Europe is being targeted by Russian Information Warfare, in massive amounts and with a message that is coordinated by the Kremlin.
Each individual country is responding in their own way. NATO and the EU should respond also, by helping integrate the messaging. If not, the responses will not reinforce and may appear dysfunctional.
There needs to be enough volume to offer a real, alternate perspective. Russia should not predominate. The truth needs to be heard but needs to be available in sufficient depth and breadth, so that mainstream media knows of the existence of something other than Russian propaganda.
Europe is belatedly waking up to Russia’s information warfare
WHEN Russia was preparing to annex Crimea a year ago its television broadcasts, portraying the protesters who had recently overthrown Ukraine’s regime as a neo-Nazi rabble, softened the peninsula’s defences as effectively as any artillery assault. One month later, when Russian-backed rebels overran Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, one of their first acts was to seize control of the television centre and replace Ukrainian broadcasts with previously banned Russian ones.
The Kremlin’s propaganda machine has been a key component of the “hybrid warfare” that Russia has waged in Ukraine, and has helped shore up Vladimir Putin’s support at home. But it spreads much further. It spills into east European countries via television services that offer viewers tasty blends of entertainment garnished with sprigs of fake news. It extends westward in the form of outfits like RT (formerly Russia Today), a Kremlin-backed news outfit which broadcasts in English, Spanish, French and German, or neatly designed supplements placed in the New York Times or Daily Telegraph. Sometimes it is smuggled directly into respectable domestic publications, as gullible or time-starved editors unknowingly reproduce Russian misinformation. Meanwhile Kremlin-backed trolls poison online discussion forums and social networks.
Countries in the front line of Moscow’s “weaponisation of information”, in the words of Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss, two analysts, have long sought to draw attention to the problem. The European Union is at last listening. Heads of government, meeting in Brussels as we went to press, were expected to ask Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign-policy chief, to produce a plan to counter Russia’s “disinformation campaigns” by June. Before that the EU will launch a task force (working name: Mythbusters) charged with monitoring Russian media, identifying patent falsehoods and issuing corrections.
This is awkward terrain for Europe. It was hard enough to galvanise a collective response to Russia’s military adventurism; information warfare is a still murkier world. The challenges faced by Britain in countering RT’s misinformation are different from those in Baltic states with Russian-speaking minorities, or in war-torn Ukraine, subject of Russia’s most egregious lies. That the EU has belatedly been persuaded to act is progress. But officials stress that individual countries must do much of the work.
Some are pushing ahead: in September Estonia will launch a general television channel aimed at the quarter of its population who speak Russian first. Others have bigger ideas: Latvia, home to the EU’s largest Russian-speaking minority, has proposed publicly funded pan-Baltic channels. Some talk of trying to penetrate Russia’s tightly controlled media market. The Dutch government has financed the European Endowment for Democracy, a Brussels-based think-tank, to consider various proposals. Ms Mogherini will carefully read its report, due in May. But her team downplays ambitious calls for action: grand schemes that require grand funds are, mercifully, out of style in Brussels.
The ideas floated instead are sensible, if small: getting national media regulators to talk to each other, building networks of trusted journalists and, in countries at risk, supporting local producers of good journalism. One example often cited is Hromadske, an online Ukrainian TV channel that sprang out of Kiev’s Maidan protests. The EU will also try, somehow, to spread its own message better: Eurocrats admit they have been outgunned by Russia when it comes to explaining matters like free-trade deals.
Amid all this, one fear is of ham-fisted responses. The danger is greatest in Ukraine, where officials have harassed and deported Russian journalists and frustrated international reporters with their own obfuscations. The government is finalising plans for Ukraine Tomorrow, a channel designed to square up to RT that local journalists fear will descend to its standards. Elsewhere, too, there have been difficulties. Last year Latvia and Lithuania temporarily banned Russian broadcasters. In Britain RT has tangled with Ofcom, the media watchdog. Some want the EU to expand its visa-ban list to cover more moguls and journalists.
Russian outlets must abide by local laws, of course. But Europeans should be wary of handing Mr Putin easy propaganda wins. Up against lavishly financed Russian media, cash-strapped, fractious Europe will always struggle: one American official likens the battle to using a teaspoon to shovel out of a snowstorm. But European values like free speech and a commitment to truth remain potent, as Ukrainians know well. Europe’s best hope lies in loudly promoting them. If attempts to counter disinformation are to get anywhere, they must demonstrate the falsehood of the most brazen Russian proposition of all: that there is no truth in reporting, just a postmodern potpourri of perspectives.
Countering propaganda, not counter-propaganda
European officials insist they are not engaging Russia in a propaganda war. Good: pro-Europeans in Ukraine and elsewhere want an alternative to Mr Putin’s grubby tactics, not a European version of them. Yet just as it underestimated Russia’s military resolve in Ukraine, Europe risks underplaying the potency of the disinformation threat. Fact-checking and networking initiatives can carry you only so far; Europe must act as well as react.
Unwieldy bureaucracies like the EU have no business getting into public broadcasting. But individual countries do, and some are responding. Germany is boosting funding for Deutsche Welle, its public broadcaster. The Americans are spending more, and encouraging Europeans to do the same. The British picture is bleaker—facing a squeeze, the BBC World Service ended broadcasts in Ukrainian in 2011—but officials have at least woken up to the danger. Countering the storm of Russian propaganda will require innovative thinking as well as money, two resources in scarce supply in Europe. But it is worth giving truth a chance.