Russia is waging a dirty ‘fake news’ war in Europe aimed at furthering its own interests and the EU is failing to adequately respond in time for the upcoming EU Parliamentary Elections.
Moscow’s disinformation apparatus is highly sophisticated. The Washington Post outlines that since 2014, a series of multi-language Russian distortion campaigns have worked to disrupt political discourse and democratic processes in various EU nations. Russia has now turned its sights steadfastly on France, using disinformation to exploit the deep-seated discontentment of French citizens. Such rancour has manifested in the gilets jaunes, an activist movement where social media information is central to its methods and organisation.
Since its inception in October 2018, the gilets jaunes have caused chaos and political headaches for French President Emmanuel Macron, who, on 11 December 2018, capitulated to certain demands. This was seen as damaging to Macron’s left-centrist government and French democracy as a whole. It prompted France to probe into Russian social-media accounts that have been using the hashtag #giletsjaunes to generate incessant dubious and incendiary content, intended to exacerbate and disrupt truthful reporting. This comes despite Macron’s attempts at national legislation designed to combat ‘fake news’ distributed by foreign-owned media.
Ryan Fox, of cyber security company New Knowledge, told Wired recently that analysis of Twitter data reveals that since the start of the protests, 340 purpose-built Twitter accounts have posted up to 1600 #giletsjaunes-related posts daily.
Many of the ‘fake news’ posts originate or are propagated by Russian state-owned media accounts including Sputnik and RT news networks, working together with state-sanctioned ‘trolls’ who pose online as journalists or normal citizens. They have been responsible in particular for retweeting falsehoods about the French state’s response to the protests. Such disinformation includes exaggerated stories of police brutality and the targeting of 12 Russian state-journalists in the protests.
What is Russia’s end game?
Moscow’s disinformation campaign seeks to confuse the public and voting citizens by manipulating reliable flows of information and blurring truth with fiction. A bewildered public therefore begins to distrust its own government and media, in turn the core of the liberal civil and political sphere is destabilised.
Through such methods, Russia is becoming increasingly effective in swaying public opinion, feeding off existing social and ideological tensions in not only France but in other EU-member states. US and UK intelligence points to strong evidence of Russian involvement in the outcome of the 2016 Brexit vote and the 2017 referendum for Catalonian independence. By attacking the very nature of ‘truth’, Russia is undermining the entire European project in a bid to ultimately swing power in Eurasia back towards Moscow.
Commentators fear Russia is stepping up its efforts ahead of the May 2019 European Parliamentary elections and the more than 50 regional and state elections being held across the EU in the next 12 months. Russian influence could help elect more Euro-sceptic anti-establishment parties that are already gaining control in EU member states.
A weak EU response
Current EU policy is struggling to balance media freedom with the threat of Russian political hacking and disinformation.
In November 2018, Think tank European Values released an open letter demanding the EU Commission increase resources to the only union-wide dedicated anti-disinformation task force (EEAS’s East STRATCOM). The taskforce’s €5 million budget is dwarfed by Russia’s estimated €526 million spending on state broadcasters Russia Today (RT) and VGTRK, known to be responsible for a large part of the disinformation online. This is in addition to the estimated one thousand full-time staff who operate the Moscow-led Internet Research Agency – AKA Internet ‘troll factory’.
Responding to increased urgency, the EU Commission announced an Action Plan promising ‘continuous and sustained efforts to support education and media literacy, journalism, fact-checkers, researchers, and the civil society as a whole’. The plan includes a Rapid Alert System to warn of disinformation and places responsibility on technology companies such as Facebook and Twitter to assist further in identifying and removing content from erroneous sources.
Further, approaches including increasing media literacy programs in places like Italy and Belgium, or the UK’s creation of specialised taskforces, are beginning to take hold. But it’s very late in the game
In the ‘post-truth era’, the EU is losing against Russia’s asymmetrical disinformation war and its under-resourced measures do not go far enough. The EU is being inhibited by its ideals of media freedom, holding itself to a moral standard to which Russian state-ideology lacks allegiance.
With the threat this great, the EU must explore legislation that bans or even criminalises the intentional spread of false information by foreign-backed news outlets and fake online accounts.
A much stronger Europe-wide concerted strategy is required to combat Russia’s war on truth before further damage is done.
Dominic Simonelli is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.