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Peter Stano: “Ukraine is facing a huge challenge in combatting Russia’s propaganda”

Peter STANO

The Kremlin is changing its disinformation narratives depending on a situation with COVID-19 pandemics, said Peter Stano, Lead Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the European External Action Service. In an interview to Promote Ukraine, he pointed out that Eastern Partnership countries are a very obvious target for Moscow’s propaganda and disinformation. According to him, media literacy is one of the best ways to counteract such attacks.

Disinformation campaigns are not something new, Russia used them earlier, but with COVID-19 Moscow became even more active on this front. Do you see more cases of disinformation now than it was before January this year?

I would start more broadly. I would say that the coronavirus brought many opportunities for all those who are involved in disinformation activities. And it is not only one actor. There are state actors, non-state actors, and the state actors are not only those who are somehow, like in the public perception, being like Russia or China. There are many of them. But Russia traditionally, as you said, has a track record to be engaged in disinformation campaigns most of the time and has the most sophisticated and the most widespread instruments to advance misinformation, propaganda, or right away disinformation.

So there are likely two trends, I would say. When the coronavirus spreading started, on January 22 we noticed the first disinformation from a source that could be linked to Russia in one way or another. Then as the coronavirus pandemics are spread around the world, so did the disinformation from the Russia-based or Russia-linked disinformation sources. But then, as of the end of March or mid-April, we see a downwards trend, you can link it directly to the situation in Russia. Because at the start Russia seemed not to be affected very much or not at all, and the EU or EU countries were affected dramatically. So the disinformation, the propaganda, the misinformation actors used it, of course, and they were promoting a lot of conspiracy theories, a lot of disinformation about how this virus was conceived. They said that it was developed as a biological weapon by NATO, by the United States. Then you have a lot of disinformation about how to fight the coronavirus, starting from the claim that it is fake news and that the coronavirus does not exist on one hand. On the other hand, they were saying that this is something where washing hands will not help you, and it is enough to eat zinc, or drink milk, or take vitamin C, and it will help you to prevent catching the coronavirus.

On January 22 we noticed the first disinformation from a source that could be linked to Russia in one way or another

Then, of course, a big part of the disinformation, of misinformation efforts, linked to Russia was to blow out of proportion the dramatic situation in European countries, so the pro-Kremlin outlets were saying that the EU is about to collapse, the EU is not able to help their member states. They were promoting this narrative that basically we are not able to handle, and we need Russia and China to jump in and help us. But when Russia started to record cases as I said the end of March-mid-April and it turned out that Russia is really affected and it is one of the most affected countries in the world right now, then you could really see the downwards trend that the number of cases decreased, also the aggressiveness and the type of disinformation examples changed. So whereas before it was about the origin of coronavirus, about the inability of the EU to cope and speculations about how it was conceived and whether it is true or not. Now, most of the cases regarding the disinformation of the actors who are based or linked to Russia is playing with conspiracy theories like ok, this is a biological weapon, this is the instrument of the West to attack and weaken its competitors like China or Russia. Or you see a lot of disinformation related to vaccination, to tracking applications, so the conspiracy theories of disinformation actors are playing also with a notion, or with theory, of global elites trying to have total control of the citizens or very popular right now linking the 5G telecommunication infrastructure with the coronavirus. Either as its source of the virus, or the cause of its spread, or a means to follow and spy on people. So very strong engagement, but you see that engagement is adapting, and then narratives are adapting, based on the situation in Russia.

Peter STANO

The EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell – on the left; the head of his cabinet Pedro Serrano – in the middle; the Spokesperson Peter Stano – on the right.

Do you think that strategies of the EU or its member states also contributed to these changes?

