Russia and China get much of the attention, but locally produced disinformation shouldn’t be overlooked or underestimated.

Russian and Chinese disinformation and propaganda is an arson-fired, potentially destructive blaze combated by late-arriving and undermanned fire brigades. That is the current state of affairs – whether in democratic America, Austria, and Australia; communist Vietnam; or Zimbabwe, teetering between democracy and yet another dictatorship.

Former comrades in the defunct Soviet gang of authoritarian/totalitarian states in East, Central, and Southeast Europe – most of them today members of NATO and the European Union – are prominently and prodigiously targeted. Latecomer China is rapidly extending its autocratic influences and disinformation among them.. Even so, it is no challenge to Russia’s indisputable dominance in spreading twisted, malevolent information meant to stimulate anti-democratic, anti-NATO, anti-EU, and anti-American sentiments and instill in Europe’s citizens distrust of their institutions and leaders, confuse them, and stoke an array of fears.

The mushrooming disinformation, false and falsified news, and propaganda since 1999 – when Vladimir Putin took Russia’s reins in his practiced KGB-trained hands – finally prompted action from some of Central and Eastern Europe’s leaders a few years back. In October 2017, the foreign ministers of Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, and Lithuania asked the EU’s chief of diplomacy, Federica Mogherini, to do something about it. In an open letter, the ministers pointed out the glaringly obvious – that Russia’s information war is “increasingly sophisticated and intense” and practiced by “external actors.”

Aside from much public hand-wringing, increased monitoring, some pushback, and many media exposes, no effective measures are yet in place to abate, let alone stop Moscow’s disinformation and propaganda juggernaut from its bountiful attempts to mess with the minds, beliefs, and attitudes of all Europeans, as evidenced during the 2019 European parliamentary elections.    

This particular battle will not be over soon, if ever. But we should remember that there is another one that is equally important for the new European democracies: the now 30-plus-year-old struggle against disinformation and propaganda created locally by journalists, media, and politicians driven by their own nefarious domestic purposes. Political manipulation and control of the media has bred and encouraged professional corruption and intra-societal information wars – an extensive proclivity repeatedly noted in journalistic and scholarly reports on the region’s media systems.

For example, a May 2020 study published by Central European University’s Center for Media, Data, and Society shows misinformation and disinformation being produced and disseminated by indigenous media in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Moldova, Romania, Serbia, and Slovakia. The same is true in all other former communist states.

The surfeit of locally produced untruths turns into bacilli that are surely as dangerous and numerous as the Russian and Chinese varieties, which, it should not be forgotten, also are deceiving their own populations.

As Ana-Maria Luca, a senior researcher at the Bucharest-based Global Focus Center, told me: “Most disinformation in Romania is produced domestically by political actors, including the former ruling party, the Social Democrats [PSD].” She provided an example from Romania’s 2019 presidential election, explaining that it was “obvious that the PSD has learned a lot in terms of manipulation of information on social media.”

Indeed, locally produced disinformation and propaganda in Romania began during and after the December 1989 events that ended Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist regime, as Marian Voicu outlines in his commendable and aptly titled 2018 book, The Matryoshka of Liars: fake news, manipulation, populism.

In 2020, the spread of COVID-19 has provided yet another splendid opportunity for China and Russia to spread deception about everything associated with the virus, from its origins to the disinterested altruism of their “humanitarian aid.” They were aided and joined in this competition to fool the world by the mullahs of theocratic Iran and a handful of other roguish authoritarian states, such as Venezuela and Nicaragua.

But yet again, the media and politicians throughout Central and Southeast Europe have done their part in serving their own citizens unhealthy doses of inaccurate and fictitious information. As a recent article in Balkan Insight concluded, “With a highly unregulated media scene and low levels of media literacy, creators of disinformation have been spreading panic by sharing unverified information. Media outlets, officials, and even prime ministers also share the blame.”

The same occurred in the Baltic states, where Russian- and Chinese-produced disinformation was served up alongside locally cooked up falsehoods. And Belarus and Ukraine have dished out their own brand of ignorance-driven, politically exigent falsities.

Atlantic Council President and CEO Frederick Kempe, surveying the globe, has remarked that “information, including disinformation and misinformation about the novel coronavirus, is spreading faster than the pandemic itself.”

An effective vaccine against the endogenously and exogenously driven disinformation and propaganda pandemic related or not to COVID-19 is nowhere in sight.

Peter Gross, Ph.D., teaches qualitative research methods at the University of Iowa, and is Professor Emeritus in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee in the United States. He has written extensively on the subject of East European media and its evolution since 1989.