MEPs launch stark warning against Russian disinformation and effects on European life

“Putin’s propaganda machine has been working in Europe for decades already, attempting to poison and divide our society”

A report by Sandra Kaltniete identifies the spread of foreign interference through disinformation, manipulation of social media platforms and advertising systems
A report by Sandra Kaltniete identifies the spread of foreign interference through disinformation, manipulation of social media platforms and advertising systems

Information manipulation and disinformation pose a clear threat to European democracy and stability in the wake of the Russian military invasion of Ukraine, Josep Borrell has warned MEPs.

The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy said Russia’s invasion was why Europe had to pay attention to foreign interference, disinformation, and information manipulation.

“These phenomena pose a clear threat to our democracy, our stability, our security,” he said, addressing MEPs in the Strasbourg plenary on a report by the EPP member Sandra Kaltniete on foreign interference in the EU.

The report by Kaltniete identifies and maps out the spread of foreign interference in all of its forms including: disinformation, manipulation of social media platforms and advertising systems, cyberattacks threats against and harassment of journalists, covert political funding, elite capture and corporate capture.

“Along with their invasion of Ukraine, Russia is spreading false information among its population about what is happening and why,” Borrell said, adding that the groundwork had been laid out by the Kremlin days in advance: “... by reversing the cause and consequences of this aggression, by portraying Russia and Russian people as a kind of victim.”

Borrell said Kremlin propaganda alleging Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy was committing genocide were the kind of claims being used to undermine the legitimacy of the democratically-elected Ukrainian government. “The Kremlin and its outlets are systematically lying about the situation… They are not just bombing their villages and bodies, they are bombing peoples’ minds.”

The MEP Kaltniete said Europe was facing the major transformative force of both the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, both of them having in common “the widespread, coordinated and systematic spread of hostile targeted misinformation.”

“The Kremlin’s propaganda machine is working in overdrive to justify Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked act of aggression,” she said, describing Putin’s actions as a shredding of international law that was sending thousands of Russian people to “an irrational and deadly war.”

“Putin’s propaganda machine has been working in Europe for decades already, attempting to poison and divide our society.”

EPP MEP Javier Zarzalejos described the report as “a major and timely contribution to our democratic institutions.”

“The invasion of Ukraine is a wake-up call, we simply cannot tolerate the extension of Russian influence…We have enemies. The European Union has been targeted.”

Zarzalejos said this targeting had happened through the funding of anti-European narratives and state-owned media, “which by no means deserve to be called journalism.”

Andreas Schieder (S&D) said the Russia-Ukraine conflict was “just the endpoint of an information war that has been waged for many months… Disinformation and disinformation attacks on our democracy should not be taken lightly.”

The European Parliament set up a Special Committee on Foreign Interference in June 2020, tasked with the mandate to provide a long-term approach to addressing evidence of foreign interference in the democratic institutions and processes of the EU and its member states.

Sophisticated attacks

Foreign interference can be used destabilise and weaken their targets, while disinformation causes direct and indirect economic damage that has not been systematically assessed, according to Kaltniete’s report.

“When it comes to mapping the threat landscape, Russia and China are not the only actors, although they are clearly responsible for the lion’s share of the interference in our democracies and the most harmful consequences."

Her report says that foreign interference attempts are increasing and becoming more sophisticated. They include disinformation and suppression of information, as well as manipulation of social media platforms and advertising systems and cyberattacks.

They also take the form of threats against journalists, researchers, politicians and members of civil society organisations, covert donations and loans to political parties, taking control of critical infrastructure and espionage.

The attacks can, according to the committee report, mislead and deceive citizens, increasing polarisation in society to the detriment of vulnerable groups. They are also likely to distort the integrity of democratic elections, sowing distrust in public authorities and democracy.

Kalniete said that access to quality journalism is key to building resilience to hostile disinformation and foreign interference. However, professional media and traditional journalism are facing challenges in the digital era: “More support for traditional media is another vital necessity, without which quality independent media and investigative journalism will not survive in the era of rapid digitalisation and online marketing,” she said.

Ewropej Funded by the European Union

This article is part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. This article reflects only the author’s view. The European Parliament is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

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