Nearly two months after the European Union pledged to ramp up its anti-disinformation campaign, it appears the Commission has little to show for it. The East StratCom Task Force, an agency set up to counter pro-Russian propaganda, anti-Western disinformation, and other sources of “fake news” lacks a dedicated budget and is still facing a staffing shortfall. Meanwhile, Frederica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, has come under increasing criticism for being too soft on fighting disinformation.
Last week, European Values, a pro-European think tank based in the Czech Republic, published an open letter that accused Mogherini of dragging her feet on keeping the East StratCom fully funded and staffed.
The letter also accused Mogherini of “systematically neglecting a clear threat perceived by many EU member states that she represents” and called on her to triple the capacity of the East StratCom team and give it an operating budget of at least a million euros.
East StratCom is an extension of the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s diplomatic service corps that officially represents the intergovernmental organization abroad. It was created in 2015 at the request of the European Council and has a broad mandate to strengthen the media environment in Europe’s eastern region as well as identify and correct disinformation, according to the agency’s website. In that capacity, East StratCom publishes the Disinformation Review, a weekly blog that dissects fake news stories in detail and attempts to spread the truth via social media.
— EU Mythbusters (@EUvsDisinfo) March 25, 2017
Most of East StratCom’s funding comes from existing EEAS resources, and the agency draws its staff from EU member countries. The EEAS itself has hundreds of trained experts and diplomats working for it and operated on a budget of €602 million in 2015.
Mogherini’s alleged foot dragging has also been called out by several members of the European Parliament, including Siegfried Mureşan who told Politico Europe that he was “deeply disappointed at the EEAS’ meagre efforts to counter the Russian information warfare on European countries.”
Mureşan, who represents Romania, is a member of the European People’s Party that just adopted a motion titled “Russian disinformation undermining Western democracy” at its annual summit in Malta.
— Miriam M. Lexmann (@MiriamMLex) March 29, 2017
Mogherini defended herself against accusations that she has done too little to counter disinformation, telling Politico through a spokesperson that “fake news or disinformation is an increasing — and very real — problem in Europe and globally. We take it very seriously.”
European officials have become increasingly worried about the spread of disinformation and “fake news” across the continent. With elections set to take place in France and Germany this year, many are concerned about the role fake news could play in influencing people’s voting habits.
“I am worried, as all people are worried, about fake news, especially after the elections in the United States,” Andrus Ansip, EU commissioner for the Digital Single Market, told the Financial Times in January.
More recently, Emmanuel Macron, the frontrunner in France’s Presidential election, has been the target of a series of fake news stories claiming that his campaign was being funded by Saudi Arabia and that he was secretly having an affair with another man.
In Germany, senior officials and members of parliament have sounded the alarm over fake news’ influence in federal elections scheduled for October. Fake news stories have proliferated in the country, such as one where a Syrian refugee’s selfie with German Chancellor Angela Merkel was featured in a Facebook post falsely linking him to terrorist attacks in Brussels and Berlin. The post was shared nearly 200,000 times before it was taken down. In a separate incident, Breitbart News published a story falsely claiming that a mob chanting “Allahu Akbar” burned down a church in the city of Dortmund on New Year’s Eve. The story has since been debunked by senior government officials, including the country’s Justice Minister.