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European Economic and Social Committee
How media is used to influence social and political processes in the EU and Eastern neighbouring countries
Brussels, 8 May 2015
Section for External Relations
How media is used to influence social and political processes in the EU and Eastern neighbouring countries
Rapporteur: Indrė Vareikytė
Administrator: Ms Ernšteina
On 11 December 2014, the European Economic and Social Committee, acting under Rule 31 of its Rules of Procedure, decided to instruct its Section for External Relations to draw up an information report on
How media is used to influence social and political processes in the EU and Eastern neighbouring countries.
The Section for External Relations, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its information report on 28 April 2015.
1.Conclusions and recommendations
1.1The freedom of information and expression are inviolable in the EU, yet this freedom can also be used to overturn its principles in order to make debate and critical thinking impossible and not as a tool to inform or persuade, but as a weapon. Propaganda is an extreme form of abuse of media which aims to influence social and political processes and is particularly potent when it is sponsored by governments and used in international relations. A current acute case is Russian state-sponsored propaganda, which raises great concerns for European and Russian civil society.
1.2A variety of tools and methods are currently used to undermine European values and influence the Eastern Partnership and other external actions of the EU, as well as to develop and provoke separatist and nationalistic attitudes, manipulate the public and conduct direct interference in the domestic policy of sovereign countries and the EU as a whole. The impact of such disinformation is often underestimated, even in countries that face it most. Meanwhile, there is a lack of national and EU level actions to tackle the issue.
1.3During the economic crisis European media outlets have faced budget cuts, which in turn lowered media quality standards. Meanwhile, despite its budget cuts elsewhere, Russia is heavily investing in state-controlled media and intensifying its information influence campaigns to gain support among internal and external audiences for its political goals and actions. It is important to note that Russian media outlets are able to provide more popular and, often, controversial content by not upholding the high standards of media ethics, which are natural for the European media.
1.4Propaganda cannot and should not be countered with anti-propaganda. Considering the scale and amount of resources dedicated to increasing information influence, the EESC encourages choosing the approach of internal partnerships, publicity, transparency and education instead of active counter-propaganda or attempts to engage in an open media warfare, which could only further destabilize European society.
1.5Europe should learn the lessons from the most recent war in the European neighbourhood: the role of propaganda was extremely negative and distracting and the position of independent journalists was very fragile during the Balkan wars that took place only two decades ago.
1.6In response to the current situation EU institutions together with the Member States should develop an action plan on strategic communication, covering these major areas: (a) enhancing EU communication and media quality; (b) increasing support for existing EU and Eastern Partnership media outlets on EU reporting; (c) strengthening media cooperation networks; (d) developing and sustaining platforms for media communication with populations; (e) involving and trusting local journalists and supporting local initiatives aimed at local agenda, not only regional or European level; (f) encouraging media engagement of reporting on EU matters; (g) sharing best practices to educate the general public and raise the level of media literacy and critical thought; (h) enhancing the level of good governance in media outlets and ensuring the transparency of ownership and funding; (i) fostering independent academic research on media; (j) ensuring adequate resources for implementing the necessary measures.
1.7The Committee therefore recommends taking these necessary actions:
1.7.1Support an EU level network consisting of representatives from media regulators, journalists, experts, NGOs and EU institutions to design and implement a media impartiality ratings system, to draft recommendations on media regulations, safeguard freedom of speech, set the benchmark of quality journalism, monitor the media situation in the EU and its immediate neighbourhood, support EU Member States’ governments in their communication with minorities, etc.
1.7.2Encourage the European Regulators Group for the Audiovisual Media Services to evaluate the implementation of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, the speediness of its complaint procedures and the effectiveness of measures against disinformation and manipulation of Freedom of Information and Expression.
1.7.3Increase the proportion of European works in the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, and ensure broader distribution of European works.
1.7.4Encourage the Council’s Working Party on Information, in cooperation with the European External Action Service and other relevant institutions, to collect, filter, summarize and share the information with the High-Representatives of the Member States in order to ensure that all representatives have the same amount of data on the subjects when decisions are taken.
1.7.5Establish a position of EU media spokesperson for Russia-related issues, who should be well prepared to react to propaganda and provide a harmonized EU approach.
1.7.6Support the establishment and functioning of Europe-wide monitoring initiatives to systematically track false and/or misleading information originating from foreign media outlets. Monitoring reports should be made publically available.
1.7.7Create and constantly update the EU list of media channels and their representatives, who have been accused and sanctioned with dissemination of false and/or misleading information in at least one Member State.
