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Journalists, Scholars Talk Authoritarian Rule and Media Misinformation in Eastern Europe at Georgetown Event

By: Henry D. Brill

December 8, 2021

Journalist Simon Ostrovsky and scholar Marlene Laruelle discussed authoritarian rule and media misinformation at a panel co-sponsored last week by the Berkley Center and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

“The polarization around political and philosophical views on societal issues is becoming so strong, this kind of importation of the U.S. cultural war into a European context,” explained Laruelle, director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University.

The event was convened as part of a longstanding collaboration between the two centers to bring leading journalists to campus and to support reporting projects by Georgetown students through the Pulitzer Center Campus Consortium

Social and Political Exclusion

Ostrovsky, a special correspondent for PBS NewsHour Weekend and a Pulitzer Center grantee, provided reflections from his recent reporting on Belarus, a country embroiled in widespread protests after disputed elections in August 2020. 

“Ever since the elections of 2020 and the ensuing protests, we’ve seen thousands of people try to flee the country in ways that are reminiscent of things we saw happen decades ago during the Cold War,” explained Ostrovsky, describing how many Belarusians are crossing the border into Poland. 

Much as the regime in Belarus has cracked down on political dissent, the ruling party in Poland is also enacting exclusionary policies. Ostrovsky highlighted the rise of anti-LGBTQ declarations in Poland as one such example, commenting, 

Although it’s not a ban on being gay, it’s essentially a signal that the government is sending that you are unwelcome.

Exclusionary policies around LGBTQ identity are part and parcel of a broader global trend, according to Ostrovsky, who cited the United States as one parallel based on his reporting experience. 

Religion and Illiberalism 

Laruelle put the political situation in Eastern Europe into broader context, exploring the global rise of illiberalism. 

“Illiberalism is both what is happening at the political level—this revival of conservatism—and this kind of rebellious aspect of people unsatisfied and ready to go against the democratic system, sometimes with violence,” she explained. 

Focusing on Russia, Laruelle highlighted the social and political challenges of deploying religion in an instrumental manner when it comes to debates on public policy, commenting,

Once you deploy religion, you anchor a political issue into a philosophical worldview that is in fact limiting the ability to compromise and to find a political consensus.

But religion need not contribute to social and political polarization. Berkley Center Senior Fellow Jocelyne Cesari, a respondent to the panel, highlighted the potential for religious communities to play a more productive role in supporting inclusive societies.

“In Europe, the Catholic establishment and other religious communities are fighting against the use of Christianity as a tool for strengthening authoritarianism or excluding immigrants and religious minorities,” explained Cesari.

Combating Misinformation

The panel also focused on the ways in which misinformation and disinformation challenge democratic societies, including the United States. 

“For Putin’s regime, disinformation is a way to do hybrid warfare,” explained Laruelle. “If you cannot compete economically or militarily with the United States, then you can compete in terms of producing narratives because producing narratives costs next to nothing.” 

One way to combat disinformation is to support community-building on the local level, according to the panel. Ostrovsky reflected on efforts in Estonia, where government officials have worked to counter the spread of disinformation among the country’s Russian-speaking population. 

“They decided that the best way to deal with disinformation isn’t necessarily to counter it at its source or block it on the internet,” he explained. “But it’s to take the communities that are susceptible to this disinformation and to make them feel more a part of the society.” 

Laruelle proposed a similar solution for countering Russian-sponsored misinformation or disinformation in the United States, commenting, 

I think Russia should really be seen as an echo chamber of our weaknesses. The way to fight disinformation or misinformation coming from Russia is by reinforcing our own communities and values and trying to speak to those who are disenfranchised.

This event was co-sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting with support from the Henry Luce Foundation. It complemented a closed-door session, also sponsored by the two centers, with journalists and scholars who explored social media and misinformation in comparative perspective. 

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