The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in increased disinformation activities towards the European Union, or more broadly the West, coming from Russia and China. According to the participants of the webinar „Russian Disinformation During Coronacrisis and Beyond”, the problem can be solved but requires more concrete actions.
The webinar was organized by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and EURACTIV.pl. The discussion was attended by experts in the fight against disinformation from Europe and the USA – Nina Jankowicz from Wilson Center and the author of „How to Lose the Information War”, Maciej Kawecki, Rector of the School of Banking and President of the Lem Institute, Nad’a Kovalčíková from German Marshall Fund, Patryk Pawlak from the European Union Institute for Security Studies, Liubov Tsybulska from Ukraine Media Crisis Center and Jurgis Vilčinskas from the European External Action Service (EEAS). Karolina Zbytniewska, editor-in-chief of EURACTIV.pl was a moderator.
China and Russia actively „disinforming” during the pandemic
During the first six months of the pandemic – that is, since the introduction of lockdowns in Europe and other Western countries – China has primarily observed an attempt to change the narrative that the pandemic began within its borders – said Nad’a Kovalčíková from the Alliance for Securing Democracy operating at the German Marshall Fund.
„China has tried to shift the blame for the late reaction to address a new type of virus which began in China’s Wuhan and wanted to rehabilitate its image. This was done not only through media publications but also through providing medical aid or selling hygienic masks or protective equipment to certain countries. It was the so-called mask diplomacy” – said the expert.
As Kovalčíková added, Beijing tried to present itself as a donor to Western countries, while much of shipments with medical or protective equipment were orders paid by recipients. A large part of the production of this type of equipment is currently located in China.
As the analyst of the Alliance for Securing Democracy emphasized, the Chinese side also tried to shake off possible responsibility for the outbreak of the pandemic by suggesting that it originated in the USA, or that Europeans, e.g. Italians, are responsible for spreading the coronavirus around the world.
There were also accusations against NATO that it was behind the creation of a new coronavirus in military laboratories amplified by Russian accounts” – said Kovalčíková.
Authoritarian system vs. democracy
As the expert added, it was also pointed out in publications that even if China or Iran reacted to the pandemic too late, it was due to US sanctions against them. Another important narrative in this period was the attempt to prove the superiority of authoritarian systems over democratic ones in fighting the pandemic.
„It was indicated that there was a lack of coordination between partners within the EU or other democracies that slowed down the response to the pandemic in the Western world. There were also suggestions in the Russian media, for example, that coronavirus was brought with it by refugees who had gone to Germany from Greece” – said Kovalčíková.
As she underlined, this narrative on coordination and EU’s capacity, which was born at the very beginning of the pandemic, was continued even when the EU had already implemented cooperation mechanisms and coordinated its actions at different levels. „This was supposed to reinforce the feeling that authoritarian regimes are more effective than democratic systems” – she said.
In many Western countries, surveys have shown that at the beginning of the pandemic confidence in the authorities decreased and then grew, but it is hard to say how much this is related to the propaganda from China, Russia, or Iran. „After all, in democratic countries, confidence in the authorities remained higher than in authoritarian countries” – said Kovalčíková.
But disinformation narratives were applied not only to the EU or the USA but also, for example, to Ukraine. Liubov Tsybulska, deputy director of the Analytical Group for Hybrid Warfare in Ukraine Media Crisis Center pointed out that Russia was particularly active in this area, as China is not so interested in propaganda activities in Ukraine.
„I must say that the Russian propaganda machine works in Ukraine for two. Besides, in its main points, it converges with the Chinese one because it accuses the EU and the US of all the evil in the world. But in Ukraine, we have noticed a great increase in the promotion of conspiracy theories. And this both in terms of actions on the part of the state and the health care system”- said the expert.
According to Tsybulska, the goal is one – to polarize society. „The Kremlin wants it both in Ukraine and in the EU. Although, of course, Ukrainian and EU societies have other weaknesses. The Kremlin selects the appropriate narratives to achieve its goals,” said Tsybulska.
As she explained, in Ukraine, for example, a conspiracy theory was promoted that coronavirus was created by the Americans, but this laboratory was to be created on Ukrainian territory. „So the fear of infiltration of the country by foreign services was used. In this sense, this narrative was serviced by a broader narrative about the fact that the current authorities are puppets of the West and that Ukraine is in fact governed from outside by the EU and the USA. – said the Ukrainian expert.
