Commission’s approach to tackling online disinformation is an empty box

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

European Commissioner for Security Union, British Julian King, Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and EU Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel (R) during weekly college meeting of the European commission in Brussels, Belgium, 28 March 2018. [Aris Oikonomou/EPA/EFE]

EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and EU Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel are keeping their eyes wide shut to the Russian disinformation threat, writes Jakub Janda.

Jakub Janda is the Director of Prague-based European Values Think-Tank, one of the most active contributors to the weekly Disinformation Review published by the EEAS East STRATCOM Task Force

After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, massive disinformation campaigns were launched by Moscow and its proxies.

Ukrainians defending their own country were first to respond, initiatives like became a benchmark for the Western world of how exposing and debunking of disinformation should look like.

EU leaders have made this a priority when they voted on conclusions calling for EU institutions to respond to this threat in March 2015.

Later, EU expert community on disinformation started to map and expose the individual samples from late 2015 when EEAS East STRATCOM Task Force started to publish its weekly summary named Disinformation Review.

Around 4,000 samples of pro-Kremlin disinformation has been collected, stored and analysed, and this work has been widely praised in the expert community since it filled the gap and it introduced day-to-day exposing of disinformation to the Western world.

After almost three years, this effort still remains tragically under-resourced and under-stuffed, which is even more absurd when compared to the incredibly vast and constantly growing size and budget of the Kremlin’s disinformation army aimed at poisoning European democracies.

In almost complete parallel to this on-going struggle, DG CONNECT has set up a High-Level Expert Group (HLEG). Unfortunately, from the 39-individuals group allegedly representing the expert community on the issue of fake news, none has been a regular contributor to the work of the only EU body tackling this issue – East STRATCOM Task Force.

The Commission decided not to involve the major European expert NGOs and think-tanks who have been working in practical terms on this issue from the start – since 2014-15.

The  expertise of many of the members of the HLEG is debatable: one of the members openly declared she is unaware of publicly described, major Russia’s operations in Spain or Italy: Another of the HLEG experts even absurdly defended the right of Sputnik employees to be called journalistsmeaning he actually defends a major source of disinformation, rather then fighting against it.

For example – if the Commission listened to the expert community, it would have learnt that there already are several existing hubs for stakeholders in this field already. Instead, the Commission now says that it will launch a “secure European platform on disinformation”.

This is how it looks if you are two years late. It will be a waste of resources which should have been put into specific polling focused on impact of disinformation in targeted EU member states.

First step in solving any problem is recognising you have one. Still, there are massive efforts at the Commission not to upset Russia by even naming it. Despite hundreds of studies and reports by European expert community which prove the links between Moscow and this threat, still the Commission’s efforts  continued in its appeasement mode.

The HLEG report does not even mention Russia as the major source of hostile disinformation in Europe. Reportedly, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and EU Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel even pushed for not mentioning Russia in the new policy document.  It is like discussing terrorism without naming and analysing role of ISIS.

After this long struggle and internal clashes at the Commission in recent weeks, Russia is mentioned just once when it points to Russian military doctrine, plus two references to previous EU decisions.

We might consider it a victory of common sense, but is it? If this Communication should be considered a major EU policy document on this issue, allegedly setting up “European approach to tackle online disinformation”, it completely lacks analysis of who exactly is the main penetrator and what is the modus operandi.

This EU publication resembles a Wikipedia sample more than a substantive policy document setting up practical guidelines.

Similar observation can be made about a special Eurobarometer poll which is supposed to show proportion of this problem. Instead of for example mapping the level of public support for the most common Russian disinformation narratives (such as “Ukraine is run by a Nazi government” or “There are no organised Russian solders in Ukraine”) which could show the basic vulnerabilities in targeted member states (as previous think-tank research has done on a regional scale), only generic questions support an argument that fake news is a problem.

This is exactly how EU money can be wasted – instead of specific EU-wide research conducted on basis of expert knowledge and testing of empirical data coming from the EEAS East STRATCOM database of the strongest disinformation narratives, we only have a general poll which doesn’t say anything new.

When you read the EU document in detail, you will basically learn that we need social media to be more responsible and that more media literacy is needed.

That is true, but these are the most obvious steps well known to everybody in the expert community at least since 2015. If the Commission wanted to do something real about disinformation, it could have just suggested something practical from all the policy papers by real European specialists which are listed by the EEAS East STRATCOM.

When the Commission says that it wants fact-checkers to work closely together, it is a nice proclamation, but many similar networks already exist and the only thing is lack of substantial funding. One must wonder why the Commission pretends to start something new when a network of dozens of volunteer experts and fact-checkers already exists under the umbrella of EEAS East STRATCOM Task Force.

The whole Commission efforts looks as a way how to get around this team which was again officially praised by all EU foreign ministers just few weeks ago. The aim appears to be clear – not to upset Russia again by substantially directing resources to research its role in spread of hostile disinformation.

I really wish that one day, the European Commission wakes up to reality in this area.

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