Disinformation and propaganda campaigns during the COVID-19 crisis have once again shown why we should take the threat of disinformation and “fake news” seriously. Such campaigns, led by the authoritarian countries, target Western societies and our liberal democratic values. While it is of utmost importance to fight these attempts, this should not be at the expense of our values and fundamental rights. Taking measures that restrict freedom of speech, putting the entire responsibility on social media and relying on counter-propaganda strategies utilised by countries like Russia or China, would mean an indirect victory for those authoritarian regimes.
According to the European Union, Russia and China are the main actors behind the “huge wave” of disinformation during the COVID-19 crisis. It is very important that Vice-President Věra Jourová openly named these countries – especially China – in a communication on “tackling COVID-19 disinformation” on 10 June. While Russia has been on the radar of the EU, it is a rather new phenomenon that the EU sees China as a major threat. Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, stated that the EU has been naïve about China. But calling this “naïve” is probably an understatement considering China’s increasing malign influence in the EU and in its immediate neighbours in recent years.
These authoritarian regimes aim to destabilise the West and promote their vision of the world and illiberal values. The COVID-19 crisis has become a perfect opportunity for these regimes to spread their agendas. The EU’s initial lack of solidarity also played into their hands. The Union made a comeback following the initial shock, but this crisis exposed the vulnerability of our societies to disinformation campaigns.
This complex cross-border challenge requires a holistic approach. On the one hand, we should take this threat seriously and continue to expose the main actors behind these campaigns and their goals. The strategic communication division of the European External Action Service (EEAS) and its task forces have already been playing an important role in identifying and exposing disinformation and fake news with rather limited resources. These efforts must be supported both financially and politically. The EU should defend its values and never be seen to bow to the pressure coming from authoritarian regimes. While realpolitik is, to a certain extent, a necessity to be a global actor, political and economic measures should be taken against countries, organisations and individuals behind such campaigns by sacrificing short-term interests.
On the other hand, the EU’s response should be based on its liberal democratic values. EU member states should act in solidarity and focus on the measures that can be taken in line with their values. The EU has been increasingly shying away from promoting these values, both within and outside of its borders. These values have even been forgotten while pursuing certain policies. Illiberal democracies have been emerging and growing stronger within the EU and its environs. Violent radical ideologies have been growing and spreading across Europe. It is high time the Union remembers its principles and values.
Promoting them by strengthening our democratic systems, fundamental rights and free societies is the only way forward. We cannot counter the malign influence of authoritarian regimes by utilising their tools and strategies. Rather than restricting freedom of speech, we must strengthen it. Independent media and quality journalism must be supported as an effective remedy against disinformation and fake news. European media suffers from social, economic and political consequences of the COVID-19 crisis. While saving our economies, we should not forget to create mechanisms to support independent, pluralistic and quality journalism in the EU countries and beyond.
Social media platforms also play a key role in amplifying propaganda and disinformation campaigns. Social media companies should certainly take responsibility and further develop mechanisms to monitor, identify and prevent these campaigns. However, we should not forget that social media is not the root cause of the issue. Measures should not be restricting free speech online. Rather than presenting social media companies as the scapegoat, as in illiberal democracies, we should make them a part of the solution. Independent fact-checking platforms and initiatives to increase social media literacy must also be supported by the EU.
Countries in Central and Eastern Europe, candidate countries wishing to join the EU and the countries neighbouring the EU have been particularly targeted by these campaigns with the aim of weakening and discrediting it. Serbia, a key target of Russian and Chinese propaganda, is a good example in this sense. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Serbians believe that China is the biggest foreign donor to their country, when in fact it turns out that the EU actually gives the most aid and China’s contribution is quite insignificant.
The EU has been doing a lot for many countries but clearly it fails to communicate its efforts. This should be an urgent matter for the EU and its leadership. While financially helping these countries and supporting democracy and freedoms, the EU should also create better channels of communication to reach out to people and win their hearts. Failing to do so would not only mean a victory for authoritarian regimes, but it would also jeopardise the future of the European project.
The EU has a chance to turn the COVID-19 crisis into an opportunity. Identifying the threat was an important step but now it is time to counteract it. Democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights are the biggest enemies of the authoritarian countries. The EU may only have a bright future through strengthening and promoting these principles and values within the EU and beyond. Ultimately, freedom prevails over fear.
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