EU vs Fakes News and Russia: Tilting at Windmills
Donald Trump’s ascension to power in the United States is not an isolated event. It reflects a general trend. The Brexit-started domino effect is continuing the chain reaction across the West. A string of events may greatly weaken the European Union. A wave of changes is to sweep away the political establishment. It puts into jeopardy the Western liberal consensus embodied in the EU and its much vaunted values. 2017 is an election year in a number of leading European states.
In Germany, the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany Party is challenging Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU). In France, the right-wing François Fillon will face the even more right-wing politician – Marine Le Pen. In the Netherlands, the far-right Geert Wilders is adamant in his desire to win the election and replace the governing centre-right leader Mark Rutte. The Czech Republic will hold elections in October 2017. ANO, a protest movement headed by Andrej Babiš, a billionaire businessman and finance minister, is making strides toward victory.
Horrible terrorist acts, shaky security, economic stagnation, the falling living standards of middle class and the growing number of areas hit by recession – it all takes a toll. Nothing can prevent the right-wing forces from making gains, except drastic changes in the policies implemented by ruling elites.
Information has a great role to play. People look for answers they don’t find in mainstream media outlets, including dubious sources fraught with fake news and invented stories. This kind of information has great influence.
In the United States the Breitbart News Network, a far-right website of dubious reputation founded in 2007, had not been considered as a serious outlet to influence people’s minds until the recent election. Now the mainstream media republishes its stories. Many Breitbart publications hit the radar screen to influence people’s views.
European politicians are taking measures to fend off the threat. No, they aren’t putting forward proposals to drastically change the immigration policies. Neither are they coming up with new ideas on how to revive the EU and review the internal and foreign policy priorities, nor are they making a contribution to fighting the Islamic State and other extremist groups. No time for such side issues! Instead, they are busy fighting the new-found enemy – fake news which is threatening their power. Finger pointing has started. There must be someone to blame, after all.
Here is a good example. This month, the Dortmund police were forced to call out a fake Breitbart News report. The story claimed that in Dortmund a mob set fire to a church at a New Year’s Eve gathering «around the flag of al-Qaida» chanting «Allahu Akbar». The police stated that nothing like this happened but the fake report went viral. It’s worth noting that Russia has nothing to do with the Breitbart News and its publications.
On January 9, German government officials said they were thoroughly examining an unprecedented proliferation of fake news items amid intelligence agency reports of Russian efforts to influence the country’s parliamentary election in September. The BfV domestic intelligence agency blamed Russia for the December cyber-attack against the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Germany was dealing with a phenomenon of a dimension not seen before and would use all possible means to investigate the spread of fake news on the Internet.
Last year, German provider Deutsche Telekom came under cyber-attacks. There was no smoking gun but… «hints» were dropped to point a finger at Russia. Chancellor Angela Merkel said in November, «Let me just say that such cyberattacks, or ‘hybrid attacks’ as they’re known in Russian doctrine, are part of everyday life today, and we need to learn to deal with them». Translated into plain language it sounds like this, «If I lose the election, Russia will be blamed». Hillary Clinton has already resorted to this trick.
German officials said Berlin had looked into creating a separate branch of the 500-person government press office that would specifically evaluate and respond to fake news items. Bruno Kahl, the head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service (BND), has warned that next year’s general election could be targeted by Russian hackers’ intent on spreading misinformation and undermining the democratic process.
This month the Czech government launched a specialized anti-fake news unit ahead of legislative elections scheduled for October. The new Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats began operating on 1 January with 20 full-time specialists. The goal is to educate the public about the difference between news and disinformation. The specialists scrutinize disinformation and attempt to counter it via a dedicated Twitter account and a new section of the interior ministry website devoted to communicating the government viewpoint.
According to Tomáš Prouza, the Czech State Secretary for European affairs and digital coordinator who helped establish the unit, his team has been advising officials in Sweden, Finland and Germany on how to set up similar operations.
«The key goal of Russian propaganda in the Czech Republic is to sow doubts into the minds of the people that democracy is the best system to organize a country, to build negative images of the European Union and NATO, and [to] discourage people from participation in the democratic processes», Tomas Prouza told the Guardian. «They will undoubtedly try to influence the upcoming elections by discouraging people who would most probably vote for the democratic parties from voting», he added. Again Russia is pointed a finger on again without any proof.
Sweden is not lagging behind. The Swedish Institute of International Affairs has recently published a report accusing Russia of using underhand methods, including fake news, counterfeit documents, and other disinformation, to influence Swedish decision-making.
The study said Russia had used misleading reports on its state-run news website Sputnik, and public interventions by Russian politicians in Swedish domestic affairs, as well as more covert methods. Stefan Löfven, the Sweden’s Prime Minister, told a national defence conference this week that he «cannot rule out» Russia trying to influence the country’s next elections in 2018.
Right-wing forces are gaining public support in Sweden. This month, the right-wing Sweden Democrats party polled 20 per cent. There is an explanation for the right-wing forces’ success.
Sweden was shocked when Abraham Ukbagabir, an Eritrean asylum seeker, killed innocent people at an Ikea store in Västerås. He did like the decision of the authorities to deport him. The migration policy is the responsibility of Swedish government. It’s not fake or anything else but the government who is responsible. No doubt, this terrible event will influence the voters before the election. By no stretch of the imagination could Russia be involved in this tragedy.
Fake news, Russia, Martians – anything and anyone will do to shift the blame for the governments’ own misdeeds.
Stories related to the effects of European migration policy are spread around by Europeans – the very same people who are frustrated with Liberal political parties and will express their discontent through voting. They will do so because quite often the stories, fake or not, tell the same thing they see with their own eyes on the streets. Restrictive measures by authorities will only result in the opposite of what one would expect. Forbidden fruit is the sweetest. Formal denials will work like advertising.
Looking for scapegoats to shift the blame on won’t help. The deeds to make people’s lives better are the best way to gain voter support. Changing the immigration policy will be much more effective than pointing a finger at someone who has nothing to do with the problem besetting Europe. Bringing in more immigrants while spending time and effort on fighting fake news and blaming Russia for each and everything going wrong is like tilting at windmills. This ridiculous policy won’t win public support. It is doomed to fail.
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About the author
Alex Gorka is a defense and diplomatic analyst
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