In the context of the current war in Ukraine and increased authoritarian aggression against free and open discourse on the internet, it's now more important than ever to warn our European audience about the dangers of current new propaganda networks.
On my sixth birthday, my father gifted me a globe of the world. It is the best birthday present I have ever received. You see, I grew up in a cramped apartment in Baku, Azerbaijan. But even in our small corner of this world on the edge of the Soviet Empire behind the Iron Curtain, when my father and I read Stefan Zweig’s book on Magellan together, I could dream of the vast world beyond. Night by night, we traced our fingers along the boundless oceans of that globe and I marveled at all there was to see beyond the confines of the Soviet world.
Ondrej Vlcek and I both grew up the under the Soviet Union's sphere of influence. We read the same propaganda in our history textbooks, and learned never to trust the misinformation spewed at us. The Evil Empire was built on a castle of lies: even as children, both of us could see that. Our shared childhood experiences provided a strong basis for our conversation in Paris, at the 6th VivaTech conference in June 2022. In the context of the current war in Ukraine and increased authoritarian aggression against free and open discourse on the internet, Ondrej and I felt it was more important than ever to warn our European audience about the dangers of current new propaganda networks.
The year my father gifted me my globe, I began to play chess. Ten years after that, I won my first international tournament. As I began to fly abroad for competitions, I found myself one of the very few Soviet citizens with the privilege to see the world outside for myself, unfiltered by propaganda and misinformation — although always watched by Soviet secret police KGB's handlers.
In 1983, I saw my first home computer in person — at a competition in London. I asked for one from the competition organizers and carried it back on my Aeroflot flight: probably the first personal home computer in Baku. In 1986, I signed a deal with Atari and took as payment 53 of their newest computers. I brought them back to Moscow, and used them to create the first ever youth computer club in the Soviet Union. I had seen beyond the propaganda with my own eyes. I hoped these tools could show bright young children that they too could imagine a wider world–the real world. It worked, for a while, but little did I suspect that the limitless world soon available online would become a powerful force for misinformation as well as for the truth. The war didn’t end, but the battlefield grew exponentially larger.
Since Vladimir Putin first took power in Russia on the last day of 1999, he has steadily removed Russia from the free world, including access to information. The internet was mostly left alone at first, since most Russians got their news from television, which was completely under state control by 2008. But as the crackdowns on rights and civil society continued, online news sites and social media came under scrutiny and control. My own kasparov.ru news website was blocked in Russia 2014, along with others. Censorship wasn’t enough, however, and hundreds of propaganda sites with thousands of employees polluted every aspect of the Russian online sphere with propaganda and misinformation. People were locked up for dissenting tweets, while every Russia was being locked behind a digital wall of propaganda.
Ondrej’s team at Avast began to track the development of the Kremlin machine, and Ondrej and I have watched as the propaganda networks proliferated. First in Russia, then in the Russian-speaking sphere, and today in many languages all over the world to spread disinformation. Today, Putin’s misinformation bot networks, malware factories, and cyber gangs are more sophisticated than any international mafia.
While these malicious campaigns target and exploit the free world’s right to free speech, their effects are greater in unfree countries like Russia. The day of our talk, Avast released its Digital Wellbeing Report, in which it assessed the relation between a country’s digital freedom when it comes to censorship, and limitations and manipulations of online discussions, and the country’s cybersecurity and consumer privacy status quo. One takeaway from the Avast Digital Wellbeing Report was that cyberattacks are more common in less free nations, where private safeguards and public regulation are weaker than in democracies. This is logical to me, as I’ve always said that dictatorships fear their own people more than anything. Places like Russia and Saudi Arabia are more likely to use malware and spy tech against their own citizens than protect them from such attacks.
Avast's Digital Wellbeing Report: Total score and status of freedom (higher is better) vs. risk of encountering a cyberattack based on Avast data (lower is better)
Russian troll factories dominate social media and comment sections, defame dissidents around the world, and spread misinformation. I never thought I’d see the day when an American president would repeat Russian propaganda over the information provided by his own intelligence community. So what can we do to fight back?
First, companies need to follow the example of good global citizens. To take one example — selected entirely at random of course! — after Putin began his latest war, many large companies suspended operations in Belarus and Russia while bolstering support for digital protection in Ukraine. Secondly, knowing if information comes from a source you should trust is vital. You can use a tool like Avast’s News Companion that gives users information about English language US news sites they visit to help them better understand the quality of information they are receiving. Furthermore, you can share it with your circle to empower them to fight the spread of misinformation. We all have a role to play in the fight against misinformation and authoritarian fake news.
My message to the free world media works for individuals, too. Don’t amplify the lies, just keep repeating the truth. Research has shown that repeating blatant lies and fakes by refuting them still spreads them. Even sober fact-checking can create doubt by taking falsehoods seriously, a technique well-known to propagandists. There is only one truth and an unlimited number of lies, so the truth is outnumbered.
Our elected leaders need to stand up for a free and open internet as a human right. In fact, French President Macron stopped by during the conference, but the resulting security lockdown prevented me from having to make the difficult choice of whether to confront him over all his dithering and hedging his support for Ukraine’s fight for freedom against Putin’s invasion.
Public pressure can encourage companies to take stands in the fight for good against evil. And all of us need to do what we can in our day-to-day lives to guard against fake news, be responsible citizens of the internet, and stand up for the truth. When authoritarians deal in lies, only the truth will set us free.
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