American 1234" is probably not the most reliable source. If you really want to be sure, you should crosscheck what you see on social media with what traditional media are doing. The problem is, how do you use social media? I am using it to acquire some information, but there are people who actually spend their free time on social media. Why would I do that? If it's a tool for you to find recipes, go ahead, but don't take social media as a source of information. If you want to look at cute kittens or fast cars, do it, but don't take social media as a source of information. 

The shortest answer would be: Don't get consumed by this environment.

There is a lot of pessimism and a general sense of discontent in our societies. How is this affecting people, and society’s resilience and ability to act sensibly in the face of disinformation and hybrid threats?

I do notice this level of pessimism and it's not helpful. Where in our region can we find inspiration from a society that is solving serious problems in the information space without much contribution from the government? Ukraine provides a lot of inspiration. Ukrainians’ response to the threat in the information space in 2014 didn't come from the government, it came from civil society. It is possible, even in a country that faces such a level of aggression from a far more powerful enemy. If the government isn't helping, we need more resources in civil society and more solid media working on this problem as well. We need to be better coalition-builders. Often, even people working on the same side of the barricade have personal grievances. Ukrainians also had these mini-grievances, but they have understood that in the grand scheme of things, we all have to unite to fight a bigger threat. Maybe this is the level of understanding that we still lack. 

*Jakub Kalenský is a Czech specialist on Russian hybrid activities, disinformation campaigns and countermeasures against them. He currently serves as the deputy director of the Hybrid Influence COI (Community of Interest), a department of the Hybrid Centre of Excellence, an organisation funded by EU and NATO member states that focuses on safeguarding democratic processes. In 2015 he created the East StratCom Task Force in the European Union’s diplomatic service, and co-founded the EUvsDisinfo campaign.  


This article was written in the framework of The Eastern Frontier Initiative (TEFI) project. TEFI is a collaboration of independent publishers from Central and Eastern Europe, to foster common thinking and cooperation on European security issues in the region. The project aims to promote knowledge sharing in the European press and contribute to a more resilient European democracy.

Members of the consortium are 444 (Hungary), Gazeta Wyborcza (Poland), SME (Slovakia), PressOne (Romania), and Bellingcat (The Netherlands).

The TEFI project is co-financed by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.