When announcing the decision, European Council President Donald Tusk warned that Europe was facing major challenges of “cyber-attacks, fake news, hybrid war.” The task force’s annual budget of €1.1 million ($1.3 million) is minuscule considering the magnitude of the task, but at least it reflects a recognition of this growing threat. Considering that the EU is currently having to deal with other issues crucial for its survival — including Brexit, the rise of ultra-nationalism and increasingly unstable political systems — Tusk’s warning is testimony to the serious view that the EU takes of Russia’s aggressive cyber policies.
The Internet and social media have created a completely new world for producing and disseminating information. It would have been naive to expect that those in charge of shaping public opinion would resist the temptation to influence it at home and abroad through the use of these new technologies. Worse, in an age when all our industries, our public and private services, our security and our communications are heavily dependent on cyber technology, interference with it could have disastrous consequences. Cyber-attacks could potentially bring the national grid, air traffic control, hospitals or banking system to a complete standstill, or worse.
Nevertheless, most of these doomsday scenarios are not of such immediate concern as Russia’s interference with elections in Europe and the US, as well as its tampering with the Brexit referendum, through intense propaganda. What makes propaganda different from other types of knowledge dissemination is that it aims to influence the opinion of a population, and is at best partly true and at worst totally untrue. It appeals more to emotion than to reason, and it is usually peddled in overwhelming quantities. It is based on the assumption that, if a lie is repeated enough times, it will eventually gain credibility and become “common knowledge” and accepted as the truth — as most people won’t have sufficient time or be concerned to check, especially if it resonates with what they already believe to be true.
From the days of the October Revolution to the end of the Cold War, Russia has used propaganda widely and effectively to cover up its shortcomings. In the aftermath of the Cold War, it was stunned for a while by its total collapse and became more inward-looking, extremely resentful and insecure. But, in time, following President Vladimir Putin’s ascent to power, Russia has slowly begun to re-establish itself as an international power to be reckoned with. Yet today it feels dangerously squeezed and threatened by the expansion of NATO and the European Union. It has restored some of its influence through brutal military means, at least in its immediate surroundings, in places such as Ukraine and Georgia. But cyberspace propaganda has been employed as another crucial tool to influence the international environment in which Russia operates, and this has been particularly upsetting for other major actors on the world stage.
It is rare for heads of government to be so open and blunt in their fury at another country’s intervention in their domestic affairs as recently, for instance, were France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May. It is alleged that, two days before France’s recent presidential election, hackers believed to be associated with the Russian government leaked nine gigabytes of emails from candidate Macron’s campaign and posted the material on the Internet. Macron retaliated by banning two Russian media outlets, Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik, from covering his campaign, labelling them as “agents of influence” in their attempt to boost the electoral chances of his ultra-right rival Marine Le Pen. He accused Putin’s administration of pursuing “a hybrid strategy combining military intimidation and an information war.”
The EU’s decision to up its investment in countering Moscow’s cynical abuse of cyberspace and interference with foreign elections seems inevitable and urgent.
In a recent major speech, May was no less direct in her criticism of Putin’s policies, describing them as a threat to world order. Moreover, she went on to accuse Russia of “seeking to weaponize information,” and utilising its state-run media outlets to plant fake stories and Photoshopped images in a concerted effort to “sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions.” Add to this what is commonly believed to be Russia’s involvement in using fake news to smear Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton in last year’s American election in order to support Donald Trump, and the EU’s decision to up its investment in countering Russia’s cynical abuse of cyberspace seems inevitable and urgent.
Last Friday, UK’s National Cyber Security Center issued a ban on the use of anti-virus products created by the Moscow-based Kaspersky Lab in government departments in an effort to “prevent the transfer of UK data to the Russian state.”
It is then for Stratcom, with its small group of no more than two dozen diplomats and officials inside the EU foreign service, to discredit Russian propaganda and to present a positive image of the EU to the countries of the former Soviet bloc. After all, Russia today has discovered that it can compensate for its inability to undermine its rivals through military means, economic prowess or providing an attractive alternative by spreading fake news in cyberspace. The Internet and social media have become an arena for Russia to distort the democratic process in favor of candidates that are convenient for Moscow. Thus far, due to the lack of any determined response by the West, Russia has gained the upper hand, and dangerously so.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg