Written by Naja Bentzen,
Strategic communication (StratCom) is not a new concept, but its significance for the European Union’s external relations policy and security environment is increasing in the context of disinformation practices in relation to the Ukraine conflict and spreading into the EU, as well as propaganda campaigns by jihadi groups. Modern disinformation (defined as dissemination of deliberately false information) consists of ‘lying at the speed of light’, says information defence expert Ben Nimmo. These invasive narratives — deliberately designed to damage the information ‘ecosystem’ and erode public trust in media, information sources and authorities — come from different state and non-state actors in a constantly evolving global battle of narratives.
Russia is conducting an information war against Ukraine, and is also targeting the EU and individual Member States. The campaigns include conspiracy theories and fake reports of societal, economic and security-related threats, painting an apocalyptic image of Europe, in particular the refugee crisis.
Listen to podcast: Strategic communication: the EU’s response to invasive narratives [Policy Podcast]
Looking south, we see that ISIL/Da’esh are using social media to radicalise and recruit Western citizens, including young Europeans. To date, more than 30 000 foreigners have joined the ranks of Daesh – including about 4 000 Europeans. The terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels and the spreading of jihadi propaganda signals a need to re-think the way in which the EU communicates not only with the Arab countries, but also with its own citizens.
Born out of the EU’s June 2015 Action Plan on Strategic Communication (based on the mandate from the March 2015 European Council), the European External Action Service’s (EEAS) East StratCom Task Force now debunks and analyses disinformation in its weekly disinformation newsletters, and promotes the EU’s positive narratives in the Eastern Neighbourhood. The team has been operational since September 2015, but has no separate budget. Its ‘sister’ team for the Southern Neighbourhood, the Arab StratCom Task Force, does not have a dedicated group of experts but relies on cooperation between the EEAS, European Commission staff and the office of the EU Counterterrorism Coordinator in the Council.
In April 2016, the Commission and the High Representative adopted a Joint Framework to counter hybrid threats and foster the resilience of the EU, its Member States and partner countries. Building on the 2015 European Agenda on Security, the Joint Framework calls for ‘coordinated strategic communication mechanisms to […] counter disinformation in order to expose hybrid threats’.
In the European Parliament, the Committee on Foreign Affairs on 12 July will vote on a draft report on EU strategic communication to counteract propaganda against it by third parties (rapporteur: Anna Fotyga, ECR/Poland). In the face of the growing, systematic pressure on the EU to tackle disinformation and propaganda from both the east and the south, the draft report recognizes the possible impact of hostile propaganda on decision-making processes in the EU and calls for the EU StratCom Task Force to be turned into a fully-fledged unit within the EEAS with proper staffing and adequate budgetary resources. The draft report also urges Member States to cut Daesh’s access to financing and funding and to promote this principle in the EU’s external action.