Julian King, the Commission’s security chief, said the EU had identified “3,500 examples of pro-Kremlin disinformation contradicting publicly available facts repeated in many languages on many occasions”.
Mr King said the Russian military viewed information as “another type of armed force” and that the EU would unveil a new strategy for combating fake news in the spring of 2018.
“There seems, frankly, little doubt, that the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign is an orchestrated strategy – delivering the same disinformation stories in as many languages as possible, through as many channels as possible, as often as possible,” Mr King told MEPs at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
“We have to remain vigilant. The purpose of a disinformation campaign is to get people to believe that the disinformation is fact, is credible. If we look at opinion polls measuring how many people accept obviously disinformation planted in pro-Kremlin media, then unfortunately we have to conclude that Russian disinformation can be extremely successful.”
MEPs discussed the issue of Russian disinformation on Wednesday afternoon in a two-hour debate. Sandra Kalniete, a Latvian politician and vice chair of the European Parliament’s largest group, the centre-right European People’s Party, said the EU needed to step up its efforts and increase funding to its cybersecurity taskforce.
“Given the political dynamics in Washington, European states will have to take the lead in any collective action vis-à-vis the Kremlin and setting international rules for cyberspace,” she said, alluding the US president Donald Trump’s alleged links to the Russian government.
Ms Kalniete said societies needed to be made “more resilient” through transparency and increased regulation, also blaming the rise of Facebook and social media for the effectiveness of propaganda.
“The world’s richest and most powerful publisher, Facebook, has replaced editors with algorism – shifting societies away from critical thinking whilst making billions from our clicks,” she said.
“I am convinced that quality journalism should be supported by the governments, including the EU, because otherwise it will disappear and leave us at the mercy of the Kremlin and other trolls who have learned how to play the social media game.”
A number of MEPs mentioned the UK’s Brexit referendum as being a possible victim of disinformation. Jeppe Kofod, a socialist MEP from Denmark, suggested that the 2019 European Parliament elections would likely be interfered with.
“Next year the citizens of Europe will elect a new European Parliament. This raises an uncomfortable question: how many seats will Russia get?” he said.
“Let’s not kid ourselves, Russian meddling in democratic elections is no longer the exception, it is becoming the norm. From the US presidential election to Brexit, the hands of the Kremlin have been busy dancing along keyboards, spreading disinformation – the full extent of which is yet to be understood by all of us.”
Gerard Batten, Ukip MEP and Brexit spokesperson said he believed that “Mr Putin is a gangster who runs a gangster state.”
But he added: “You are seeking to create a scapegoat for your own unpopularity with the people’s of Europe. Don’t blame the Russians for your own mistakes.”
He described Russian disinformation as “a distraction” and accused the EU of being “the authors of your own unpopularity”.
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