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23rd Jan 2020

EU urged to step up counter-propaganda effort

  • Russian president Putin at a laptop: How far can he reach? (Photo: kremlin.ru)

The EU must step up efforts to counter Russian disinformation in Europe, MEPs have said in alarming tones.

"We are really in a state of war with Russia, by we I mean EU citizens,” Jaromir Stetina, a Czech centre-right MEP said on Tuesday (31 January).

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"There are no bombs, tanks, missiles, but we are in a war, because this is a hybrid war, and disinformation is a part of this hybrid warfare," he said.

"This is a war that the Russian federation declared on us, the goal is to destroy the European Union, and we have to defend it," he added.

Stetina, who spoke at a European Parliament hearing that he helped to organise, said East StratCom, a counter-propaganda unit in the EU foreign service, needed better resources.

The task-force, set up in September 2015, employs 11 people, most of whose contracts expire in August. It has no budget of its own.

Its mandate is to debunk fake Russian news, better communicate EU policy, and support independent media in eastern European and former Soviet countries.

Jakub Kalensky, a member of the unit said Russia had “an orchestrated campaign.”

He said it was “targeting millions of people in the EU and the euro-atlantic space on a daily basis using the method of repeating a lie a hundred times until it becomes truth.”

“The aim of this disinformation campaign is to weaken, to divide, to destabilise the West: either along existing divides or by creating new ones," he said.

Kalensky said his team monitor around 35 countries, so it would be useful to have one staff member per country.

"It it is also naive to expect that a team in Brussels will quickly spot a story ... The more local the team, the faster the reaction, if there would be an anti-propaganda centre in every EU country, it would be much more effective probably," he said.

He declined to say how much money the task force would need to do an adequate job, but he cited a US figure that Russia spends $1.4 billion a year on propaganda abroad.

Polish centre-right MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski said that lies spread by pro-Kremlin outlets were circulating on the European political scene.

"The problem is that lies are not only present in mainstream media, but in our political life," he said.

"Those lies win elections, those lies govern, and I hear them from the mouth of between 100-140 members of this house, who use the Kremlin’s narrative here," he said.

"We are under threat, democracy is losing, it is not at risk of losing, it is losing,” he said.

Saryusz-Wolski said the EU should transform East StratCom into an agency, provide proper funding, and create counter-propaganda centres in every member state.

He said there was greater political will for this than in the past, but that it might take a shock to cause change.

"We will need some lost elections to have sobering effects," he said.

The Netherlands, France, and Germany are holding elections this year.

Far-right, anti-EU, and pro-Russian parties are becoming increasingly popular in all three of them and pro-Russian websites have already started attacking German chancellor Angela Merkel.

The EU parliament event came amid questions on Russian influence in the US presidential elections last year.

Playing with sentiments

Experts on Russian propaganda said Kremlin outlets give a one-sided presentation of the story that aimed to trigger emotions.

"One important part [of the disinformation] is not to spread false facts, but opinions, and controversial issues to be presented in a stereotypical, one sided way," Boris Navasardian from the Eastern Parnership Civil Society Forum said.

He said it was tailored to appeal to local taste.

On Brexit, Georgians saw stories on how Ukraine and Georgia would only become EU members when everybody else had left.

Moldovans were told that the EU did not want their exports.

Miriam Lexmann of the US-based NGO the International Republican Institute, said Russia media tried to create phobias.

"Accurate fact and playing with sentiments is more dangerous than only providing fake news," she said.

Kalensky said that another Russian tactic was to spread as many contradictory versions of the same story as possible to divert attention from facts and to sow mistrust in normal media.

"The aim is to bury the fact under the contradictions, so that a regular reader ends up convinced he, she will never know where is the truth," he said, citing Russia’s handling of the MH17 flight disaster as an example.

Prague attacked

Meanwhile, the Czech foreign minister said Tuesday that his minitsry had been hacked by a foreign nation.

Lubomir Zaoralek said no classified information was stolen as hackers got into the email system, but not into more sensitive files.

"The data leak was considerable. The attack was very sophisticated," Zaoralek was quoted as saying by AFP.

"It must have been carried out from the outside, by another country. The way it was done bears a very strong resemblance to the attacks on the US Democratic Party's internet system," said the foreign minister.

Opinion

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With the French and German elections at risk of Kremlin interference, it's time for the EU to start treating Russian propaganda as a serious threat.

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