1.7.8Encourage Member States and their regulators, as well as related media and civil society organizations to more actively analyse and raise awareness on cases of disinformation, propaganda, attempts to manipulate, deceive, incite hatred and propagate war and other methods of information influence by exposing and publicizing disinformation attempts. The EU should collect and share the best practices from the Member States.
1.7.9Increase support for the exchange of European-made media content, especially in the light of widening access via translation processes, in order to promote European works and provide competitive alternatives to the Russian production on the EU TV market.
1.7.10Establish a co-funding scheme for reporters from broadcasters in the EU Eastern border countries, Eastern Partnership states and Member States that do not have sufficient resources to report on EU news from Brussels.
1.7.11Engage and strengthen independent Russian language media outlets by encouraging cooperation with national and EU-wide broadcasters for sharing content and reporting.
1.7.12Encourage the Eurobarometer and national polls to analyse the impact of disinformation and information manipulation on the public and use the data for the development of quality EU and National communication strategies and policies.
1.7.13Invite the Directorate General for Education and Culture (DG EAC) to collect existing UNESCO, Council of Europe and Member States examples on media education and information literacy training, and prepare a list of recommended practices to the Member States.
1.7.14Strengthen the promotion of European identity and core values – human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights – through the European support instruments implemented both in the Member States and countries eligible for such support.
1.7.15Enhance transparency and integrity in the lobbyist, think tank and NGO sectors at both EU and national levels by implementing strict registration and declaration rules for lobbyists, as well as requiring think tanks and NGOs to disclose their funding sources and declare possible links between their funders and research outcomes.
2.Introduction and overview of the situation in the EU and Eastern Partnership countries
2.1At international level Russian media messages are a lot subtler than those it employs with its domestic audience. It reaches broader audiences by operating in foreign languages and these messages are crafted to influence and change opinions. Its influence consists of the following main objectives: increasing its influence among populations within Europe, ending its western isolation and sanctions, discrediting the EU and other western countries, eroding support for legitimate governments, demoralising local populations, disorienting western policymakers and undermining the concept of free, independent and pluralistic media1.
2.2Russian content is often aimed at European values and the EU’s foreign policies. As a result, the picture of the world is simplified and painted in black and white, where the “decadent” West is black and Russia is white2 – thus destabilising and provoking confrontations among the societies of the EU, as well as hindering the cooperation between the EU and Eastern Partnership states3.
2.3The Russian government attempts to exert its influence on the strategic choices of Eastern Partnership countries by using mass media, as well as economic and political means. Its attitude towards its neighbours includes efforts to interfere in their attempts to shape their national identity by claiming that these countries and their people should be linked more closely to Russia, not Europe.
2.4In its public diplomacy, the Russian government seeks to develop its own effective means of information influence on public opinion abroad and its state-controlled media outlets are playing an important role in forming public opinion by spreading key narratives, thematic frames and messages outlined in the strategic policy documents of the Russian Federation4.
2.5The global news network RT is the main Russian international media outlet used in the government’s information campaign. It has 22 satellites and over 230 broadcast operators, attracts over 700 million viewers in more than 100 countries and is available in almost 3 million hotel rooms throughout the world. State-funded with a budget of $400 million in 2015, it broadcasts in English, Arabic, Spanish, German, French and Russian and is the most watched news channel on the internet in the world5. For comparison, the BBC World Service Group, the biggest broadcast newsgathering operation in the world, had a budget of $376 million for 2014-2015.
2.6To further increase the global reach and broadcast in different media, a new state-funded international multimedia structure – Sputnik – was launched. It includes a website, newswire and social media presence, as well as "news hubs" operating in 30 languages, present in 34 countries and 130 cities around the globe. Sputnik broadcasts over 800 hours of radio programming a day.
2.7Social media has become a tool for information collection for intelligence purposes, disinformation, deception, as well as recruitment and fundraising for particular activities. Through various forms, e.g. fake social network accounts and profiles, it is also a convenient tool for the rapid distribution of interlinked texts and images supporting a certain narrative, and their easy, cost-free multiplication.
2.8An information campaign to shape international opinion has extended to recruiting and training online bloggers and trolls who spread the Kremlin’s messages in the comments sections of top news websites and in social networks. Over 400 employees work 12-hour shifts and are split into three departments – writing up themes, commenting, and creating graphics and content for social media6. On an average working day, the trolls are expected to post 50 times on news articles. Each blogger is to maintain 6 Facebook accounts publishing at least 3 posts a day and discussing the news in groups at least twice a day. Each month, they are expected to attract 500 subscribers and get at least 5 posts on each item a day. On Twitter, the bloggers are expected to manage 10 accounts with up to 2 000 followers and tweet 50 times a day7.