As she explained, in Ukraine, for example, a conspiracy theory was promoted that the coronavirus was created by the Americans in the laboratory established on Ukrainian territory. „So the fear of foreign infiltration of the country was used. In this sense, this narrative served the wider narrative that the current authorities are puppets of the West and that Ukraine is actually ruled from outside by the EU and the US” – said the Ukrainian expert.
According to the expert, Russian propaganda adapts very quickly to the current situation and context, and the final effect of the disinformation is always to undermine public confidence in the institution. „Moscow has been applying this strategy for many years, both to Western countries and to those who want to free themselves from it. This is a manual for action from the time of the KGB” – added Tsybulska.
However, as the Ukrainian expert said, this action would not be effective if it was not for the activity of Moscow’s local allies. „These could be pro-Russian media, pro-Russian politicians or other organizations. But I consider the media to be the most important. And we have a lot of such pro-Russian media in Ukraine, especially in the television industry – explained Tsybulska.
Poles do not trust their politicians
The situation in Poland was outlined by Maciej Kawecki, Dean of the WSB University and the President of the Stanisław Lem Institute. He drew attention to the results of a survey conducted by the Social Research Laboratory of NASK. It shows that 35% of Polish Internet users encounter disinformation at least once a week.
What is more, 8.3% of respondents stated that they experience disinformation every day, and only 2.3% stated that they never do. „This shows that manipulation and disinformation are common. In Poland, it is most often fake news. Respondents also often mentioned organized trolling. The main places where such activities are carried out were indicated as political websites and social media group policy websites and discussion forums” – said Kawecki.
He added that almost half of the respondents believed that disinformation was mainly spread by politicians. And most of them pointed to the representatives of the ruling camp than to the opposition. Interestingly, the education system and teachers were also mentioned.
„It is very sad to me that it turns out that representatives of the authorities or state institutions, that is those who should be at the forefront of the fight against disinformation, are now perceived by public opinion as those who spread disinformation” – said Kawecki.
„You cannot fight disinformation when you are yourself practicing disinformation”
In turn, the author of the book „How to lose the information war: Russia, Facts of the News and the Future of Conflict” and, at the same time, an expert on disinformation at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington DC, Nina Jankowicz pointed out that an important lesson for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet area is that „you cannot fight disinformation when you are yourself practicing disinformation”.
„If you look at the national security doctrines of Poland or Georgia, as well as certain similar elements in the Czech Republic or Ukraine, you can see that nobody there looks at Russia through pink glasses and you can clearly see the threats coming from Russia. But on the other hand, one often turns a blind eye to the disinformation that appears internally” – she said.
As she added, „a similar problem also occurs in the US now.” „We have politicians in power who use disinformation. Even now Joe Biden was accused to have ties with Ukraine. The situation is therefore not very different from that present in Poland or Georgia. And even – to some extent, though sometimes even in whole – in Russia „- said the expert.
„If you yourself use internal trolls to duplicate some power beneficial content, it is no surprise that Russia will then use the same channels to spread its own propaganda within the country. This is also clearly visible in Poland” – underlined Jankowicz.
„When I was writing my book, I assumed that I would focus mainly on Russian propaganda, but in the course of my work, I realized how important it is also to see the role played by our own national disinformation, which serves internal political purposes. Without realizing this, we will not win the information war” – she explained.
According to Nina Jankowicz, disinformation is won by those countries that realize that it is, in fact, a very human problem. „We need to educate people to use digital media, fight against Internet illiteracy, promote the safe use of the global network. But apart from that, we also need to invest in media space. In countries such as Poland or Georgia, public media are taken over by the ruling party and used mainly to fight with the opposition, it created a real vacuum in the information ecosystem that could be filled with false information”- noted the American analyst.
She stressed that the task of public media should be „to provide information impartially and not in the interest of one party, because only then can voters make an informed decision. She also reminded about the need for regulations concerning social media.
„It is not, however, about the authorities deciding who is allowed and who is not allowed to publish in social media, but about forcing transparency through these platforms. Because now, if something is blocked in social media, we have to take our word for it. We have no other entry. Authorities must take care of the best interests of citizens. But for the time being, I don’t see this in any of the proposed legislation – either in the US or in Europe” – summarized Nina Jankowicz.
