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'Divide Europe': European lawmakers warn of Russian propaganda

EU parliamentarians have voted in favor of bolstering institutional capacities to counter "Kremlin-inspired propaganda." But Russian media representatives criticized the move as an attack on freedom of speech.

The Russian government channels propaganda aimed at disrupting democratic values across Europe, targeting "specific journalists, politicians and individuals in the bloc," lawmakers of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee said in a resolution passed on Monday.

"The Russian government is aggressively employing a wide-range of tools and instruments, such as think tanks […], multilingual TV stations (i.e. Russia Today), pseudo-news agencies […], social media and internet trolls, to challenge democratic values, divide Europe, gather domestic support and create the perception of failed states in the EU's eastern neighborhood," the resolution said.

European lawmakers called on media representatives in the EU to compile facts on the "consumption of propaganda," worrying that "with the limited awareness amongst some of its member states, that they are audiences and arenas of propaganda and disinformation."

The resolution urged European authorities to turn the EU's Strategic Communication Task Force, an initiative mandated by the European Council aimed at dispelling propaganda, into a "fully-fledged unit" within the bloc's diplomatic office, "with proper staffing and adequate budgetary resources."

MEP Anna Fotyga, the chief rapporteur for the resolution, told DW that more needs to be done to expose the "mechanism of propaganda" directed at the bloc's member states, and more broadly the EU and the West.

However, Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT (formerly Russia Today), told DW that the resolution, in effect, targets free speech in the 28-nation bloc.

"This a rather interesting interpretation of the much-touted western values, particularly that of the freedom of speech - which in action apparently means attacking a rare voice of dissent amongst literally thousands of European media outlets," Simonyan said in an emailed statement.

"If anything is eroding public confidence in European institutions, it's that," she added.

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Countering strategies: 'Too refined'

Tomas Olivier, CEO at the Netherlands-based intelligence consultancy Lowlands Solutions, said that Russia's endeavors in information warfare stem from a history of being lampooned in the West for apparent undemocratic features.

"Russian propaganda has always been directed at undermining Europe's democratic values due to the fact that the political system in Moscow, throughout history, has often been categorized by the West as totalitarian, malignant and inhumane," Olivier told DW.

Olivier questioned whether the resolution approved by the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee could effectively counter the strategies employed by Russian media organizations and their supporters.

"Most of these sophisticated measures are simply too refined and 'masked' to effectively counter or temporarily neutralize. A resolution issued by the Foreign Affairs Committee MEPs will not create additional awareness or proactive behavior to counter this campaign of disinformation and propaganda," Oliver said.

Narrative laundering: 'Corrupt, decadent and Russophobic West'

In August, the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) published a report analyzing Russian propaganda trends, including targets in Europe and proposals to counter it.

"Russia's campaign of disinformation in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) reaches across linguistic and political barriers, utilizing anti-establishment, protest politicians from both extremes of the political spectrum to discredit Western government, policies and institutions such as the European Union and NATO, while simultaneously validating the Kremlin's own message," the report said.

CEPA named Sputnik, Russia's state-owned international news wire, as a key component of the Kremlin's tools for disseminating its alternative narrative of the West, claiming it uses narrative laundering to further its messsage.

"What counts for Sputnik is not balance, but the opposite: one-sided hostility to the mainstream. Sputnik grants disproportionate coverage to protest, anti-establishment and pro-Russian MEPs from CEE; it does so systematically; even when it quotes mainstream politicians, it chooses comments which fit the wider narrative of a corrupt, decadent and Russophobic West," the report said.

While the EU resolution is not the first time the bloc has warned of the potential fallout of Russian propaganda within the bloc, it marks a new chapter in the control of information and narratives in flux. The resolution is expected to be voted on in parliament in November.

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