Today, the European Union presented its long-awaited Action Plan against disinformation. That’s good news. After several years of belittling the threat of hostile disinformation activities, and after several electoral processes heavily influenced by them, Europe’s institutions best placed to deal with the disinformation challenge on a continental level have decided to take on the challenge.
The plan is a good step forward because it explicitly names Russia as the main threat, and also because it increases the funds for EastStratCom, a counter-disinformation unit within European External Action Service, the office charged with carrying out European foreign policy.
What we need now is a follow-up in the sense of a speedy implementation. The extra resources need to be dedicated to those people who have a track-record in countering disinformation, not to units that talk about “strategic communication”, but in fact do not deliver in countering disinformation. And we also still need to see a concrete strategy for the upcoming elections to the European Parliament on 25 May 2019 – an election in which massive Russian meddling is to be expected.
The problem still is that even three years after the Heads of States and governments asked for countering “the ongoing Russia’s disinformation campaign”, we still do not have answers to some very basic questions. And we still lack answers to questions related to other actors involved in spreading disinformation, like China, Iran, Daesh, or home-grown extremists.
Ideally, the implementation of the Action Plan should result in getting answers to these questions, otherwise, the EU will remain like a soldier headed into battle without knowing who or where the enemy – or indeed the battlefield – is.
Specifically, the questions that still remain unanswered are:
- How many disinformation actors has the EU identified, both state and non-state? Who are they?
- What are the aims, methods, tools, channels, and achievements of these actors?
- What are their resources? How much does each spend on spreading disinformation within the EU and in countries where the EU has interests?
- How big is the threat posed by each actor?
- How do these actors cooperate with one another?
- How many channels does each disinformation actor control?
- How many messages do they disseminate daily?
- How many people do they target daily?
- How many people do they persuade? Do any opinion polls show how many people buy into disinformation messages spread by actors hostile to the EU and its values and goals? Do surveys gauge the success of the latest disinformation attacks?
If we do not understand that in Central and Eastern Europe influence operations rely heavily on email chains, we might mistakenly focus too much on social media platforms to solve the problem. If we do not distinguish between the actor who spreads disinformation merely for financial gain and the one who is trying to weaken our democracies, threaten the rule-based order and influence our electoral processes, then we could easily propose disproportionate solutions or even pretend that one set of fixes will apply to all hostile actors. If we do not measure regularly how many people buy into disinformation messaging, and who are they, then we do not know how big a problem we face, and whether our counter-measures are successful, or not.
The EU has the capacity to do this job (and at a time of Euro-skepticism, this is an opportunity for it to show its worth). No other entity in Europe could answer these questions: Member states lack the mandate and continent-wide knowledge, and no research organization in the world would have the resources for such a huge exercise.
Of course, civil society has a role to play, and think tanks, foundations, and networks of individuals are indispensable in this effort, as well as media. But if the EU does not take the lead in answering these questions, they likely will never be answered. That is why the Action Plan is a great step forward, but it needs to be implemented swiftly and followed up by a comprehensive strategy. And if the follow-up ignores the need to answer these questions, it might be another victory for the enemies of freedom.
Jakub Kalenský is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council focusing on disinformation. From 2015 to 2018, he was the East StratCom’s lead on the EUvsDisinfo campaign.
Roland Freudenstein is the Policy Director of the Martens Centre, the think tank of the center-right European People’s Party, based in Brussels