At a plenary debate in Strasbourg on January 17, Members of the European Parliament warned about Russia’s propaganda influence on EU countries, calling for measures to tackle the Kremlin-orchestrated leaks, fake news, disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks against the EU and its member states.

Latvian MEP Sandra Kalniete from the EPP told the plenary that Europe should take the lead in setting international rules for cyberspace. “Europe drives the international agreement on climate change and it should be among the rule makers for the cyberspace,” she said.

Kalniete also noted that here is no substitute to independent and fact-checked journalism. “Quality journalism should be supported by the governments including the EU because otherwise it would disappear and leave us all at the mercy for Kremlin and other trolls that learned how to play the social media game,” the Latvian MEP said.

Russia’s disinformation campaign has increased since the war in Ukraine, MEPs said, highlighting that Russian meddling in Brexit, but also in recent elections in France, Germany and Spain.

In the debate, European Security Union Commissioner Julian King noted that Russia’s military doctrine and generals “regard false data and destabilising propaganda as legitimate tools and information as another type of the armed force”.

“There’s seems frankly little doubt that the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign is an orchestrated strategy delivering the same disinformation stories in as many languages, though as many channels as possible as often as possible,” King said. “This conclusion is based on two-years work by the EU’s East Stratcom Task Force, which has gathered more than 3,500 examples of pro-Kremlin disinformation contradicting publically available facts repeated on many languages on many occasions,” he added.

King welcomed MEPs’ suggestions to strengthen EU strategic communication team and said that the Commission will table a strategy on fake news in the spring.

The Security Union Commissioner said the Commission strong supports “measures to build our cyber resilience and our cyber deterrence. Rightly, there has been a focus on the wider phenomenon of fake news. It’s one of the Commission’s priorities for the coming year. As we heard in November last year we established a high-level expert group, which has now started its work to advice the Commission on scooping the phenomenon, grasping its international dimension, defining roles and responsibilities of relevant stakeholders and presenting recommendations”.

MEPs regretted the EU’s limited response, noting that the EU’s tiny 17-strong strategic communication team is striving to counteract Russian propaganda tools, such as Sputnik or Russia Today, that have a billion euro backing, the European Parliament said in a press release.

To improve EU resilience to these tools, MEPs called for measures to improve media literacy, raise awareness, promote independent and investigative journalism, and revise the EU audiovisual directive so as to mandate national regulators to enforce zero tolerance of hate speech.

MEPs also stressed the need to improve the transparency of media ownership and funding of political parties and their campaigns. As social media are becoming the main news source for many, they should abide by the same rules other media, some MEPs added.