“To Challenge Russia’s Ongoing Disinformation Campaigns”: The Story of EUvsDisinfo
With this article, we invite our readers on a tour behind the scenes of the output you see on the EUvsDisinfo website, including the public disinformation database; our presence on Facebook and Twitter and our weekly newsletter, the Disinformation Review.
We go through some key moments of our history in changing contexts; from the 2015 decision to set up the East StratCom Task Force in the light of the conflict in Ukraine to the reality of the COVID-19 infodemic in the spring of 2020. As a part of this story, we share some of the thinking behind our methods and approaches.
A unique mandate
On 19 and 20 of March 2015, the leaders of the 28 EU countries gathered in Brussels. One of the decisions the participants in this summit put down on paper was the following:
“The European Council stressed the need to challenge Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns and invited the High Representative, in cooperation with Member States and EU institutions, to prepare by June an action plan on strategic communication. The establishment of a communication team is a first step in this regard.”
With a unanimous decision coming from the highest level of decision making in the European Union – 28 heads of state and government – and with the clear language in which Russia was called out as a source of disinformation, the future work of what became the East Stratcom Task Force had been given a unique and strong mandate.
In March 2015, the leaders of the 28 EU member states decided to set up the East Stratcom Task Force.
A team of experts, who mainly had their background in communications, journalism and Russian studies, was formed in the EEAS – the EU’s diplomatic service, which is led by the EU’s High Representative.
2015: Russian aggression in Ukraine
Before looking into how this mandate was turned into practice, let us recall the situation in the eastern part of the European continent at that time.
In 2014 – the year before the team was set up – a European country had for the first time since World War 2 used military force to attack and take land from a neighbour: Russia’s illegal annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.
Fog of falsehood: From the “little green men” in Crimea to the killing of 298 innocent civilians in the sky over Ukraine in July 2014, Russian authorities and state-controlled media cooperated to spread confusion and hide the truth.
Russia-backed armed separatist groups had also taken control over a part of eastern Ukraine in the Donbas region, which borders with Russia. In July 2014, this conflict suddenly moved closer to the European Union itself when Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 with 298 people on board – among them 80 children and 196 Dutch nationals – was shot down by a Russian missile launched from the part of Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed separatists.
Ukraine and EU as targets of disinformation
Russia’s aggression in Ukraine had been accompanied by an overwhelming disinformation campaign, in which outright lies played a central role. This hybrid operation was integrated into the overall attempt to destabilise Ukraine, and its aim was to undermine Ukraine’s position – both directly in the conflict with Russia and in the eyes of the international community, sowing doubt and confusion.
Russian state-controlled TV showed a woman who claimed to be an eyewitness of Ukrainian forces crucifying a local boy in eastern Ukraine; but the woman turned out to be an actress and the execution had never happened. In another case, Russian audiences were told about a little girl who had been killed as a result of Ukrainian shelling, also in eastern Ukraine; but a BBC journalist managed to make producers from Russia’s NTV admit that they had reported this story, knowing that it was not true. Russian government representatives and Russian media spread dozens of different, contradictory stories about what had happened to Flight MH17 – a smokescreen meant to spread uncertainty and avoid accepting Russia’s responsibility for this horrendous crime.
Reporters on the ground and investigative journalists have played a key role in exposing pro-Kremlin disinformation. Above an example of Vice News’ award-winning video reporting from Crimea.
At the same time, the EU and its relationship with Ukraine – the largest partner country in the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy – was targeted by disinformation. Among the examples was reporting which accused the EU of financing the construction of “concentration camps” in Ukraine. Similar examples of pro-Kremlin disinformation targeting the relationship between the EU and Ukraine were exposed in the important work of Ukrainian fact-checkers.
This was the geopolitical situation and the information environment which in March 2015 made European leaders take this first political step against disinformation.
Three responses to disinformation
In order to move into action, the formulation of the mandate needed to be translated into concrete work descriptions: What should be understood by the phrase “to challenge”? How can you challenge disinformation? In other words: What should the team be doing?
