How Moldova and its International Development Partners can counter Russia’s Hybrid Information Threats

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Moldova has the lowest level of resilience against Russian disinformation campaigns among 14 Central and Eastern European countries, according to the Disinformation Resilience Index. Neither the Moldovan government nor independent institutions, including civil society and the media, keeps comprehensive track of disinformation threats, analyzes them, and takes permanent, strategic and concrete actions to prevent and combat hybrid information threats.

The Existing efforts are insufficient and in fact do not primarily address Russian information warfare and propaganda in Moldova, but rather center on internal politics. This limits their ability to counter the Russian narrative and raise awareness of the issue. In addition, the few efforts of civil society have focused on theoretical narratives and little research without taking concrete and sustainable actions.

Moldova has failed to focus on such concrete data as who has been behind hybrid information threats and what themes and tools they used. We have also failed to offer recommendations on combating such threats, on how to build society’s and the people’s resilience against them, how to develop state institutions’ capacities to ward off the threats, and other factors that make Moldova vulnerable to the threats.

Moldova should make comprehensive efforts to secure its national information space in light of the fact that most of the content broadcast and distributed in the country is coming from the Russian Federation. Information security policy should be oriented toward achieving information sovereignty — because doing so would be in the national interest.

While most European countries and international organizations take steps to prevent and combat propaganda, disinformation and fake news, in Moldova there are no serious discussions or debates about information security and the danger that hybrid threats pose to this security.

As for the Moldovan media’s ability to counter hybrid threats, the situation is dangerous and almost desperate. To start with, the media are failing to provoke discussions or debates about the information security threat to Moldova. The abundance and influence of Russian media, and media in the Russian language, in Moldova is overwhelming. Most are promoting propaganda and disinformation.

Here are some numbers: Of the 1,128 newspapers and magazines sold in Moldova, as many as 940 are in the Russian language, and most are imported from Russia. Of 292 TV channels available in Moldova, 201 are in the Russian language. Russian TV channels’ audience is more than 65% of Moldovan viewers. The Russian social media platforms Ok.ru and VK have huge influence, with the number of subscribers almost the same as Facebook’s. No government agencies monitor the online world with an eye toward ensuring national security or reining in hybrid information threats. 

TV is both the most important and most trustful source of most Moldovans’ information. Almost 60% get their information from TV, followed by the online world — 26%; radio — less than 6%; and newspapers — under 4%, a figure so low that it indicates papers really have no impact on society’s perceptions.

In addition, a media survey covering Moldovans’ ability to understand Russian-language content speaks volumes about its impact. Ninety-one percent say they understand everything or almost everything presented in Russian, while only 74% say the same about Romanian content. The vast majority of Moldovans also favor Russian-language entertainment content. Seventy-six percent declare that their preference is films and serials doubted in voice in Russian language.

Research by the Institute for the Prevention of Hybrid Threats Moldova has identified the key tools that Russia uses to spread propaganda and disinformation in Moldova as: 1. Russian television broadcast from Russia. 2. Russian television broadcast in Moldova using a local broadcasting license. 3. Moldovan TV stations that promote Russian interests. 4. Online news outlets in Moldova with pro-Russian content. 5. Russian-language newspapers in Moldova. 6. Radio stations that help create a positive image of Russia. 7. The Russian press agencies Sputnik and Itar-Tass. 8. Social media that Russia uses to spread propaganda in Moldova – Ok.ru, VK and Facebook groups. 9. Russian NGOs in Moldova. 10. Pro-Russian bloggers, commentators, and so-called analysts and experts. 11. Pro-Russian political parties and politicians. 12. The Russian Embassy and Centers of Russian Culture and Science.

In another worrisome sign, the new governing reality in Moldova has led to some politicians calling for two changes in the Audiovisual Code — doing away with provisions referring to anti-propaganda and disinformation content and scrapping requirements for eight hours a day of local-content productions.

Parliament took some positive steps in 2018. One was adopting what is called the Conception of the Informational Security of the Republic of Moldova. Another was adopting a Strategy for Information Security for the years 2019-2024, including an action plan for implementing the strategy. The strategy is the first conclusive and comprehensive document on hybrid threats. It includes four main pillars: bolstering cyber security, ensuring media information security, developing operational capacities to achieve information security and making the information-security internal coordination process more efficient, and developing relationships with information-security agencies overseas. It calls for establishing a National Coordination Council for Informational Security, with the participation of state institutions, media, civil society and the private sector. The action plan includes 26 objectives, but still fails to cover all of the threats that disinformation can pose.

The action plan designates the key coordinator of the information security strategy as the Security and Intelligence Service of Moldova. Nine of the 26 action plan objectives deal with the roles that the media and civil society should take in its implementation. Achieving the objectives assumes financial support from the state and from Moldova’s foreign development partners. Lack of specific financial support provisions suggests a limit on any cooperation that occurs between the state and other players in information security, including the media and civil society.

As for ways to counter hybrid threats, Moldovan authorities should start by implementing both the Conception for the Informational Security of the Republic of Moldova and the Strategy for Information Security for the years 2019-2024, including the action plan.

In addition, Parliament needs to pass legislation to fit the changed information environment — including threats — stemming from the new Moldovan political situation. Given that the ruling coalition is half pro-Russian and half pro-EU, this may be impossible for the foreseeable future, however.

Protecting and defending Moldova’s information and media space should become the red line for all policy dealing with both national security and individual freedoms because the new political reality makes hybrid information threats a bigger danger than ever to national security. National policy documents should be urgently adjusted to the new risks and realities.

Both local and foreign-generated media content should be reviewed for propaganda. Officials should also identify information security risks, including new trends in distributing disinformation, particularly through online and social media. The state should assume the responsibility for generating effective information-security policy documents, providing funds to counter disinformation efforts, and for establishing programs to build societal resilience against these threats. In addition, Moldova’s international development partners should support media and civil society organizations that want to combat hybrid threats.

Opinii ENG