Vice-Minister of Culture Vygintas Gasparavičius: one of the best ways to fight disinformation is to forestall it

Date

2021 11 23

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During the fellowship named after the Vice-President of the U.S. Hubert H. Humphrey, which is a Fulbright programme, its only Lithuanian participant, the Vice-Minister of Culture Vygintas Gasparavičius, said that this pandemic has unfortunately become a great medium for the spread of propaganda as well as encouragement of extremes, division, and weakening of society, while all myths related to the pandemic are the consequences of the unsuccessful fight against disinformation. These and other topics related to propaganda, disinformation and the ways to fight fake news were explored during the three-week fellowship.

One part of the fellowship was dedicated to discussions with the academic community of the University of Washington. This university, which has established the Centre for an Informed Public, has been recognised as having presented the best model in the field of disinformation and misinformation. The centre works not only on incorporating media and information literacy in the programmes of other universities but also on research of this field, fact-checking, and monitoring of the information space. “When gathering specialists, the centre seeks to deconstruct potentially dangerous messages and to present objective and correct information before disinformation has been widely spread. When a false message is spread and frequently repeated, it becomes difficult to change the people’s views and opinions because they have already been misled. It is likely that forestalling is one of the most effective ways to fight this. From a long-term perspective, undoubtedly, tangible benefit is brought by education, media literacy, and development of critical thinking and critical opinion. These are the subsequent measures that do not have such an immediate effect”, Vygintas Gasparavičius said.

According to him, the flow of disinformation is indeed very large, diverse and includes different narratives, while disinformation itself is spread around the world by mobilising both financial and human resources. The Vice-Minister of Culture notes that all countries of the world face these problems, while the techniques of propaganda dissemination are practically identical everywhere. “The two main directions from which propaganda comes are China and Russia, while the USA also senses some influence from Iran. It is still a rhetorical question as to how much these two countries cooperate and coordinate their actions. However, it seems that their goals often coincide, only perhaps they are sought using different means”, the Vice-Minister observed.

The second part of the fellowship was dedicated to meetings with the representatives of the U.S. Department of State and its agencies as well as non-governmental organisations. The latter are particularly actively involved in the field of information and media, especially in the fight against disinformation. According to Gasparavičius, in the USA, it is sought that fact-checking, fighting of propaganda, and explaining of its harm to society would be carried out not by state institutions, but by independent experts, scientists, researchers, journalists and others who operate in this medium. Therefore, an important role is played here by NGOs that successfully fulfil their potential. The Vice-Minister and representatives of Freedom House discussed the international context of the media, the current affairs of Lithuania as well as the situation of our media, and presented the reform of the media funding model. Gasparavičius was pleased to note that U.S. organisations are familiar with Lithuania and that our information space and efforts to deconstruct fake news have been noticed.

One of the recurring topics during the meetings was the pandemic and the conspiracy theories related to it: “There are many ways to mislead, and this misrepresentation has been gradually becoming a sort of anti-science. All myths related to the pandemic are the fight against the consequences. We tried to examine what would be the turning point which would bring a kind of breakthrough not by running after a train and not by fighting the consequences of the disinformation about the pandemic. We have reached the unambiguous answer that it would be science”. On the other hand, Gasparavičius noted that the public has insufficient skills to check the facts and lacks critical thinking. The current enormous flow of information, its abundance and inconsistency determine that it is becoming increasingly difficult to analyse information critically.

 

“The methods of misleading and presenting information on a silver platter are under the scrutiny of both the scientists and the structures related to national security. For instance, a message is re-broadcast by Kremlin mouthpieces, then it appears on a neutral pro-Russian media channel, then it somehow ends up in the regional media somewhere in the U.S., and finally The Washington Post re-prints an article where, while perhaps not directly, but nevertheless the fake news is referenced. However, freedom of speech and opinion is a highly important value and, unfortunately, a great weakness in the struggle against hybrid matters or manipulation. This is a kind of price of democracy that we have to pay. We must understand this and pay those dues while putting effort into education as well as media literacy and direct impact in the fight against propaganda”, Vygintas Gasparavičius emphasised.

In his opinion, an important role is played here by the national minorities, therefore both Lithuania and other Baltic states must do everything to ensure that there is not even the smallest pretext for separatism, because national minorities may be exploited as a tool to divide and polarise society and to pursue the goal of its erosion. According to the Vice-Minister of Culture, a fundamental breakthrough could be achieved by a unified opinion of the European Union, especially the determination of Germany, which is currently not very favourable toward the fight against disinformation and propaganda.

In conclusion, Gasparavičius claimed that the most important factor is social observation and prevention by detecting, codifying and deconstructing messages that could potentially cause harm: “Sometimes it is perhaps difficult to hit the target, but it is better to deconstruct 9 messages that perhaps would not spread and one message which would definitely spread and do harm rather than not do it at all. Everyone understands the importance of education, but its results will be seen only after more than ten years. When deconstructing fake news, it is necessary to use authoritative and researched things, while when spreading lies it is not necessary to use anything. This information, spread by “British scientists”, must be factually refuted by the scientists who are trusted by the society. After all, propaganda encompasses basically all aspects of our life”.

One of the areas of the activities of the Ministry of Culture in the field of public information on politics is society which is resilient to information threats, and which is developing literacy skills. Contributions to the development of media and information literacy as well as critical thinking include the Ministry of Culture’s event series Tarp Eilučių (Between the Lines), Media Forum, and training for the network of subordinate institutions in cooperation with both the country’s other institutions and the Office of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The Ministry of Culture also participates in the activities of the National Media and Information Literacy Network, contributes to the organising of the competition of Praeities Stiprybė – Dabarčiai (The Strength of the Past – for the Future), and initiates research on the evaluation of the changes in the level of literacy in the use of the media. Next year, it is planned for the Programme of Media Education via Library Network to be prepared.

Photo from personal archive of Vygintas Gasparavičius