In consultation with international experts, the EEAS identified not one, but three different strands of work as both politically acceptable and effective means of challenging disinformation:
- The Task Force should make the EU’s own communication more effective, with special focus on the Eastern Partnership countries. In other words, if audiences should be resilient to e.g. the disinformation targeting the relationship between EU and Ukraine, it would make sense to raise the level of knowledge about what the EU is and what it does.
- The Task Force should also help to strengthen free and independent media in the same region. One of the best ways of keeping a society resilient to disinformation is to have strong and trusted, independent outlets – including public service media – upholding fundamental journalistic standards.
- Finally, as its third strand of work, the Task Force should raise awareness of the disinformation problem by running an advocacy campaign. This campaign should collect examples of disinformation and exhibit them in a framing that would not reinforce, but instead challenge the disinformation. EUvsDisinfo is this awareness raising campaign.
Since the East Stratcom Task Force began its operations in Brussels on 1 September 2015, these three directions have formed our work.
In other words, what we publish under the brand EUvsDisinfo is one of the EU’s responses to disinformation – an answer to the fundamental question: How to challenge disinformation?
The EUvsDisinfo awareness raising campaign
The EUvsDisinfo.eu website is the hub of our campaign to raise awareness of pro-Kremlin disinformation. The campaign website includes a number of different products:
- A publicly available disinformation database: since 2016, we have collected individual examples of disinformation with links to the originals and added short debunks. By April 2020, we have more than 8,000 examples. Initially, we relied on the team members’ media monitoring and a network of sympathising volunteers who forwarded examples they had spotted to us. Later, we received funding from the European Parliament which allowed us to systematise this work with the help of professional media monitoring services. However, the final judgment, i.e. the decision whether to include an example of disinformation in the database, lies with us.
- A weekly Disinformation Review which presents the latest examples in the disinformation database in order to outline the current trends. When similar disinformation messages appear in different media outlets, and sometimes in different languages, it can be a sign that certain narratives are appearing, i.e. attempts to form and spread particular perceptions of reality among audiences using (social) media.
- If the Disinformation Review resembles a news section, we also have a feature section with articles that look deeper into specific topics and narratives over longer time. This section includes different approaches, and you will see that we use different writing styles: longer analytical pieces, interviews, a “figure of the week”, as well as articles with an entertaining twist – for example when attempts to spread disinformation have exposed themselves in an embarrassing way. Finally, while the Disinformation Review is primarily based on examples of disinformation we ourselves have detected with the help of our professional media monitors, our feature articles frequently highlight examples when investigative and fact-checking journalists have exposed disinformation. These are often articles, radio and TV productions in Russian, made by independent Russian journalists, whose important work we thereby make available in English to a wider international audience.
- We have dedicated topical sections, currently two: one about elections, which includes the online output of a campaign we ran in cooperation with colleagues in the European Parliament and at the European Commission representations in the member states to raise awareness of disinformation ahead of the European elections in 2019; and a dedicated COVID-19 section, which collects our output in response to disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic.
- We also produce videos that raise awareness of disinformation, with special attention to examples taken from Russian TV. Sometimes, the simplest response to the problem is to add English subtitles to news broadcasts or a talk shows from Russian TV. We present these videos on our Facebook page and on Twitter
Highlights of disinformation on Russian TV
Only one in three Russians say they trust the news programmes on the state-controlled TV channels. And there’s a good reason why.
Posted by EU vs Disinformation on Friday, December 20, 2019
Watch our compilation of highlights from Russian TV in 2019.
Terminology and methodology on EUvsDisinfo
We acknowledge that the results of our work very much depend on the definitions and approaches we use. Some key notions deserve to be singled out as particularly important:
- We prefer to say pro-Kremlin disinformation because our focus is on the message. While it is well-known that the Kremlin issues guidelines for media messaging, there are also actors which operate in different degrees of dependency, loyalty, or simply inspiration from the narratives of the Russian authorities. For our understanding of this “ecosystem”, see the article, “The Strategy and the Tactics of the Pro-Kremlin Disinformation Campaign.”
- Since our work is a part of the EU’s foreign policy, we focus on disinformation coming from sources that are external to the EU; and with our mandate in mind, these sources must have a clear connection to the pro-Kremlin ecosystem. The original mandate is the reason why EUvsDisinfo looks specifically at pro-Kremlin disinformation.
