One of the few EU success story in defence: the EU’s long-fought battle against misinformation
12 July 2023 /
The European Union is going through a watershed moment since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The ‘geopolitical Commission’ seems more committed than ever to beef up its defence capabilities, despite being hindered by difficult internal oppositions.
Yet, the EU is successful in another area of the defence: it is leading the complex fight against hybrid threats, which are “attacks meant to hamper the decision-making of a target at the local, state or institutional level”, as defined by the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, which also informs NATO and the EU.
Cooperation between member states prevails in these non-military domains of defence thereby allowing the EU to have a strong impact on the global stage. Is this because the nature of the actorness of the EU has historically been civilian, and it’s hard to stray away from this past? Notwithstanding the reasons, the way the EU is countering misinformation makes an interesting case study for what the future of European defensive action might look like. As a way forward, the EU should consider mastering this hybrid area of defence while supporting member states in bolstering up their military capabilities, by facilitating procurement for instance, to prevent the current inertia.
Indeed, some Member States like France are more willing than others – the Netherlands are worth mentioning here – to make the Europe of defence, including the military, a reality in the near future. While the more reluctant countries have several reasons to shy away – ranging from industrial arguments to national sovereignty – the Defence Union seems to not walk the talk.
The 2022 report of the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence, an EU-wide process meant to analyse the EU defence landscape, warns that “defence planning continues to be done mostly in isolation and member states remain unconvinced by European cooperation projects”. However, this not-so-peculiar lack of will in European cooperation when it comes to hard defence is true for the military mostly. But less true for civilian areas of external relations, such as development or humanitarian aid where the EU provides over 50 billion per year according to the EU aid explorer. The EU is stronger in non-military aspects and this seems favourable in the current state of play. In fact, defence is evolving and consists of threats that are both military and technological.
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The evolution of defence
In the 2022 Strategic Compass, a text adopted at the Versailles conference in March 2022, European heads of state agreed to follow an action plan to respond to geopolitical threats in a stronger way by 2030. One of the chapters of this comprehensive text is focused on cybersecurity and specifically sets out the development of the Foreign Information and Manipulation and Interference Toolbox. This follows an increasing interest in evolving threats made possible with modern technological infrastructure. Indeed, if foreign manipulation was done by shadow communication between powerful actors or spies before, it is now fully technological and more difficult to spot.
So, the defence landscape is evolving to counter newly emerging threats. What is the EU concretely doing? Since 2005, the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity has contributed to making the EU safer by developing modern tools to counter cyberattacks. Since then, the importance of cybersecurity to counter hybrid threats from hostile actors slowly grew to a comprehensive system. This is notably reflected in the European defence partnerships which are the strategic plans with EU’s closest allies, with the most important being NATO, the US and Norway. These bilateral partnerships, based on cooperation, are the pillars of European defence in that they forge coherent, consistent and comprehensive action among partners.
In 2021, NATO and the EU identified the following threats to be the most pressing, namely hybrid, cyber or climate change-related threats, outer space, military mobility, and emerging disruptive technologies (e.g. ChatGPT). In 2022, the European Defence Agency created a Hub for EU Defence Innovation which aims at being “being better prepared for the future battlefield and the next generation technologies”, in the words of EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell.
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Disinformation and fact-checking
When we zoom in on the ‘misinformation fight’ at EU level, we realise the significance of the threat, which triggered a strong response by the EU, but that didn’t make a lot of noise. Already in 2018, the Commission published an action plan against disinformation which has four main axes: improving detection of misinformation, coordinating the responses at EU level, working with online platforms and industry, and finally raising awareness among citizens and empowering them to spot fake news.
This has encouraged many national media to develop fact-checkers centres: in France, the AFP has 130 independent investigative journalists working full time to detect and prevent harmful misinformation content online. In Italy, Pagella Politica is also committed to debunk the misleading information circulating on the digital realm as its slogan echoes “choose whom to not trust”.
All of these media collaborate together under the EU-led European Digital Media Observatory, created following the Commission’s action plan. It describes itself as “a hub for fact-checkers and academics” and has recently extended its hub in every EU country to tackle more effectively disinformation campaigns at all levels while analysing their impact on society and democracy. Thierry Breton expressed in January that these hubs “will pout our fight against disinformation on a new level”.
This fast-moving action is backed by large funding. In this matter, the EU fund Horizon 2020 has granted 778 million euros to the project Vera.ai which fights online disinformation with artificial intelligence tools. The emphasis is on digital security as their website warns that “online media is a minefield of disinformation and misleading or manipulated news”.
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Beyond disinformation : FIMI threats
Misinformation is serious, but how does it relate to foreign policy ? While misinformation is about content’s truthfulness, foreign information manipulation and interference (FIMI) emphasises more on manipulative behaviour from a hostile actor. Or a coalition of hostile actors.
Indeed, the war in Ukraine established a rather clear-cut division between the Occident and other states who forge alliances based on countering Western power. But stepping back from a dangerous dualistic narrative that would simplify the threat, FIMI actions are still prominently done by Russia. A popular example of a Russian FIMI case is the denial of the Bucha massacre, portrayed as an orchestration from Kyiv to discredit the Russian army and provide Western media with an opportunity of criticising Russia.
Following Russia, the second country where most FIMI cases come from is China. During the Covid-19 pandemic, there is evidence that Chinese state’s representatives paid influencers to relay false information, for instance. Then, there are some French-speaking countries in Africa such as Mali or Burkina Faso who specifically propagate an anti-French narrative.
Once again, the EU retaliated promptly by creating the EU vs Disinfo, affiliated with the European External Action Service (EEAS). It consists of a communication team whose daily task is to challenge these ongoing and massive disinformation campaigns. Assuming that foreign disinformation, information manipulation pose a physical threat to the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) infrastructures, and undermine the EU’s integrity and retaliation, the EU vs Disinfo has published a comprehensive report on FIMI and how to best tackle it.
The report illustrates that the direct target is mainly Ukraine and Russian diplomatic channels amplify the disinformation narratives. For the large part, the 6500+ cases raised since the war in Ukraine use impersonation techniques. This means that mainstream print and TV media are copying the magazine’s style and propagate false information. The main objectives are to distract the public sphere by shifting the blame and distorting by attempting to change the framing of the issue.
The immediate tool that the EEAS has at hand is to carry out in-depth analysis of cases, actors, strategies, objectives and create a database. For this, there are two task forces, one being for the Southern EU neighbourhood, and the other for the Eastern one.
Then, the second tool at hand is to deter the threat. The EU is currently developing international standards for a definition of FIMI threats, which will allow sanctions, among others. Finally, the EU, with the support of Member states and EU delegations, is engaged in public diplomacy. To put it simply, it means creating counter-narratives powerful enough to weaken the ones produced by hostile actors. It also includes raising awareness and educating the citizens to check the information provided on social media: who is the source ? When typed on the internet, is there an echo? When going to the profile of the source, does it seem legitimate? These are pressing questions that we should all think of automatically. Indeed, as we now increasingly seek information on social media, it is a fertile ground to spread fake news meant to manipulate and weaken the foundations of democracy.
In sum, if the EU is slow in negotiating a military defence union since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this hasn’t hindered other approaches to defence being quickly developed and backed by large funding. Is this soft-tech approach to defence the most favourable path for the EU? Are cyber and hybrid attacks the minefields of the future and the EU is preparing its weapons?
[This article was first published in the issue 38 of the magazine]