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Can ‘strategic communications’ expose fake news – and how?

By PATRICK STEPHENSON

BRUSSELS – “We all know the power of fake news, and how difficult it is to address,” says Frederica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign and security policy chief, “Knowing the threat is essential, but not enough.” She addressed her remarks to a 2 October conference here, entitled “Hybrid Threats and the EU: State of Play and Future Progress.”

But what is a hybrid threat exactly? Daniel Fiott, security and defence editor at the Paris-based EU Institute for Security Studies, offered one definition riffed from Carl von Clausewitz. While the Prussian military theorist said that war is “politics by other means”, hybrid threats, according to Fiott, constitute “war by other means.”

That inversion of Clausewitz’s aphorism, however, holds a special challenge for Western governments in that some of their counter-efforts inevitably risk becoming propaganda themselves.

SECURITY EUROPE asked panellists how big bureaucracies such as the EU and NATO could counter fake news by producing its own counter-narratives. And could such narratives be construed as simply another form of propaganda?

Silvio Gonzato, Director of Strategic Communications at the EEAS, offered a distinction. “When we started, we were accused of doing counter-propaganda,” he said. “But fake news is a state strategy. Their narrative is, there’s no such thing as objective news. But we don’t just target those who are nice to us. StratCom needs to be placed within public diplomacy as an honest way of starting up a conversation and building up trust. We need to de-institutionalise the way we communicate, with real storytelling.”

Gonzato admitted that fighting fake news might involve an element of “pushing out our view of things”. But that self-promotion was acceptable. “We’re doing it in an honest way, and in a way that might be uncomfortable for us.”

Jyrki Katainen, Commissioner for competitiveness policy, later tried to explain the appeal of fake news, particularly regarding EU activities. “The main reason why people have fallen away from the reality of what the EU is doing, is that governments are not capable of explaining to their citizens what is the future of Europe,” he said. “If the top politicians don’t tell their citizens what the top 5 European priorities are, then what can you expect?”

In his remarks to the gathering Estonian Defence Minister Jüri Luik seemed to throw cold water on the EU’s efforts. “Countering hybrid threats is first and foremost the responsibility of national governments,” he said.

He did call, however, for an “EU-wide early warning system” for hybrid attacks against any EU member. “We will be attacked again,” he said. “It’s not whether but when, and who exactly, and on what scale.”

Indeed – and speed of response to hybrid attacks will be key. To wit: the EU-funded European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, co-inaugurated in Helsinki on 2 October by Mogherini and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, is already a target. Pro-Russian trolls have created at least two websites pretending to be the centre, with similar web addresses to fool curious visitors. The site is under serious attack, and it has barely started operating.

The conference’s last panel focussed on strategic communications, or StratCom, which was defined as a way of producing the counter-propaganda that earlier conference panellists had sought to avoid.

“We’re calling a spade a spade,” Maciej Popowski, deputy director-general for neighbourhood and enlargement negotiations at the Commission, told the conference. “We need to communicate in a strategic way, and we’re supporting independent media outlets in the Russian-language world.”

     THE UPSHOT: While valuable, this conference could have used an introductory session to iron out a definition of terms. What is ‘fake news,’ exactly? What is real news? How does fake news fit inside the rubric of hybrid warfare? And what is ‘strategic communications’, which is often presented as the antidote to fake news and pro-Russian or pro-ISIS propaganda?
     These questions were, for the most part, left unanswered. So the ‘counter-propaganda’ that was discouraged in the event’s morning session seemed eagerly embraced by the end – albeit with the less sinister-sounding name of ‘counter-narratives’.
     The truth is that on the subject of information warfare, both the EU and NATO are still fumbling in the dark, at least when it comes to countering what the Russians are doing. They are squeamish about going full-on in the production of their own narratives because they are aware that such efforts would play into Russian hands.
     But they are also hesitant to encourage ‘real news’ that doesn’t make their own institutions look good. The result is a boring, turgid, institutional muddle that few people would actually want to watch, or read, or listen to.

     ps@securityeurope.info

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