In recent years it seems that we are increasingly overloaded with the amount of news and it’s ever more challenging to determine whether it is even credible. The public domain is full of unverifiable information, propaganda and disinformation. And it’s why the Líšeň Theatre visited in less than three months Prague, Brno and Polish Kielce, as well as Slovak Žilina, with its performance Putin is skiing. Together with selected experts and journalists from all of the Visegrad Four countries, we not only debated Russian propaganda and its impact on our media at the conclusion of every performance.
Our discussions on the changing media situation in Central Europe was frequently linked to the effort of Russia to return to its former international status, and particularly with the so called Euromaidan protests and the subsequent war in Ukraine. For journalists it was difficult to really determine what was going on during the mentioned Ukrainian events at the turn of the year 2013, because the Russian media had revived much greater and more professional informing about its point of view, which was until then unusual. Net of state media, such as Russia Today or newly Sputnik, heavy support for the Russian state and even new projects, such as the famous “Factory for trolls”, a paid commentator’s centre near St. Petersburg, arose from nowhere.
Similarly important was identification of the incredibly rapid development of the internet. Historically, the internet was perceived as tool for media democratisation and promising a bright future where it will be really hard to manipulate people who have access to all the information in their pocket. But according to the opinions of debaters, it had an exactly opposing influence. Today, people use only one source of information and they don’t bother to search out others. Everyone has its one tailored website in its own social bubble. Moreover, there is so much information now that just getting to terms with its context takes up a disproportionate amount of energy and time. Absorbed information is thus fragmentary and often more focused on emotion than on real understanding. The age of the internet is symbolised by thousands of websites and blogs about every possible topic, which has virtually overcrowded the entire cyberspace. During this time of “unlimited information” it’s now really easy to relativise every single news item or fact. And even more problematic is then creation of “alternative realities”, where members of each social bubble consume completely different information. It’s then hard to find some bridge between different social groups of the population. This situation is certainly not simplified with populist politicians using “simple solutions” and creating “their enemies” to spread hatred or fear to control the masses. Shock media news and misleading headlines, made with great effort to attract the attention of potential readers, are not making the current situation easy for all of us.
However, the times are changing. Civil society, together with the mainstream, is slowly changing its relationship towards the topic of propaganda and struggle against disinformation. Formerly “minor issues” are after the so called Brexit and last US presidential election increasingly important. Topics only accented for many years by activists were shortly before the debates echoed, for example, by the European Parliament and some European national governments.
Are there some general recipes for how to confront or counter disinformation and propaganda? During all the debates we discussed many of them, but every time with the added note that it is a systematic process. It depends on long-term education and thus on institutional changes at the state level. The importance of media literacy has also been repeatedly pointed out. High school students currently resolve several hundred or thousand mathematical and chemical equations every year, although they do not check a single article about fallacious arguments. Yet critical thinking is one of the foundations of a democratic society.
So what medium can we then trust in the current situation? Certainly not only a single source. First, it is necessary to get a flow of information that combines several different sources. One way is to collect information from people you trust, even those who do not say exactly what you want to hear. An interesting tool that offers a similar combination of information is Facebook, where with one click you can follow a number of experts on various topics – from political to technical ones. The second way is to confront national and international media news outlets to ideally increase their efforts to verify sources of information. And as hard work and dedication is required to keep democracy working, it further needs critical thinking and an open mind to sail through the pitfalls of today’s media environment.