How to Find the Truth in the World of Russian Disinformation: German Experience

By Anastasiia Novikova

4 MB

Key Takeaways

  • Strategic Use of Disinformation: Russian disinformation campaigns in Germany are meticulously planned, leveraging the blurred lines between military and civilian spheres to manipulate public opinion and sow discord.
  • Impact on German Society: These campaigns have successfully influenced German perceptions on key issues, leading to protests against Ukrainian refugees, arson attacks, and a worrying rise in pro-Russian sentiments, despite clear evidence of Russia’s aggression.
  • Historical and Cultural Influences: The susceptibility of the German public to Russian disinformation is partly rooted in deep historical, cultural, and economic ties between the two countries, which Russia exploits to its advantage.
  • Sophisticated Disinformation Tactics: Russia employs a wide array of misinformation tactics, including emotional manipulation, selective storytelling, and the strategic use of digital platforms, to achieve its objectives.
  • Need for Proactive Measures: Countering this threat requires moving beyond reactive debunking to proactive strategies, such as enhancing media literacy, implementing real-time monitoring, and fostering international cooperation to combat disinformation effectively.
  • Solidarity with Ukraine: Understanding and combating Russian disinformation is crucial for maintaining and strengthening solidarity with Ukraine, as misinformation campaigns aim to weaken international support for Ukrainian sovereignty and democratic values.

Why is the topic of Russian disinformation important in Germany?

Information is a weapon. And Russia knows this well. In February 2013, General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the Russian General Staff, published a short piece on ‘the value of science in forecasting,’ in which he outlined the contours of future warfare. He inaugurated the following ideas:

  • The distinction between the military and civilian domains will become even more blurred.
  • Battles will take place in the information space as well as in physical arenas.

Russia first used mixed warfare tactics after the invasion of Georgia in 2008, and having realized the effectiveness of this tactic, it began to spin up the propaganda machine even more. It reached its peak in 2014, during the annexation of Crimea and the start of war in Donbas. The relative bloodlessness of the occupation combined with the overwhelming amount of disinformation led to the fact that even today, Germans have a distorted understanding of those events.

In the wake of these circumstances, in October 2015, a general report issued by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly designated Russian ‘hybrid warfare’ as a ‘new strategic challenge’ that would require NATO member states to act on the local, national, and international levels to ‘prepare and defend their populations’ in light of the post-2014 security environment’.

According to the 2021 survey, 91% of Germans were afraid that their fellow citizens would be affected by disinformation. And they had a good reason for that because from 2015 to 2021 alone, researchers tracked more than 700 Russian disinformation campaigns targeting Germany.

And those substantial efforts have borne fruit:

  • In 2022, more than 100,000 people participated in protests and rallies in Eastern Germany against refugees from Ukraine;
  • On January 19, 2023, a protest was held in Laußig in northern Saxony against a shelter for Ukrainian refugees.
  • In the district of Dingolfing-Landau in Bavaria, arson attacks were carried out on tent accommodations for Ukrainian refugees in February 2023;
  • In Strelln, Saxony, on January 31, about 200 people demonstrated against the planned accommodation of refugees in the community.
In Gross Strömkendorf, a local hotel which used to house refugees from Ukraine was burned down by an arsonist. Authorities say they don’t believe the fire was politically motivated. A few days before the fire at the hotel, someone had painted a swastika on the Red Cross sign outside the building. (Jens Schlueter/Getty Images)

Even after 2022, when the illegality of Russia’s actions became obvious, there is still a lack of awareness of the scale of brutality and crimes committed by the Russian military among the general public.

According to the “Belastungsprobe für die Demokratie” study, almost one in five Germans believed that NATO provoked Russia for so long that Russia had to start a war (19%). The most worrying trend is that since April 2022, the support for pro-Russian statements has been gradually increasing.

All this confirms the existence of an acute problem with Russian disinformation in Germany. This article will try to explain how it works, why people believe in it, and how to fight it in German realities. It is especially important because where there is less solidarity with Ukraine, the politicians become increasingly hesitant to step up the support. And while people doubt where the truth lies, more and more innocent residents of Ukraine are dying.

