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7th Dec 2022

MEPs worry Russian disinfo weakens support for Ukraine

  • MEP Raphaël Glucksmann said the EU should not let Russia president Vladimir Putin win the infromation war (Photo: European Parliament)
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Russia's disinformation campaigns will try to undermine Europeans' support for Ukraine amid rising energy pieces and inflation, several MEPs warned on Thursday (29 September).

"Unable to win the military war in Ukraine, [Russian president Vladimir] Putin will try to win politically here, by subverting the public debate and by imposing defeatist narratives," French MEP Raphaël Glucksmann said at a meeting of the committee on foreign interference in the European Parliament.

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"We simply cannot let that happen, we cannot give him the victory in terms of information that the Ukrainians are refusing him in military terms," Glucksmann, a former journalist turned left-wing lawmaker, added.

Liberal French MEP Nathalie Loiseau, head of the security subcommittee, said "malicious misinformation campaigns originating from Russia" have been going on for years.

"What is unprecedented is the breadth and depth of covert propaganda designed to deter EU public opinion from supporting Ukraine, and accept the increase of sanctions against Russia," she added.

She said that suspending Russian propaganda outlets Russia Today and Sputnik in the EU was only addressing the "tip of the iceberg".

"There is still strong support for Ukraine in the European public opinion, I would not be too optimistic though," Loiseau said.

"Considering that the first purpose of Russian propaganda isn't necessarily to be trusted, but to create blurred perception of facts, and to level the narratives," the french MEP added.

The EU has very limited means of fighting Russian disinformation. In 2015, it set up a task force addressing Russian disinformation, which mainly focuses on monitoring.

The meeting of the special subcommittee on Thursday focused on methods of Russian disinformation with regards to the war in Ukraine.

Soften the blow

Michael Sheldon, from the Amsterdam-based fact-checking and investigative journalism group Bellingcat said it was often difficult to discern between Russian state-produced disinformation, and pro-Russian disinformation.

Sheldon said Russia's strategic goal was to soften the Western response to Russia's war in Ukraine.

Russian disinformation aims to paint Ukraine as a corrupt, unreliable country, which could pose a security threat to the West, and often targets Ukrainian refugees, attempting to portray them as ungrateful for the help, he added.

Sheldon said these were either untrue or unverifiable narratives.

He also said that recently Russia started featuring modern, fact-checking reporting but uses it for disinformation, with the aim of eroding trust in fact-checking methods.

Ross Burley, from the London-based Centre for Information Resilience, said Russia has weaponised information, and "attacked the notion of truth".

"Russian disinformation is almost like a nightmare," he added, saying "it takes the very worst of us, our worst beliefs and deepest fears, and amplifies them through social media algorithms."

Burley said Russia's aim is to undermine the belief in democracy.

Referring to European far-right parties receiving support from Moscow, Burley also said, "Russia has done more to support the far-right in EU than any other country since the 1940s".

Call for sanctions on foreign meddling and disinformation

The draft report, from a special committee on foreign interference and disinformation, also calls for the EU-wide ban on foreign funding for European political parties — and legislation to make it harder for foreign regimes to recruit former top politicians.

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EU struggles to fight disinformation within

The draft report on fighting foreign interference in the EU will be voted by the parliament plenary in March. The recommendations to the EU Commission include a mandatory code of conduct for digital platforms, and closing loopholes on party financing.

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How should democratic states co-operate with authoritarian governments in the future? My organisation, Democracy Reporting International, has studied the security strategies of 13 democratic governments to understand how they see this relationship.

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