Editor’s Blog: Produced in collaboration with the EU Buzz team
Disinformation campaigns are used across the globe to spread geo-political propaganda, to incite discrimination and hate, and to target those already persecuted in society on grounds of their ethnicity, religious following or cultural minority. As a democracy, the European Union has a responsibility to inform its citizens of disinformation campaigns originating from inside the European Union and from externally where such malicious activities are proven. The challenge, for those inside the European Union, is to put aside their prejudices in the pursuit of the truth as those who believe they already know the answer will always seek to find their own evidence to prove their point!
Such is the prevalence of (alleged) disinformation in the European Union that the European Parliament has a Special Committee on Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the European Union, including Disinformation, known for short as INGE. Similarly, the European External Action Service (EEAS) has the East StratCom Task Force, EUvsDisinfo, which focuses specifically on (alleged) disinformation from Russia. Numerous organisations, each with their own disclosed or hidden agenda, often feed into these two bodies who then seek to prove what they believe they already know – After all you would not engage in something that was not going to fulfil your objectives, would you?
In a recently commissioned parliamentary study, links between disinformation and fundamental rights, such as human dignity or physical and mental integrity, were identified alongside disinformation campaigns which targeted core European values, including equality, the rule of law and solidarity.
In the last decade the European Union has particularly faced vast domestic-initiated disinformation campaigns against its already highly discriminated Roma communities and against newly arrived migrants. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an increase in the levels of European originated anti-gypsyism, resulting in the ‘ethnicisation’ of the pandemic in several European countries. This has also been accompanied by a breakdown of rule of law in some of those Member States which have seen Roma scapegoated and attacked for allegedly being the main virus spreaders. This disinformation was subsequently used by the authorities to restrict entry to and exit from Roma neighbourhoods.
Both migrants and those of the Islamic faith were frequently the subject of disinformation campaigns inside Europe, where they were represented as posing a threat to the European cultural identity, or as a criminal or economic threat. In Germany, Croatia and the Czech Republic disinformation articles circulated regarding migrants and how virus infected migrants were entering the country, allegedly escaping quarantine or purportedly infecting police officers.
The pandemic is also credited with bringing an exponential rise in anti-Asian racism in Europe through the spread of disinformation relating to the Covid-19 source. Extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS are said to have used disinformation for recruitment purposes during the pandemic toward “framing the virus as God’s punishment of his enemies.”
Foreign powers, Russia being they key suspect spotlighted in the report, are accused of carrying out disinformation campaigns relating, in the main, to immigration, anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic content. Many articles relating to those of the Jewish faith contained long-repeated anti-Semitic fabrications or conspiracy theories, and often targeted American billionaire George Soros. The parliamentary research study noted that “A study in the United States (USA) found that Russian trolls spread the same anti-Semitic conspiracy theories as the far-right; often it is not possible to discover who came up with the disinformation first.”
According to the study, “Russian-speaking diaspora in Estonia, Latvia and Germany has been targeted by Kremlin-backed disinformation and propaganda for decades”, further stating that “Kremlin-originated disinformation aimed at the diaspora depicts these Member States and the EU as anti-Russian, weak and polarised, in contrast to the image of a strong, prosperous Russia, which protects Russians no matter where they live.”
Wherever disinformation is carried out in the world, and by whoever, the objective is always to build on existing tensions, leverage stereotypes and spread fears amongst citizens. Is this not what this parliamentary study does by inferring the Russians and “far right” are to blame for all disinformation? Is the EU itself and other political alliances innocent of any engagement in disinformation?
If the European Union is to counter disinformation then it must demonstrate transparency, declare its own vested interests and publish the truth – Today’s challenge is that there is so much disinformation, manipulation and spin entwined with almost every aspect of truth, that it is difficult to remember what was fact and what was fabrication!
Of all the recommendations suggested by the study, this one is possibly the most important for European institutions “The erosion of trust in institutions and fellow citizens caused partially by disinformation has had a significantly negative impact on feelings of solidarity towards minorities. Hence, it is important to find ways of rebuilding this trust by having a more proactive, rather than reactive, communication policy.”
It is not just “minorities” who have lost trust in EU institutions, it is sadly the majority of Europe’s citizens – This is not disinformation, it is borne out by the European Commission’s own survey ahead of the Conference on the Future of Europe and by the low turn out of citizens for recent elections across the European Union.