Europe is pre­par­ing to fight a silent war to com­bat Rus­sia’s ‘fake news’ on­slaught — and so should we

Sunday Times - - Opinion - RAN­JENI MUNUSAMY

Ihad no idea the world was at war. I knew there was an in­for­ma­tion war in SA, but I did not see the big pic­ture until I heard the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion an­nounce the al­lo­ca­tion of €5m (about R80m) to counter the as­sault on democ­racy across Europe.

The com­mis­sion’s vice-pres­i­dent, An­drus An­sip, this week called on Euro­pean na­tions to unite to fight “re­lent­less pro­pa­ganda and in­for­ma­tion weapon­is­ing used against our democ­ra­cies”.

He said: “Dis­in­for­ma­tion is not new. It has been a weapon for many cen­turies. In this cen­tury what has changed is the speed, ag­gres­sion and ease with which it spreads.

“We see cam­paigns aimed to un­der­mine elec­tions, pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions and crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture with a clear mo­tive to in­flu­ence, dis­rupt and desta­bilise. Elec­tions have proved to be a par­tic­u­larly strate­gic and sen­si­tive tar­get of threats.”

Con­cerns are mount­ing about in­ter­fer­ence in the EU’s par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, sched­uled for May.

An­sip was forth­right about who was be­hind the on­slaught. “There is strong ev­i­dence point­ing to Rus­sia as the pri­mary source of dis­in­for­ma­tion in Europe. Dis­in­for­ma­tion is part of Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary doc­trine and strat­egy to di­vide and weaken the West,” he said.

Rus­sia spends €1.1bn a year on pro­pa­ganda.

An­sip said a troll fac­tory based in St Peters­burg, with about 1,000 work­ers, and bot armies were en­gaged in sub­terfuge, spread­ing fake news and dis­tort­ing pub­lic dis­course.

This is not a thumb-suck. A Rus­sian jour­nal­ist, Lyud­mila Savchuk, went un­der cover and spent two months work­ing at the St Peters­burg “In­ter­net Re­search Agency”. She dis­closed its in­ner op­er­a­tions.

“The fac­tory worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There was a day shift, a night shift, and even shifts over the hol­i­days,” Savchuk said in an in­ter­view on Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio.

Through US spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion, 13 peo­ple from the fac­tory were criminally charged ear­lier this year for in­ter­fer­ing in the 2016 US elec­tion to help Don­ald Trump be­come pres­i­dent. One of them had ties to Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin.

“It is laugh­able when Putin says that we do not know about trolls, or trolls do not ex­ist,” Savchuk said, “be­cause when any­one looks through the Krem­lin-con­trolled news­pa­pers or state TV, they can see that the pro­pa­ganda in that me­dia is the ex­act same stuff that the trolls are post­ing.”

When Savchuk di­vulged this, the trolls and state-con­trolled me­dia went af­ter her.

“They said that I am a se­cret agent, a CIA op­er­a­tive, and that I am a per­vert,” she said. “This is what they usu­ally do. So I was ready for this.”

The model to fuel out­rage through fake news, dis­credit jour­nal­ists and pro­pel dis­course to suit cer­tain political agen­das has been em­u­lated in many parts of the world.

In SA this was ev­i­dent in the Bell Pot­tinger dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign, com­mis­sioned by Duduzane Zuma and funded by the Gup­tas. It is not yet clear how much Rus­sia was in­volved in this cam­paign, or its off­shoots now at full throt­tle in sup­port of the EFF and the Zuma fac­tion in the ANC.

Until I heard alarm bells rung in Brus­sels, I did not fully con­sider how these dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns could threaten democ­ra­cies and change the world or­der.

Jour­nal­ists at An­sip’s brief­ing sug­gested that the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion’s bud­get was too small com­pared with how much Rus­sia spent on in­for­ma­tion war­fare.

“If it was up to me, it would be €50m,” said An­sip.

He said the idea was not to compete with the Krem­lin by cre­at­ing a pro­pa­ganda machine in the EU. The com­mis­sion’s plan is to un­der­stand the threats, iden­tify those be­hind them, and use facts to ex­pose lies. This in­cludes cre­at­ing a rapid alert sys­tem for the 28 EU mem­ber states (27 if Brexit goes ahead) so that dis­in­for­ma­tion can be quickly coun­tered with hard facts. There would also be more shar­ing of in­tel­li­gence and bet­ter analy­ses of threats.

The com­mis­sion is in­creas­ing sup­port for the me­dia and pro­mot­ing lit­er­acy to counter fake news and ma­nip­u­la­tion of pub­lic sen­ti­ment.

But Pe­dro López de Pablo, the head of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the Euro­pean Peo­ple’s Party (EPP), be­lieves the EU needs to adopt a more ag­gres­sive stance.

“We need an at­tack strat­egy,” said López de Pablo. The EPP has a ma­jor­ity in the EU parliament and is con­cerned about med­dling in the elec­tions.

“The EU should also put out fake news about Putin and Trump. Pol­i­tics is al­ways re­ac­tion and counter-re­ac­tion. If you pee on my tree, I will pee on your tree,” he said.

This new war­fare is mu­tat­ing and un­reg­u­lated, and even a huge body like the EU is un­able to re­spond ad­e­quately.

SA’s elec­tions are sched­uled at the same time as the EU’s, yet there is no fo­cus on ma­nip­u­la­tion of the elec­torate through dis­in­for­ma­tion, and cer­tainly no counter-strat­egy.

In five months we should not be mourn­ing truth and democ­racy as ca­su­al­ties of war.

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