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War of words: how Europe is fighting back against Russian disinformation

For a little more than a year, a small group of eight officials with the EU’s European External Action Service (EEAS) has been working on a counter-propaganda strategy that reads like something out of the Cold War. The initiative was the result of a decision at a summit of the European Council in March 2015 which concluded that action was needed to “challenge Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns”.

There was talk of a European Russian-language TV station to go head-to-head with RT, Russia’s English language news and current affairs channel, but this never came to fruition – it was felt that, as with the New Cold War narrative so beloved of the mainstream media, it had the capacity to return EU-Russia relations to a state of “us-versus-them” relations in which both sides had engaged, essentially, in a propaganda war.

Nevertheless, by 2015, it had become difficult even for those EU states that were friendliest with Russia to pretend the Kremlin was not bent on a campaign of agitation against the West. The work of Kremlin trolls particularly had caused concern. Trolls use a range of methods, including concocting conspiracy theories, distorting the “facts” and delivering a barrage of pro-Kremlin and anti-Western messages, all designed to have insidious effects.

However, the problem went far deeper and wider. There are worries about the reach of Russian domestic media into the homes of Russian speakers in neighbouring states and the destabilising effects that can have. But anxiety has moved even further westwards– the Kremlin has invested heavily in international media projects, including RT. Russian media were accused of fuelling discord in Germany over its refugee policy, especially in relation to the New Year Cologne attacks and a little later, the alleged rape of a Russian girl.

Limits of the law

One strategy to counter this was to turn to the law in an attempt to bring Russian media to account for their propaganda-style methods. In March 2014, the British broadcasting regulator, Ofcom found TV Novosti, the licence holder for RT, guilty of four counts of breach of the impartiality code when covering events in Ukraine in March of the same year for UK audiences. Ofcom noted in its report that this was not the first breach by TV Novosti of impartiality standards.

The effectiveness of a recourse to law can be judged by the fact that Ofcom called for TV Novosti to “attend a meeting”, talking only about the possibility of regulatory action in the case of further breaches. This goes some way towards explaining the decision to establish the disinformation service.

Other reasons lie in Russia’s undeniable success in generating an impression of actively interfering in the domestic affairs of other states – even if not having actually done so. Nowhere has this been more visible than in the US election campaigns and especially the alleged hacking by Russians of the Democratic National Committee emails at a sensitive time for Hillary Clinton. Vladimir Putin’s comment that it didn’t really matter who hacked them, that it amounted to a public service, was a typically crafty way of maintaining legal deniability while giving the impression that it could if it wanted. This episode further illustrates the difficulty faced by the EU in countering Russian disinformation.

Claim and counter-claim

The UN aid convoy attacked in Aleppo on September 19. EPA/Syria civil defence

While the EEAS skirts around the term “propaganda”, events in recent days have made clear that the US considers that the West is engaged in a propaganda war with Russia. From the killing of Syrian soldiers by the US in an airstrike – which was regretfully acknowledged by Western sources which insist it was an accident – to the alleged Russian or Syrian airstrikes of an aid convoy in which 20 or more people – including aid workers – died, the two states are engaged in a war of words over the most terrible of circumstances.

In a UN Security Council meeting on September 21, a clearly exasperated US secretary of state, John Kerry, talked of the need for Russia to accept responsibility for its actions and of his Russian counterpart living in a “parallel universe”. Russia remained unmoved, continuing to insist on its concern that ceasefires not be used instrumentally by the opposition to win ground against Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Talking back

Understanding the context in which the EU has bolstered its strategic communications by focusing on a disinformation campaign is to understand it, therefore, as a reactionary force. Take the campaign website as the first component. Lest anyone doubt its purpose, the banner is clear on motivation, speaking of “pro-Kremlin disinformation”, “fake media stories”, with its boldest lettering reserved for the message “don’t be deceived, question even more”.

Fighting back in the war of words.

In its FAQs, the EEAS says its EastStratCom Task Force is not in place to “engage in counter-propaganda” but rather “to proactively promote the European Union’s policy towards the eastern neighbourhood”. Given the circumstances of its creation, its “EUMythbusters” tweets and the fact that its digest “does not constitute an official EU position”, these statements must be read with some scepticism.

All told, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that agreeing on the need to counter Russian disinformation is tacit admittance of a prior weakness on the EU’s part – even of a failure to be an effective communicator in its own right. Only time will tell whether the EU’s strategic communications can take on the more proactive and positively grounded direction the EEAS claims it already has.

At the same time, we should not dismiss the possibility that the harder line taken by the US in this regard may yet be adopted by the EU as well. This would signal a very negative step. Bridges, not barriers, are needed here. The EEAS is right to try and emphasise the objective of countering disinformation rather than trying to beat Russia in a propaganda war. The EU must also realise that Russia’s propaganda is, to a large extent, falling on fertile ground. Europe has a growing homegrown crisis as nationalism and populism takes hold in a number of its states and must resist the temptation to blame Russia for that.

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