How foreign authoritarian powers are stepping up their “disinformation game”

The Covid – crisis has put the spotlight on attempts by foreign powers to manipulate public opinion in the West. Until this year, it was mainly Russia and sometimes Iran that was criticized for this. This month, for the first time, the EU openly singled out China, accusing it to be behind a “huge wave” of Covid-19 disinformation.  

The communication strategy of these non-Western authoritarian governments is not to openly promote the joys of authoritarianism. They have a different take. The core message they aim to convey is that not all is well in the Western world, so to undermine support for Western democratic institutions, with its legal constraints on executives and its independent courts.

Nothing new under the sun

Speaking at a webinar hosted by the European Foundation for Democracy, Bojan Pancevski, the Wall Street Journal’s Berlin correspondent, pointed out that this is nothing new. In the 1980s, the Soviet secret service KGB ran so-called “Operation Denver”, which was a disinformation campaign to promote the theory that the United States had invented HIV/AIDS as part of a biological weapons research project. “Patriot” magazine, a shady American newspaper, ran the story. The KGB bribed a German academic to come up with scientific proof, while pushing the story all across African media, as it went viral and appeared in 80 countries, including Britain’s Daily Express. After the U.S. pushed back hard, U.S.S.R. secretary general Mikhail Gorbachev, did, as part of his attempts to reform the Soviet system, the unthinkable and apologized to U.S. President Reagan.

Badmouthing non-authoritarian systems of government is what authoritarian regimes do and what they have done before. In 1945, in his victory speech following the surrender of Nazi Germany, U.S. President Harry Truman remarked that “the peace-loving nations have demonstrated in the West that their arms are stronger by far than the might of the dictators or the tyranny of military cliques that once called us soft and weak.” 

Russia

That Russia is engaging in this kind of activities should not really surprise, given how Russian President Putin is a KGB man at heart, but also China and Iran are active on this front.

The European Union has set up a task force aimed at monitoring this kind of disinformation. Despite some initial hiccups, whereby correct information was classified as “fake news”, it now comes up with regular specific updates on how authoritarian foreign powers attempt to influence the Western public.  

One example is pro-Kremlin propaganda outlet Sputnik News pushing the narrative that there would be “secret military laboratories” run by the U.S. in Ukraine, as well as in Armenia, Georgia and Moldova. Also China’s state news channel published an article on the topic, adopting the Russian narrative.

Ukrainian website “StopFake.orglooked into the story, concluding that it was inspired by a 2005 agreement between Ukraine and the US Defense Department, in the context of a U.S. “Biological Threat Reduction Program”, meant “to ensure that dangerous pathogens do not fall into the wrong hands”. whereby Ukrainian laboratories would be modernized. A local TV channel has published a video showing that the labs are completely open and transparent. Surely, the U.S. army wouldn’t be engaged in biological warfare so completely out in the open, but clearly, Russia was pushing its line so to back up its story line that U.S. relations with Ukraine are offensive in nature, rather than defensive. 

Another example is how on the eve of the French Presidential election in 2017, a hacking group dumped a number of campaign documents related to now-French President Emmanuel Macron’s campaign online. It was way too late to influence the election and the content wasn’t interesting in any way, but security experts claim it was executed by Russian hacking group APT 28, which is an arm of Russia’s secret service “GRU”. Only recently, German experts concluded the same group was responsible for a cyberattack on Germany’s Parliament in 2015, whereby also emails from Chancellor Angela Merkels constituency office were accessed. Clearly, the aim was to put whatever information acquired to good use to influence German politics at a convenient time.

China

New this year is that also China is stepping up its “disinformation” game, even if they’re doing it more clumsily. According to NBC, China has pushed out 90,000 tweets since the start of April from 200 diplomatic and state media accounts, in a bid to influence the debate about COVID-19. The latest of their propaganda lines is that the virus came from … a U.S. government lab. 

One of the first Chinese officials to spread the theory openly was Zhao Lijian, the spokesman and deputy director of the Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, in the middle of March. One of his posts to back up that the virus originated in the U.S.” linked to a post on Global Research, a Canadian blog with pro-Kremlin leanings. To be fair, China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, has called it “crazy” to spread rumors about the coronavirus originating from a military laboratory in the United States.

Some may retort that U.S. President Trump has been spreading equally unproven theories that the Corona virus would have escaped from a biolab in Wuhan. The difference is however that the first proven outbreak has actually been in Wuhan, where the so-called Wuhan Institute of Virology was engaged in research on bat coronaviruses. Sixteen years ago, the SARS virus actually escaped a Chinese lab twice and in 2018, U.S. officials have delivered two warnings about the lab in Wuhan, worrying about its safety. That the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention just concluded that the infamous “wet market” in Wuhan is not the site where the corona virus broke out does add to suspicion about the Wuhan lab.

Still, this is not sufficient proof, and as a result, the U.S. Army’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff refuses to confirm the virus stems from the lab, while adding it was probably not man-made. This balanced position stands in sharp contrast to the fact-free claims made in Chinese and Russian propaganda.

