CONFERENCE CALL: Europe slowly wakes up to Russian disinformation threat

CONFERENCE CALL: Europe slowly wakes up to Russian disinformation threat
Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka speaks at STRATCOM Summit 2017 on May 18. / Photo by European Values/CC
By Nicholas Watson in Prague May 19, 2017

It seemed fitting that the opening remarks at the annual STRATCOM Summit 2017 in Prague on May 15-19, which this year was focused on how democracies should deal with the disinformation operations by Russia and other hostile nations, were dedicated to debunking some ‘fake news’ about the summit itself.

The Guardian newspaper reported on May 15 that the five-day summit was being staged by StratCom – Nato’s strategic communications arm – when in fact, although several speakers were indeed from Nato, the event was actually organised by the think-tanks European Values and Wilfred Martens Centre.

“In a way, The Guardian showed themselves up because they assumed that this kind of event had to be organised by Nato because it’s so big,” said Mark Laity, chief of strategic communications at Nato’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), about the summit, which brought together over 330 participants representing 29 countries with the Czech prime minister and deputy prime minister both speaking. “No, no – this can now be done by people like European Values… We need this new kind of coordination effort [against Russian aggression] unlike any before, not just by coordinating government, not just coordinating countries, but between NGOs, government, military bodies, and civilian bodies across the continent.”

Not that the Russian propaganda machine would care about such splitting of hairs – to the Kremlin, the whole exercise is being drummed up by Western warmongers such as the despised Nato, which together with the Western media, are conducting a “propaganda war” against Russia.

Trouble is, the Russian propaganda machine – what Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu called in February the “information troops”, a loose network of state media outlets, paid trolls, hackers, Twitterbots and fake news sites – is now so big and far-reaching that most, but not yet all, European countries are now “highly concerned” about it.

According to European Values in its April “Kremlin Watch Report”, 13 EU countries have become so concerned with the Russian disinformation threat that they are participating in at least one of three allied projects – the EU’s East StratCom Task Force, the NATO StratCom Centre of Excellence, and the Finnish Centre of Excellence on Countering Hybrid Threats.

However, the amount of resources being directed at these efforts still pales into comparison with what Russia – a country whose annual GDP is about 8% of the EU’s combined GDP – is spending. The Kremlin said it doubled media spending from €630mn in 2015 to €1.2bn in 2016 on state media outlets such as RT and Sputnik, though most experts believe the real spending runs into many billions once unofficial payments and undercover activities such as troll factories are taken into account. By contrast, the EU’s East StratCom Task Force, which publishes a sometimes hilarious weekly review of Russian fake news and other misleading and biased reporting efforts called the “Disinformation Review”, has an annual budget of just €800,000.

“13 countries are taking this issue seriously, yet Federica Mogherini is not taking it seriously,” Jakub Janda, deputy director of the European Values think-tank, told attendees of the summit, referring to the EU foreign policy chief under whose purview the East StratCom Task Force operates. “It’s absurd that only 11 people [in the East StratCom team] is the common response to something that affects 500mn people.”

This situation where governments and officials are either in denial about the Russian propaganda problem or deliberately soft on the Russian threat, is part of two trends that Roman Shutov, programme director of Detector Media, a media NGO in Ukraine, has identified. “The political response [to Russia’s propaganda efforts] is usually very slow, it’s a general trend. Our governments are slow in admitting the danger of Russian disinformation and display little capacity to counter it. The other trend is that civil society is best at countering it but has little resources.”

This ambivalence among EU governments about the threat posed by Russia’s propaganda machine is best illustrated by the Czech Republic, which has become one of the leaders in Europe in countering Russian disinformation even as its president, Milos Zeman, is one of the most influential Kremlin allies in Central and Eastern Europe – a man who today still denies the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine, calls for all sanctions on Russia to be scrapped, and provides legitimacy to Czech conspiracy and disinformation outlets by giving them interviews on a regular basis.

For many, the position of Germany will be a “game-changer” in all this if Berlin decides to finally take on the mantle of being the prime defender of the liberal international order. Gradually the German military is assuming that role, and a German military source at the summit told bne IntelliNews that countering Russian disinformation efforts were being taken very seriously since the “Lisa case” in 2016, in which a 13-year old Russian-German girl went missing for 30 hours and a Russian TV channel reported that she had been raped by Arab immigrants. Even though the German police debunked the story, it was intensively reported in the Russian media and led to diplomatic tensions between Germany and Russia.

Of course, the Russian disinformation campaign is so widespread now that, according to Nato’s Laity, there is little point trying to respond to every piece of disinformation that Russia puts out there. “The Russians put so much stuff out, if we responded to all of it, then actually we’re not following what we should be, so we need to make to make distinction between the stuff we need to answer and the stuff we don’t need to answer,” said Laity. “What influences people is not just being a fact-checker. I use the example of Clay Shirky, an internet guru, who at a Democaritc Convention threw up his hands in despair and tweeted, ‘We've brought fact-checkers to a culture war. Time to get serious’.”

As Ed Lucas, senior editor at The Economist and director of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), noted, we shouldn’t “accept their [the Russia support trolls’] nonsensical premises”.

The new buzzword amongst speakers and delegates is about building “resilience” in all aspects of life in Europe. “The biggest element of what we believe Lithuania and other states need to do is build resilience. We will never stop Russians doing what they do – what Russia is doing in the Baltics today is a continuation of what they have done throughout our history – but we must build resilience in our society: information resilience, cyber resilience but also societal resilience,” said Eitvydas Bajarunas, ambassador-at-large for Hybrid Threats at Lithuania’s foreign ministry.

“We actually win by living our values,” added Laity.

Speakers stressed it is also important to realise that the information war is only one aspect of what General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation, spelt out in a 2013 piece for the Military-Industrial Courier (Voenno-promyshlennyi kur’er) about how a “hybrid war” enables Russia to subvert and destroy states without direct, overt and large-scale military intervention.

“Let’s not get too obsessed by one aspect of Russian aggression – there’s a whole range of activities, from disinformation, to cyber, to economic bribery, to subversion, to sabotage. They take all the tools in the bag and use the one that suits at that time,” said Laity. “If we over-focus on disinformation, then they will just use another tool.”

In the end, few at the summit are in any doubt that it is a fight that will take generations, because the Kremlin is unlikely to stop its actions to subvert the West, even if the Russian economy continues to deteriorate; disinformation and other subversion tactics are relatively cheap to employ.

“If they [the Russians] just wanted to be left alone, then why are they bothering? We are quite happy to leave them alone, if they want to be left alone to roll around in their cesspit, they can do it... But the problem with the Russians is that in order to achieve their internal goals, they must meddle in others’ external goals… they want to control the countries around them but they don’t have the right to do that,” said Laity.

Some wondered at the end of the conference what the Russians themselves would make of all this. Sadly, none of the Russian ‘news’ organisations were there to report it: “The Russian media was not invited because they have nothing in common with what we consider to be proper media,” said European Values’ Janda.