Russia has built networks and an infrastructure to mislead, to lie and destabilise, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on February 7, opening the European External Action Service (EEAS) Conference on Foreign Information Manipulation and Interference.
On the day of the conference, the EEAS published the first ever report on foreign information manipulation and interference threats. Borrell said that the report showed clear evidence that Russia had mobilised all its instruments to conduct disinformation campaigns.
Through its state-controlled outlets, in its diplomatic networks, and its proxies, prove the systematic distortion of reality to distract attention from its military invasion, he said.
“One example: Russian diplomatic accounts have spread claims that the Armed Forces of Ukraine are just, and I cite, ‘neo-Nazi paramilitary units committing atrocities against civilians, including children’, and using explicit images and videos of killed and injured individuals, trying to demonstrate that it is the Ukrainian army acting like Nazis who are behaving like this,” Borrell said.
“They try to organise demonstrations in European Union countries under the banner #StopKillinginDonbass,” he said.
“Certainly, that is false, and we know it – but not everybody knows it. It is Russia who is bombing cities, playgrounds, schools, and hospitals across Ukraine. But they say it is the ‘Nazi Army’ who is killing people and ‘we have to defend them’.”
Second, the report confirms that there is a new wave of disinformation techniques – the procedures, the methods, Borrell said.
“Russia uses cheap technologies to fabricate false images and videos. They do not shy away from creating false websites to impersonate trusted media. The content is amplified at the speed of light and posted across social networks, messaging services and propaganda outlets.”
Borrell said that when the EU launched its [Military] Assistance Mission to Ukraine (EUMAM Ukraine), its training mission to Ukraine, in November, Russian diplomatic accounts reacted developing images to dismiss this initiative, “accusing us of being a servant of Nato and conducting hybrid warfare”.
“This was posted on the Russian Ministry for Foreign Affairs website. Yes, on the website of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Ten minutes later, on their Telegram channel and then quickly amplified by over 100 channels, including Sputnik Africa.”
Third, the report documents the worrisome cooperation between threat actors like Russia and China,” Borrell said. Diplomatic accounts and state-controlled channels manipulate perceptions about the European Union, blaming the West for all the consequences of the war in Ukraine, he said.
“They amplify lies about [alleged] military-grade Western biolabs in Ukraine targeting its neighbours.”
This is something that needs a response, Borrell said: “We need to anticipate and deter such activities with concrete actions and measures”. Borrell said that a specialist body at the EEAS had, through EuvsDisinfo, collected more than 15 000 cases of disinformation since it was set up in 2015.
“There are campaigns that swap causes and effect. They somehow portray the Russian aggression as a necessary reaction to an alleged threat by Ukraine or the West at large. ‘It is not Russia who is attacking Ukraine, Russia is just defending [itself] from an attack from the West.’ I had to discuss that with many people around the world. ‘Well, in the end, Putin is only defending himself. You were attacking him. You, the West, you were attacking Russia’.”
Artificial networks had been created to spread this disinformation, he said. They have been flooding the information space, in order to avoid that any other voice can be heard any more.
“We have seen attempts to confuse and mislead people, with ever-changing narratives and versions of the event. The aim is that nobody believes anything, any report anymore. To make people believe that ‘well, in the end, everything is a lie. How can I distinguish between a lie and the truth?’” Borrell said.
“They want to erode trust in all media and our institutions. I want to say that today that we have to take this very seriously. It is not just a matter for the specialists. It is not just a matter for the people who are working on the information system. It is something that the citizens have to be aware of,” he said.
“We need to understand how these disinformation campaigns are organised, so that we can organise our answer and to identify the actors of this manipulation. We have to do more research on the social media platforms, we have to study how does it flow, where does it comes from, and what are the results.
“We heard the news that Twitter is planning to restrict this access. This would be a serious step back from early commitments. We need more transparency and accountability, not less. I call on Twitter – and on its owner – to ensure that all obligations that they have taken will be honoured.”
He said that a standardised and interoperable way of sharing analysis within the community that tackles information manipulation was needed. The EU would create a new central resource, the Information Sharing and Analysis Centre, for gathering information on threats stemming from disinformation and foreign information manipulation, Borrell said.
This would promote the sharing of information between all stakeholders about root causes, incidents and threats, and sharing experience, knowledge and analysis.
“This is a long term fight; it is not going to be won overnight. We have to have the tools. This ‘Information Sharing and Analysis Centre’ will strengthen our responses and enable us to protect our democracies better,” Borrell said.