EU Response to Online Disinformation: Between Strategic Communication and Societal Resilience
20 July, 2020
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” The 2008 catch phrase of Rahm Emanuel, chief of staff of former U.S. president Barack Obama, is particularly relevant to the mounting phenomenon of online disinformation. Indeed, in times of emergency, incomplete or misleading information, disinformation and simply too much information can spread more easily due to governments’ unpreparedness, chaotic decision-making and inconclusive policies, which create a perfect scenario for false narratives to circulate. The current health crisis provides us with an insight into the dangers of scared and confused citizens buying into unconfirmed facts, opposing theories, and locally generated rumours.
Russia, China and Invisible Threats
In a communiqué on “tackling COVID-19 disinformation” on June 10, EU Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová pointed to Russia and China as the main actors behind the huge flow of disinformation during the pandemic. Russia’s covert tactics were on the EU’s radar long before the pandemic broke out, and the spread of COVID-19 only redirected the topical focus of the Kremlin’s disinformation narratives on the virus. Through a variety of pages, accounts, and groups on social media, state-owned news outlets, and other means, Russia capitalised on citizens’ fear for the virus and its consequent political and economic repercussions to inflame public opinion against the Kremlin’s targets. Examples of unfounded and false storylines are the claim that the U.S. stole test swabs from its allies, that NATO troops spread the virus across Europe through their military exercises, and that the U.S. and other foreign states created the virus. Similarly, China has been a leader in the pandemic disinformation phenomenon in Europe. Beijing has in fact been propagating its fair amount of conspiracy theories, as well as energetically promoting itself as somewhat of a coronavirus saviour shipping medical supplies to countries in need, though not mentioning that only a small share of such supplies were actual donations.
What is at Stake?
Foreign actors’ disinformation narratives are not only alarming due to the profound health and public safety risks they pose. Most importantly, by undermining the atmosphere of debate and trust in essential health-related institutions, misleading and doubtful information contributes to the erosion of trust in state authorities, fuels political and societal unrest and exploits existing politicised vulnerabilities from pandemics, to elections, to migration. In particular, as illustrated in a special report recently published by the European External Action Service, disinformation about the pandemic is used to polarise citizens’ opinions and generate selective distrust, which consists in people listening to determinate authorities based on what they stand for politically. However, the degree of damage produced by the above-mentioned dynamics most often depends on the crowd’s inclination to be misled. In other words, societal resilience, or the capacity to resist to disinformation, says a lot about authorities’ ability to depict themselves as trustworthy in front of their citizens. Creating the conditions for such resilience to develop is therefore a central aspect in the fight against disinformation.
EU’s Lack of Visibility
Despite its several efforts to help member states overcome the health crisis, the EU has been struggling to communicate its achievements effectively, thus facilitating the diffusion of disinformation by external actors. Europe’s slow response to helping Italy, for instance, generated fruitful ground for misinterpretation and made the EU look like it was part of the problem, rather than being the solution, in the eyes of the most severely affected member states. According to a Monitor Italia survey carried out in collaboration with the Dire Agency and Tecnè between March 12 and 13, 2020, 88% of respondents thought that the EU was not supporting Italy. Yet, contrary to public opinion, the EU actually contributed with an aid scheme worth up to €200 billion. Conversely, the narrative that Russia sustained Italians more than EU institutions remains widespread in the country’s public discourse, despite there being no reliable information about the amount and value of the equipment delivered by the Kremlin (the Italian newspaper La Stampa) recently found that 80% of Russian support was not useful to the country). In a public opinion poll inquiring on which countries Italy considers as “friends”, ran by the research institute SWG from March 20 to April 12, 2020, Russia received approval by 32% of respondents. This is an increase of 17% compared to 2019. The same 2020 poll classifies Germany as Italy’s leading “foe” as stated by 45% of respondents, followed by France (38%) and United Kingdom (17%). Indeed, it looks like the EU, despite having given Italy the most assistance, failed in conveying its efforts, and this is only one example of the communication niche left empty by EU institutions during the pandemic.
Prevention, not Reaction
To cope with the current “infodemic” and subsequent diffusion of disinformation narratives, the EU has to take a twofold approach. Firstly, as debunking fake-news alone has revealed unsuccessful, EU institutions as well as national governments have to restore citizens’ trust by building societal resilience. This can be done by ensuring the existence of a well-educated and informed citizenry through transparent and independent media and rigorous, science-informed and socially responsible education programmes. Some EU member states, including Germany, Sweden, Finland and Estonia, have provided their citizens with some guidelines in the form of brochures. In addition, Finland starts its fight against disinformation already in primary schools. Secondly, the EU has to work on its strategic communication techniques. StratCom, the strategic communication division of the European External Action Service (EEAS), has already been helpful in recognising and exposing online disinformation. It is nevertheless of mounting importance that EEAS and the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Communication (DG COMM) create new operational structures to produce and spread trustworthy European narratives, both in general and in times of crisis. Similarly, EU institutions should make pressure on social networks and other online platforms to persuade them to diffuse official information sources more regularly.
Ironically, then, the pandemic offers a chance to both foreign actors to spread disinformation and to the EU to restore its credibility. This time, the block can and must indeed turn the crisis into an opportunity.