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