Why is Russian disinformation so influential in Germany? Historical and cultural context

German elites believed that peace and stability in Europe could be achieved only with Russia, not against it. In this concept, Russia should integrate into Europe, and Germany saw itself as a bridge through which Russia would pass this way.

According to a survey by the Körber Foundation in 2018, 17% of Germans considered Russia the most important partner for Germany, the third place after France and the United States, and 69% wanted to cooperate more with it.

The following factors influenced this vision:

1. Historical and political

First, after the Second World War, when the Soviet Union lost more than 26 million people, Germany was left with a “guilt complex” for Russia. For example, Germans frequently see Russia as the only victim of annihilation caused by the war in Central and Eastern Europe. In the same way, they consider Russia to be the only triumphant country. However, the Red Army comprised soldiers from various national backgrounds, and in fact, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine endured the most extensive destruction and loss of lives.

Second, Germany has been a target of Soviet and later Russian disinformation since the Cold War. In the 1950s, the Soviets tried to raise the threat of a revival of Nazism to encourage support for pro-Soviet parties. And in the 1983 election, Moscow orchestrated what Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s government called a “massive propaganda campaign to interfere in West German affairs” to remove him from power.

But the turning point came when West German Chancellor Willy Brandt launched Ostpolitik in the early 1970s. Since then, close relations with Russia have become a permanent part of German foreign policy. The idea of this policy was the democratization of Russia through its economic integration. Germany believed that by strengthening economic ties between the countries, Moscow would become less aggressive in preserving its profits. However, the principles of positive interdependence simply do not coincide with Russia’s perception of its interests and the nature of its state system. Therefore, the result was that Germany itself became dependent on Russia, especially on its gas.

Germany has become an interesting example of Russia being supported by both right-wing (Alternative für Deutschland) and left-wing (Die Linke) parties. This shows the indifference of the Russian leadership to ideologies since they only understand the concept of “interests and benefits.” And it is this approach that leads to great sacrifices because it devalues human life on the way to the goal.

2014 and the annexation of Crimea failed to review the legacy of Ostpolitik, but in 2022, Olaf Scholz gave a speech where he announced a plan for a radical break with Germany’s traditional policy towards Russia. This gives hope for the reduction of Russia’s influence in Germany.

2. Cultural and social

About 2.5-3 million Russian-speaking immigrants live in Germany. Many of them are socially isolated and have limited knowledge of the German language. Therefore, even though they live in another country, they remain in the Russian information space.

Another target of Russian propaganda is the states of the former GDR, with around 16 million inhabitants. During Soviet rule, Russian culture spread widely. Children read Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy at school, listened to Tchaikovsky, and learned Russian as a foreign language. This cultural connection is not so easy to break.

Today, there is even a special term – «Ostalgia,» based on the combination of the words Ost (German for “east”) and Nostalgia for people who miss Germany’s communist past.

Soviet and GDR Memorabilia for sale in Berlin in 2006

In addition, the Russian leadership actively promoted informal integration activities such as exchanges. For example, 15-year-old Angela Merkel won a trip to Moscow as a reward for her performance in East Germany’s national Russian-language competition.

A vivid example of such interaction before 2022 was, for example, the German-Russian Forum.

These cultural ties strongly influenced the country and its perception of Russia. Kristi Raik writes in her article that Germany seems to believe almost doctrinally in the value of developing a dialogue with Russia, often without a clear idea of what it wants to talk about. This may be a result of Germany’s belief in the uniqueness of its relations with Russia and that it has influence over it.

Another characteristic feature of many Germans is the rejection of radicalism, both in actions and in thoughts, which derives from the World War II legacy. Although sometimes there is simply an aggressor and a victim, they believe that there is no black or white and want to look at the situation from different angles. A commitment to negotiations isn’t always an effective tactic in a war, where quick decisions and a firm position are required.

3. Economic

Over the last 26 years, Germany’s exports to Russia grew by 6.22% year-over-year from $6.51 billion in 1995 to $31.3 billion in 2021, while Russia’s exports to Germany grew by 4.56% from $6.04 billion in 1995 to $19.2 billion in 2021.

