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18th Jan 2019

EU diplomats to get training on 'fake news'

  • "Disinformation is a risk for the EU and we are ready to tackle it", Muresan said (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

The EU will spend €1.1 million on training diplomats to monitor fake news, amid growing alarm on Russian propaganda.

The funds, as well as related measures worth another €3.8 million, will be rubber-stamped by member states on Wednesday (29 November) and by the European Parliament on Thursday as part of next year's EU budget, Siegfried Muresan, the MEP in charge of the file, told EUobserver.

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"We've already received a positive evaluation from the European Commission, so I am confident that it's going to be a success," he said.

He said the €1.1 million will be funnelled to the EU foreign service, whose so-called Stratcom unit will use it to train staff in Commission offices in selected member states and in EU embassies in former Soviet countries and in the Western Balkans.

"We need to be able to connect the dots. If a eurosceptic politician is saying something and we see that these were actually talking points on fake news websites two weeks earlier, then we need to be aware of that," Muresan, a centre-right Romanian politician, said.

He said the €1.1 million training budget was part of a "comprehensive package of measures to tackle disinformation, Russian propaganda, and fake news".

The EU foreign service is to get another €800,000 for "strategic communication" in 2018, Muresan said.

The Commission is to receive a further €3 million "for information outreach on external relations", he added.

He told EUobserver he had initially called for €3 million for the Stratcom training programme alone. But he said if the 2018 "preparatory actions" went well, then the training funds would likely go up in 2019 and 2020.

"We have become aware that disinformation is a risk for the EU and we're ready to tackle it," he said.

"Our commitment to tackle disinformation is a long-term goal and we will continue to allocate financial resources for it in the years to come," Muresan added.

Stratcom is a group of 22 diplomats and officials inside the EU foreign service whose main task is to debunk Russian propaganda and to promote positive EU media coverage in the former Soviet bloc.

An EU diplomat said the training budget would be useful.

"It would give the [EU] foreign service a better insight into what's going on out there. If it comes, for instance to monitoring Hungarian-language media, it would be much better if it was being done by someone on the ground in Hungary than in Stratcom's office in Brussels," he said.

Stratcom currently works with volunteers in local NGOs and media, but the new budget would help to "professionalise" the input, he noted.

Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign service chief, has also said she will ask EU finance ministers for more money for Stratcom in early 2018.

The EU diplomat said this could be spent on data analysis tools to see "what the dozens of thousands of [Russian] sources are talking about".

He said it could also be spent on in-depth reports by outside firms, such as Semantic Visions, a Czech company, on issues such as Russia's portrayal of terrorist attacks inside the EU.

But he was sceptical whether Muresan or Mogherini's requests would lead to more staff for Stratcom's Russia team or a permanent budget line for the unit as a whole.

He said "about one third of member states basically still denies that this problem [of Russian propaganda] exists".

He said that if member states agreed to give more resources, these would probably go to Stratcom South, a Stratcom cell that dealt with Islamist radicalisation, instead of Stratcom East, which dealt with Russia.

"Stratcom might get more staff this time next year, so long as it's for people who don't do anything on Russian disinformation", the EU diplomat said.

Russia warnings

Some EU leaders, such as Britain's Theresa May, spoke out on Russian propaganda at last week's summit in Brussels.

But Russia has quietly warned the EU that if it increased Stratcom's capabilities this could "harm relations".

Andrey Kelin, a senior Russian diplomat, delivered the message to Thomas Mayr-Harting, Mogherini's right-hand man on Russia, on 17 November in Moscow in the margins of a 30th anniversary party for a Russian think tank, the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Maja Kocijancic, Mogherini's spokeswoman, said the Kelin "consultations" had changed nothing, however.

"When it comes to stratcomms, our line is clear," Kocijancic said.

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After almost two months of talks, a panel of experts set up by the EU commission have issued a series of recommendations on how to fight fake news or what they prefer to term 'disinformation'.

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