The European External Action Service (EEAS) organized this week a conference on Russia’s disinformation and fake news to justify its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and to manipulate the public opinion in the EU and the rest of the world.
The aim of the conference was to present the latest developments in the EU’s and its partners’ fight against foreign information manipulation interference (FIMI) and bring the international community countering FIMI closer together.
Mikael Tofvesson, Head of the Operations Department at the Swedish Psychological Defence Agency, participated in one of the panels at the conference. He told The Brussels Times that FIMI is much more than countering disinformation.
“To mislead people, you can manipulate their perception in many different ways. To disseminate disinformation is one selected method but we must be prepared to identify and face the attacker in several arenas and address feelings of fear and anger and economic stresses.”
“Russia is using information manipulation and interference as a crucial instrument of this war,” explained EU’s foreign policy chief, High Representative Josep Borrell, in a keynote speech. “This war is not only about using explosives, bombs, bullets, killing people. It is about the mind of the people. It is about how to conquer the spirit, the intelligence, the understanding of the people.”
The first casualty of war is truth and Borrell referred to WWII when Nazi-Germany’s propaganda machinery under Goebbels spred lies and disinformation.
“What is new today is the intensity, the will and the instruments. Goebbels had no internet, and no social media instruments. But, today, people that behave like Goebbels – telling a lie 1,000 times – have a powerful capacity of multiplication at the speed of light and reaching everyone everywhere.”
Despite the lack of today’s technology, there were those who were fooled by Nazi-Germany’s propaganda and continued to believe in its lies even after its defeat when the concentration and death camps were liberated and the full truth of Nazi war crimes and the Holocaust became known.
Today, there are some countries among EU member states (Hungary) and candidate countries (Serbia) where the public opinion is in favour of Russia but this depends on the local context with politicians who have amplified its disinformation. Overall, it is not likely to happen today because the EU started to develop means to counter Russia’s information manipulation already some years ago.
In fact, the EEAS has collected over 15,000 cases of disinformation since 2015 through its EUvsDisinfo, the “flagship project” of its East Stratcom Task Force. As already reported, the Task Force publishes weekly information reviews on Russia’s disinformation about the war in Ukraine.
But the fight is uneven since Russia has invested in disinformation and information manipulation as an industry. “They have been investing massively, much more than we invest in fighting against disinformation,” Borrell said.
If the EU still is winning the information war, it is because that Russia’s disinformation is too absurd and detached from reality for any rational person to believe in. The danger is that Kremlin believes in its own false narrative and will not agree to a political solution despite its losses in the battle field.
From the very start of the war, Russia justified its invasion of Ukraine by claiming that “genocide” is committed in the two pro-Russian breakaway regions, that Ukraine poses a military threat to Russia and that Ukraine is ruled by neo-Nazis and antisemites. These blatant lies are still repeated as if Kremlin believes that more they are repeated the more people will believe them.
“Disinformation and propaganda outlets are today a weapon of the Kremlin,” Borrell warned. “And this weapon is a weapon – it hurts, it kills. It kills the capacity of the people of understanding what is going on, and, as a consequence, the position of governments and the decisions of international organisations.”
“Russia has built networks and an infrastructure to mislead, to lie and destabilise. I want to use these strong verbs: to mislead, to lie and to destabilise in an industrial manner. To erode trust in institutions.”
This is a major threat for the liberal democracies, which are based on information. “Democracy is a system that is based on the information that people have, because they made their choices – their political choices – according to their own perceptions and information that they receive about what is happening in the rest of the world.”
“If the information is toxic, democracy cannot work. If information is manipulated, people don’t have a clear idea of what is going on. So, their choices are biased, and the information is the oil of the engine of democracy. We have to take care of the quality of information because is the sap, the blood, the oil, the thing that makes democracy work.”
The High Representative announced two countermeasures at the conference. First, the EEAS published the first ever report on foreign information manipulation and interference threats and hoped that media will pay attention to it.
The report includes evidence that Russia has mobilized all its instruments to conduct disinformation campaigns, Borrell explained. There is a new wave of disinformation techniques and Russia is using cheap technologies to fabricate false images and videos. The report also documents “the worrisome cooperation between threat actors like Russia and China”.
Going beyond the current flood of disinformation, Borrell also announced that the EU will create a new central resource for gathering information on threats stemming from disinformation and foreign information manipulation. “This will promote the sharing of information between all stakeholders about root causes, incidents and threats, and sharing experience, knowledge and analysis.”
The High Representative was proud of that the restrictive measures (sanctions) that have been imposed on Kremlin’s propaganda machinery have effectively banned it from operating within the EU. “In doing that, we are not attacking the freedom of expression, we are just protecting the freedom of expression.”
Is the increase in FIMI from Russia during its war against Ukraine a threat against our democracy or security or both?
“Russia conducts an information war to support its invasion of Ukraine,” Mikael Tofvesson, the Swedish expert, replied. “One goal is to create divisions between the countries that support Ukraine to defend itself. Another goal is to reduce the public’s trust in the political leadership in those countries.”
Sweden is also targeted in this regard. “We have seen that Sweden has been targeted by Russian information interference since 2015 and still is. Although the resilience among the Swedish population against direct interference from Russia is high, we need to be prepared that they can influence us through their propaganda channels (e.g., RT and Sputnik) and via other languages.”
The conference discussed also Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT)? What does it mean?
”It’s an important tool to identify inappropriate information interference (disinformation, manipulation and propaganda),” he replied. ”Most information influence takes place in the open arena such as social media, apps and websites and the OSINT tool works well in this environment.”
Are there any good examples of building up resilience against FIMI in Sweden?
“Yes, Sweden is well advanced in this area. It invests a lot in source criticism and media & information knowledge in the education system. Our agency carried out a campaign about threats and vulnerabilities in 2022 ahead of the elections which reached ca 6 million citizens.”
Sweden has also drafted a manual for communicators about how to identify and counter information influence activities which is used in our education. The manual has been copied by other countries. The agency has also produced a manual for journalists in cooperation with the Fojo Media Institute at Linneaus University.
In Sweden, freedom of expression is a sacred principle. Is the recent public burning of the Koran outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm, which was paid by a media company linked to a political party (Sweden Democrats), an example of FIMI or abuse of freedom of expression?
“The Swedish Psychological Defence Agency operates only against foreign threat actors. We don’t monitor internal actors and never speak about political parties. I have therefore to decline to reply to this question.”
What conclusions can be drawn from the conference?
“The aggressor is coordinated and tries to split countries and groups inside them. That’s why we have to be coordinated ourselves and work across country borders. Good cooperation is built on a common perception and common methods based on countering FIMI.”
The Brussels Times