A European Union task force created to combat Russian disinformation is holding its first-ever summit on hostile foreign influence, as the bloc continues to try and tackle meddling from its eastern neighbor.
International experts gathered in Brussels on Thursday to discuss the evolving nature of the disinformation challenge within the EU, with an eye to mapping future threats and diagnosing areas of vulnerability, as well as identifying new solutions to the steep challenge.
“We are not seeking one magical instrument that will solve the problem,” said European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová, adding that the EU was looking to come up with cross-sector strategies to counter disinformation campaigns, particularly from Russia and China.
“As a person who grew up in a communist regime, I know what it means to be surrounded by lies and manipulation … this is here again with a strong intensity,” Jourová, who is from the Czech Republic, said. “This is not a wakeup call; it is a call to arms.”
Today, disinformation is deployed across an array of issues, she said, from migration, to health – most recently with the coronavirus – the climate change debate and suppressing participation in the electoral process.
Jourová outlined efforts the EU has taken to tackle the threat thus far, including the new Rapid Alert System – a network launched last year to notify governments about Russian interference efforts before they multiply and spread. Criticisms that the network is not nearly as rapid as it should be underlines the obstacles that the EU faces in coordinating efforts across members states. Thornier still is the task of tackling disinformation emanating from within the EU itself.
“We are increasingly concerned by disinformation from actors in member states – some campaigns are driven by profit and others are driven by useful idiots,” Jourová said, calling to increase the cost of malign campaigns, ramp up regulation and compel social platforms to provide more transparency on political advertising.
The Commission has proposed €2.5 million ($2.8 million) for a digital media observatory bringing together fact-checkers and academic researchers to fight disinformation, and €60 million over 2021-2027 to support “quality” journalism, but experts at the summit said that wasn’t nearly enough.
“The resource imbalance in this field is huge, we are outperformed by a billion to one from the digital industry when it comes to understanding these systems, so oversight needs to be funded to a much, much larger extent,” said Sebastian Bay, a researcher at the Swedish Defence Research Agency and former senior expert at the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence.
“Hearing the Vice President talk about a 60 million here, 2 million there … we need to talk about billions of euros … if we’re going to regulate an industry that earns hundreds of billions.”
Europe has been working to expose Kremlin-backed propaganda campaigns for years – but in 2014, after Moscow annexed Crimea and backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, it became obvious that the battlefield had shifted: information warfare was moving online.
The EU’s East StratCom Task Force was launched in 2015, a year before Russia interfered in the United States presidential election, to better forecast and respond to the Kremlin’s attempts to sway voters and chip away at European unity, especially in former Soviet states.
Russia maintains that it has not and does not interfere in the domestic politics of other countries.
Still, after authorities linked Russian groups to misinformation campaigns targeting Brexit, as well as elections in France and Germany, the race is on to figure out a longer-term fix.
Germany has already put a law in place to fine tech platforms that fail to remove “obviously illegal” hate speech, while France has passed a law that bans fake news on the internet during election campaigns. Some critics have argued that both pieces of legislation jeopardize free speech. Russia denied interference in all of these instances.
Just this month, Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture proposed a bill to fight disinformation, which would level criminal punishment against those who spread it, as a Russia-backed insurgency in the country’s east rages on. Press freedom watchdogs have expressed concern that the draft law would allow the state to infringe on independent media.
Alya Shandra, editor-in-chief at Euromaidan Press and a speaker at the conference, said that while maintaining a free press and functioning democracy was crucial, that alone was not enough to compete with Russia.
“We can’t close our eyes to the fact that, as we are here trying to do our best to maintain a democratic society, at the same time there is a country that wants to destroy us, to subvert our societies from within,” Shandra said. “If we focus only on our efforts to strengthen democracies, the threat is evolving and finding new ways to attack our information ecosystem.”
Lessons for Washington
Europe’s ongoing fight offers insights for other countries, particularly the US, where intelligence officials anticipate Russia will try again to meddle in the presidential race. In many ways, Europe has taken a tougher approach than Washington in holding social media companies responsible for the misinformation shared on their platforms.
As a result, Facebook, Twitter and Google, which are all signatories to the European Commission’s code of practice against disinformation, took steps ahead of the EU elections last year to increase transparency on their platforms, including making EU-specific political advertisement libraries publicly available, working with third-party fact-checkers to identify misleading election-related content, and cracking down on fake accounts.
European officials say they didn’t see any evidence of Russian interference in the vote, but that does not mean that member states can be complacent.
In a report issued after the EU elections, the European Commission said it was clear that the measures taken as part of a joint action plan against disinformation, as well as efforts from civil society to raise awareness of the threat, contributed to deterring attacks and exposing disinformation.
“Increased public awareness made it harder for malicious actors to manipulate the public debate,” the report said. “However, there is no room for complacency and the fight against disinformation must continue.”