- We highlight examples of disinformation messages unless the context clearly states that the claim is untrue. This e.g. means that we do not include clearly labelled satire. Disinformation cases can, however, appear in the context of e.g. a televised talk show discussion where competing opinions are also made available: When the context of a clear disinformation message legitimises it as a relevant “opinion” – even if it is part of a “mix” of different points of view – we consider the case to be of relevance to our reporting.
- The EUvsDisinfo database includes “disproofs”, which explain the components that make a certain claim disinformation, i.e. verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public, and may cause public harm. We put the disinformation examples in context with the weekly newsletter, the Disinformation Review, and with the feature articles. Our focus on the context is due to the fact that we acknowledge the important distinction between misinformation vs. disinformation, i.e. the difference between an incorrect claim seen in isolation, and the way such a claim can be used intentionally, systematically and manipulatively to pursue political goals. Awareness raising is not only about knowing why something is not correct; it is also about understanding how the systems, in which such a claims appears, work. Searching through the database, the reader sees a timeline of how a certain disinformation message pops up the first time, and how it changes and develops. These findings give hints to researchers, journalists or other users where to look for more. For a detailed breakdown of the terminology we support, we refer you to the terminology table in this article.
From 2018: Increased support and a new mandate
Since 2015, our focus on Ukraine has remained strong; but we have also looked into other areas where pro-Kremlin disinformation has been active, including: migration; the MeToo movement; election interference; human rights; the anti-vaccination movement; the chemical attack in Salisbury; climate; conspiracy theories, and many other topics.
We have also seen growing interest and support of our work, including from the European Parliament. Effective of 2018, the European Parliament granted us an ear-marked budget to support our work. A part of this funding is spent on contracting a systematic media monitoring service, which replaced the initial network of volunteers. We wanted to move from presenting illustrative examples to also include a quantitative approach. As a result, we see and hear more now, and in more languages than we did in the beginning; and we have become able to identify larger tendencies thanks the access to larger bodies of data.
In December 2018, the European leaders gathered again in Brussels for a new discussion on disinformation. This time, they adopted an Action Plan on Disinformation, which acknowledged East Stratcom’s work; this means that our original mandate remained intact. The new Action Plan added new policies and initiatives, including a Rapid Alert System, in which EU’s member states keep each other informed internally about disinformation, and a Code of Practice, which pushes to make social media and other tech giants take more responsibility for information appearing on their platforms. The Action Plan also mentioned the important role played by our colleagues in the EEAS Task Forces for the Western Balkans and the South (the latter covering the Middle East and North Africa). The relevance of these regions is visible in articles published on the EUvsDisinfo website, e.g. about RT disinformation in Arabic and Sputnik in the Western Balkans. Disinformation operations originating from China have recently been added to our broader working environment as a topic of interest, and we have increased the capability to perform data analysis. An example of this work is an article on how a Facebook page pretending to represent the European Parliament has systematically been sharing publications from RT.
In addition to running the EUvsDisinfo online campaign, the East Stratcom Task Force has also begun to organise conferences with aim to raise awareness of disinformation and bring experts together; so far, one such event has been held in Brussels, and one has been organised in Tbilisi, Georgia. In addition, the team cooperates with different actors in the Eastern Partnership countries, including representatives of government institutions.
In 2018, the European leaders also stressed the particular importance of protecting elections against disinformation; in response to that, we launched an awareness raising campaign specifically ahead of the European elections in May 2019.
An introduction to the work of the St. Petersburg “troll factory” is among the features in our 2019 campaign to raise awareness of election interference.
Finally, we acknowledge that large parts of our audience prefer to read in other languages than English. Since the very beginning, we have published and promoted Russian versions of all our articles and of the Disinformation Review; we translate select publications into German and now begin similar work in French, Italian and Spanish.
The standard products in the EUvsDisinfo output – the disinformation database, the Disinformation Review and our analytical articles – are labelled as “not an official EU position”. We find that a review of other actors’ communications should not be seen as a policy; we want our work to be considered an analytical product made available to the public by the EU.
Questions and Answers about the East StratCom Task Force
The Strategy and the Tactics of the Pro-Kremlin Disinformation Campaign