In February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine in a bid to gain political and territorial control of the country. As Russian troops mobilized on the ground, Russian media mobilized on the airways. To garner support for the invasion, Kremlin-tied news channels broadcasted blatant lies – that Russian soldiers were liberating civilians of Ukraine from a government of neo-Nazis, that Ukraine is housing U.S.-backed “biolabs” to create biological weapons to use against Russia, and that the Ukrainian political system operates under “foreign management” with no independent judiciary, among other falsehoods. Months later, both Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its disinformation campaign at home continue.
Russia’s media campaign during its invasion of Ukraine exemplifies the dangers of disinformation as the Kremlin seeks to garner support, obfuscate its military actions, and send a message to NATO: tread lightly in the former Eastern Bloc. In Hungary, Poland, and Estonia, various national actors have worked to counteract disinformation. However, little research has sought to quantitatively determine the resilience or vulnerability of these countries to disinformation.
Three Eastern European countries are the focus of the following report: Hungary, Poland, and Estonia. We seek to evaluate the disinformation resiliency of linguistic populations in these countries to recommend urgent policy solutions for combating disinformation vulnerabilities among their respective populations. Studying the local contexts of these countries offers a comparison between two similar states – Hungary and Poland – against a leader in media literacy, Estonia.
Hungary and Poland have similar information environments. First, democratic backsliding spurred by leaders in both countries led to the consolidation of media under state control or influence. Second, both states have similar internet usage rates amongst their populations, at 83% in Poland and 85% in Hungary. However, there are notable differences between the two countries. Compared to Hungary, Poland has a more robust and established network of fact-checking institutions. Moreover, the Polish population – from the government to civil society – takes a fervent anti-Russia stance while Hungary tolerates and even promotes pro-Kremlin narratives.
Meanwhile, Estonia’s information environment differs from Hungary and Poland. Following a history of influence and mis- and disinformation from Russia, the Estonian government took on a series of projects seeking the development of a robust and free media ecosystem in the country. These projects constitute part of e-Estonia, the government’s digital integration initiative. As a result, Estonia boasts a high internet usage rate for its population at 89%. But despite these promising developments, Estonia has a critical weakness that impacts its disinformation vulnerability: its ethnic Russian population. These citizens are often the target of Russian disinformation and many are linguistically and geographically isolated from the ethnic Estonian populations.
In this report, we use a multidisciplinary approach to evaluate the disinformation resilience of three linguistic populations in Eastern Europe. The following three sections of the report are detailed country profiles of Hungary, Poland, and Estonia. We begin each profile with a qualitative analysis of the factors at play in each country’s information environment, such as media literacy programs and press freedom. Then, in each profile we analyze interactions on Facebook posts containing disinformation to gauge the domestic spread of such content. After the three country profiles, we include a set of generalizable recommendations to improve disinformation resilience. Finally, we include our full methodology at the end of the report.
Authors: Aaraj Vij, Thomas Plant, Jeremy Swack, Alyssa Nekritz
Technical Disinformation Analysts: Sayyed Razmjo, Chas Rinne, Skyler Seets, Yile Xu, and Sean Zhou
Disinformation Analysts: Sarah Devendorf, Shradha Dinesh, Brennen Micheal, Madeline Smith, Samantha Strauss, Selene Swanson, Mary Waterman, Sarah Wozniak, Megan Hogan
Editors: Adam Ratzlaff and Shane Szarkowski