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Waging the War of Disinformation

Europe’s Capacity-Building through Digital Collaboration and Integration of Civil Society


written by Antonia Mayer


Published as part of the Pandemic Policy Series, dedicated to exploring European and transatlantic policies and experiences during this unprecedented time in global politics.


Executive Summary

Tackling disinformation has been on the European Union’s agenda since 2015. Despite its current practices in cyber crisis management, the EU lacks a sustainable and proactive strategy for maintaining order in the information space that goes beyond the scope of existing cyber defense policies in the light of evolving cyber threats. This policy paper offers a new framework that focuses on integrated digital cooperation among democratic countries as well as also outside of governments. Traditionally, cyber strategies have emphasized intergovernmental cooperation; however, private networks and civilians are increasingly the main target of disinformation campaigns. Thus, civil society must be a crucial part of the effort to solve the EU’s limited action in countering disinformation attacks.


Introduction

The latest report on disinformation surrounding the Covid-19 by the European External Action Service draws an important conclusion: disinformation proliferates not only during election campaigns, but wherever and whenever it can manipulate public discourse.[1] Disinformation around Covid-19 threatens health, public security and crisis communication. It also demonstrates how ill-prepared the European Union (EU) and Western governments are in countering disinformation attacks. EU policy-makers are yet to fully comprehend the new platform upon which warfare is being waged: disinformation is the newest cyber weapon to threaten EU’s democracy. Unlike the EU, China has advanced its offensive strategy by building institutions such as the Cyberspace Administration of China to take advantage of this unprecedented competition and confirm its dominance.[2] China knows that whoever owns information space, owns anti-democratic battlefields, controls information, and ultimately shapes global citizens’ perception of reality.


In 2018, the EU released its Action Plan against disinformation to build capabilities and strengthen cooperation amongst EU member states.[3] Yet, the EU treats cyber security and information security as a one-sided coin, a defensive approach that only counters disinformation and wards off interference but lacks a strategy with proactive cyber policies to protect democratic information space.[4]

Problem Description

83% of Europeans think disinformation is a threat to democracy.[5] It negatively influences public discourse, undermines democratic processes, harms crisis management and manipulates citizens. While democracies tend to value information as indispensable to a lively democratic community, authoritarian regimes like China and Russia abuse information in two ways: domestically, leveraging their own primacy in the cybersphere to control and surveil their own populations.[6] Internationally, they make use of the relative absence of Western governments in the space to weaken their democratic competitors abroad. Hitherto, policymakers relied solely on defensive cyber policies to deter state-based information attacks. However, increasing disinformation campaigns around Covid-19 have shed light on the limitations of the EU’s strategy to counter disinformation outside of election cycles.


Cyber attacks will increase in the next few years due to the number of new 5G-enabled interconnected devices, expanding the potential platforms available to cyber attackers.[7] The power struggle over information will be fought over mobile phones, computers and other devices. The EU’s Action Plan provides a coordinated response to counter cyber attacks. However, it does not completely fulfill the protection of democratic information space and thus endangers and discredits the livelihood of democracies. To safeguard European democracies, norms and information, policymakers need to understand the new geopolitical competition by protecting and enlarging its networks to forge a stronger digital democracy and digital trust.


Policy Option

The EU must take a more dynamic stance in establishing a strategy for competition in the information space by cooperating more closely with its partners and civil society and respond in an institutionally cohesive and dynamic manner. The following framework provides a new sustainable and effective approach to cyber threats that works in the interests of democracies.


1) The EU should extend its digital collaboration with partners and allies

Cyber resources are still closely controlled by national governments, which limits the effectiveness of the EU’s cyber defense. Governments should draw on and support regional and EU resources using the potentials and capabilities of all member states. Thus, a more deepened “shared digital co-governance” measure is suggested. This measure is based on a horizontal mechanism of national networks collaborating on cyber mitigation policies that governments choose to implement and enforce. Such shared co-governance allocates resources and capacity-building without eroding individual national interests and including wide security requirements. This form of digital co-governance raises the preparedness at the EU and national levels. It also improves and pools cyber capabilities and information sharing within and between national governments.


The EU should collaborate more closely and transparent with other Western countries to share practices, cyber defense exercises and broaden its capabilities and knowledge regarding security standards of network and information systems. While there have been numerous initiatives with the EU and NATO to wage the war of disinformation, such initiatives need to be better coordinated to ensure their effectiveness.[8] These enlarged collaborations will set a precedent of an alliance-wide cyber policy to counter disinformation.

