by Katarina Kertysova
June 04, 2018

from WorldPoliticsReview Website

Spanish version


Katarina Kertysova works as a strategic analyst at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS). The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of HCSS.



A demonstrator waves the European flag

as he stands next to life-sized Mark Zuckerberg cutouts

to protest against fake Facebook accounts

spreading disinformation,

Brussels, May 22, 2018

(AP photo by Geert Vanden Wijngaert).

The European Commission recently announced that it would step up its efforts to fight disinformation online.


Despite the prior reluctance of several commissioners to name any specific foreign governments, the newly published policy document, called a Communication, singles out Russia for practicing information warfare and aims to establish what it calls "a European approach" to tackle these and other forms of hybrid interference.


This new approach will focus on improving transparency, promoting media diversity, fostering credible sources of information and devising long-term solutions to tackle disinformation in Europe.

The announcement comes at a time when the European Union's existing in-house efforts against disinformation are under fire.


Its "EUvsDisinfo" campaign, which was launched by a unit known as the East StratCom Task Force with the aim to better forecast, address and respond to pro-Kremlin disinformation, has been criticized over the involvement of EU civil servants in fact-checking news sources and what is described as "myth-busting."


As critics have pointed out,

"the media should check on the state, not the other way around."

The controversy, and a similar one over proposed legislation in France to counter disinformation campaigns during electoral periods, raises a number of important questions.

  • Who is best equipped to identify and respond to state-led foreign interference: journalists, academics or governments?


  • Do journalists and academics have sufficient resources and means of protection to identify and deal with state-sponsored propaganda?


  • Does everyone need to be on the defensive?

In the end, governments have a role to play, but the extent of that role remains a point of debate.

Especially since the start of the Ukraine crisis in late 2013, mounting disinformation has been flooding media across Europe.


In response, the EU decided in 2015 to set up the East StratCom Task Force, a Brussels-based team of communications specialists from EU institutions and member states, housed within the European External Action Service, or EEAS, the EU's diplomatic service.


In addition to responding to disinformation activities, the Task Force was mandated to focus on communications campaigns in the Eastern Partnership countries:

  • Armenia

  • Azerbaijan

  • Belarus

  • Georgia

  • Moldova

  • Ukraine,

...and to promote a more pluralistic and independent media environment in the region.

The Task Force's flagship products are its two weekly newsletters, the Disinformation Review and the Disinformation Digest, which offer a systematic overview of cases of disinformation and highlight broader media trends.


The Task Force also manages the social media accounts @EUvsDisinfo, on Twitter, and EU vs. Disinformation, on Facebook, as well as the EUvsDisinfo website, which offers a searchable database of all identified cases of disinformation.


In addition to these publicly accessible outputs, the Task Force offers briefings to researchers, journalists and government officials alike.

When compared to the multidimensional media propaganda campaign wielded by Russia, though, the Task Force's communication activities have been modest in scale.


Without a dedicated budget and with an insufficient number of staff, the bulk of its work depends on a wide network of volunteers who report instances of disinformation from more than 30 countries.

The results have not been without controversy.


The Task Force has recently found itself under fire after having erroneously included three articles from Dutch media in its list of disinformation cases, before retracting its judgment.


Concerned publishing companies launched legal proceedings against the EEAS demanding a formal correction. The incident led the Dutch parliament to pass a motion in March urging the government to lobby for the abolition of the EUvsDisinfo initiative.

Who should be on the front lines in the fight against disinformation?

The debate over the credibility of the EUvsDisinfo campaign is muddled for three reasons.

  • First, three erroneous listings pale in comparison to more than 3,800 identified examples of disinformation listed on the EUvsDisinfo site, against which no complaints were filed.


  • Second, the list is produced not by the EU, but by civil society, journalists, experts and other contributors who constitute the "myth-busting network." They monitor and report news items and other sources to the Task Force that are then evaluated by EU civil servants, who enter them into the public database.


  • Lastly, the articles in question were identified in 2015 and 2016 when the unit was set up; the database and website only became publicly available last year. Since then, its work and methodologies have been significantly refined.

The current debate puts the credibility of the Task Force's outputs at stake, without paying adequate attention to the positive impact its work has generated and the void its abolition would create.



who should be on the front lines against disinformation?

Jessikka Aro, a prominent Finnish journalist, warns that outsourcing the defense against disinformation campaigns to the public exposes them to Russia's info-ops, thereby running the risk of creating new victims.

"Every free citizen silenced, confused or manipulated by a Kremlin troll can be seen as a casualty of info-war," Aro argued in a paper published by the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, an EU think tank, in 2016.

As a journalist and a target of information campaigns, Aro instead called on Western governments to defend their citizens, including in the information domain.

An effective defense mechanism that protects people and societies from disinformation and trolling is much needed. Governments can take it upon themselves to educate their citizens on disinformation.


Intelligence organizations can and should monitor outside interference in the information space and, when appropriate, share that information with citizens. Governments can also empower civil society by providing funding for civil society initiatives and the media, so that journalists can do their work properly, and by providing adequate legal protection to those who challenge disinformation efforts.

Shutting down the Task Force's flagship program without any adequate alternatives in place will leave media across the EU more vulnerable to external interference.


Addressing current methodologies for fact-checking, as well as linguistic, staffing and budgetary shortcomings, would yield better results than dismissing the work of the Task Force on the basis of the mere fact that the information provided by the myth-busting network is analyzed by civil servants.

The new EU initiative is 'independent' but complementary to the work of the Task Force.


The EU-wide guidelines, or "Code of Practice," on how to fight disinformation are to be published by July. They will help online platforms harmonize their approaches and provide clear guidance on how they can operate.


The establishment of an 'independent' European network of fact-checkers should improve credibility and trust in their work by ensuring the use of common working methods, exchange of best practices and the broadest possible coverage.


It remains to be seen whether the Task Force will get a much-needed boost under the newly announced approach.

Despite calls for a more binding approach, however, the EU should avoid regulating or proposing legislation that would allow the removal or blocking of online content that is deemed to be fake - other than illegal content, such as hate speech.


Anything beyond guidelines and self-regulation is dangerous and could backfire if the EU ends up closing down legitimate debate or is successfully portrayed by its opponents as attempting to do just that.