The frontline of the information war is being defended from the Balkans to the Baltic nations


On December 17, Uku Arold, Deputy Head of the Strategic Communication Department of the Defence Forces General Staff Head Quarters, wrote about the information war and the practices of different countries in Postimees. Propastop, with permission from the author and Postimees, publishes the full article.

We are looking for people with good English language skills for indoor work. The level of education is not important. Monthly salary up to 5000 euros. We are looking for courageous people who are fluent in the official language and ready to ask uncomfortable questions over the phone in their spare time. Performance based results up to 100 euros per call.

These are examples of job descriptions that information war fighters are using across Europe. The first is a case in which the small Macedonian town of Veles became the capital of fake news in the world. It turned out that much of the fake news from the 2016 USA Presidential election was written by students there.

​ The business model made it possible for the winning stories to earn the kind of advertising profit that owners of Estonian online portals can only dream of. It is hard not to click on the heading that explains why the Roman Catholic Pope is telling Catholics not to vote for Catholic Hillary Clinton.

Another example comes from Sweden in 2017, where social divides were caused because wage earners had accused telephoning journalists of slanting issues and not reporting the bad side of immigration. The accusations and reactions had to be taped and posted on Youtube and on a relevant „civic press website“. The profit gained depended on how many people viewed them.

In both cases, it has not been made known to the public that they were clearly part of foreign influence activities. Although the actions were manipulative and unethical, they were publicly justified by the immediate organizers. Legal experts have not been able to counteract this activity.

In the following, I will describe in more detail the information security situation between northern Macedonia and our neighbouring country, to explain the complexity of the problems and the need for networking and international cooperation in threat mitigation.

Northern Macedonia information challenges and a defence response

The concerns of North Macedonia, which is on the doorstep of NATO and aspiring to the European Union, has not been confined to the honoured „businessmen“ who are defaming the reputation of the country. Both NATO and European Union membership require resolution of the dispute with Greece over the name of the country. The compromise finally found, involved a referendum in Macedonia and a parliamentary decision in Greece. The influence activities of Putin’s regime in this process exceeded the acceptable threshold of the Greek government and two diplomats were expelled.

In Macedonia, Russian money and an avalanche of fake news fuelled the activities of anti-new-name groups. It was argued, for example, that the Albanians were behind the name change. Everything related to Albanians is very sensitive in Northern Macedonia. There are many refugees in Macedonia due to the conflicts in former Yugoslavia. Inter-ethnic tensions reached a short-term armed conflict in 2001.

An official investigation into the 2016 US Presidential campaign has found that the main producer of misinformation on Social Media and fake websites was the Kremlin controlled troll farm, Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg. Macedonian students realized business opportunities during the campaign, copied professional influence office materials, and produced them.

Northern Macedonia has been fairly untouched compared to other countries in the region. Serbia is dominated by Sputnik’s propaganda narratives. In Montenegro, the Russian Military Intelligence organization (GRU) was involved in an attempt in 2016 to kill the Prime Minister and organize a coup.

The strategy of the government of Northern Macedonia to address the situation was called „ A Plan for Resolute Action against the Spreading of Disinformation“. It was created with the help of the NATO Information and Communication Agency, the European Commission as well as the Committee of Experts on Quality Journalism within the Council of Europe, as well as the aid of organizations of major Western countries.

The laconic plan foresees technical work to repair the security protocols as well as overall development of information hygiene. The Prime Minister will have a new telephone number and a new mobile device, with additional security protocol for digital communications. In terms of informing the population and cooperating with the press, the activities are on the same level of detail and reflect a desire to build a functioning media self-regulation, a fair up-to-date government communications system and collaborative arrangements to expose and disprove misinformation.

The Government will establish a Task Force for combating disinformation and attacks on democracy. The group will be made up of representatives from the authorities responsible for power, cultural affairs and communication systems and is chaired by the Minister without Portfolio in charge of communications, transparency and accountability.

North Macedonia’s approach to information protection can be called all involved. The responsible Task Force must address major societal trust issues alongside reliability and security information systems create a state of preparedness for any crisis situation and purchase a more secure phone system for the Prime Minister, who recently became the target of attacks.