When Russian troops invaded Ukraine, Russia was supplying over half of all the natural gas that Germany imported, amounting to about $220 million a day.

Many of the largest German companies have extensive business ties with Russia. The Nord Stream 2 consortium included German companies Uniper and Wintershall, while former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (SPD) is the chairman of the board of Nord Stream AG. The influence of big business in the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) limited the possibility of confrontation with Moscow during Merkel’s era.

The Nord Stream 2 pipeline outside of Lubmin, Germany. Lena Mucha for The NYT

Even after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Gazprom still tries to save its position in Germany. For example, a recent exposé from Correctiv, an online news portal, revealed a web of links between German politicians, German energy concerns, and a clutch of NGOs. A special feature of Russia’s lobbyists is targeting specific German states, for example, an especially big influence they got in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Numerous former and serving minister-presidents of Germany’s 16 federal states were members and distinguished guests of such well-funded organizations as the German-Russian Raw Materials Forum, the German-Russian Chamber of Foreign Trade, and a short-lived Dialogue of Civilisations Research Institute.

However, the full-scale war in Ukraine did significantly change the relations between Russia and Germany and reduced their economic ties. Statistics say that between October 2022 and October 2023, the exports of Germany have decreased by €-376M (-38.2%) from €986M to €610M, while imports decreased by €-1.56B (-86.3%) from €1.8B to €246M.

What methods does Russia use in Germany?

When we think about disinformation, the first thing that comes to mind is that it constantly tries to impose lies on us. But in reality, disinformation is much more sophisticated, and the methods used by Russia are much broader. Here are some of them:

1. “Controlled chaos” or “variety of truths”. For example, when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down, the Ministry of Defense of Russia held a special press conference where it presented various scenarios. Although they were mutually contradictory and did not withstand even a brief examination by experts, they fulfilled their purpose – to sow doubts.

A more modern example is the mass media’s coverage of the tragic events in Bucha. As noted by the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, during the time this settlement was under the control of the Russian Armed Forces, not a single local resident suffered from any violent actions. In other news reports, the footage of the dead people was called staging and claimed that “bodies are moving.” Lavrov said that this was a fake attack by the Kyiv authorities, and Lukashenko blamed Great Britain for the provocation.

The main goal of this “informational chaos” is to make us doubt because then we are no longer sure who is right and cannot make decisions to confront injustice, as it becomes unclear who is guilty.

Russian news is a real art of the absurd. As Splidsboel Hansen wrote in his report, “In the best postmodern tradition, there is no ‘objective news’ – only different, rivaling interpretations which purport to show different aspects of what may be called ‘reality.'” When we read the news that Ukraine breeds combat locusts and sends them to the battlefield or uses birds as biological weapons, it does not mean that we should believe it. But with so many variations of the truth, we get confused and lose the ability to respond effectively.

2. Omitted facts or untold stories. For example, when the state-controlled media avoided news about the Russian invasion of Crimea in February 2014. Only when Putin openly admitted that the “little green men” were actually Russian troops did journalists begin to write about the topic.

3. The right narrative. This means that the news reports true events, but the “correct opinion” is imposed on the reader. It may not necessarily contain falsehood, but it is done to form certain political preferences in him. For example, if Russian mass media write about the training of the Armed Forces abroad, they will write that Russia has sent a note to NATO countries regarding the supply of weapons to Ukraine, and the pumping of Ukraine with weapons by the West has a negative effect on Russian-Ukrainian negotiations.

4. Taking facts out of context. This method is very common to mislead the reader. When creating such disinformation, propagandists choose the information that forms the desired opinion, and information that contradicts it is not mentioned. For example, Russian propagandists disseminated a distorted speech by the top US general, Christopher Cavoli, where he allegedly said that “the Russian military is apparently ‘unscathed,’ and the Western media are distorting information about the ‘degradation’ of the Russian troops.” In fact, the general said only about the Russian patrols in the Atlantic Ocean that it was this part of their forces that was not affected by the war.

