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EU agrees to dedicate more resources to fight Russian propaganda

Interference from Russia in the Catalan independence crisis has spiked concerns about the manipulation of public opinion

EU Foreign Ministers in Brussels: Didier Reynders from Belgium, Jean Asselborn from Luxembourg, and Alfonso Dastis from Spain.
EU Foreign Ministers in Brussels: Didier Reynders from Belgium, Jean Asselborn from Luxembourg, and Alfonso Dastis from Spain. AFP

The issue of Russian interference in the Catalan crisis has raised European concerns about the manipulation of public opinion. On Monday, the European Union’s foreign and defense ministers debated ways to improve common strategies against this growing challenge.

Spain’s Alfonso Dastis warned his European colleagues about attempts to destabilize Spain at a meeting that ended with a call for greater efforts to fight online interference.

Just days before the gathering of the Foreign Affairs Council, the Spanish government received evidence of the scope of Russian agents’ influence on the Catalan separatist campaign.

I asked the ministers to support my request to increase human and financial resources

Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs

Also on Monday, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy provided some information about Russian interference in the Catalan crisis.

“It is no coincidence that all activities in support of Catalan independence on social media are using the same channels as those supporting other clearly anti-European movements such as Brexit or far-right populism,” said Rajoy in an interview with the German financial daily Handelsblatt.

“As for Spanish Twitter accounts (that amplified) the Catalan issue, there were many false accounts. Over 50% are registered in Russia and 30% in Venezuela. Only 3% of the accounts were real,” added Rajoy.

Spain’s defense minister, Dolores de Cospedal, was also present at the Brussels meeting and she said that “many actions came from Russian territory, we don’t know whether specifically from the Russian government. And some were replicated in Venezuelan territory.”

Federica Mogherini at the meeting of EU foreign and defense ministers.
Federica Mogherini at the meeting of EU foreign and defense ministers. AP

At the ministerial meeting, Foreign Minister Dastis did not directly mention Catalonia, but urged colleagues to take the subject of Russian interference seriously. “We have vowed to develop efforts aimed at increasing our contribution, either financial or in human resources,” he said.

But neither Dastis nor the other ministers provided any specific figures regarding those additional resources.

The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, on Monday declined to talk specifically about the Catalan case, but said it is important to reinforce EU policy against manipulation.

“I asked the ministers to support my request to increase the human and financial resources we can dedicate especially to the three Strategic Communication Task Forces I have established in the course of the last two years – one dedicated to the East, one to the Western Balkans and one to the Arab-speaking world. And I received political support from the ministers on this. Now we will check if the finance ministers will follow the indications of the foreign ministers in the coming weeks,” said Mogherini at a press conference following the meeting.

Besides attending the meeting of 28 foreign ministers, Dastis met separately with several of them, including the French, Irish and Belgian representatives. Former Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont and four aides are currently in Belgium, where they fled after failing to show up at a court hearing in a criminal investigation into the illegal secession attempt.

Task forces

For now, a team of 14 people known as the East Stratcom Task Force is in charge of monitoring and responding to manipulation attempts by pro-Kremlin outlets. The group, which has no budget of its own, also disseminates positive messages about the EU.

The EU’s diplomatic service additionally has a team of four people to counter the Islamic State’s propaganda, and a two-person team that reinforces the European message in the Western Balkans.

The East Stratcom team has uncovered evidence of Russian interference in the Catalan crisis. Between late September and early October, it found 10 examples of fake news and posted them on their website, Euvsdisinfo.eu.

The European Commission has also approved the creation of a High-Level Expert Group representing academics, online platforms, news media and civil society organisations to advise the EC on the best way to fight fake news.

It has additionally launched a public consultation where “citizens, social media platforms, news organisations, researchers and public authorities are all invited to share their views until mid-February. It will gather opinions on what actions could be taken at EU level to give citizens effective tools to identify reliable and verified information and adapt to the challenges of the digital age.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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