Sweden’s national defence has come back

Sweden was seriously shocked by the aggression of Putin’s regime in Ukraine in 2014. The total civil defence system created during the Cold War had been packed up with the supposed „end of history“ and the question of what would happen if we were attacked in the same way as Ukraine was not only raised by high ranking soldiers. Since then, the demilitarized Gotland is no longer defenceless, required military service has been restored and the intention is to regain a total defence plan. The first major challenge will be next year’s TFÖ 2020 military exercise.

Meanwhile, attempts by the Kremlin to manipulate elections abroad, widespread disinformation campaigns and aggressive action by the special services have directed Sweden to pay more attention to one of the main areas of total defence – psychological protection.

The crisis management agency (MSB) which was dismantled by 2008 has begun to rebuild internally and regionally. The government allocated 13.5 million kroons for the establishment of an automated fact-checking system (approximately 1.3 million euros at current rates) and 60 million kroons (5.75 million euros) for activities aimed at developing general psychological resistance. In this way, all Swedish homes have a guide to behavioral protection in times of crisis and war distributed.

Lund University has developed the most comprehensive handbook in the West to combat hostile information influence activities. This is not limited to simple suggestions on how to expose lies and show the truth because in many cases this is not the most expedient. Studies have shown that refuting Social Media misinformation does not persuade people but can even increase the impact of the lies. Collaborative relationships are established with large social network representations. In primary and secondary schools, source criticism and media literacy are taught using new materials.

However, they found in Sweden that this is far from sufficient. In 2017 a report by the Institute for Defence Studies (FOI) emphasized the need for strategic psychological protection, which would include building up preparedness for information conflicts, deploying defences and the willingness to defend as well as preventing disinformation and other influence activities beyond what MSB’s „here and now“ activities are, which are not sufficient enough.

In 2018, the Prime Minister announced that the Defence Committee, which created a consensus on national defence, deemed the establishment of a strong Psychological Defence Agency necessary. A government commission headed by a former head of the Swedish Security Service (Säpo) is looking at the necessity and powers of the agency. Responses are expected by May 2020.

In the meantime, ministers have been publicly explaining the need for the agency. Swedish government officials familiar with the matter acknowledge that the development of psychological protection is considered natural in Swedish society and that there have been no major ideological or personal attacks on spokespersons.

While the Swedish National Strategic Reference Framework recognizes that we are all increasingly affected by the vulnerability of the information environment due to our technology dependency, no attempt is made to categorize the origin and content of wireless messages as cyber-security.

Other neighbours are dealing with it

There are daily influence activities from the east against both Finland and Latvia. In both cases, government agencies have upgraded their safeguards and started to talk more about the threat.

Psychological crisis tolerance is one of the main lines of action in security strategy for Finnish society. It includes the functioning of government communications and regional network cooperation.

In Finland, local networks are the first to discover risks and dangers and to bring important information to people in the event of a media failure. Networks are not limited to state institutions; the non-governmental, educational institutions and church play an important role. Public authorities in Finland currently receive even more comprehensive communications guidance on security aspects.

Mediapool: a Digital Content Agency, organized with the support of the Crisis Management Agency (NESA), helps journalists and media houses prepare for information attacks. In addition to learning how to recognize provocations, you also learn about internet security and play through difficult situations in exercises.

For years, Latvia has been trying to counteract influence activities by relying on law and international cooperation. After the referendum on the Russian language, the Constitution received a comprehensive preamble perpetuating the country’s cultural foundations. Latvia’s highly mandated media regulatory applied short termed broadcast bans to the propaganda channels of the Putin regime. The concept of a fresh security policy implies that it has not been very successful, because widespread broadcasting allows the channels to still be viewed elsewhere.

As of January of this year, the Latvian government has officially embarked on the establishment of a broad-based national defence, where psychological defence and strategic communication complement each other. The media market is seen as being grim. That is why the country has decided to help the press. The Media Support Fund distributes project grants for investigative journalism and repair of community resilience.

Due to its earlier awakening, Estonia has a small lead over countries with a similar threat to us: systemic cyber defence, value oriented psychological defence and strategic communication. The preconditions for learning had already been created by the value of information technology and unified government communication before the events of April 2007. However, threats evolve and it is therefore wise to closely monitor the activities of companions of fate, exchange information and test out more sure-fire solutions.

Photo: Lonnon Foster/Flickr/CC