That is something which I would not say right now. Because our myth-busting activities, our exposing activities regarding the disinformation are not new, we were doing it before, and disinformation and propaganda were there before, and there are not deterred by our counter fight. But maybe a better question would be whether the people are ready and willing to receive, perceive, and accept disinformation. We want to hope that with our continued efforts and exposing this disinformation, publishing it on our website https://euvsdisinfo.eu/, but also with cooperation with member states, with fact-checkers in other states, with civil society that we are raising awareness of people. So that the people are aware that there is a lot of disinformation around, and we are also contributing to finding the ways how to face the disinformation, and the best and most efficient way is through media literacy. I mean to educate people so that they know how to work with the information sources, they double-check, triple check the information. They should be more selective and critical when they perceive information, especially from sources that do not have a long track record of existing or do not have a track record of serious journalism.

Thus raising awareness of the fact that the disinformation is there and raising awareness about how to work properly with information sources – this is what we do. But is it enough to achieve a change in the behavior of the disinformation actors? I would not dare to say so. I would have my doubts because they will not stop their activities, they will adapt their tactics, but they will not stop their activities. Because this is one of the ways how they want to reach out to the audiences in the European Union, how they want to continue to stir up troubles or spread the confusion, weaken the public trust, the trust of the citizens in the EU institutions, the state institutions, and the model of the society we are living in.

We are 27 member states plus NATO partners plus G7 partners. So this is already a huge network to be efficient enough to at least be aware of what the disinformation actors are doing, and to devise strategies or at least alert ourselves what is going on, so that is we can see how to deal with it.

So I would not actually say that our activities are deterring them but I would like to hope, and I would like to see that what we are doing is on one hand helping the people to become more resilient towards it and on the other hand force the disinformation actors to change their tactics. Because what they were doing until now we exposed, we are publishing it, we are confronting them with reality, and we are naming them. But that on its own is not enough to deter because they will continue.

They will further target the weakest links, so the countries where the situation is the worst, the countries where the public is unhappy, there are public protests. They would fuel these uncertainties and try to stir up troubles and problems all just to undermine the confidence of the people in their national states. And they will focus, of course, on smaller countries, on the countries of the neighbourhood. I mean that Western Balkans, Eastern Partnership countries are very obvious and continued target. There is a lot of disinformation also circulating in the Middle East, in Latin America. So they are adapting tactics, but they are not reducing their activities, they are just changing the ways how they operate and changing the narratives based on the situation. But this is what they did before also. They already used the running or the current narrative to feed into it with their contributions in terms of conspiracy theories or dubious interpretation or half-facts, half-truth means to outwrite the disinformation.

What EU countries are the most affected by the Russian disinformation? Do you have these data?

Not really. Because we are not covering 100% of everything that is going on, we are working with open sources and we, of course, have our limits, we are focusing obviously on the territory of the EU and our immediate neighbourhood to the East, Balkans, to the South. But I can tell you which countries are least affected: that is the countries with a very vivid and professional media landscape, with a very good education system, there is already a lot of work being done in terms of raising awareness and media literacy. Finland is a good example.

Ukraine has a lot of issues and a lot of challenges that need to be tackled, disinformation is one of them, and we are there for our partners in Ukraine to help them to advise them, to assist them in any way we can, because our commitment to Ukraine is unquestionable.

So this is something I would not like answering with 100% certainty, but I would say in general that the countries which are the most exposed are countries either in transition, such as the Balkan countries, the Eastern Neigbourhood countries (including Ukraine – ed.), or countries where there is huge distrust in authorities anyway, countries where there are polarised opinions, where the political landscape is very polarised. These are the very conducive factors that are very fertile for all the disinformation actors who want to flood the local market with propaganda or with false narratives and disinformation or misinformation. Therefore, in general, the most affected countries are the least stable ones, also in terms of how they handle the coronavirus. I would say, like in Italy or Spain probably the public perception is more open to Russian or Chinese propaganda than in let’s say Denmark or the Netherlands or Germany. So I think it is quite obvious based on a situation in those countries.

East Stratcom Task Force of the EU deals with disinformation campaigns from Moscow, and this task force is a tiny unit. Whilst Russian propaganda is a huge machine. Is the EU thinking to increase the number of people working at Stratcom?

