The EU faces a never ending list of challenges: Brexit, the Catalan independence claim, illiberal democracies in Central Europe, terrorist attacks, military conflicts in neighboring countries. The Russian Federation clearly benefits from those problems, but what role does it really play in European troubles? Why is Russian propaganda so successful in the EU?
On November 13th, the EU made a step towards enhancing its security – 23 states agreed to integrate their defense forces. Just a year ago, this seemed almost impossible. The defense ministers’ talks in Bratislava in September 2016 indicated that there would be no joint EU force and no EU military HQ for a long time to come. As French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian admitted during the last ministers’ meeting in Brussels: “It [the agreement] comes at a time of significant tension”.
However, as aggressors in the modern world are boosting their use of hybrid warfare, it is essential that the EU starts considering these threats more seriously, too. So far, the significance of information campaigns and propaganda has been highly underestimated in the EU, regardless of the fact that these tools form a solid basis for all the quasi-military threats, such as terrorist attacks.
Lack of funds, lack of confidence
On the same day in Brussels, the EU foreign ministers also discussed the issue of Russian disinformation. This debate was scheduled after eight member states (Croatia, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Sweden, and the UK) urged Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs, to strengthen her service’s counter-propaganda department. Not to mention that 4 days prior, the EU foreign affairs chief was blamed for not taking proper measures to fight propaganda and for not defining Russia “as the main source of hostile disinformation”; as it is stated in the declaration signed by 65 security experts and MPs from 21 countries. Moreover, “the experts call on EU member states to acknowledge the hybrid threat from Russia and to conduct together targeted research to obtain clear data on which segments of their society believe the most common Kremlin disinformation narratives”.
However, what is needed to carry out this task is not only acknowledgment of its importance, but also money. Citing some diplomats, EUobserver underlined that “the request for additional funds to counter Russian propaganda is unlikely to lead to much”. Given that the expectations for those talks were very low, the outcome was not surprising.
In fact, Mogherini has been already reproached a few times for not considering hybrid threats from Russia seriously enough. This mainly concerns the East StratCom department at EEAS. Created in spring 2015, the East StratCom Task Force team still lacks sufficient stuff and funding. There are only three national experts working on this crucial task (gathering, analyzing and debunking fake news, issuing Disinformation Review, conducting a relevant research); they do not have their own budget to buy tools such as media and big data analysis products. Apart from that, this is a temporary unit, which can be dissolved any time. It is essential to bear in mind that these three experts, along with 20 seconded diplomats and officials, are supposed to confront the Russian disinformation machine, which is worth around 3,5 billion USD annually. They are furthermore tasked with countering Islamic radicalization as well.
The first proposal for a € 2mln budget for sufficient research was rejected last year. The new Federica Mogherini’s request for providing financing for the counter-propaganda department will be filed to EU finance ministers in early 2018.
The latest information invasion
Given that Russia’s main aim is to weaken, divide, or even, as Brian Whitmore from Radio Free Europe said at a College of Europe Natolin event, “destroy” the EU, it uses every available opportunity to work towards this goal. Therefore, all controversies and internal EU disputes are immediately taken into account and used by Kremlin disinformation forces.
The recent events in Catalonia are one example. Spain’s Foreign Minister, Alfonso Dastis, mentioned in Brussels that there was evidence that false Russian social media accounts had tried to fuel Catalan separatism. This can be proved also by data from East StratCom, which shows that “Russian state media RT and Sputnik’s Spanish-language services boosted coverage of the crisis from about four stories per week, to more than 200, in the run-up to the vote”. These fake stories harm both the Spanish and Catalan side.
It should be noted that RT and Sputnik were denied access to the press conference on May 29, 2017 in Versailles, where French president Emmanuel Macron, standing by Putin, called them “agents of influence”.
The Russian security services are constantly trying to influence public opinion in all the EU countries. The latest complaints came from the minister of the Interior of the Netherlands, Kajsa Ollongren and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May.
