Thursday, December 7, 2023

Judy Asks: Can Europe Defeat Russian Disinformation?

A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.

Ian Bond

Director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform

You cannot defeat disinformation: it is a tactic, not an enemy in its own right. But Europe can counter it, and do so more effectively. European countries, NATO, and the EU need to pool their resources and their efforts if they are to succeed.

The political earthquakes of 2016 should have shown that just having the facts on one’s side is no guarantee of success. Waiting for disinformation to come, fact-checking it, and putting out a statement several days later correcting misstatements will never be any use.

Western governments and institutions need to be on the front foot, with messages and messengers that resonate even with communities that feel that the system does not work for them. Marginalized groups are likely to be the most receptive to disinformation, whether from the self-proclaimed Islamic State or from the Kremlin.

The West also needs to devote more effort to civic education. If people do not know how their own government works, let alone the EU or NATO, they will be prey to all sorts of conspiracy theories. If people feel powerless and confused, that helps those who spread disinformation. The resilience of democratic systems lies in well-informed and politically engaged citizens.

Thomas de Waal

Senior fellow at Carnegie Europe

Russian hacking and disinformation became a factor in the 2016 U.S. presidential election for three reasons that do not apply strongly in Europe. First, Americans consume a varied diet of media, much of it from obscure websites that feed on Russian disinformation and leaks. Second, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump conducted his campaign by tweet, sometimes ventriloquizing Russian messages. Third, Trump won because of tight victories in the U.S. electoral college — if a few thousand people in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin had voted the other way, everyone would not be talking so much about the Russians.

In Europe this year, Russian spin doctors and trolls will try to boost the existing populist narrative about immigration, the Islamist threat, and out-of-touch corrupt elites. But the main instrument of Russia propaganda, the RT channel, has a small audience—the U.S. intelligence agencies grossly inflated its importance. Most Europeans still watch mainstream television news.

So analysts should resist the idea that this is a war in which Russian disinformation can be defeated. That leads to the temptation to use counterpropaganda and lower journalistic standards. Europe just needs good engaged journalism that does not feed the overexcited narrative that the continent is in mortal threat from the East and South.

Anna Korbut

Deputy chief editor at the Ukrainian Week

In a way, Europe has already defeated Russian disinformation. Two or three years ago, many Western opinion leaders would appear on Russian media that act as the Kremlin’s mouthpieces. Today, few would agree to feature on an RT show. The broader European audience sees Russia in the context of its campaign in Syria and its alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This hardly adds credibility to Russia’s words.

However, also common among Europeans is a view of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a smart leader, given the influence he has garnered. The missing piece here is the price Russians pay for this influence. Yuriy Dmitriev, a researcher of mass burials of Soviet camp prisoners murdered by the secret police in Karelia in the 1930s, was arrested recently. His work runs counter to the official version of history. Activist Ildar Dadin was jailed for peaceful pickets against Russian aggression toward Ukraine. Would Europeans who have the right to conduct such activities without fear of arrest like to walk in these Russians’ shoes? Unlikely. Movies like Leviathan depict how the Russian state treats its citizens. If more Europeans watched this film, would they want to borrow any of what they saw for their own systems? Hardly.

Russia no longer merely lies. It also manipulates Western perceptions of media, integrity, self-doubt, and values. That should be countered by depictions of what life in Russia is really like.

Jakub Janda

Head of the Kremlin Watch Program and deputy director of the European Values Think Tank

The Kremlin supports European extremist groups, disinformation projects in pseudomedia, and even strong political parties. Its aims are simple: to support political powers submissive to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and to attack those that stand up to Russian aggression with a principled position. Moscow also seeks to end the sanctions against it as soon as possible and disrupt EU and NATO unity.

Most security and intelligence professionals know pretty well what the Kremlin is doing in their countries. But a political decision is necessary to deploy resolute countermeasures. Policies and strategies are available. Political leaders just need to choose to start the self-defense process.

Some countries are already waking up. The Baltics have long been aware of the need for better defenses. Finland recently announced it would set up a center to tackle hybrid threats, and a similar unit in the Czech Republic became operational this month. Germany is considering a specialized team as well.

Sadly, because EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and some other like-minded EU politicians try to avoid naming Moscow as the main source of this threat, the specialized unit in the European External Action Service (EEAS) that deals with it has almost zero resources. The team has only eleven people, the majority of whom are paid by EU member states, not by the EEAS. That needs to change.

Stefan Meister

Head of the Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia at the German Council on Foreign Relations

Yes, if Europe does not panic. The biggest success of Russian disinformation and propaganda in Europe is not that it is sophisticated or innovative, but that it creates fear. Europe’s lack of self-confidence and the panic at the way Russia can manipulate European elections, public opinion, and societies are much more successful than the disinformation itself.

Russian hacking in the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign was not about helping Donald Trump win, but about showing the most important democracy in the world that Russia can interfere in its elections.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s impudence still surprises and outpaces Europe’s decisionmakers, too. Europeans have not learned from Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea, the war in eastern Ukraine, or the Syria campaign: Putin acts and Europe is taken aback. Europe is much stronger than Russia in nearly every sense—in terms of economic performance, the welfare of citizens, good governance—but has lost trust in itself.

This weak flank gives the Russian president leeway to play on Europe’s fears while supporting populist parties and leaders. But these are Europe’s own fears and populists; they are not created by Putin. Europeans can find answers to their weaknesses only if they do their homework. That would be the best answer to Russian disinformation.