You are right that the Russian propaganda machine or disinformation machine is huge, it is very well organised, centrally organised, of course, it has a lot of resources. On the other hand, the fact that only a few dozen people are working in the Stratcom of the EEAS does not mean that this is it in the EU. Because this is it what we do in terms of institutions, but that on the side of the EEAS. At the same time, we have very close and intense cooperation and exchange of information with all the member states.

Most of the member states have their own entities to deal with disinformation. We cooperate very closely with NATO, with G7 partners, which means we are pooling and sharing, so when you look at it, it is not just the number of people working on disinfo in the EEAS Stratcom, but a whole network of people working on this in the member states both at the national level, in terms of authorities, official entities, but also civil society, fact-checkers, journalists, people who are willing to work on this with us and who are also sharing information.

Western Balkans, Eastern Partnership countries are very obvious and continued target. There is a lot of disinformation also circulating in the Middle East, in Latin America. So they are adapting tactics, but they are not reducing their activities, they are just changing the ways how they operate and changing the narratives based on the situation.

We are 27 member states plus NATO partners plus G7 partners. So this is already a huge network to be efficient enough to at least be aware of what the disinformation actors are doing, and to devise strategies or at least alert ourselves what is going on, so that is we can see how to deal with it. Of course, when it comes to raising awareness, educating people, increasing media literacy, this is not a job for EEAS because it is a central EU institution that does not have a domestic audience, so to speak. The domestic audiences are in the member states. And this is a role for the member states to reflect this in the curriculum in the schools for example or a public outreach in the local languages, in the local context, taking into account the local historical context, the local mentality and all the other factors which are important when you work with public perception and the information which is targeted for the public.

Thus I would really encourage to see not only the EEAS Stratcom unit as the only one working with disinformation. It is a sum, it is a collective sum of member states plus partners who are dealing with it, and we are cooperating closely, we are exchanging information, we have mechanisms to alert each other to ongoing campaigns, to exchange the best practices, narratives, and examples, so it is a concentrated effort of the international partners. Eventually, as I said, whatever is going to be undertaken in terms of prevention, preemption, and combatting the disinformation apart from exposing, it is really the main task for the member states.

Do you think that Ukraine is doing enough to counteract the Russian propaganda and disinformation?

This is not really a question for me. We are helping Ukraine in many different fields to deal with a very difficult situation in Ukraine, even not only when it comes to Russian propaganda. Ukraine has been one of the main targets of Russian propaganda since at least 2014 when all the big problems started. Ukraine has a lot of issues and a lot of challenges that need to be tackled, disinformation is one of them, and we are there for our partners in Ukraine to help them to advise them, to assist them in any way we can, because our commitment to Ukraine is unquestionable, is continued, we are not backing down Ukraine as a partner who receives most assistance from the EU, and it is most closely associated with the EU from all the Eastern Partner countries.

Most of the member states have their own entities to deal with disinformation. We cooperate very closely with NATO, with G7 partners, which means we are pooling and sharing, so when you look at it, it is not just the number of people working on disinfo in the EEAS Stratcom, but a whole network of people working on this in the member states both at the national level, in terms of authorities, official entities, but also civil society, fact-checkers, journalists, people who are willing to work on this with us and who are also sharing information.

So there our commitment remains, and we are ready to support them.

Of course, in our disinformation combatting activities we are also watching how Ukraine is being affected and targeted, and we are having our eyes on the activities of the disinformation actors and propaganda actors against Ukraine. We are also working and cooperating with Ukrainian partners, both at the official level and with the civil society. So to say, whether they are doing enough or not, this is not really up to me. But we have to acknowledge that Ukraine is facing a huge challenge in this respect. Because it is closest to Russia, and also it is a country where the situation is still not 100% ideal, it is not 100% stable. Also, the composition of the population makes it very convenient for the disinformation actors to play with the inhabitants, with their anxieties, insecurities, uncertainties, and flood them with a lot of contradictory information, conspiracy theories. These actors are trying to undermine citizens’ trust in Ukrainian authorities or the European future of the country. And they are doing it very consistently and very intensively. So we are there to help and assist Ukraine also to deal with this.

Natalia Richardson

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