How are the made-up facts created?
Fakes and manipulations with communication are not an invention of our times. They were prominent throughout history, from Plato’s “noble lies”, which were allowed to be used in some situations for the sake of preserving peace in society, to all the 17th-19th century intrigues in monarchs’ courts. However, until recently, it was a lot easier to determine what was true and what was false. Now lies, being created and promoted by powerful industries, have become an in a winning position.
Some blame postmodernists for introducing and establishing cynical approach to truth and facts. According to the modernistic approach, nobody happens to be a source of objective truth, since everybody’s truth in general is a relative notion. Due to this, calling something a lie is perceived as subjective judgement, as there are neither lies nor truth, but just different points of view. In this case, certainty appears to be in-between, so-called “arithmetic mean”.
This system can work quite well as long as actors that are involved in it adhere to some rules of this game – in particular, moral principles.
What we experience today is not an alternative view, but lies or ‘half-truths’, which are generated and spread on purpose.
In this respect, in the majority of cases, fake information is taken into account as an opinion, as a point of view. It works especially well if a piece of fake narrative is mixed or decorated with certain real facts.
When it comes to sources of spreading disinformation, social media is by far the most effective one. They work extremely well for both single fake stories as well as extensive information campaigns, like Brexit and the US Presidential Election. On October 31, senior executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter submitted their testimonies for the first hearing by the U.S. Congress on how Russia was using these platforms to spread disinformation during the 2016 presidential election. It dedicated most of its attention to Facebook. According to the latest data, Russian disinformation reached almost 126 million U.S. Facebook users during election campaign.
Twitter is also catching up. On November 15, The Times introduced the results of a new study conducted by Swansea University and the University of California, Berkeley, which shows that over 156,000 Russian-based Twitter accounts were tweeting extensively about Brexit in the days before the referendum. This is done by trolls at so called ‘troll factories’, the most infamous of which has recently .
Why do we believe made-up facts?
This is how we reached a point that “post-truth” was named 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. Why? I guess the answer lies in the definition. Post-truth means “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.
Although a few decades ago the lies declared by politicians still assumed that there was a hidden truth that should not be disclosed, nowadays the fake narratives do not assume any hidden truth in them. Only those things that can make people believe in them matter. The Kremlin administration, Brexit ideologists, Trump’s communication officers and other actors of “post-truth politics” are clearly aware of this fact.
For example, the emotionally appealing advertising of pro-Brexit campaigners, based on factual deceit, was exposed publicly more than once. Nevertheless, as a consequence of emotional dominance, the electorate surrendered to being deceived by cheap lies.
Apart from that, attacking and blaming reputable media is another tool of disinformation. In case people are convinced that literally everybody lies, it will be easier to dodge accusations while producing fake news. To enhance effectiveness, manipulators create information bubbles with certain target audiences and thoroughly prepare every piece of disinformation for a respective group. Therefore, what is considered as an extremism in a usual surrounding is perceived as a normal thing in a bubble of extremists.
According to Brian Whitmore, while the producers of propaganda are simply afraid of the West as an idea is, the main aim of disinformation is to make us stop believing in our essence, in our nature, in what we are. They take advantage of the fact that people very often do not bother with an ethical evaluation of things they encounter. We are so used to taking all good things for granted that we tend not to notice the breach of basic moral values. However, it is our moral core that helps us make sense of the world we live in. If we do not preserve those basic values that ensure that we live our life in peace, freedom and prosperity, we risk that very soon we will experience the other side of the coin. As Brian Whitmore recapped his speech at the College of Europe (Natolin) on November 7: “You will be surprised how many citizens are about the violation of democratic norms”. The Kremlin is aware of how to use this ignorance to fulfill its aggressive purposes. While our consciousness is sleeping, our minds are being invaded by mendacious politics.
What about you? Are you a part of that crowd which still believes in truth?