5. Pseudo-experts, fictitious sources. Thus, military observer Viktor Lytovkin reported the loss of more than 400 Bayraktars by Ukraine when the Turkish company Baykar Tech produced about 300 such machines overall at that time. These methods are used to increase the reliability and scientificity of the information.

6. Manipulation by photos and video. An example of this can again be the situation when Russian mass media distributed a video where Zelensky had cocaine on his table, although it was photoshopped. The strategy for faking a photo or video isn’t necessarily to trick everyone into believing it’s real. The cheap and easy production and distribution of images and videos online make these formats the most widely used.

7. Strong emotional coloring. Its purpose is to suppress the rational thinking of the audience. Carolyn Schwartz of ISD Germany writes: “As emotions such as anger or fear are evoked, people tend to share this content.” For example, the story about the boy crucified by the Ukrainian military was widely spread through the internet. Although the boy did not exist in reality, and the video is a fake, which was filmed and distributed by Russian television journalists in 2014.

How is Russian disinformation spread?

The goal of Russian disinformation is to reach as wide an audience as possible, preferably to go viral through social media and online disinformation platforms.

In 2021, propaganda outlet RT DE had more than 625,000 followers on Facebook and 608,000 on YouTube, according to Belltower News research.

According to the EEAS report on the threat of foreign information manipulation and interference (FIMI), disinformation is spread in more than 30 languages, 16 of which are EU languages. Russia used more languages than China, with 44% of content targeting Russian-speaking groups and 36% targeting English-speaking groups.

Lutz Gullner, head of strategic communications at the European External Action Service (EEAS), warns that “disinformation is now being spread quite freely through diplomatic channels, such as the accounts of Russian embassies and consulates.”

Social networks also play an important role in spreading misinformation. The study found that more than 50 percent of Internet users in 24 different countries use them as a source of news.

In August 2022, t-online published research on a network of hundreds of fake accounts in Germany that posted links to fake news sites in comments.

An analysis by CORRECTIV found that roughly every day, pro-Russian campaigns in Germany created new Facebook pages and then ran paid ads. They used this scam last year when Meta said more than $100,000 was spent on Facebook and Instagram ads.

In just the first week of the war, videos from various sources on TikTok tagged #Russia and #Ukraine received 37.2 billion and 8.5 billion views. A study by the American media startup NewsGuard also showed that searches on TikTok are much more likely to lead to misinformation than, for example, on Google. During a selective search of current events, almost 20% of the results contained incorrect information.

And although Germany and Europe actively fight against disinformation, it still has a strong influence and finds various means to affect people’s opinions people. For example, a number of pro-Russian YouTube channels, such as “InfraRot Medien – Sicht ins Dunkel” (InfraRed Media – Light in the Dark), which belongs to Ivan Rodionov, who worked at the Russian broadcaster RT DE from 2014 until October 2021. Or the blog “Anti-Spiegel” by St. Petersburg-based Thomas Röper or Alina Lipp. Most of them also have Telegram channels, for example, one ruled by Lipp currently has over 182,000 subscribers.

Ordinary readers also play an important role in spreading misinformation, which means that information is not known to be false and spread unwittingly.

But why is it so effective?

Characteristic features of Russian disinformation are its huge volumes, speed of delivery, constant repetition, lack of logic, and indifference to reality and objective truth. Russian propagandists also have a high level of immorality, which allows them, for example, to claim that the airstrikes on the maternity hospital and children’s hospital No. 3 in Mariupol were fake.

Georgii Pocheptsov, doctor of philological sciences and author of numerous books on communication technologies, identifies five factors that justify the effectiveness of disinformation:

  • disinformation first determines the discourse, which makes it difficult to refute it;
  • it relies on characteristics that already exist in the mass consciousness;
  • targets specific social groups and polarizes them;
  • narratives contribute to the emergence of counter-narratives, which only intensifies the confrontation;
  • a clash in the information space expresses the readiness to transfer the conflict to the physical space.