China adds public pressure to its game. “If you do something the Chinese government doesn’t like, they may blackmail you. For example, China threatened Germany its car industry would suffer and it issued similar threats to the Czech Republic”, Czech security expert Jakub Janda has argued, speaking at another webinar of the European Foundation for Democracy, referring to Gemany’s dithering over whether to ban Chinese company Huawei building its 5G network.

It looks like China’s efforts are not without success. Despite the EU’s “European External Action Service” publishing examples of “fake news” online, its own track record on dealing with China has been rocky as of late. According to the New York Times, the EEAS “bowed to heavy pressure from Beijing,” as “European Union officials softened their criticism of China (…) in a report documenting how governments push disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic”. Even after being caught out, the EEAS did not relent. A spokesman accused journalists of focusing on “small, petty, partial details”, dismissing suggestions the disinformation report was rewritten as per Chinese influence, while insisting all changes were made as part of a journalistic-style “editorial process”.

The incident was followed by EU ambassadors publishing an opinion piece in the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, China Daily, whereby the EEAS agreed to censor a reference to the fact that the coronavirus had emerged “in China”. Embarrassingly, a top EEAS official first defended the move, in order to be reprimanded later. Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee also slammed the EEAS, saying: “First the EU ambassadors generously adopt Chinese narratives and then the EU representation on top accepts Chinese censorship of the joint op-ed.” In other words: disinformation attempts can affect the highest echelons of European diplomacy.

How effective is it?

There are some legitimate questions about how effective foreign attempts to disinform are.

Probably, like with the theory in the 1980s that “the U.S. created HIV/AIDS”, most people don’t buy it. In fact, to exaggerate the actual influence may be playing into the hands of foreign authoritarian regimes.

Opponents of U.S. President Trump were obviously keen to jump on the story that the American electorate voted for Trump over Hillary because of Russian meddling, but that doesn’t make any sense. Trump got elected despite the wishes of the establishment in the U.S. and his party, his election was actually yet more proof that nobody can buy the U.S. election, let alone an impoverished former superpower like Russia.

Also Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has questioned that Russian attempts had much of an effect on the actual election, stressing that the aim of it is more to undermine the overall mood. Writing in the FT, he argues: “You can spend $500,000 on Facebook ads and for several years the whole establishment of a huge western country will go nuts about interference, even though its real effect is risible. The investments are minimal but they give you front pages and power.”

Also with Brexit, the UK Parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC) was unable to reach a conclusion about the extent or impact of Russian interference in the 2016 referendum. Again, the wrong question was asked. Anyone with a notion about politics should admit it’s incredibly hard, certainly for foreigners, to swing something as profoundly domestic as a U.S. Presidential election or a British referendum over EU membership. However, there is abundant evidence that there was a Russian operation. Twitter data have identified 3,841 accounts of Russian origin affiliated with the “Internet Research Agency”, a Kremlin-linked troll farm, as well as 770 potentially from Iran. These collectivelysent over 10 million Tweets in “an effort to spread disinformation and discord”, with a “day-long blitz” on the day of the referendum. Did this operation help amplify existing feelings of discontent? Also this is hard to prove, but again, sowing discord rather than actually swinging the referendum was the point.  

One element should be added to this. In countries with weaker democratic institutions, such as Serbia, foreign disinformation attempts seem to work a lot better. Then, of course, Russia dispatching equipment and 100 soldiers in March to help with the Covid epidemic worked quite well to influence Europeans, at least until it emerged 80% of the aid was “useless”, amid allegations of spying.

What to do?

Now what should be done about it? Policy makers may be seduced to try out censorship, but as the Romans already knew: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”, or “Who will guard the guards themselves?”. In 2017, a German law aimed at combating agitation and fake news in social networks, whereby fines of up to $60 million could be imposed if certain posts are not removed within 24 hours, was criticized by the likes of Reporters without Borders. The human rights body said it could lead to “excessive censorship” by “delegating the duties of judges to commercial online platforms and making them decide where or not content should be deleted.” New German legislation proposed this year even foresees forcing social media platforms to report illegal content to the police.

Fears about overreach are even more justified in Hungary. Hungarian academic Péter Krekó has pointed out how the Hungarian government has abused legislation supposed to combat fake news and hate speech to silence political opponents.

There are no shortcuts, so sacrificing freedom of speech to fight disinformation attempts carries great dangers. The only strategy is to remember that old wisdom: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” In this case, more vigilance is warranted on how authoritarian governments are conducting deliberate communication campaigns to undermine confidence in Western-style restrained governance. In its response, the West should simply resort to what it is best at: countering nonsense and propaganda with reasoned arguments.

Pieter Cleppe is an independent publicist, based in Brussels. He is a non-resident fellow of the Property Rights Alliance. 

@pietercleppe

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not represent or reflect the opinions or views of The European Post.