EU Anti-Propaganda Unit Gets €1M a Year to Counter Russian Fake News
The EU is stepping up its campaign to counter disinformation and fake news from Russia by spending more than €1m a year on its specialist anti-propaganda unit.
For the first time since the team was set up in 2015, the East Stratcom taskforce will have money from the EU budget, rather than relying on contributions from EU member states or squeezing other budget lines. The unit has been granted €1.1m (£980,000) a year from the EU budget for 2018-20, according to a source familiar with the team’s work.
The new funding emerged after the European council president, Donald Tusk, warned that one of Europe’s real problems was “cyber-attacks, fake news, hybrid war”, following a summit with EU leaders and their counterparts in eastern Europe and the Caucasus on Friday. “We have to keep very cautious, vigilant and also honest. If we want to protect ourselves, if we want to help our partners, we have to be very aware about the threat inside the EU,” Tusk said.
Tusk referred to Theresa May’s recent speech, where the prime minister accused Russia of meddling in elections and planting fake stories in the media in an attempt to “weaponise information” and sow discord in the west.
But Tusk appeared to go further than May by linking “hostile” Russian activities to the EU referendum, while May did not mention any UK elections or referendums in her Mansion House speech.
The decision to dedicate EU money to the counter-propaganda unit for the first time follows a rise in misinformation in Russian and Spanish about the Catalan independence referendum. As media attention shifts, EU sources have seen that flow of stories dry up, with the target shifting to misinformation about the latest summit with eastern countries. For instance, officials have picked up claims in Georgian media that the EU restricts Georgian products, although the country has been granted zero tariffs on all products, apart from garlic.
The UK has also become a focus for Russian state TV, following May’s speech. Dmitry Kiselyov, the anchor of Vesti Nedeli, Russia’s flagship news programme, recently made personal jibes about May’s appearance and told viewers she would soon join the ranks of Femen activists, the topless feminist protest group.
The East Stratcom unit was set up in 2015 to rebut false and misleading stories about the EU, following Russia’s hybrid war campaign in Ukraine. Based in Brussels, the unit has 14 staff. Politicians and civil society activists in eastern Europe have long argued that it lacks the resources to tackle the problem: last year, EU leaders rejected a proposal from the European parliament to increase the budget by €800,000.
The taskforce is drawing up plans on how to spend the unprecedented cash injection, with the aim of scaling up the EU monitoring of Russian media and undertaking data analysis to provide more detailed understanding of the scale of misinformation. Beyond its core staff in Brussels, the unit draws on volunteers and experts to monitor Russian media for the site the EU vs disinformation.
At the summit on Friday, May told leaders that the UK was unconditionally committed to Europe’s security: “This summit highlights the crucial importance of the European countries working together to protect our shared values and ideals.”