Psychological aspects are also important, which make it easier for us to believe propaganda:

  • We assume that what we hear, read, see, and feel is true – this is what psychology calls “truth bias.” And the more often we, people, hear something, the more likely we are to consider it true.
  • We are also more likely to believe information that supports our beliefs. Van der Linden, Professor of Social Psychology in Society at the University of Cambridge, extends this to a sense of belonging to a group: “People also share misinformation because it corresponds to people’s deep-rooted social, political, religious, spiritual, and other belief systems, and it is a way for people to define their identity in order to express groups, to which they belong to. “
  • We strive to be unique. Pia Lamberti, managing director of the Center for Monitoring, Analysis, and Strategy (CeMAS), writes that it makes us feel more informed. And psychologist Roland Imhof also claims that it gives us a sense of “empowerment and a sense of control.” That is why RT’s slogan is “Question more”.
  • Disinformation is often more “entertaining” than sometimes “dry” facts. False statements are also often presented “intrusively” and written in capital letters with many exclamation marks.
  • We also tend to believe that information received from different sources is most likely based on different points of view and, therefore, deserves attention.
  • When we are less interested in the topic, we are more likely to believe that the information is true if it is repeated a lot because we perceive it as a sign of the truth of the information.
  • There is a “sleeper effect,” which refers to the phenomenon in which sources with a low level of credibility later acquire high persuasive power. While we first assess the credibility of the source, information is often separated from it during memorization. Therefore, later, we do not remember the source, only the information.
  • Information that we believed but later found out to be false still continues to influence our memory and judgment.

The EUvsDisinfo database has collected more than 6,000 individual cases of disinformation directed against Ukraine, which is more than 40% of all cases in the database.

According to the report about the Disinformation landscape in Germany, it was the main Western target of Russian propaganda even before the Russian invasion in February 2022.

On the special EUvsDisinfo website, the Brussels team singled out five main pro-Kremlin narratives:

  • The elites are against the people and are responsible for all kinds of abuses.
  • Russia supports conservative groups in their opposition to rights of women, ethnic and religious minorities, or the LGBT community.
  • Lost sovereignty/national identity under threat. For example, the West will take away the sovereignty of other countries and make them dependent.
  • The collapse of Western countries or the entire EU is approaching, where Russia is an “island of stability”.
  • “Hahaganda”. This narrative is based on ridiculing institutions and politicians in order to undermine the credibility and reputation of the institution and the individual.

After the start of the war, the Kremlin promoted the following narratives the most:

1. “Russophobia” gripped the world. This is a very convenient position: if you do not support the crimes of Russia, you are simply a “Russophobe”.

2. Ukraine was captured by the Nazis. Zelenskyi turns out to be the new Hitler, the Kyiv regime is a terrorist, and Ukrainians should meet the Russian military “with bouquets of flowers.” And what difference does it make that Zelensky is from a Jewish family or that when he ran for office, his main idea was to unify the country, regardless of, for example, the language people speak.

According to Dr. Fishman: “This propaganda is an attempt to delegitimize Ukraine in the eyes of the Russian public, which considers its war against Nazi Germany its greatest moment, and in the eyes of the Western publics who may not know much about Ukraine except that it’s next to Russia.”

Moreover, we see the development of this narrative. At the beginning of the war, Russia called only the government Nazis, and saw Ukrainians as victims, and wanted to “save” them. Whereas now, the entire Ukrainian nation has become an enemy, which legitimizes violence against people and murder.

And while Russia shouts about “neo-Nazis” in Ukraine, they do not pay attention to themselves. While the whole world remembers the tragedy of the Second World War and shouts, “Never again,” Russians write on their cars, “We can repeat.”  And when it comes to the danger of nuclear war, Putin says, “Why do we need such a world if there is no Russia?“. Aleksandr Dugin, one of the main theorists of Russian modern philosophy, publicly encourages the Russian authorities: “Ukrainians should be killed, killed, killed – as a professor, I think so.”

3. In the summer and early fall of 2022, the narrative about the energy crisis caused by the Russian war and its consequences gained considerable popularity in Germany. The so-called “Furious Fall” and “Winter of Rage” were actively discussed both in the mass media and in the conspiracy-ideological environment. Researcher Smirnova claims that the goal is to depict the energy crisis in Europe as a consequence of the West’s solidarity with Ukraine.

