EU probes Russian disinformation efforts on Navalny and Belarus

The EU's foreign affairs branch is monitoring disinformation tactics allegedly executed by the Russian state across communications platforms such as Telegram and media including RT and Sputnik, on the subject of the poisoning of Alexei Navalny and the continuing protests in Belarus.

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The EU’s foreign affairs branch is monitoring disinformation tactics allegedly used by the Russian state across communications platforms such as Telegram and media including RT and Sputnik on the poisoning of Alexei Navalny and the continuing protests in Belarus.

The European External Action Service’s (EEAS) Stratcom unit, which is tasked with monitoring malicious interference in the form of fake news, has identified numerous examples of disinformation which they believe are attempting to maliciously manipulate both narratives.

With regards to the instant messaging program Telegram, the EEAS has been alerted to examples of what they deem to be disinformation on the platform, who have been drawn to various communications channels including the ‘NEXTA’ feed, which has more than 2 million subscribers.

“Telegram has an open API (application programming interface), which means it’s not impossible to have a look at what happens here,” an EU official told EURACTIV on Thursday (17 September).

“But even the very simple monitoring is quite telling. And we see that independent channels are doing considerably better in terms of reach than state-controlled media.”

In terms of such state-run media outlets accused of peddling fake news by the EEAS, both RT and Sputnik have been in particular focus, especially RT’s German branch.

Minsk protests and Navalny responsibility 

The narratives propagated across such platforms include accusations that the EU and the US have been financing pro-democracy protests in Minsk, as well as attempts to undermine the German Chancellor Angela Markel’s claim that the military-grade toxic Novichok was used in the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Analysis of the substance used in the August attack against Alexei Navalny, corroborated both in France and Sweden, adds weight to the claim that the Russian state was responsible for conducting the poisoning.

As relations continue to be tested between Germany and Russia, there has been the suggestion that Merkel may halt plans for the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, supplying gas from Russia to Germany. For their part, the Kremlin is attempting to resist and conflation between the Navalny case and Nord Stream 2.

Meanwhile, in Belarus, tens of thousands of citizens have been taking to the streets over recent weeks, following President Alexander Lukashenko overwhelming victory in the August 9 national elections, with many suspecting foul play in the counting of the votes.

The criteria used for identifying such examples of disinformation includes not only the type of content being transmitted, but also whether such actions apply a coordinated, intentional, and manipulative approach.

“We attempt to identity intentional ways of manipulating the information space,” the EU source said.

As for attribution in the examples above, the EEAS is under no illusions that the Russian state is responsible.

“When we look at these two specific disinformation campaigns, one of the characteristic elements is that it’s very clearly coming from a central source and very visibly coming from the Kremlin directly,” another EU official told EURACTIV, adding that similar methods of interference are being employed as had been identified previously.

One case in point is the Kremlin’s attempt to influence the narrative over the 2018 poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal on British soil, the source said.

Democracy Action Plan

In terms of the wider clampdown on online disinformation, EURACTIV understands that the ongoing work of the EEAS’s Stratcom force will feed into the composition of the Democracy Action Plan, a new piece of legislation which is due to be presented before the close of the year.

The measures are set to hone in on disinformation in the context of external interference and manipulation in elections.

One EU official told EURACTIV that the ongoing work conducting by the EEAS’s Stratcom unit, as well as a recent review of the Commission’s code of practice against disinformation, demonstrated the need for measures to be outlined in the Democracy Action Plan that obliges platforms to be more ‘accountable’ and ‘transparent.’

Public consultation on the plans closed earlier this week, and the Commission will now digest the feedback before feeding it into the broader composition of the plans, likely to contain some proactive measures to stifle the spread of online disinformation.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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