Could the recommendations from the European Values Think-Tank be really helpful in Russian propaganda counteraction?

Photo credit: / AP photo / A. Zemlianichenko

In Ukrainian

Late June 2016 the Czech non-governmental organization the European Values Think-Tank delivered an interesting paper “Full-Scale Democratic Response to Hostile Disinformation Operations. 50 Measures to Oust Kremlin Hostile Disinformation Influence out of Europe” within its Kremlin Watch project.

For sure, the paper is at least adequate to the recent realia, if not revolutionary. In other words, it recognizes these new realia and makes recommendations that might be a baseline for the response to the latest challenges.

MediaSapiens already made a preliminary review of the paper, and its main points were clear. But it needs more profound and critical review. This is not about announcing already traditional ‘Ooh! What they can know?", but about seeing if following of these recommendations can actually help the information confrontation with Moscow.

The descriptive part is rather accurate. It focuses on the main point: Russia does not just use its propaganda resource but converts it actively into political influence providing the information support to Russian politicians, parties or NGOs.

But when it comes to recommendations, we see many questions. We would like to deal with the recommendations related to public sector, and we will leave behind the recommendations for civil society, journalists though the paper gives a series of quite interesting (though equally controversial) initiatives.

Even keeping in mind that the paper is (first of all) made for the European community, European officials and European journalists, the efficiency of offered activities, even if implemented, is rather doubtful. Having recognized the existence of the problem, even having recognized the changes in the nature of the new information reality, its activities are largely one-legged, the majority of them are hardly realizable.

At least until you recognize that in the situation when the information war is unleashed on your soil, some of the standards (once ‘unbreakable’) should be adjusted. And after this ‘adjustment’ the media environment would be far from the wishes of democratic society.

The recommendations begin with a general block for the EU and NATO, but there is no point in their analysis: these organizations are already doing or are planning to do that in the near future. The most interesting here is the development of strategic communications potential and a call to NATO to "speak national languages."

The most interesting starts with the guidelines for responding at the national level. Especially since here we are able to compare the efficiency and adequacy of these recommendations based on our, Ukrainian, experience.