4. Anti-refugee and anti-migrant narratives. The most famous example of such disinformation occurred in 2016 when the German media began to spread the story about a Russian-German girl named Lisa, who was raped by migrants. The purpose of this story was to incite internal polarization in the country. Although such a girl did not exist at all.

People demonstrate in support of Russia in Frankfurt, Germany, in April. (Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

So, of course, when more than 7.5 million refugees from Ukraine came to the EU, it became one of the favorite topics for disinformation. For example, a video about a powerful fire allegedly caused by a Ukrainian refugee became widely distributed in Germany. Later, it turned out to be a fake.

However, such stories have a strong influence on German society. A survey by the Bertelsmann Foundation showed that the share of Germans who believe the country should accept refugees from Ukraine has fallen from 86 percent in March, at the start of the war, to 74 percent in September.

The European Policy Centre found that, in contrast to disinformation directed at Middle Eastern refugees that portrayed them as a “cultural” threat to Europeans, the campaign against Ukrainian refugees presented them as a threat to the health and wealth of Europeans. Across the EU, false and misleading stories related to housing support, easier access to education and health care, and financial assistance provided to refugees from Ukraine.

A particularly prominent example was the statement by CDU (Christian Democratic Union) leader Friedrich Merz, who spoke of “welfare tourism” by Ukrainian refugees in September 2022. According to research by the tagesschau, this false claim was set off by a voice message on Telegram which talked about people from Ukraine regularly traveling to Ukraine with a bus company.

The result of this is, for example, data from The OPAM survey, which confirms that a growing number of Europeans think that their governments treat Ukrainian refugees better than them.

What has been done to combat Russian disinformation?

In 2021, Jakub Kalenský, deputy Director of COI Hybrid Influence and one of the co-founders of the EUvsDisinfo campaign, singled out 4 lines of protection against disinformation:

  • documenting threats (simultaneously from the government, civil society, and media);
  • raising awareness;
  • correction of weaknesses;
  • hindering aggressors.

Actions directed against disinformation can be divided into two categories: those carried out by the state and those carried out by public organizations.

The first category includes the following:

  • In February 2022, the EU banned the media outlets Russia Today and Sputnik, the same decision was made by the Commission for Licensing and Supervision (ZAK) in Germany;
  • Later that year, the EU introduced strict rules for technology platforms to combat online disinformation under the Digital Services Act (which began long before the war);
  • Germany does not have an ad hoc law criminalizing disinformation as such. However, the Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) allows criminally punishable fake news and other unlawful content to be removed from social media;
  • The amendment to the Interstate Media Treaty (Medienstaatsvertrag) added measures to fight against disinformation and misinformation. For example, the state media authorities have received the competence to initiate proceedings against media outlets if the journalistic due diligence obligations have not been adequately respected;
  • As part of the program “Demokratie Leben!” the Federal Ministry of Family, Senior Citizens, Women, and Youth (BMFSFJ) supports projects that provide information on how to combat misinformation and conspiracy theories.

The work of Fact-checkers and NGOs takes place within:

  • The EEAS East StratCom Task Force which was created in 2015 by the EU to respond to Russian disinformation. Within it, the members of the task force produced new materials of EEAS diplomacy by introducing practices they referred to as ‘myth-busting’ and ‘positive narrative projection.’ For example, the project EUvsDisinfo is one of EEAS´s products ;
  • The European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO), which serves as a hub for fact-checkers, academics, and other relevant stakeholders to collaborate with each other.
  • CORRECTIV, Germany’s first donation-funded media and one of Germany’s leading fact-checkers. Their position is that only education helps to resist the flow of misleading statements and targeted disinformation ;
  • DPA-FACTCHECKING, the fact-checking section of the leading news agency in Germany.
  • ARD-Faktenfinder, the fact-checking section of the German public broadcaster ARD.
  • BR24 #Faktenfuchs, the fact-checking section of the Bavarian public broadcaster BR, and an IFCN-verified signatory.
  • Other initiatives aimed at increasing media literacy such as DigiBitS and Klicksafe etc.

What else needs to be done?