2) The EU should integrate civil society through the media, private and nonprofit sector

The potential of partnerships with the private, media and nonprofit sectors has not yet been fully tapped, particularly in these sectors’ capacity to facilitate broader media literacy through new tools and educational structures. With the EU’s help these partners can act as a channel to reveal disinformation to the public and help build resilient, attentive and critical consumers of information flows.


For this policy option, think tanks, NGOs, the media and the private sector including platforms like Facebook need to be included to encourage, empower and engage people to tackle the threat with a grassroots response. It is vital that European citizens learn and become aware of this threat. By creating transparent online and offline dialogue, with the help of partners, civilians can deliver talks, conducting seminars on media consumption, on detecting disinformation and prevent the spread of disinformation among the public. Such dialogue forums must be able to reach all generations and be held not only at educational institutions but at recreational organizations, local community centers and associations for older generations.


A strategy of combatting disinformation attacks without incorporating policy options that focus on the target of such attacks, is not designed to achieve long-term goals. Society as a whole is exposed to infiltrated disinformation on a daily basis, while it is much less exposed to counter-measures. Only if societies understand what state-based disinformation is, how to detect and counter it, society will be no longer the vulnerable target but the active adversary of disinformation campaign.


Recommendations

The EU’s perspectives on foreign informational threats is framed and reflected in defensive policies that consider these threats as individual and fleeting. Thereby, it is missing the big picture of a new geopolitical information warfare and lacking the sustainable framework for implementing effective, permanent strokes. Thus, Europe’s framework for understanding such attacks needs to be adjusted. While cooperation with other actors already exists, these partnerships need to be extended and deepened both in Europe as well as externally. It is necessary to not only cooperate with governments but to consider networks in the private and nonprofit sectors to be of equal value to governmental cooperations. Hitherto, proposals for effective information space strategies lacked and neglected the core of the information contest: civil society is the target of state-based disinformation attacks. While information warfare, both globally and in the EU, mostly takes place on private networks and devices, Europe has not yet integrated civilians into its strategy or indeed recognized the pivotal role that civilians play in this arena.


The sooner EU decision-makers realize that this information competition will determine the global order of cyber actors, the sooner the EU can work with its allies and its citizens to make cyberspace safer for democracy and to prevent the erosion of the European values of democracy, security, justice and freedom.

[1]EUvsDisinfo.”EEAS Special Report Update: Short Assessment of Narratives and Disinformation Around the Covid-19/Coronavirus Pandemic (Updated 2-22 April).” April 24,2020.https://euvsdisinfo.eu/eeas-special-report-update-2-22-april/ [2]Laura Rosenberger, “Making Cyberspace Safe for Democracy,“ Foreign Affairs, 13 April 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2020-04-13/making-cyberspace-safe-democracy [3]European Commission (2018)“Action Plan against Disinformation,“ https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/action_plan_against_disinformation.pdf [4]European Commission (2019)“Factsheet: Report on progress on the Action Plan against Disinformation“ https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_19_2914 [5]Directorate-General for Communication (2018)“Flash Eurobarometer 464: Fake News and Disinformation,“ https://data.europa.eu/euodp/en/data/dataset/S2183_464 [6]Laura Rosenberger, “Making Cyberspace Safe for Democracy,“ Foreign Affairs, 13 April 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2020-04-13/making-cyberspace-safe-democracy [7]Tom Wheeler and David Simpson, “Why 5G requires new approaches to cybersecurity,“ 3 September 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/research/why-5g-requires-new-approaches-to-cybersecurity/ [8]Siim Alatalu, "NATO’s responses to cyberattacks," in Hacks, Leaks and Disruptions: Russian Cyber Strategies, ed. Nicu Popescu and Stanislav Secrieru. Institute for Security Studies, European Union, 2018, 95- 102. https://www.iss.europa.eu/content/hacks-leaks-and-disruptions-%E2%80%93-russian-cyber-strategies

Antonia Mayer is a double Master’s degree student in Political Science at Rutgers University, USA and the University of Konstanz, Germany. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Politics and Public Administration. During her undergraduate studies, she studied in both Moscow and Prague, as well as her native Germany. She has worked as a research assistant and academic tutor with the Chair of International Relations and Conflict Management in Konstanz. As a Fulbright fellow, she graduated from Rutgers in May 2020 with focus on Comparative Politics, European Politics and International Relations. In addition to her full-time studies at Rutgers, she volunteered weekly in her local community in New Jersey.


Over the summer of 2020, Antonia will be finalizing her journalism studies at the Institute for the Promotion for Young Journalists in Munich. Upon her return to the University of Konstanz, she will major in International Administration and Conflict Management, and will be graduating in Spring 2021 with her second Master’s Degree.

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