  1. Codify disinformation efforts to national security documents – the threat of Russian disinformation spread as a threat to national security and democratic legal system. Ukraine has already done this: the National Security Strategy of Ukraine (version of 2015) says that the current national security threats include "the information-and-psychological war, humiliation of Ukrainian language and culture, falsification of Ukrainian history, the formation of the alternative and distorted information picture of the world by Russian mass media". However, this is not about stating a problem only. Strategy Papers need to be "decrypted" in more practice documents: government's decisions, new provisions of laws and so on. Otherwise a statement will remain a statement. And this often poses a lot of questions. Obviously Europe is to have as many questions.
  2. Concerned EU governments should make their cases. Of course, they should. However, do they have such experience? There is no doubt that they have experienced the influence of Russian propaganda machine. But which of the EU countries were able to find efficient countering mechanisms? In practice, based on the German “Lisa case”, the Brexit or Netherlands referendum, the European countries do not have any positive experience in combating. And this is really a problem. In fact, the Europeans are well aware of that so they are focused on the Ukrainian experience. It is a huge overstatement to say that we have solutions for all eventualities, anyway we have got something to say on some matters. Even if this experience is negative.
  3. There is an interesting but rather ‘formal’ idea to prepare a report for EU foreign affairs ministers about the European countries where Russia holds its propaganda campaigns and practical steps to counter them. Yes, the report could be prepared. The key question here: if the European countries (both at the national and European level) have legal instruments to define what "disinformation", "propaganda" or other elements in this paper are? While attempting to define them, the EU will face the inevitable necessity to invade the sensitive area of ​​"freedom of speech" where the debate about the limits of "freedom" is likely to "burry" the problem itself.
  4. To monitor & name connections between Kremlin and extremist groups. This is really an important activity, though its efficiency is under a big question. For example, the Security Service of Ukraine (along with various Ukrainian volunteer projects) rather often convincingly proves that this or that group is Russia financed (in the broad sense). But does it have any consequences? No, and this is logical to some extent. If such financing is prohibited by law, the police simply stop such activity (if they have the information). If it is not prohibited (or if the activities of such groups are formally within the applicable law), one may spend ages and get convincing proofs without any consequences for these groups. There might be an efficient solution: the legislative constraint that the fact of getting money from the country subjected to sanctions (or recognized as an aggressor) is a cause for prosecution. However, this opens the door for potential manipulations and court struggles.
  5. Financial Snap Unit should be established and trained for crises. The idea is absolutely correct, "fighting with the banks not with the tanks." This is about monitoring of the Kremlin’s financial resources so that to freeze them in case of "strategic crisis" (as said in the recommendations).  But what the “strategic crisis” is? If this is a direct military aggression, it is too late to "block accounts." If this is any other situation (different from the aggression), are the national governments of EU MS able to set clear (at least for themselves) rules of such crisis and response to it? There are serious doubts about that. At least, given the current logic of their political activities and political reality.
  6. NATO Centre of Excellence for Strategic Communication should be supported and used by more member states. The idea is interesting and useful. Though there is a question if the NATO STRATCOMCOE able to fulfill this challenge, and what about its authorities and capacities to resist Russian information aggression. As of today, it is more a research and expert institution, and as such it is hardly able to provide support to all European countries. Though one must admit that it goes the extra mile for its development.
  7. Financial and personal connections of politicians to Kremlin must be investigated. Perhaps, this point is the most diagnostic as about the EU’s current (in)ability to fill these recommendations with practical content. Is there a little evidence of cooperation of Marie Le Pen and Kremlin? Or of the Czech Republic president (incidentally, "1+1" channel once made an interesting investigation on this topic)? Or other politicians? But does the current European law have possibilities to limit this influence and bring these politicians accountable? Obviously, not. Or these steps have high political risks making them almost impossible. By the way, Marie Le Pen demonstrated the mechanisms to get around such "control" when she rather officially took money from the Russian bank. Again, unless the legal liability is stricter, one can’t expect substantial progress. And relying on the "political tradition" is already useless. Today we witness a situation where Kremlin-associated politicians cynically destroy this very "political tradition" and manipulate it when they need. Though it should be noted that this recommendation would be extremely important and useful in Ukraine. But again, what is the actual use of it without revolutionary changes to the current legislation? To the Criminal Code as well?
  8. Pro-Kremlin politicians should be voted out of posts related to national security.   The idea is quite in the spirit of Ukrainian searches for "FSB/RF Defence/Intelligence agents in office." However, for Ukraine this reality is theoretically plausible because we consider Russia to be an aggressor following the parliamentary statements. But what are the arguments (and the legal framework) to realize similar idea in the EU? Does the European legislation somehow define this newsworthy status of "pro-Kremlin politician"? And who will make the criteria defining the ‘pro-Kremlin’ politicians? Where is the limit of "freedom of speech" and political rhetoric? Should the EU, in order to implement this recommendation, declare at the highest level that Russia is aggressor? Not only against Ukraine but also against the EU? There are no answers to all these questions.
  9. Counterintelligence units should conduct detailed review reports for their governments. Sure, such reports are prepared anyway. But the question remains: how will these reports (if they will at all) be transformed into the decision? Since we find ourselves again in the area of political confrontation? This matter is typical both for Europe and for Ukraine.
  10. Real transparent financing of political parties is a key preventive tool. The idea is absolutely true: every state must have a very strict legal framework (or efficient punishments) that would not allow non-transparent financing of political parties or political candidates. Moreover, these laws are more or less effective in Europe. As a matter of fact, Ukraine has similar law. But, I think, real possibilities to control these activities are not as extensive as we would like to believe. By the way, Ukraine has something to share with our European partners: the Security Service of Ukraine learned to capture quite skillfully the financial assistance in various forms that Russia tried to give to its agents in Ukraine. However, when it comes to political parties, the matter always gets much more complex.
  11. Allies need to cooperate on joined trainings & support of NGOs. In fact, this is one of the key points. Not that only NGOs are able to withstand the Russian aggression or have some special potential and skills for that. The Ukrainian reality of information confrontation in hybrid war showed the major (though little declared) point: we are entering a period of "gray law" and "gray decisions" that become a new standard. It is traditionally believed that the State is the main actor in countering national security threats, but today's challenges (which Russia issues to us and the world) are often beyond the State’s reactions, authorities and response logic.

As an article dedicated to hybrid warfare notes "hybrid warfare is able to bleed white its prey using a myriad of attacks below the subjective threshold of conflict." And it is really effective, since the State does not follow subjective feelings but the legal system (national and international) on what should be considered to be a conflict. This trend gets especially dangerous for the democratic states. Here is a paradox: the more democratic a state is, the stronger its democratic institutions are, the more vulnerable they are to Russia's destructive activities. They limit themselves to legal regulations whereas Russia overrides these restrictions. Here we have Ukraine’s striking example when volunteers and non-governmental sector do many of the things that are supposed to be done by the State. But the reality is that State within the existing rules is simply unable to realize much of what it is supposed to (as imagined by people). Therefore, the "gray world" products like hacker groups hacking into terrorist resources, Myrotvorets and so on spring up. Their activities, in terms of law, are really "on the brink" (and sometimes over the top). However, they de facto do what the State cannot afford to do officially. To be sure, if the EU wants to counteract Russian disinformation, it would also have to resort to such "gray solutions" (more or less).

