The Kremlin has used massive disinformation efforts, among others, to interfere in democratic processes across the West in the past few years. It left evidence of its meddling efforts in the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election. Consequently, the 2019 EP elections were always treated as potential targets for Russia, which was acknowledged by European institutions well in advance.
However, the Kremlin itself was surprisingly quiet in the 2019 EP election. Why? Because having someone to do your dirty work voluntarily is much better than being implicated in another scandal.
Euroskeptic Parties: Doing the Kremlin’s Bidding
Political Capital and its partners – the Prague Security Studies Institute, the CAPD and political analyst Grigorij Meseznikov – assessed the activities of well-known local disinformation portals and the two main English-language official Kremlin mouthpieces (RT and Sputnik International) between 15 March and 15 April.
Our purpose was to see how Russia and Russia-related topics and EU institutions were portrayed by these media outlets in the period leading up to and during the first weeks of the EP election campaign.
In the observed period, official Kremlin-backed media focused mainly on discrediting the United States and NATO, and did not address the EU as frequently as it did the other two. When they did discuss the European Union, they almost exclusively promoted the generally manipulative anti-EU narratives of Euroskeptic actors.
The topics emphasized on local portals varied from country to country: Hungarian disinformation media focused heavily on the EU, while the bloc was only a topic of secondary importance on the Czech media outlets included in the study.
Regardless of location, anti-EU messages were often combined with anti-West (US, NATO) messages.
In these cases, the EU was depicted as the extended arm of the US. Anti-West narratives aim to influence the general political orientation of the target audience, which can also affect voting intentions in EP elections: anti-US/NATO articles also promoted the ideas of Euroskeptic actors.
Even though the activity of RT and Sputnik clearly showed that the Kremlin’s public enemy number one is Washington/NATO, Russia still aims to weaken and fragment the EU to gain more influence over the bloc’s decision-making. Amplifying its voice in the European Parliament is one pillar of such efforts, although Moscow is more likely to target national elections, as it is easier to build a pro-Russian blocking minority coalition in the Council.
Moreover, the fact that the EU and its members are often considered US vassals is another reason to suggests that Russia has a vested interest in weakening European integration.
Throughout the monitoring period, official Kremlin narratives frequently found their way into the local discourse through local pro-Russian parties, experts, and media outlets. While official, semi-official Kremlin-backed media thus influenced local pro-Russian actors’ messages, the views of local actors contributed to Russia’s official rhetoric (e.g., via quotes that made their way into Sputnik articles).
Consequently, the narratives disseminated by RT/Sputnik and by local portals were very similar to each other. This convergence is prompted by the fact that both the Kremlin and Euroskeptic actors want to weaken the EU – although the latter want to do so for ideological reasons.
Overall, “domestic” Euroskeptic actors, most of whom are likely to be “useful idiots” rather than Russian agents of influence, played a much more important role in spreading pro-Russian narratives in the EU than the Kremlin itself. They essentially did the Kremlin’s dirty work voluntarily.
This was a perfect scenario for Moscow: its narratives could reach the target audience without its direct intervention and they could have an even larger effect through these intermediaries.
The exact effects of the anti-EU disinformation spread by Euroskeptic forces (and the Kremlin) are unknown, but it is certain – as the results of the EP elections prove – that there is openness to disinformation about the EU among local societies. This is possibly rooted in three main factors.
First, globalization did not bring equal benefits to all and politicians (not only populist ones) found the perfect scapegoat for these problems: the “distant” EU, insensitive Brussels bureaucrats, and their dictates.
Second, until recently, the EU simply tolerated disinformation campaigns against them.
Third, there is a lack of general knowledge about the European Union, its competences, and institutions, which opens the door for manipulative narratives portraying the EU as an imperialistic actor threatening national sovereignty, when – in fact – it only does what the treaties allow it to.
How to Fight It?
First and foremost, communications are key. Mainstream pro-EU actors must offer a positive counter-narrative to divisive populist claims to unite societies.
To be able to do it successfully, mainstream actors must acknowledge the problems Europeans face and offer short- and long-term solutions to these issues and deliver on these promises. The solutions have to be explained briefly and concisely – simply shrugging off Euroskeptic policies as ineffective is not enough anymore.
Second, it is important that decision-makers neither overestimate, nor underestimate Russia. Exaggerating Russia’s strength and potential only makes it more appealing to a certain part of the European population.
So besides calling attention to the threats posed by Russia, decision-makers should also emphasize the country’s weaknesses: poor wages, brutal social inequality, very low life expectancy and Putin’s austerity measures that the Kremlin was forced to introduce to keep the budget afloat – just like European countries did during the global recession.
Third, moving on from strategic communications to policies, the EU and its member states should focus on implementing the European Union’s Action Plan against Disinformation as swiftly as possible, which requires additional funding and considerable time before it achieves visible results.
Fourth, media literacy training and civic education has to be implemented in schools across the EU. Such trainings should teach pupils how to check facts, differentiate between factual articles and opinion pieces, and recognize paid advertisements.
The second pillar should focus on how liberal democracy, the rule of law, and civil society work, and on the functioning of the EU and international relations.
Such efforts would seriously strengthen societies’ resilience against disinformation. These would be, however, capable of delivering results only in the long-term.
Fifth, moving on to the media, social media platforms must play a key role in combatting disinformation. These platforms are playing a considerable role in creating information bubbles, thus polarizing society and helping information aggressors in interfering with domestic processes.
The EU has achieved results in this regard, working together with the platforms themselves, which prompted Facebook to introduce new advertising rules for the EP elections. Facebook is also engaged in delating well-known extremist accounts and in tailoring its algorithms to bury disinformation content as much as possible.
However, other social media outlets are lagging behind in this regard. These efforts must be consistent and consistently enforced across all platforms and languages – the latter is especially important considering that local-language pro-Russian outlets are very much engaged in disseminating the Kremlin’s views.
In the case of all decisions aimed at restricting manipulative and extremist content on social media platforms, transparency and accountability are key to convince citizens that the measure is not aimed at silencing critical voices.
Finally, the EU and independent media must do more to bring citizens closer to the EU. European institutions themselves must communicate more and communicate better with citizens.
Besides social media, Euronews could be a great tool to achieve this: it should be made available in all basic TV packages in the EU in all local languages to provide citizens with timely and accurate information on European affairs. The Commission could increase the financial aid given to the channel, while ensuring that all subsidies are spent in a transparent manner.
Moreover, all local public broadcasters should be asked to incorporate a 30-minutes long daily EU news bulletin into their programme, while an independent international body should be tasked with monitoring the impartiality of these broadcasts.
Finally, independent media should also try to pay more attention to the EU affairs.
Overall, winning the war on disinformation requires tough and potentially costly short- and long-term efforts in three domains: strategic communications, policies, and the media.
EU leaders, EU institutions, and pro-EU national decision-makers must immediately turn their attention to improving citizens’ knowledge on the European Union. Because right now the biggest challenge for the bloc is the fact that few seem to know what it does and how it does it.
This is a problem the Kremlin and Euroskeptic actors have been exploiting for years.