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The EU’s response to the threat of disinformation as part of a wider pushback against Kremlin influence
In December 2018, the European Union (EU) presented its Action Plan Against Disinformation, an important step for three reasons. The EU is finally waking up to a challenge it had taken years to notice. It was momentous that there the EU presented plan that focused on the European Commission and European External Action Service (EEAS) tackling this challenge together and named Russia as the main culprit of spreading disinformation, especially when compared to the timid track record of the EU’s institutions. The Action Plan effectively strengthens the EEAS’ East Stratcom Taskforce, which has the threefold task of proactively messaging to the Eastern Neighborhood of the EU, strengthening independent media there, and responding to and debunking Kremlin disinformation.
All this is especially relevant in the run-up to the European Parliament elections at the end of May 2019. Naturally, the Kremlin has a high interest in subverting Western democracies, as on many other occasions, by creating confusion, undermining trust in democratic institutions, and vocalizing support for radical and fringe political movements.
The Action Plan lays out several pledges designed to enact policies in time for these elections, notably: a 24/7 rapid alert system to be in place by March 2019; stepped-up efforts in messaging EU values; increasing disinformation awareness among the public and members of the media; and, most importantly, bring more member states on board to enhance their own efforts to fight disinformation. However, looking at the short time left until the European election leaves little time to fulfill these declarations, which must be followed up by implementation as soon as possible. This is in addition to the fact that they must be complemented by more sophisticated strategies in regulating social media giants.
Nevertheless, two larger problems transcend the concrete efforts by EU institutions to come to grips with the Kremlin’s information warfare. Firstly, governments and civil society must create a reasonable division of labor. Secondly, fighting disinformation and hostile influence operations by the Kremlin, and other authoritarian forces, cannot become an isolated target in itself, but must be embedded into a wider political strategy.
Many member states have, indeed, begun to tackle the disinformation challenge but they still lack a unified awareness of the problem. EU institutions need to motivate member states to understand the problem and act, instead of belittling the threat. In this capacity, civil society has a very important role to play. As much as the Kremlin’s approach to information-war is strictly top-down, from the Kremlin to the media outlets and to the troll factories, the Western defense against these moves must utilize public-private partnerships and cooperation. Governments and international institutions such as EU and NATO have their role to play but so do political parties, think tanks, foundations, and networks of individuals. This is the only valid response by free societies to the authoritarian approach of the Kremlin.
Moreover, the response to disinformation has to be embedded in stronger political efforts to tackle Kremlin subversion. Of course, the Kremlin actively undermines liberal democracy through disinformation, influence operations, and strategic corruption. But it is a dangerous mistake to accuse every Putinversteher of being on the Kremlin’s payroll or a victim of Russian disinformation. Many of the advocates of accommodating the Kremlin and opposing a robust Western response, do so because they are genuinely convinced that this is in the best interest of our countries and fellow-citizens. Even if they do receive money from Kremlin-related sources, they would do the same thing if they weren’t on the Kremlin’s payroll or otherwise directly influenced. What is needed is a political strategy to counter the Putinversteher in public debates, not in order to convince them, but in order to win the hearts and minds of the observers and bystanders. All these are important elements of a valid response of Western societies against authoritarian threats ahead of this May’s European Parliamentary and into the future.
Roland Freudenstein, is the Policy Director of the Martens Centre, the think tank of the center-right European People’s Party, based in Brussels.