Fake identification system: necessary but not crucial

Given the current system, all these proposals are beneficial, though their feasibility is quite questionable. Europe actually was not shaken by its "Cuban information crisis" to review dramatically its legal and practical activity. Are European politicians ready to recognize at the highest level that Russia pursuing aggression against the EU? To declare not in words but in documents? Until then there will be little point in all efforts to prosecute "pro-Kremlin" forces in the EU. Or they will be beyond the legal framework.

In fact, the recommendations partially covered this issue. For example, it is proposed at the European level to have comparative studies of the legal framework on quasi-media projects, used by Russia as a disinformation tool. Or to review current legislation and existing cases related to disinformation and propaganda countering, to review (or rather to debate on the subject) the definition what media is in the conditions of disinformation campaigns countering.

There is another rather practical proposal – to create national group for misinformation analysis. In fact, this is Ukraine who has something to share and discuss with European partners. Creating such groups is not a problem (e.g., the recommendations suggest that the groups should consist of professionals in foreign policy, national security, communications, representatives of the police and intelligence agencies); this is not the most difficult. To elaborate a mechanism giving these groups an opportunity to actually respond and act is much more difficult.

Ukraine (as well as the EU and NATO) is trying to perform this task within strategic communications system establishment. Even though all stakeholders seem to have the same vision of its structure, they regularly encounter different problems, and the bureaucratic mechanism does not allow to respond "in real time" in principle. To put it more exactly, this response is possible but if it is informal (based on interpersonal relations). Ant the European bureaucracy is even more complex and slow to start than the Ukrainian one, so it is hard to tell when it may be implemented in the EU. Moreover, the Recommendations are constantly referring to the filling of the European strategic communications with real content but so far it looks like a wish only.

The European STRATCOM is more focused on how to identify and disprove fakes. Unfortunately, this activity is perceived as "necessary but not crucial." Clearly, a system for fake identification and disproval should exist. However, the key question: who is a recipient of this disproval? Do they want to hear this disproval? We always forget (or do not want to think about it) people mainly choose the news regardless the objectivity principle. Moreover, they do not look for objectivity in the news spots. They want to confirm their beliefs with the news. And Russian television gives this very confirmation to many of them. That there is a global conspiracy. That world is ruled by a global government. That the USA is beyond the Maidan. That Russia “got up off its knees”. And many other “convincing” visions of the world. And cutting these quite “intimate” relations between the Russian TV and its viewers is rather difficult. Even more, purely in my opinion, it is even impossible without forced restriction to watch it. Though limiting such right is complex, on one hand, in technical terms and, on the other hand, you get drawn into the freedom of speech discussions again.

Recommendations for Ukraine

What Ukraine could really take advantage of from this document (perhaps not from the "letter" but from the "spirit") is a set of actions to be taken by the state (possibly, together with civil society) for countering of the information component of hybrid war. For example:

  • to have legal audit of Ukrainian possibilities to counter hostile information action within the legislation;
  • to involve media lawyers, law specialists and public officials in substantive discussions on the definition of "propaganda", "destructive information operations" notions, status and criteria of "pro-Russian" activities/policies (based on the recognition of Russia as an aggressor nation);
  • to have systemic sociological studies to record the influence of Russian propaganda on the Ukrainian population;
  • to complete the establishment of strategic communications system and set up cooperation with European colleagues;
  • to detail the national legislation about the "gray activities" of NGOs (giving them an opportunity to operate without breaking the law);
  • to give more clear definition of “media” and its differences from “propaganda quasi-media” (to be prosecuted by security agencies);
  • to have scientific researches to describe this new “hybrid” (in information terms as well) reality;
  • to have really critical review of the targets and priorities of public information policy in current situation (the existing regulations are definitely not able to respond to the realia of information war against the state);
  • to strengthen the responsibility for receiving funds from the aggressor state for the operation of various NGOs, political parties or separate groups. Actually, "zero tolerance" should be affirmed, and this should be recognized as the gravest crime;
  • to be more active on the international scene. It seems that we have really come to a point where we need a new version of the International Convention concerning the Use of Broadcasting in the Cause of Peace. And Ukraine is absolutely able to offer this initiative.

Of course, this is far from a complete list of what could be taken from this document for Ukraine. However, if we get back to the headline question, the principal answer would be “yes”, these proposals could be helpful. They cannot solve the problem fundamentally but can help significantly. However, Europe would need to revise substantially its political practice, its national legislation, its desire to postpone having clear determination of what Russia is for Europe. Until then these recommendations will be ineffective and will remain expert proposals only. And Russia, meanwhile, will continue to converting its information campaigns in Europe into direct political influence, imposing its agenda on the EU.





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