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Can NATO use truth against Russian lies?

The alliance’s coming summit can be used to support nations in Europe that are learning how to counter Kremlin disinformation with ‘critical thinking’ among their citizens.

The sun sets over the skyline of the Latvian capital of Riga.
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When leaders of NATO’s 29 member countries meet July 11-12 in Belgium, the main topic will be less on finding new ways to counter Russia’s military threat and more on addressing another kind of threat: Russia’s escalating attempts to use information-warfare tactics to create fear and discord within Europe, especially during election time.

That kind of warfare is difficult to respond to in kind, the way more tanks and more troops can deter a Russian invasion of, say, one of the Baltic states. Rather, the Kremlin’s spreading of false information requires NATO countries to arm citizens with a love of truth and the tools to discern accurate information so as to negate the effects of lies planted in social media and elsewhere.

“The first priority is to be able to protect the minds of our people,” Janis Garisons, Latvia’s defense secretary, told the National Post, a Canadian newspaper, last year. “If you lose your population, you will not need your troops or NATO or anything else.”

Cyberspace knows no borders, and Russia has used the latest digital means to disseminate fake news to sow distrust and fear of government and specific groups in Europe's open societies.

The battlefield for NATO these days is in the thinking of every citizen in Europe and the United States. Yet how can one of the most successful military alliances of the 20th century now shift toward the task of countering fear?

In the new book “The Monarchy of Fear,” University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum gives this advice: “We need to think hard about fear and where fear is leading us. After taking a deep breath we all need to understand ourselves as well as we can, using that moment of detachment to figure out where fear and related emotions come from and where they are leading us.”

Countries in Europe have had different reactions to Russia’s disinformation campaigns. In Finland, public employees are taught how to spot false news and warn the public. In France, journalists worked together during a recent election to not report false rumors from Russian sources. For its coming election, Sweden has set up a new agency to identify Russian meddling and then provide a response. In 2014 NATO created the Strategic Communications Center of Excellence to design ways to deter Kremlin propaganda.

One of the most comprehensive responses is in the tiny Baltic state of Latvia, in large part because about 40 percent of its residents are ethnic Russians and can be easily reached by Kremlin-directed information sources just across the border.

“Fake news is one of the strongest modern weapons that is constantly being used in the struggle for the hearts and minds of the people of Latvia,” said Raimonds Vejonis, Latvia’s president, in December.

Latvia’s approach is to build up “critical thinking” and promote media literacy among schoolchildren, teachers, and many others. People are taught how to be aware of their own biases in assessing information and how to spot bias in media outlets.

Most of all, they are encouraged to demand truth in public information and learn the skills necessary to check facts and cross-reference sources. One effect of the campaign is that support for NATO has risen in recent years, even among Latvia’s Russian-speakers, despite Russia’s misinformation campaigns.

The NATO summit has many issues on its agenda. But its real work may be in supporting the efforts of individual member countries to make sure truth-seeking wins over fearmongering.

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