The EU’s crescendo fight against disinformation

  • The EU’s crescendo fight against disinformation
  • The EU’s crescendo fight against disinformation
Issue 125, July 2019.
The EU’s crescendo fight against disinformation
As will be explained in the next paragraphs, disinformation has not only a long history, but also a future – hopefully not a bright future. In its modern meaning, disinformation means ‘verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public, and may cause public harm’.  
Disinformation as a strategy of war
Newspapers across the US began publishing fake news about Russia (the Soviet Union was only created 7 years later) on 15 September 1918, i.e. during World War I. The issue for certain circles in the US was whether the Bolsheviks and more precisely Stalin and Trotsky were German agents who accepted money from the German government for declaring peace between the countries. Such a peace treaty would influence profoundly the war equilibrium to the benefit of Germany, as one of its fronts would simply disappear. When Russia effectively negotiated peace with Germany, the US government even considered military intervention in the country for the purpose of protecting stockpiles of Allied war material. The public debate spread against all odds from newspaper articles to the US President and Congress. Interestingly, as often happens with fake news, in this case of disinformation of the early 20th century in the US, its substance was not totally devoid of some truth. In fact, the Germans provided financial support to the Bolsheviks. This financial support was however not intended to end the war, but simply to back the Bolsheviks. Some journalists relied however in documents faked in the Soviet Union which at first sight gave the impression that Russia had become associated to Germany in war. The authenticity of the documents could be challenged successfully and the plot was finally discovered.
Disinformation campaigns as this one have been and are commonplace in all wars. Fake news become in this way genuinely a weapon and pursues the objective of disinforming the public at large. But after war ends, fake news and disinformation campaigns do not differ too much from a methodological and operational perspective from fakes dropped in wartimes. 
Disinformation in the Cold War
During the Cold War, the paradox generated by fake news reached climactic heights. One of these stories began with the publication of an article in a minor, insignificant Indian newspaper called “Patriot”. According to this article published in the mentioned pro-Soviet newspaper, its editor received in July 1983 an anonymous letter whose author presented himself as a well-known American scientist and anthropologist. He reported that AIDS was manufactured at Fort Detrick by genetic engineers. He further claimed that the deadly mysterious disease was believed to be the results of the Pentagon’s experiments to develop new lethal biological weapons. At first, the article was ignored. However, when it was reprinted in the Soviet publication Literaturnaya Gazeta in October 1985 citing also the so-called Segal Report, it caught some attention. The Segal Report had been prepared by self-proclaimed scientists from Russia and Eastern Germany. This second article received coverage all-over the world mainly in leftist and communist media publications. While scientists from around the world, including the Soviet Union, dismissed the Segal Report and all allegations about the origins of AIDS, it is not rare to be confronted still nowadays with individuals who blindly defend the unconfirmed origins of the disease and the deliberate design of the USA.
It would be impossible to retrace the origin of all fake news causing disinformation in the same manner as was done in the example above. Major fake news give better justification to investigate their origins and other details than minor, very simple messages.
Disinformation in times of peace
In the last 15 months, the European Union launched numerous actions in its declared war against disinformation. It is certainly too early to engage in a comprehensive analysis of the results achieved, but enough time has elapsed for listing some of the milestones of the European Commission’s main steps and also for informing briefly about the content of its first Report in the Implementation of the Action Plan against Disinformation, issued on 14 June 2019.
Chronologically, the first decision of the European Commission in this area was to launch the EEAS East StratCom Task Force to address disinformation campaigns dates from March 2015. Its objectives include an improvement of the EU capacity to forecast, address and respond to disinformation activities by external actors. Then, in 2018 came a Communication on Tackling Online Disinformation, a Code of Practice against Disinformation, an Action Plan and, most importantly a Rapid Alert System. The EU institutions have now strengthened their capabilities to detect, analyse and expose disinformation, and to ensure a response, in particular through the Rapid Alert System. 
The cited Report recalls that the number of disinformation cases attributed specifically to Russian sources since January 2019 amount to 998 – the double of cases in the same period in 2018 (434). After social networks like Facebook started cooperation with public institutions of the European Union and its Member States to reduce the risks of disinformation, the European Commission found that tactics have evolved. The relevant actors, in particular those linked to Russian sources, appear to be opting for smaller-scale, localised operations that are harder to detect and expose. In any case, the recent elections to the European Parliament became on of the targets of Russian disinformation campaigns.
So, the question to raise now in the perspective of integrating Ukraine into these EU initiatives, is what happened during the recent Ukrainian elections. 
From January to May, online platforms have taken action against inauthentic behaviour to limit the scope of spam and disinformation globally. Google reported to have globally removed more than 3.39 million Youtube channels and 8,600 channels for violations against its spam and impersonation policies. Facebook disabled 2.19 billion fake accounts in the first quarter of 2019 and acted specifically against 1,574 non-EU-based and 168 EU-based pages, groups and accounts engaged in inauthentic behaviour targeting EU Member States. Twitter challenged almost 77 million spamlike or fake accounts globally.
Information takein from “Report on the implementation of the Action Plan Against Disinformation” 
ABOUT AUTHOR: J.R. Iturriagagoitia, LLM (Georgetown University)