April 19. 2024. 8:04

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EU steps up disinformation fight as threats to staff abroad rise

The EU will launch a new platform to counter disinformation campaigns by Russia and China, the bloc’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell said on Tuesday (7 February), as EU delegations and missions abroad are increasingly becoming a target.

A so-called Information Sharing and Analysis Center within the EU’s diplomatic service EEAS will seek to track information manipulation by foreign actors and coordinate with the 27 member states and civil society actors.

“Authoritarian regimes try to create misinformation and manipulate it. We have created instruments to detect and reveal this manipulation […], but it is not enough and we need to go further,” Borrell said at an event related to the topic in Brussels.

He warned of a “new wave” of disinformation of fabricated images, videos and websites posing as media outlets, likening the current actors behind information manipulation to Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s chief propagandist, but with a more powerful capacity of spreading “five times the speed of light across social networks and messaging services”.

“We need to understand how these disinformation campaigns are organised (…) to identify the actors of the manipulation,” Borrell added.

The idea is to have a decentralised platform to exchange information in real-time with countries, cybersecurity agencies and NGOs enabling a better understanding of emerging disinformation threats and narratives and reacting more quickly to them.

The push comes as almost a year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU is struggling to combat Russian attempts to manipulate and distort information about the war.

On the EU’s response, Kremlin-backed propaganda has especially pushed a narrative as to which Western sanctions would be to blame for the global food crisis and disruption to the global supply of grains and fertilisers.

EU steps up efforts to debunk Putin’s food security propaganda

The EU is planning an offensive to counter Russian narratives as to which Western sanctions are made responsible for the disruption to global supply of grains and fertilisers, EURACTIV.com has learnt.

As of last year, Africa and the Middle East have been at particular risk of being severely affected by Ukraine’s inability to ship its massive grain harvests out of the Black Sea.

EU leaders have repeatedly appealed to African countries not to fall for a Russia-led propaganda campaign, though according to public statements by regional leaders, those narratives prevail.

Delegations, missions targeted

Beyond the platform, Borrell also announced he plans to strengthen the EU delegations abroad with disinformation experts “so that our voice can be heard better”, in “a long-term battle” that “will not be won overnight”.

“This is one of the battles of our time and this battle must be won,” he stated.

One mentioned by the EU source is the bloc’s training mission in the Central African Republic, where reports that EU instructors might have provided training to local forces controlled by the Russian mercenary group, Wagner, had sparked concerns about Moscow’s increased destabilising influence in the region.

Another example cited is the EU’s rule of law mission in Kosovo (EULEX), where disinformation campaigns against the mission itself are frequent, with Serbia and Russia identified as the main actors.

“This potential risk is not just a question of reputation on the web or on social networks, but also of physical threats – the personnel are targetted individually, called ‘enemies of the people’, with the next step, calling for action, not being far away,” he added.

‘Pattern of behaviour’

The EU’s existent disinformation unit, the EEAS’s Stratcom division, in a first-ever report, noted that most of the foreign information manipulation in 2022 had mostly centred on narratives supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

According to EU officials, the new push comes with the idea of better understanding the patterns of disinformation.

“We are not out here to judge what people can say or not, but our mandate is to identify what those actors are doing, track it, document it and expose it,” an EU senior official told reporters ahead of the publication.

The report has compiled information gathered from 100 cases about tactics, techniques, and procedures that Russia and China use to manipulate the information domain.

According to the sample data, techniques used are predominantly image and video-based, multilingual and spread through a dense network of actors.

Harmful content would be often propagated by cross-posting across platforms, communities, and groups, the report found.

Moreover, the report found Russian and Chinese diplomatic channels being particularly involved, especially through platforms such as Twitter, with disinformation and other information manipulations rarely appearing in only one language.

“When it comes to China, there is a certain activity of taking up narratives, which are nearly copy-pasted by Chinese actors from the Russian playbook,” an EU senior official said.

“But our conclusion is that there is not a specific coordination, the usage is rather opportunistic,” the official added, saying this would be often seen as related to NATO criticism or the existence of biological weapons.