Information Cold War

EU steps up efforts to combat Russian interference in 2019 elections


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For more than a decade the Kremlin has waged a sophisticated brand of hybrid warfare against the West that uses disinformation, often labelled “fake news” in today’s parlance and outright propaganda, to help influence elections and foment social upheaval that benefits Russia’s foreign policy objective of fracturing both the EU and NATO.

After years of hand-wringing and indecisiveness, the EU announced that it will launch what it calls “a war against disinformation” that will see new funding and measures allocated to fight the spread of Moscow’s disinformation campaign as the EU gears up for European parliament elections in May of next year.

Backed by the findings of intelligence agencies in the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Estonia, and Denmark – as well as the United States and Canada – Brussels has accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of having spent more than €1 billion on a concerted disinformation campaign run by Moscow›s military intelligence, the GRU, to “spread lies” and cause irreparable divisions in Europe.

“Disinformation is part of Russian military doctrine and its strategy to divide and weaken the west. Russia spends €1.1bn a year on pro-Kremlin media. You will also have heard of the ‘troll factory’ based in St Petersburg and the bot armies,” said European Commission Vice-President Andrus Ansip, adding, “We have seen attempts to interfere in elections and referendums, with the evidence pointing directly to Russia as a major source of these (disinformation) campaigns.”

European Commissioner for Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip, EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality Vera Jourova, European Commissioner for Security Union Julian King, and EU Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel give a press conference on the bloc's Action Plan to counter Russian disinformation in Brussels, December 5, 2018.EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ

European Commissioner for Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip, EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality Vera Jourova, European Commissioner for Security Union Julian King, and EU Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel give a press conference on the bloc’s Action Plan to counter Russian disinformation in Brussels, December 5, 2018.EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ

The EU’s foreign policy chief. Federica Mogherini, and Ansip, unveiled a new action plan to counter Russia’s efforts which include a rapid alert system to help EU members identify both disinformation and Kremlin-sponsored propaganda efforts. The new €5 million strategy will also direct its attention to deepening the EU’s cooperation with technology companies in the hope that they play a bigger part in cracking down on fake news.

The “alert system” will monitor the implementation of the EU’s Code of Practice that has already been signed by electronic platforms. Social media platforms such as Facebook have already committed to follow the Code of conduct, though many within the Commission worry that companies such as Google or Facebook are less-than-enthusiastic about “getting serious”, as the security commissioner, Julian King, said when it comes to actually filter and report Russian-produced propaganda.

“No excuses, no more foot-dragging, because the risks are real,” said King. “We need to see urgent improvement in how adverts are placed. Greater transparency around sponsored content, fake accounts rapidly, effectively identified and deleted,” he added in reference to Facebook’s recent admission that up to 90 million fake accounts have been registered on their platform, many of which have been traced back to the legions of Russian bots and online trolls that had a hand in shaping public opinion in both Britain and the United States ahead of the UK’s Brexit vote in 2016 and the American presidential election less than six months later. 

The Commission had in recent months announced that it would more than double the budget for a specialised unit responsible for the fight against Russian disinformation, taking it from an initial €1.9 million to €5 million, but, according to Ansip – a former prime minister of Estonia, the EU’s investment pales in comparison to the €1 million spent by Moscow on a monthly basis to spread discord amongst the Western allies.

“€5 million is not enough for the means implemented by Russia. Our aim is not to create something like they have already in Russia. We will not create some kind of propaganda machine in Europe. What ee would like to do is detect the disinformation and then understand where those threats are coming from, who is behind the disinformation and then debunking them by using facts to expose lies.”,” said Ansip, who went so far as to insist that other EU members need to consider that an annual budget of €50 million would be needed to fully counter Putin’s efforts to attack European institutions. 

Not wanting to mince words, the EU’s digital economy commissioner, Mariya Gabriel, compared Russia’s aggressive efforts to interfere in the democratic processes of the European Union as nothing short of an information war, a sentiment that was backed by Ansip who said that the Soviet-era KGB spent roughly 85% of its annual budget for intelligence operations outside of the Soviet Union on spreading lies and disinformation – a total that has now been surpassed by its successor, the FSB, and the GRU. 

Though its action plan remains modest and somewhat unpolished, the European Commission has said that the framework of the strategy would see the 28 members of the bloc bolster their communication efforts to detect information both on the internet and on airwaves that appears aimed at spreading the Kremlin’s line when it comes to influencing policy and social matters that are important to Europe – including elections, human rights, defence, enlargement, the economy, NATO, and energy affairs.

The EU’s Code of Practice includes a key entry that requires social media platforms to guarantee the transparency of their advertising policies, including having to reveal when messages are automatically spread from bots, and working with event auditors and academic researchers to detect disinformation through a verification process that ensures that online content that is disseminated is controlled by hard facts.

As relations between the West and Russia move ever deeper into a second Cold War, the EU’s early warning system is a small step in the right direction to help bolster Europe’s efforts to defend their democracies. While the plan still needs to be approved by EU leaders, both NATO and the European Union must recognise that their attempts to defend the integrity of next year’s parliamentary elections must not stop with this first salvo at countering the Kremlin. 

Putin still has at his disposal the thousands of highly competent programmers and hackers, as well as state-of-the-art media organisations such as Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik that are staffed by hundreds of well-paid and English-speaking journalists that are charged with spreading pro-Kremlin propaganda and calling into question the validity and moral authority of the West’s democracies.

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