When some Russian media suggested that passengers on the MH-17 flight were already dead before the plane was shot down, I was appalled. 298 innocent people of which 196 were Dutch, had barely lost their lives, and their deaths were already abused in an information war.
Sadly, these carefully crafted conspiracies do find interested audiences in Europe as well. Recent PEW-polls indicate that Russian propaganda, such as those coming from the Kremlin sponsored RT, is increasingly shaping the views of European inhabitants.
The downing of MH-17 – and the conflict in Ukraine in a broader sense – gave Europe a flavor of the extent of Russian propaganda.
Yet the bulk of Kremlin sponsored propaganda, as well as sophisticated censorship and surveillance, impacts Russian people themselves. While budgets for foreign language media outlets have been cut systematically in European countries over the past years, support to counter Russian disinformation is now growing. After all, free and pluralist media are essential to check those in power and to hold them to account.
European leaders are offering a variety of responses. Whatever the EU does, it should embrace media plurality and freedom of speech as the baseline. By banning journalists or media that do not support 'our own points of views', we sink to the same level as those whose propaganda we despise. Instead we should answer restricted and censored speech with more free speech. The work that the EU’s External Action Service is planning to do in terms of strategic communications can be valuable, although a lot of details remain unknown. We indeed need to strengthen and support independent broadcasters and online platforms, and increase the public awareness of state sponsored media from Russia.
However, focusing on 'countering propaganda' or 'strategic communications' alone is not enough in this digital age. The real information war happens on a deeper level. The open internet is increasingly the arena of clashes between top-down control by states, and bottom-up empowerment of individuals.
Andrei Soldatov and Irena Bogdana’s recent book ‘The Red Web’ demonstrate how the Russian state seeks to control the technical infrastructure of the internet, in order to maintain power, control people and information. It keeps track of people, and filters and censors information through deep packet inspection. These inspections of data packages and centralized control switches make it possible to close down websites across all of Russia, at once. Independent journalists continue to face a wide range of intimidation and attacks, also online.
The EU needs to actively provide training and tools to citizens and journalists that help them avoid surveillance and censorship measures. Similar to how the US State Department sponsored the development of encryption tools and anonymity tools, with the goal of enhancing human rights.
Additionally, the EU must reject any attempt by Russia (but also China and other governments) to push their definitions of 'information security' to become the norm in international organizations. The Kremlin has identified the biggest threat to be the transmission of information that could endanger the 'societal-political and social-economic systems, and spiritual, moral and cultural environment of states'. It fears challenges to its centralized control of power and information, and wants to legitimize intervention at any given moment.
More than a traditional information war, the struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms is taking place under the hood of the internet. The EU must look deeper than only at media outlets. We must develop an integrated strategy that addresses restrictions in press freedom and internet freedom alike. This will require awareness and political leadership first and foremost. So that political encounters between European and Russian authorities are used to address the impact of surveillance and censorship measures on trade, internet governance, security and human rights. The best way to counter Kremlin sponsored propaganda, is to facilitate the free speech as well as safe and unrestricted access to information for the Russian people.On September 22, Marietje Schaake organised the event: The Red Web: How Russia uses the internet for surveillance and propaganda.