The EU response to pro-Kremlin disinformation

#CriticalThinking

Picture of European Union External Action Service
European Union External Action Service

EEAS East StratCom Task Force combats and responds to disinformation

The European Union’s East StratCom Task Force was set up by High Representative Federica Mogherini in 2015 in response to a request from all 28 Heads of Government to “address Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns”. The team comprises fourteen communications and Russian language experts who also seek to improve communication on EU policies towards the Eastern Neighbourhood and to strengthen media plurality in the region, especially in the Russian language.

The Task Force’s flagship products are its weekly Disinformation Review of pro-Kremlin disinformation stories, its social media accounts and its new website.

In the course of two years, the Task Force has, in addition to substantially improving the EU’s outreach and positive eastward communications, developed a strong EU understanding of the tools, networks and objectives of disinformation, and raised awareness among millions, establishing itself as a leading international source of expertise on the issue. A network has been developed across the continent to identify and report disinformation, creating new channels to reach new audiences and track the most prevalent disinformation myths.

The EU vs Disinformation campaign has now identified over 3,500 disinformation cases in 18 languages. The team’s research is regularly used and quoted by politicians, governments, state agencies, researchers, think tanks and journalists across Europe and beyond.

We need to build on the increasing cooperation with member states and with other EU institutions

It has become evident that the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign is an orchestrated strategy to broadcast the same false stories in as many languages as possible, through as many channels as possible and as often as possible. Russian authorities are explicit about this too, for example through the Gerasimov doctrine – the amalgamation of war and political activity – as well as in statements by top Russian generals that “false data” and “destabilising propaganda” are legitimate tools.

The aim of this disinformation campaign is to confuse, denigrate, weaken and destabilise the West by exploiting existing divisions or creating new artificial ones. Outright lies are often deployed, but another common strategy is to spread as many conflicting messages as possible, persuading the audience that there are so many versions of events that it is impossible to find the truth. Particularly obvious examples include the clear obfuscation over the downing of flight MH17, Boris Nemtsov’s assassination and the bombing of a humanitarian convoy in Syria.

We still lack enough systematic research to produce a complete overview of disinformation, but what we do know is that it is not only the big media outlets like RT or Sputnik – whose advertising was recently banned by Twitter – that are deployed. Also in the mix are seemingly marginal sources like fringe websites, blog sites and Facebook pages.

Trolls are used not only to amplify disinformation messages but to bully those who oppose them. And the network goes wider still. NGOs and “GONGOs” (government organised NGOs), government representatives, pseudo think tanks, far-left and far-right mouthpieces are all creating the impression of independent sources confirming each other’s message.

The EU vs Disinformation campaign has now identified over 3,500 disinformation cases in 18 languages

East Stratcom Task Force has raised awareness of the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign significantly, but the problem is still underestimated. The EU and its member states face a long-term influencing campaign aimed at destabilising and weakening our societies. And this campaign is all the while gaining valuable data on the reaction of its audiences and possible new multipliers in different societies.

To address this, much more substantial monitoring and analysis of disinformation channels in the EU is needed immediately. We could then get answers to the fundamental questions that remain open, such as how many channels spread disinformation and propaganda, how many people are being exposed to disinformation, and what are the most persistent messages being delivered to them?

Priority should be given to using innovative technologies such as media analysis, risk assessment and big data instruments. Funding is also needed for research to measure how far false and misleading narratives are reaching inside the EU and its Eastern Partnership countries.

According to a recent study, 12 out of 28 EU countries have shifted their policies or taken specific steps to fight disinformation. That’s great progress, but we need an overall assessment of the effectiveness of these activities so individual countries can analyse what needs to be done in their specific contexts. And we need to make sure we are seeing the big picture across Europe, sharing our findings and moving beyond discussing the problem to addressing and pre-empting it.

Finally, we need to build on the increasing cooperation with member states and with other EU institutions to ensure a single, whole of government response. It is incumbent on us all to be more careful what media we view, and what messages we take in.

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