Over the last years, the EU has strengthened its measures to fight disinformation and its political effects. There are many actors spreading disinformation in many fields, but the EU seems to be especially harassed about the threats coming from Russia. Top officials and institutions located in Brussels have clearly acknowledged Russia as a threat regularly engaging in information war, capable influencing and interfering in elections. During the last decade the Kremlin has actively used “soft power” strategy.
Recently, the EU top officials: High Representative and Head of the European External Action Service Josep Borrell and Vice-President of the European Commission Vera Jourova have publicly accused Russia and China of spreading of disinformation, fake news and rooting conspiracy theories to build malicious narratives on the origin and diffusion of Covid-19 and on the EU’s reactions. It worth mentioning that the Chinese activities in this regard are relatively new. The EU has been having eyes on Russia’s operations for a while. The EU acknowledged the international political effects of Russian online activism during the post-Euromaidan Russo-Ukrainian war, especially after the annexation of Crimea. During the conflict, fake news about children killed because of Ukrainian shelling, undocumented accounts of atrocities perpetrated by the Ukrainian army, and narratives based on the explicit and implicit comparisons of Ukrainian and Nazi warfare appeared daily in the Russian-speaking media. After downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in 2014, the fake news and conspiracy narratives were spread in media landscape.
Since 2014, the main EU institutions have systematically detected disinformation activities. In March 2015, the East StratCom Task Force was set up to address Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns. It is a part of the European External Action Service, focused on “effective communication” and promotion of European Union activities in Eastern Europe and beyond. Until 2016 disinformation was not on the top priority list of the EU, nor of its External Service, as reported by balcanicaucaso.
Five years later this topic has become more pressing. The Task Force has developed an online, searchable database including over 10,000 pieces of news in 18 languages, revealing and contrasting more than 7,000 cases of disinformation and highlighting their pro-Kremlin or anti-EU narratives.
After the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election of 2016 – and the connected Cambridge Analytica scandal – the efforts of the EU have intensified as a result of the inclusion of propaganda and disinformation among the tools used for hybrid warfare, one of the newest elements of the Resolution of the European Parliament on Strategic Communication. It was in 2018 that the EU adopted the Action Plan against Disinformation and implemented the Code of Practice on Disinformation. While the former clarified the EU’s definition of disinformation and restated the need to reconcile the fight against disinformation with the respect and protection of the freedom of expression, one of the core values of the Union, the latter established the core principles of a cooperation with business actors operating in the field of communication, media, and online platforms sector. Within the EEAS Division on Strategic Communication two new specialised communication teams were established for other geo-cultural areas of the Neighbourhood: a Task Force for Western Balkans and a Task Force South for the Arab-speaking countries. On the basis of the Action Plan, a Rapid Alert System was implemented to meet the challenge posed by diffusion of disinformation.
The Baltic countries-EU members were more proactive as far as acknowledging the risks connected to disinformation is concerned and developing the necessary tools and policies. Such members – like Austria or Italy – took it surprisingly easy, despite the diffusion of disinformation in their public debates and their citizens’ perceptions about the seriousness of the problem. Also, the Danish, British, and German accusations to the Russian government of having attempted at interfering in their domestic political arenas through cyber-attacks and information manipulation have contributed to urge the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament to declare strategic communication “a matter of high priority”. The most recent initiatives undertaken by the EU in order to fight against disinformation: the European Digital Media Observatory, a project aiming at creating and supporting the work of an independent multidisciplinary community capable of contributing to a deeper understanding of the disinformation phenomenon and to increase societal resilience to it; and the decision to establish a Media Ownership Monitor stated in the European Democracy Action Plan, presented by the European Commission at the beginning of December prove that the disinformation and strategic communication are understood in primis as a threat from the East and especially from Russia and will be a priority for the EU also for the next decade, crucial for achieving consensus and stability within the Union and to define and project a distinctive foreign policy identity.
Russia’s accusations stated to Germany and some other EU countries of conducting “a mass disinformation campaign” against Moscow regarding the Navalny affair prove the fact that the information confrontation has just started.