The European Union fighting against disinformation
Jurgis Vilčinskas, Deputy Director of the Strategic Communication and Information Analysis Unit of the European External Action Service (EEAS), pointed out that unfortunately, the threat of disinformation will remain with us. „We have to take this into account because it is not that the disinformation appeared 5-6 years ago and will disappear after some time. We must be ready to respond constantly to attacks by pro-Kremlin actors on our open societies” – he said.
As he added, „there is no single solution [silver bullet] that will solve this problem once and for all”. „Today, it is the health systems in the European Union that are under attack to undermine public confidence in state institutions, but tomorrow it may be something different. I suspect that disinformation will serve to strengthen e.g. anti-vaccination movements” – said Vilčinskas.
For several years now, the European External Action Service has intensified its efforts to detect foreign propaganda in the EU. Such threats are monitored and reports are published, which indicate examples of disinformation and its sources.
„We analyze the entire ecosystem of pro-Kremlin propaganda. Today it is conducted in more than 20 languages. We also coordinate the cooperation of national institutions dealing with combating foreign propaganda or non-governmental organizations fighting disinformation. Common response is the most effective” – explained the EU expert.
He added that cooperation with the largest Internet platforms such as Facebook, Google or Twitter, which during the pandemic took many actions to limit the dissemination of news or conspiracy theories, is also being developed. „They now have the greatest possibilities and the greatest resources” – stressed Vilčinskas.
The EEAS also tries to cooperate with the media and provide them with reliable information. „Unfortunately, it is very difficult for the media in this pandemic because advertising revenues are falling. That is why there is a very serious discussion in Brussels on how to support independent mass media so that they do not become victims of the pandemic or are not taken over by large media groups” – said the expert.
He also noted that it is very important to raise public awareness of the dangers of disinformation. „This webinar is just such a place where we can do it. But we will do more. We will soon have an Action Plan for European Democracy. It is a very important document. We will provide a framework for actions to counteract foreign interference in the electoral process, for greater freedom. media or the fight against disinformation” – announced Vilčinskas.
The problem with defining disinformation
However, creating an effective policy to counter disinformation is difficult. According to Patryk Pawlak from the European Union Institute for Security Studies, the problem is even the creation of a single definition of disinformation and when an action becomes disinformation.
„Where is the threshold beyond which certain rules must be crossed? When does some social media activity become a political activity? It is very difficult to define this threshold clearly. We have to make decisions when action is needed at the political level and when more than just code of conduct for online platforms” – said the expert.
The second problem he pointed out is also the level from which you should react to disinformation and in case of which actors reaching for disinformation. „We talk a lot about disinformation from Russia and China, but much less about disinformation coming from Turkey or other international actors” – he added.
As he stressed, a very important issue is what Nina Jankowicz pointed out – how to fight against external disinformation if some Member States use disinformation on their own political scene to achieve their goals. „We cannot deal with hypocrisy here” – said Pawlak.
In his opinion, the problem of disinformation cannot be solved by vacuuming only solutions that have been used for years. „I think we need to be more creative when devising our policies to counter disinformation and propaganda. We often see propaganda writers using various means that may not be entirely innovative but are used in ways we did not anticipate. We need the same creativity in fighting disinformation” he said.
However, he also said that it is also about reaching for already proven ways but to be open and imaginative to use them in a completely new way. He also pointed out that educating societies and raising people’s digital skills is a very good solution, but it will only work in the long run. „It won’t help us immediately” – he stressed.
„Truth, unfortunately, does not spread as fast as disinformation. It is difficult to win with it. Many studies show how tightly people hold on to lies, even though there are counter-narratives that contradict them. Therefore, we have to think about these long-term and immediate solutions. It does not stand with itself. in contradiction” – he assured.
He also stated that the EU has limited competencies in the area of influencing the information or education space in the Member States, so it cannot do much from above. Therefore, we have to look at the issue of disinformation not only from a security perspective but also through criminal law or consumer regulations. We must also remember that sowing disinformation or propaganda is often also a violation of international law. That is why we must face this problem on an international level – said Pawlak.
He also pointed out that, for example, disinformation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic may be treated as a breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in Article 25 also talks about the right to „a healthy living standard”.
„The right to freedom of speech is also the right to receive and seek reliable information. So spreading disinformation is also violating the right to freedom of expression. You can also indicate a violation of the United Nations Charter, which in its Article 2 obliges you to refrain from using force not only against the territorial integrity but also the political independence of another state” – said the expert of the European Union Institute for Security Studies.