Marc Pierini

Visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe

Russian disinformation is part of a much larger policy: Moscow wants to regain a major place in world affairs at the expense of the West, a strategy for which President Vladimir Putin uses the existence—real or fabricated—of external threats.

Europe is a prime target for Russia’s massively financed disinformation activities and will have a hard time countering them. In its pragmatic psychological warfare against the EU’s decisionmaking structures and policies, Russia is likely to continue pressing for anything that could weaken an already-fragile EU. Whether they are in power or running for office, nationalist and populist forces are mostly anti-EU; they are therefore allies of choice for Putin.

Russian disinformation activities proper will most likely target European countries in which key elections are being held in 2017: the Netherlands, France, and Germany. Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election constitutes a notable precedent. The Hague, Paris, and Berlin should therefore get thoroughly prepared for what’s coming.

But European voters should make no mistake: the EU’s unraveling is not just of Moscow’s making; it also stems from a lost sense of what the union stands for, what it has achieved, and what it can bring to its citizens’ future. Mainstream European political forces should start rebuilding their own narrative first.

András Rácz

Associate professor at Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Hungary

Totally negating the threat of Russian information warfare is not possible, but mitigating it is.

First and foremost, it is important to make the public realize that the threat exists. This applies particularly to political decisionmakers and journalists. The latter are especially significant, because they are—mostly unwilling—multipliers of the messages spread by the Russian disinformation machine.

Second, Europe needs to understand the threat in detail. Meticulous and up-to-date research needs to be conducted continuously, both on Russia’s tactics and strategies and on possible countermeasures, including passive and active ones. A good example of an active countermeasure is Ukraine’s StopFake initiative, which systematically fact-checks and debunks Kremlin disinformation and makes the results freely available.

Third, decisionmakers (as well as donors) need to realize that countering this threat requires resources, both human and material. As the adversary is dedicating massive funds to its disinformation machinery, Europe needs to do the same to counter it.

Finally, Europe needs to be able to raise the costs for those who contribute to the Russian disinformation machinery. The fundamental principle of freedom of speech should not be restricted, but there are still ways to work against the paid trolls and local Russian information agents, for example by using laws on hate speech.

Gianni Riotta

Member of the Council on Foreign Relations

There are some in Europe who gladly promote and share disinformation made in Russia or Macedonia. There are European websites, magazines, political forums, and foundations that busily encourage Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troll machine. The disinformation operations that were once run in the Soviet Union have a formidable successor in today’s Russia. Sooner or later, it will become clear who in Europe is making money from these operations. One can already understand a lot by following the networks of people loosely linked to RT or Sputnik, semiofficial Russian propaganda sites that deftly mix news and disinformation.

If the question refers to the official Europe of the European Commission, European Parliament, and other institutions, the picture is still bleak. Europe has no stomach at all to face Putin and his Red Troll Army. Once in the White House, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump will make opposing Russia a dangerous and lonely game that few will attempt. German Chancellor Angela Merkel may try after the 2017 German federal election—and that is why she will be the next target of the digital armada, trolls, and WikiLeaks.

James RogersDirector of the Department of Political and Strategic Studies at the Baltic Defence College and senior editor of European Geostrategy

Europeans can absolutely defeat Russian disinformation. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s objective is to maintain power by waging antihegemonic warfare against the West—to dislocate, degrade, and ultimately shatter the linkages in the Western hegemonic chain: liberty, democracy, and the rule of law, which are held together in constitutional nation-states and bound in Atlanticist international organizations. Moscow wants those broken apart.

Lacking a coherent message or ideology of his own, Putin knows Russia cannot challenge the West symmetrically. Unlike the Soviet Union, modern Russia lacks both a universal ideology of global mass appeal and the resources to wage a counterhegemonic struggle against the West. But Putin’s regime is clever: it has come to understand how to dislocate the power of Western countries—by breaking the people’s trust in their governments, the lynchpin of the Western order. Consequently, the regime is spreading myths, lies, and disinformation.

Until recently, the West had ignored Moscow’s advances. Now, it is trying to correct the spread of disinformation. It will not win until it does two things: enhance its own resilience and wage political warfare on the Kremlin. Putin is not invincible. Europeans need to find a way to reverse the conflict and turn the tables by attacking and breaking the ideological core of Putinism: the idea that Russia can reemerge as a great power.

The author writes here strictly in a personal capacity.

Ulrich SpeckSenior research fellow at the Brussels Office of the Elcano Royal Institute

The problem with fighting Russian disinformation is that democracies cannot establish facts and interpretations themselves, otherwise they would act like autocracies. Democracies can only provide a safe space for civil-society actors to establish facts, led by the regulatory idea of objectivity, and develop competing narratives. Therefore, it is up to civil societies to counter Russian disinformation.

Yet the public spheres in many democratic civil societies are currently especially vulnerable as they are undergoing a difficult historic transformation from offline to online platforms. Media organizations, having not yet found a business model for the new media environment, often lack the financial means to sufficiently establish facts. That’s why private foundations should step in and fund fact-checking operations and inform the public—including news editors—about the way disinformation operates.

The role of state institutions is limited: they can and should inform the public better about their own actions and expose lies about them. But as democracies, they cannot turn themselves into sources of information or narratives.

By Judy Dempsey, for Europe Carnegie Center