Saturday

21st Jan 2017

EU myth-busters set for budget upgrade

  • Russian president Vladimir Putin and Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Russian propaganda channel RT. It's not known what influence the RT really has on EU audiences. (Photo: kremlin.ru)

One year after its launch, East Stratcom, the EU’s “tiny” counter-propaganda cell, has created a 20,000-strong following and could get a €1 million budget.

Some MEPs question whether it is the right way to fight Russian propaganda and whether Russian media pose a threat, but deputies will, in Strasbourg on Wednesday (26 October), still vote for the new money.

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Anna Fotyga, a Polish conservative MEP former foreign minister, had called for the East Stratcom upgrade in a recent report.

”We have to act against Russia’s propaganda efforts,” she told EUobserver.

”They are trying to to divide us. The Kremlin wants to portray [Russian leader] Vladimir Putin as the only defender of traditional Christian values, and countries in the EU neighbourhood as belonging to Russia’s sphere of power."

She said the original Stratcom, which had just nine staff, had already “done a lot to denounce” Russian “falsifications”, despite its meagre resources.

Lithuania and Sweden have also shown faith by recently posting two more diplomats to the group, which now counts 11 members.

Tiny beginnings

EU leaders first tasked foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini in March last year with the creation of a new cell to “challenge Russia's ongoing disinformation campaigns”.

They also discussed Russian propaganda at last week’s EU summit, when Poland's EU affairs minister, Konrad Szymanski, told EUobserver that member states were likely to back the new €1 million budget.

Behind the scenes, some capitals, and Mogherini herself, have shown little interest in East Stratcom, however.

“The tiny task force”, as it was dubbed by media, had to get by on member states’ hand-outs in its first year.

It also had a narrow mandate that covered Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, but not Russia, the Western Balkans, or the Middle East.

EU trolling

It has built a following for its Twitter posts, which debunk Russian myths, and its weekly bulletins, which document them, despite the limitations.

It has unveiled some 2,500 fake stories and its bulletins are read by 20,000 people.

It gets the material from a group of 450 local volunteers, such as journalists, bloggers, and diplomats, who scour Russian media, as well as Russian state and pseudo-NGO statements, for EU trolling.

Some Russian media report bizarre conspiracy theories.

Others try to destabilise EU targets. A Russian story, earlier this year, said that Turkish migrants had raped a girl in Germany - a false report that was personally endorsed by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

East Stratcom currently spends most of its time helping EU delegations in former Soviet countries to portray the EU in a positive light.

Russian audience

Its Russia activities are limited to being responsible for the Russian language version of the EU foreign service homepage, but its Russian texts also reach a large audience.

Russian speakers are second only to English speakers in the traffic on Mogherini’s website, accounting for up to 25 percent of her readers.

East Stratcom’s translation of Mogherini’s communique on the second anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine was read by 250,000 people on the day of its publication, on 18 March 2016, and is, to date, her most widely read text.

Fotyga, the Polish MEP, and Petras Austrevicius, a Lithuanian liberal deputy, are the driving force behind the budget upgrade.

“We must give it the means to become a fully-fledged unit … with proper staffing and adequate budgetary resources, independent of donations from EU capitals,” Fotyga said.

The parliament's amendment would also allow the team to take on additional members, but its mandate is likely to stay the same for now.

Fotyga’s report had also called for East Stratcom to serve as a blueprint for a second task force, whose mandate would be to counter Islamic radicalist propaganda in the EU and in the southern neighbourhood.

Who needs it?

Other MEPs are less enthusiastic about the project.

Left-wing Austrian MEP Eugen Freund recently told Fotyga in a debate that he was not sure whether Russian propaganda was a threat.

”We know you [Fotyga] are watching RT [Russia’s main English-language media], but how many other people are watching? What does it mean to them? I’m not saying nobody is influenced by it, but we just don’t know,” he said.

Slovenian liberal MEP Ivo Vajgl also joined the East Stratcom sceptics in Mogherini’s service and in EU capitals.

“I don’t need it,” he said.

”During communism, we had only one channel, there was a total propaganda machine, and we didn’t believe a word of it anyway,” he said.

An EU official told this website that the Russian output had an impact even if people thought they were too clever for it.

Nihilism

”People don’t necessarily believe Kremlin-funded media outlets. Some of the stuff on Sputnik [another Kremlin news agency] or RT is just surreal. That’s not the point though. It’s enough to contradict information for people not to believe in anything anymore”, the EU source said.

East Stratcom has documented Russia’s campaign to blunt the Dutch public’s reaction to findings that Russia was responsible for the flight MH17 tragedy two years ago.

It has also documented its campaign to sway the Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine treaty earlier this year.

The Kremlin spends, by its own admission, has, since at least 2010, spent hundreds of millions of euros a year on its foreign and domestic media operations.

“The situation is a novelty for both politicians and high-ranking officials of the EU,” Fotyga said.

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