by Jean-Dominique Giuliani, President of the Robert Schuman Foundation, Paris
On 7 February, the European External Action Service (EEAS) released its first report on foreign information manipulation and interferences (FIMI), which a 2015 European Council asked it to draft. The European Parliament has set up a Committee of Inquiry on the same subject, as have several national parliaments, most recently the French National Assembly. This report and this work shed light on the hostile actions of powers that have declared an information war on democracies. They shed light on hostile strategies and procedures that use every means possible to discredit our societies in which the first freedom is access to pluralist information in which citizens can freely form their opinions. Obviously, European society is one of the most liberal in this respect and therefore one of the most targeted by these activities. For the first time, by deciphering and analysing in a quasi-scientific way the messages peddled by these enemies, the EEAS gives a complete overview of the methods used, which can be summarised in 5 D’s: Dismiss, Distort, Distract, Dismay and Divide.
Russia – a champion in disinformation
Denying and refuting with the crudest of lies, of which only dictatorships are capable; distorting and discrediting quality information; distracting attention with twisted procedures; threatening and frightening by spreading fear; sowing division everywhere, including between religions, ethnic groups and nations – these are, in short, the techniques used, which give priority to images, fake videos or the most vulgar editing. By saturating the digital space with these lies, their authors make the work of the press and journalists more difficult and allow “infiltrators”, “fellow travellers” and their agents of influence to amplify their message and undermine the credibility of honest and objective information. Russia has been the champion of this since 2013-2014 and has increased its pressure since its aggression on Ukraine. One of the main interests of the EEAS work is to be able to attribute the spread of this disinformation to specific origins. The Russian troll factories are operating full out, and we now know where they come from, how they are financed and where they are located, but they find relays in the statements made by Russian diplomats and often by Chinese partners, official or unofficial. This proves that a power like Russia, still a member of the UN Security Council, is not afraid to spread false information about Ukrainian “Nazism”, about the presence of American biological research laboratories in Ukraine, about the role of NATO or France in Africa. It seals its lies by relaying them through official allusions or actions by its Foreign Ministry and the Russian Presidency.
The European Union has belatedly become aware of this new hybrid war. Reluctant by nature to control information, our democracies can no longer ignore the action of what is far worse than a “fifth column”, aimed at weakening support for resistance to the criminal actions of dictatorships. A Digital Media Observatory, initially based on a Code of Conduct, has been created by the European Commission, which has managed to attract the interest of the major global platforms. The Digital Services Act, adopted in 2022, which will come into force in 2024, gives the European Commission the power to oversee compliance with European rules, including abroad, which constitutes a form of extraterritoriality of European law. Finally, the work of the EEAS with its website EuvsDisinfo (euvsdisinfo.eu) represents a new stage in the European awakening. Disinformation is a real weapon that attacks the vulnerabilities of our free and open societies. Fighting its development is as much a necessity as the most basic civil and military defences that protect them. The multiple forms of “hybrid warfare”, aggression emanating from nations or groups that do not have the traditional means of defeating our democracies, demand strong responses. They surprise us because freedom of thought, expression and association are part of the genes of democracy. But they also oblige us to defend these universal values whose enemies are now clearly visible. We must not weaken in this existential struggle.