In order to improve the fight against disinformation, the following steps should be taken:

1. It is necessary to increase the level of synchronization regarding measures directed against disinformation. This is important to avoid duplication of effort. For example, we can establish a synchronized monitoring system that tracks the spread of disinformation across various platforms and channels in real-time. Another way of applying synchronization can be collaborative campaigns. Which means coordinating campaigns across multiple organizations, media outlets, and social platforms to share consistent and accurate information.

2. Disinformation is a systemic problem, so you need to have centralized methods to combat it. It plays an important role in establishing clear authority and efficient decision-making in the fight against disinformation. Given the global nature of disinformation, centralized international organizations and agreements can facilitate cooperation among nations to tackle cross-border disinformation campaigns effectively.

3. It is necessary to move from a ‘debunking approach’ to a ‘prebunking strategy,’ which means moving away from fact-checking individual false stories circulating online. This is important because these debunking methods only allow for interventions after false information has already been spread. According to psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky, pre-bunking consists of two components:

  • an explicit warning of an impending threat; and
  • an awareness of manipulation techniques.

The advantage of this method is that it allows you to make the “first step.” And as we know, we trust the information we hear for the first time more. We have to consider in advance the different potential scenarios and assess what narratives and methods of disinformation might be used in these circumstances.

Implementing such an approach involves several practical steps:

  • Enhanced intelligence gathering and analysis;
  • Collaboration between governments, intelligence agencies, technology companies, research institutions, and civil society organizations;
  • Conducting scenario planning exercises to anticipate potential situations where disinformation might arise;
  • Encouraging cross-disciplinary research involving psychology, communication, technology, and social sciences; 
  • Leveraging advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and natural language processing to identify early signs of disinformation campaigns and predict potential narratives.

4. It is necessary to focus efforts on creating a monitoring system in real-time. This will make it possible to assess the likely reach and impact of disinformation before intervening and make the response faster and more effective. Given the complexity of the task and the need for expertise from various domains, a cross-functional team or body would be best suited to administer such a system. It is better to establish an interagency unit specifically focused on monitoring and responding to disinformation threats. This unit would be composed of representatives from different government agencies, each bringing their expertise to the table. Key agencies that could be part of this unit include the Federal Ministry of the Interior, the Federal Ministry of Defense, the Federal Ministry for Digital Infrastructure, Federal Intelligence Services, Cybersecurity Agencies, and others.

5. Although there are many initiatives to increase media literacy, their number needs to be increased. Current efforts to combat disinformation tend to ignore segments of the population that may be more susceptible to it. Therefore, in this direction, it is also necessary to use segmentation, that is, to take into account the differences of people as different types of disinformation are directed at different people having different opportunities to improve media literacy.

Here are some main target audiences to consider:

  • Youth and Students. Young people are heavy users of digital media and social platforms, making them both consumers and sharers of information;
  • Elderly Population. Older individuals might have less familiarity with digital platforms and may be more susceptible to believing and sharing misinformation;
  • Rural Communities. Residents in rural areas might have limited access to diverse sources of information and may be more vulnerable to targeted disinformation campaigns. Local community engagement, workshops, and outreach can help in enhancing their media literacy;
  • Low-Income Individuals. Socioeconomic factors can influence the type of information people consume and how they access it. Outreach efforts need to consider the affordability of technology and internet access, as well as provide accessible formats for improving media literacy;
  • Minority and Immigrant Communities. These groups may face language barriers or lack familiarity with the media landscape in Germany. Providing information in multiple languages and culturally relevant contexts can help address their specific needs.

6. Particular attention should be paid to raising awareness of those who play an intermediary role; in particular, journalists and mass media, as well as teachers. Because they do not just perceive information but have the resources to widely distribute it to others.

7. It is necessary to monitor not only fakes but also the purpose with which they arise, for example, disinformation about refugees aims to increase xenophobia and polarize society. Then, you can find a comprehensive approach to the problem that disinformation develops and deal with the consequences.

8. Germany needs not to focus on relations with Russia. It is necessary to move away from the legacy of Ostpolitik and to promote contacts with other countries of Eastern Europe and especially Ukraine.

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