The dangers of the spreading ‘disinformation virus’

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Indrė Krivaitė
Indrė Krivaitė

Communications Assistant at Friends of Europe

As the coronavirus has spread, so too has the disinformation associated with it. Plenty of misleading reports, fake news and ludicrous conspiracy theories can be found on the Internet. Some of this content can be attributed to ordinary citizens searching for answers and guidance in these unsettling times. However, beyond fictitious claims spread by ill-informed citizens, certain state and non-state actors appear to be exploiting the current pandemic to further geopolitical goals.

For example, pro-Kremlin sources, including Sputnik and RT, have floated some flabbergasting – often contradictory – ideas relating to the deadly virus with the apparent aim of sowing confusion and mistrust among Western societies. Russian state-owned media has alleged that the virus is of Western origin, suggesting in particular that COVID-19 was created in NATO laboratories or, alternatively, in Latvia. A number of articles have targeted the European Union itself, insinuating that it is on the brink of collapse or that it is exploiting the crisis to advance its self-interest. There have also been claims placing blame for the pandemic on vulnerable minorities.

These are not the first – nor the last – cases of disinformation emanating from Russian state-owned media or so-called Russian trolls. Between late January and early April this year, over a thousand pro-Kremlin disinformation items in over 20 languages, including English, Russian, Serbian and Arabic, were identified by the EEAS East StratCom Task Force, with 21.5% relating to the coronavirus pandemic. The total number of debunked disinformation cases on EUvsDisinfo since its launch in 2015 has now surpassed 8,000.

The importance of combatting this ‘disinformation virus’ cannot be overstated for two key reasons. Firstly, as Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated earlier this month, “disinformation can cost lives,” especially during a global pandemic, when it is crucial that the public receives accurate, verified and up-to-date information regarding the situation and the guidance to be followed. As the update of the EEAS special report on COVID-19 disinformation underlines, disinformation can have very harmful implications for public health and effective crisis communication. In unsettling times like these, it is easy for adversaries to exploit people’s fear and anxiety, and to offer answers to their questions by spreading information which, albeit deceitful and misleading, can seem trustworthy in times of despair.

The EU cannot afford to stand idly by as narratives that call into question its institutions and the very values upon which it was founded, are spread

Secondly, while the current coronavirus crisis will, sooner or later, come to an end, recent false narratives surrounding COVID-19 constitute a wider, systematic effort aimed at undermining trust in democratic institutions in the EU and beyond. The Union and its member states must be well-prepared to face – and counter – this long-term disinformation campaign.

Already weakened by crises such as Brexit, the failure to manage migration flows, democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland, all against the background of growing nationalism and declining multilateralism, the EU cannot afford to stand idly by as narratives that call into question its institutions and the very values upon which it was founded, are spread.

Aware of the threat that disinformation poses, the EU has, since 2015, taken several important steps. The Union’s capabilities to identify and fight disinformation were boosted with the creation of the StratCom Task Force and EU Hybrid Fusion Cell in the EEAS. The Rapid Alert System, a key element of the EU’s 2018 Action Plan Against Disinformation, has facilitated information exchange between EU institutions and member states. Importantly, the EU has been working with online platforms and leading social networks, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, through a voluntary Code of Practice on disinformation. This has improved transparency of online political advertisements and helped curtail manipulative use of their services.

In the context of the coronavirus crisis specifically, the EU has rightly made dismantling disinformation a key priority. Cooperation with online platforms has been reinforced, von der Leyen has personally urged citizens to beware of false claims and to follow guidance given by public health authorities, and the European Commission’s website includes a section helping citizens separate fact from fiction.

This information battle is a question of winning hearts and minds, and a lot – if not everything – is at stake

However, much remains to be done to counter disinformation within the EU. The future will show whether the 2019 increase in the East StratCom Task Force’s budget and staff is sufficient. Seeing as disinformation is still widespread on digital platforms, more concerted efforts are needed to ensure social networks carry out commitments under the Code of Practice and enable users to better identify disinformation.

Raising public awareness of disinformation and improving communication to educate citizens on what the EU is, what it does and how it benefits European citizens will remain crucial in enhancing societal resilience. Civil society must be empowered and tapped into in the fight against disinformation, and community-driven solutions should be explored.

Lithuania, with its whole-of-society approach, can be taken as a positive example in this regard. The cornerstone of its counter-disinformation efforts has been Debunk.eu, an initiative funded by Google and DELFI, that combines the forces of the media, civil society and state representatives. An AI-based tool is used to search and flag potential disinformation items, and Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry, news outlets, think tanks and universities are all involved in scrutinising these cases. Debunk.eu also gets support from over 4,000 so-called ‘elves‘ – volunteers, ranging from journalists and IT professionals to scientists who take on Internet trolls and seek to identify and debunk disinformation.

EU institutions should do their utmost to support member states’ efforts and identify effective ways of coordinating and exchanging best practices. This information battle is a question of winning hearts and minds, and a lot – if not everything – is at stake. To remain relevant and to be the project it was intended to be, the EU must invest serious efforts into containing the dangerous disinformation virus.

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