Russian propaganda as a security challenge for the EU

By on June 20, 2016

In a modern globalized society like ours, where everybody has the power to distribute information and open sources are gaining more and more authority, the notion that freedom of speech means freedom from rhetoric seems to constitute a challenged concept.

Propaganda, that is simultaneously contributing to and reinforcing this development, is now back on the European policy agenda from where it was absent since the demise of the Soviet Union. The way modern propaganda works, however, is more sophisticated, extremely well adapted to modern technology and – above all – uses the very same channels and infrastructures that define open, democratic societies. It is therefore no surprise that European policy makers are struggling to address the challenge that propaganda poses.

 

Description of the challenge

Propaganda is aimed at undermining the resilience of democratic societies and constitutes therefore a security challenge to the European Union (EU). Contemporary propaganda can be defined as the attempt to influence public opinion through channels that in essence form a pillar of a liberal-democratic society. While propaganda in contemporary Europe originates from several sources, one of the most advanced and influential players today is Russia, a country that can rely on a high level of professionalism in this field thanks to years of domestic application, from the Tsarist era to the Soviet period and beyond.

Russia considers propaganda a legitimate and indispensable form of foreign policy in a world seen through a realistic prism. It is entangled in the concept of non-linear or hybrid warfare, which according to Moscow will dominate modern international relations, and comprises of several tactics (supporting foreign political extremists, cyberattacks, astroturfing, military snap exercises, economic sanctions, blackmail, stimulating corruption and espionage); anything that could destabilize a society.

Russian propaganda usually comes in disguise of an ordinary news outlet which, at first glance, seems to offer information on the pretext of being alternative but objective and reliable (e.g. Russia Today, Russia Beyond the Headlines, Russia Direct and Sputnik; all outlets linked to the Kremlin). A part of the information provided is indeed consistent and comparable with other news sources, with occasionally even a critical note on Russia. But this is exclusively to legitimize the outlet while concealing and distracting from the real task: generating understanding and even support for Russian policy objectives. This especially includes undermining public support for the EU and reinforcing divisions, as well as raising distrust within the Union. Examples of the abuse of journalism are manifold: extremists, like holocaust denier Ryan Dawson, are for example often presented as experts, the EU is only mentioned in a negative and anti-Russian overtone, terminology is distorted like using ‘fascist’ for issues that are clearly not, and the Russian outlets are not reluctant to use lies in order to make their argument of a failing Europe, like with the Berlin girl that was allegedly raped by refugees. Destabilization of the EU is a major policy goal for Russia, as its achievement would significantly strengthen Moscow’s influence on individual Member States.

The modus operandi of Russia’s propaganda is highly sophisticated and not easily recognizable by the casual information consumer. Russian media outlets look professional, present news as entertainment, use clickbait, cherry-pick negative information on the EU, and flow on the waves of populist anti-establishment sentiments that, in turn, it happily fuels. It tries to trigger emotional reactions while surreptitiously discouraging systematic analysis and discrediting reason. Fact and fiction are interchangeably used to influence the way the information consumer thinks about reality.

On the longer term, by spreading false information, Russian propaganda consciously tries to discredit the media system in general. After the flood of disinformation the curiosity and interest of the information consumer will be submerged in distrust and dismay and even the mere existence of truthful information will be rejected.

Freedom of speech and freedom of information are correctly regarded as the guardians of public policy in all its facets. But independence and reliability are a prerequisite for this intermediate system between state and society to function properly. The introduction of Russian propaganda in the media system constitutes a major violation of the moral code that has been the basis of the self-regulating media system. Attention should be drawn to the devaluation of this moral code caused by foreign political actors.

 

Recommendations:

Current measures taken by the EU to combat Russian propaganda like the EastStratcom task force (within EEAS) and the support for the European Endowment for Democracy are almost exclusively aimed at the Eastern Neighborhood Countries or Russian speaking populations within the EU. They focus on supporting independent media, raising awareness on disinformation activities and communicating and promoting EU policies and values.

  • Alongside those initiatives, it is the threat that Russian propaganda poses to the non-Russian speaking, EU populations that deserves greater attention. East Stratcom seems to be best suitable to confront this challenge. Therefore, an extension of the mandate and especially of its capacity seems necessary to address disinformation campaigns in EU languages and within EU territory. The task force’s Disinformation Digests and Reviews are good initiatives but are mainly known to and read by people already aware of the problem. Therefore, its expansion should be accompanied by higher public awareness. Member states could play a role in this.
  • Next to specific EU initiatives, support for civilian initiatives like ‘Stop Fake’ could also be part of the solution.

Author: Emiel Van Den Toorn
Emiel has an academic background in human geography and Russian studies. He has fulfilled traineeships with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Council of Europe and the European Commission. During his academic and professional career Emiel has worked on energy policy, European Neighbourhood policy, Russian hybrid warfare and Russian identity. has an academic background in human geography and Russian studies. He has fulfilled traineeships with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Council of Europe and the European Commission. During his academic and professional career Emiel has worked on energy policy, European Neighbourhood policy, Russian hybrid warfare and Russian identity.
 

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