Budapest Forum 2022: When Fake News Goes Mainstream – State-sponsored Disinformation and Effective Countermeasures



  • Jamie Fly, President and Chief Executive Officer, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
  • Sergei Guriev, Provost and Professor of Economics at Sciences Po, Paris
  • Ilya Yablokov, Lecturer, University of Sheffield
  • Helena Ivanov, Associate Research Fellow, Henry Jackson Society
  • Moderator: Péter Krekó, Executive director, Political Capital



The problem of disinformation is an increasing challenge for modern societies. Unlike in the 20th Century, modern autocrats of the 21st Century use information and disinformation as a way to control societies, and leverage power, while presenting themselves as democratic politicians. The current war between Russia and Ukraine has highlighted how “spin autocracies” use disinformation narratives to legitimise armed conflicts and escalate the war beyond the actual conflict zones, export their harmful propaganda abroad. Past wars, such as the Yugoslav Wars, provide us with important lessons on how to identify manipulation attempts or the institutions spearheading propaganda in the hands of states. Power based on propaganda or disinformation is a two-way street since it can both make the majority of people distrust any authority or it can contribute to alternative political efforts to establish a democratic turn over time.

Main takeaways

  • In the 20th century dictators would terrorise their citizens into submission, in the 21st century, the majority of dictators wear civilian suits and, they pretend to be democrats. They use the manipulation of information through propaganda, narratives and, hidden censorship. Censorship is banned in the open, instead, they co-opt media, pay journalist and use targeted repression to target journalistic freedom.
  • “Spin dictators” are the new breed of dictators who are better suited to the modern world, where you are still part of the civilised (international) community, they are not an outcast. This way they prosper in the modern world. They do not need imprison people they just need to control the stream of information.
  • Spin dictators try to manipulate audiences abroad using trolls, influence agents or “enablers” to undermine Western institutions. Most importantly, they export corruption which enable influence agents to gain leverage over international organisations. Even if these actors become deconspired, they can go home and claim that the West is as much corrupt as their regimes.
  • The Kremlin constructed a very efficient model to spread information both domestically and abroad, using intellectuals, think tanks, and trolls to manipulate information, and spread conspiracy theories. The leadership of Russia used to be very rational. What we do not know what happened in the last five years. We can speculate that the Russian authoritarian leader became isolated from the world, he fell for his own propaganda, and biased reports what Vladimir Putin wanted to see. Starting in 2012 when he returned to power, the dominance of conspiratorial narrative, produced his own propaganda machine, reached the Kremlin’s boss. His current thinking is very conspiratorial, and anti-West, it’s very far from a rational way a politician should assess what is happening in the world.
  • The propaganda experienced during the Yugoslav Wars proved how important it was that the state inherited the communist structure of media ownership. For example, the Serbian state television and radio was watched by 4 million people during the 1990s. You basically had one national broadcaster, the absolute authority over what people thought.
  • These days, the privately owned media, the rise of social media platforms make it more complicated when it comes to censorship or propaganda. There are privately owned media that are, in fact, government-controlled outlets because someone close to the government is the owner or governments have other ways to exert their influence over the media.
  • Even though we have more sources of information right now, they are not necessarily more objective or impartial. With the rise of social media platforms, we see the rise of troll farms sponsored by the government in the Western Balkans. The problem of disinformation, however, is not only a problem in the Western Balkans, it is a global problem. Various leaders try to manipulate social media, but we cannot escape it due to the “epistemic dependency.”
  • When it comes to the future, the most interesting thing concerns the future of spin dictators, are their regimes sustainable indefinitely or not. Some are transforming into democracies like Ecuador, Armenia. Some are also travelling back in time and turning into autocracies, such as Venezuela.
  • Every propaganda has its limits. In Russia, some polling results show that 25% of the population is supporting propaganda. There is, however, a silent majority whose attitude is about not to formulate any critique. Moreover, they do not trust either Russian, Ukrainian, or United States authorities because they think that there is no truth.

Policy recommendations

  • The West needs to expose and resist the new type of dictatorship by highlighting these regimes’ corruption. We need to recognise that “spin dictators” are still dictators despite having elections, limited media freedom or opposition.
  • The threat of disinformation needs to be tackled especially in this region in the current crisis. The media needs more transparency in terms of connection to the government. Facebook or Twitter already states if a media is connected to the Kremlin.
  • With certain technologies, people trained in critical thinking using social media platforms can formulate trusted messages. Funding or opening foreign-based media, such as BBC in Serbia or RFE/RL in Europe can offer people alternative sources of information.

This event was sponsored by the ERSTE Stiftung.