The role of civil society in countering disinformation


How civil society organisations can counter disinformation, which – against the backdrop of Russian aggression in Ukraine – is being actively used as a weapon to undermine trust in democratic societies. This was one of the central themes of a conference in Sofia jointly organised by Active Citizens Fund operators in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia. The conference “The Role of Civil Society in Countering Disinformation and Promoting Media Literacy” brought together representatives of civil society organisations, activists, experts and journalists in the Bulgarian capital to address the pressing challenges of misinformation and the need to promote media literacy in Europe. More than 60 participants from eight countries – Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Lithuania, Norway, Poland and Slovakia – took part in the event, which took place from 6-8 June 2023. 

Investigative journalist Hristo Grozev of Belingcat told the conference that we have not yet witnessed the full deployment of Russia’s disinformation capabilities, as the country is engaged in an information war against its own society that is absorbing much of its resources. “I think the situation [with disinformation] is not as bad as it could have been if Russia had deployed all of its skills and history of operational excellence in disinformation with a full focus. And the reason why they haven’t done is that they didn’t plan for this war to continue for as long and didn’t plan for a lot of the other front lines that they have to engage with also with information warfare – i.e. domestically. So I think we’re seeing a sort of a “maintenance” campaign of disinformation and promoting misinformation by the Russian government at the moment….”, Grozev said at the forum.

For his part, Ivan Krastev, Chairman of the Board of the CLS-Sofia and permanent member of the IWM in Vienna, commented that “We are living in a world in which mistrust is the default option.”…”I do believe one of the strengths of Russian propaganda is very much based on weaponizing mistrust… The major story of Russian propaganda is not so much to sell us their narrative but basically to roll back the narrative that is coming from our governments and also from the mainstream media. If the Soviet Union believed that it is better than the West and that was at the heart of their propaganda, now the major argument [of Russia] is that we are not that different,” Krastev said.

During the conference, participants explored the nature and scope of the disinformation problem, identified international and national specifics, and discussed possible solutions. The role of civil society in countering disinformation and protecting freedom of speech in a democratic context was among the main topics of the event.

The conference agenda covered three main issues:

  1. How to identify disinformation: Panel discussions explored the spread and mechanisms of disinformation, with a focus on the impact of Russia’s war against Ukraine. The participants in the discussion shed light on the new disinformation ecosystem and its implications for our societies.
  2. How to respond to disinformation: The participants engaged in lively debates about regulatory measures, media freedom, and the role of social media in combating fake news. Fact-checking, strategic communications, and responsible content creation were among the approaches discussed.
  3. How to build societal Resilience: The importance of media literacy and education in countering disinformation was emphasized. Lessons learned and best practices were shared by civil society actors and practitioners, aiming to enhance societal resilience against disinformation and misinformation.

In addition to the panel discussions and conversations, workshops allowed participants to generate recommendations for action from a civil society perspective. They discussed both short-term and long-term solutions, including identifying and responding to misinformation, regulatory measures, strategic communications, fact-checking, content creation, and media literacy.

The results of the Media Literacy Index, which has been produced periodically by the Open Society Institute – Sofia since 2017, as well as numerous initiatives and best practices of civil society organizations working to counter disinformation and support media literacy in Central European and Baltic countries were presented during the forum.

The conference was hosted by Active Citizen Fund – Bulgaria.