Europe’s infowar: China, Russia and COVID-19 disinformation

Since the very beginning, one of the most remarkable effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the speed of linguistic change. Academic jargon became everyday language, while neologisms spread. Thus, the wider public has been introduced to ‘7-day averages’, ‘herd immunity’, and ‘morbidity’. Among the words enjoying this unexpected spotlight was ‘infodemic’. A blend of ‘information’ and ‘epidemic’, infodemic was coined to describe the spread of unverified, dubious or false information related to the Covid-19 emergency. The new term had its first public appearance on 15 February 2020, when the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Ghebreyesus, used it to describe an emergency whereby “fake news spreads faster and more easily” than the coronavirus, and is “just as dangerous”.


The fact that the word was first pronounced at the Munich Security Conference – probably the highest-level international conference on security and defense – makes it even more significant. In fact, the infodemic wave hitting European countries showed the clear features of a widespread and concerted action where state and state-backed actors, notably from Russia and China, played a central role. The adoption of this neologism marked a decisive step toward the recognition that the information we exchange on social media and via private messaging apps is becoming the latest weapon of global power competition. The European Union (EU) and its leaders were among the first to take note.


Some like it fake: Russia, China and the coronavirus


The fake news infodemic in Europe was detailed for the first time in a report published last June by the European Commission. With lockdown measures forcing people to stay home – compulsively scrolling their social media feeds, consulting news websites and chatting with friends – “the  perfect breeding ground” was created “for false or misleading narratives to spread”.


That fake news, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories haunt Facebook groups and WhatsApp chats is common knowledge. What made the news in the report was rather a striking instance of naming and shaming from the EU, with a paragraph reading that:


“Foreign actors and certain third countries, in particular Russia and China, have engaged in targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns around COVID-19 in the EU, its neighbourhood and globally, seeking to undermine democratic debate and exacerbate social polarisation, and improve their own image in the COVID-19 context”


While the online activity of actors directly or indirectly linked to Russia have been under the scrutiny of the EU for quite some time, the unequivocal finger-pointing against China by the Commission, whose public communication is usually carefully balanced, showed clealry how patience in Brussels was growing thin. In a press conference the day before the report was released, Commission Vice-president for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová expressed her satisfaction about the fact that the Commission “for the first time, decided to name China in our report. I’m glad we did this because if we have evidence, we must say it”.


The sentiment in Brussels was shared by several European capitals. In late May, the president of the Italian parliament’s intelligence committee, Raffaele Volpi, declared that Italy had been the target of a wide disinformation campaign, orchestrated by “certain autocratic regimes” trying to “show their supposed – and unproven – superior effectiveness and ability vis à vis Western democracies”. While Italy stopped short of names, other capitals were more vocal. In April, the French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian summoned the Chinese Ambassador after his embassy shared an online post suggesting caregivers in a French nursing homes had left an elderly resident to die alone. Also in April, a letter by the German interior ministry denounced how Chinese diplomats had exerted pressure on government officials to express positive comments about Beijing’s handling of coronavirus.


Adding to the significance of the Commission’s June report, its release came just weeks after a scandal involving the European External Action Service (EEAS). The EU diplomatic service was accused of caving into pressure from Chinese diplomats and self-censoring a report on disinformation. The reference to a “global disinformation campaign” run by Beijing – present in a draft leaked to the press – had disappeared from the final document. Avoiding the political risk of a similar mistake, the Commission and its president Ursula von del Leyen chose instead to take a clear stance.


Information war: a long time coming


Spreading disinformation has long been part of tactical manuals of foreign interference and covert warfare. In recent years, however, it has received growing attention as a core component of the so-called “hybrid warfare” or “hybrid threats”, which NATO defines as a combination of:


“[M]ilitary and non-military as well as covert and overt means, including disinformation, cyber-attacks, economic pressure, deployment of irregular armed groups and use of regular forces. Hybrid methods are used to blur the lines between war and peace, and attempt to sow doubt in the minds of target populations.”


Several factors contributed to the spread of hybrid warfare. As the cost of open military confrontation in today’s world increases, the unprecedented level of interconnection – both physical and digital – between societies and economic systems around the globe offers plenty of opportunities to covertly penetrate and destabilize a country’s vital structures, such as its political institutions, financial markets and energy supply chains. Sources of hybrid threats have thus multiplied, albeit clear definitions and the overall analytical framework are still a work in progress.


For the EU, the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 was a wake-up call. In Ukraine, Moscow made extensive use of hybrid warfare and disinformation, eventually achieving territorial gains without the open involvement of its military and institutions. The nature and implications of a potential ‘information war’ were finally clear to the EU, whose leaders decided in March 2015 to establish the East Strategic Communication Task Force, a EEAS unit entirely dedicated to detecting and countering Russian disinformation.


Brussels’ worries were only worsened by suspects of Russian interferences and disinformation campaigns targeting the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit referendum. In 2018, with the elections for the European Parliament scheduled for the following year, the Commission published a comprehensive Action Plan Against Disinformation putting forward important proposals, such as a Code of Practice for online platforms and the advertising industry, to which companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter signed in. Now well into the digital age, Brussels was getting ready to confront new threats in a new environment, hoping its new tools would serve their purpose.


Looking ahead: a Europe fit for the digital battle?


The coronavirus infodemic provided the first test for those capabilities. Whether the EU rose to the challenge is up for debate. Undoubtedly, during the first months of the emergency European citizens did become victims of disinformation campaigns; the difficulty of circumscribing these episodes, however, prevents a thorough assessment. The Commission was certainly aware of the threat: fighting disinformation featured as a central pillar of its response to the pandemic and its June report exposed the many facets of this phenomenon.


Perhaps even more significant, however, was the Commission’s acknowledgement of the role of foreign state and state-backed actors in the infodemic. Coming a little more than a year after the Commission’s famous first reference to China as a “systemic rival”, the June report seemed to inscribe disinformation more clearly within the framework of a global power competition: controlling public information (information security) and the infrastructure allowing its exchange (cyber security) gained key importance. In confronting rivals such as China and Russia, however, the EU finds itself in a position of structural disadvantage: while controlling and manipulating information yield immediate benefits to autocracies, doing so in a democratic country inevitably delegitimizes its institutions and fundamental values. A fine line separates a healthy and pluralistic information environment from one where fighting disinformation becomes the justification for state authorities to suffocate dissenting voices.


How then can the EU walk such a thin line? Recognizing the problem is surely a first step toward its solution. The many structures set up by the EU in the last years are certainly here to stay and help containing future waves of infodemic. Keeping online platforms onboard through instruments such as the Code of Practice can contribute to fend off disinformation campaigns too, especially if the EU continues to pressure social media to step up and label misleading, false or dangerous contents. And while there may be no other lasting solution than a more media-literate and conscious civil society, creating a common strategic approach to disinformation and hybrid threats among liberal democracies may help. If it is true that Russia and China “are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s”, a really geopolitical Commission should stand up and join forces with like-minded allies to protect the values and freedoms Europeans hold precious to themselves and the world.


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