2.9With their large Russian-speaking populations, the Baltic States are among the EU countries that are highly vulnerable to Russian disinformation and influence. The biggest First Baltic Channel (PBK) rebroadcasts programming and news from the Russian state-owned Channel One and attracts over 4 million viewers or 2/3 of the total population in the Baltic region. Often Russian media content is provided for Baltic broadcasters for free or a symbolic fee in exchange for long-term partnership contracts, as well as for an obligation not to rebroadcast independent Russian media outlets8.
2.10Russian state-controlled media often discredits the EU based on the opinions of individuals who have no credibility in the EU. Such experts often have backgrounds in extremist groups that would make them ineligible for western media channels9. Russian state media validates this approach with the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth – this concept is used to argue that any opinion, however bizarre or ridiculous, has the same weight as all others.
2.11However, media is not the only source of Russian information influence – it also functions through various Public Relations agencies, lobbyists, think tanks, non-governmental organisations, elite influencers, party politics, expert community, cultural activities and European far-right and far-left movements which in return receive payment through various "independent" public trusts, off-shore accounts and/or exposure in Russian state media10.
3.Overview of media situation in the Russian Federation
3.1The goals of Russian domestic state-media and information campaigns differ from those of the international level – the domestic population needs to be reassured that defence and media spending is necessary, while at the same time conditioned to accept cuts to civil sector programmes and to maintain support for Russian leaders (prior to the start of the conflict in Ukraine 53% of Russians said they would vote for a different candidate during the next election. After the annexation of Crimea, 86% said they would re-elect Vladimir Putin as the president11).
3.2The lack of media freedom in Russia works as a supporting factor for these goals. The government of Russia controls around 95% of media and over 90%12 of Russians get their information directly from state media. Total state spending on the media was set to be around $2.94 billion in September 2014.
3.3Russian media ownership consists of 4 main groups: (a) the State – VGTRG (the State’s major media holding: includes 4 main national TV and over 80 regional TV channels, 5 national radio stations and a 17% stake in Euronews), Channel One (250 million viewers around the world), RT, ITAR-TASS, etc.; (b) Gazprom-Media Holding – NTV, Rutube, etc.; (c) Bank Rossiya – REN TV, Channel 5, etc.; (d) Alisher Usmanov – Mail.ru, VKontake and Odnoklassniki (most popular social networks), etc13.
3.4In September 2014, the Russian Duma passed a law restricting foreign ownership of media companies to 20%, which forces foreign owners to relinquish control over independent outlets, further consolidating the government’s control over the media and eradicating the possibilities for foreign media outlets to broadcast in the country.
3.5While most Russians rely on TV for their news, younger Russians also rely on the internet. In response, Russia characterised the internet as a "CIA project" and enacted a "bloggers law" which forces bloggers with more than 3 000 followers to register with the government and imposes onerous requirements for social media sites and search engines. In June 2014 the Russian Duma introduced a law according to which a person who "likes" or "shares" disapproval of Russian actions or policies can be charged with "extremism" and be prosecuted. The government has also been given powers to block opposition websites without explanation.
3.6In 2014, World Press Freedom Index and Press Freedom Survey ranked Russia as “Worsening” and "Not Free," describing the media environment as "characterised by the use of a pliant judiciary to prosecute independent journalists, impunity for the physical harassment and murder of journalists, and continued state control or influence over almost all traditional media outlets"14. Due to the deterioration of press freedom independent media outlets and journalists are forced to stop their broadcasting or even leave the country.
3.7As a result, 49% of all Russians believe that information on the Internet needs to be censored; 42% believe foreign countries are using the Internet against Russia and its interests; 24% think the Internet threatens political stability; and 39% believe personal blogs should be regulated the same as mass media websites15.
3.8Propaganda and conspiracy theories spreads confusion domestically, so that truth becomes overshadowed with the flow of false messaging. The claims that create the picture of an enemy are not necessarily fully believed, but do serve to create confusion so that the picture becomes murky. The Russian population is left confused and passive – propaganda became a tool, which induces paranoia, fear, a sense of insecurity, nostalgia for the Soviet Union and nationalism. Data shows, that 68% – a 17% increase in 201416 – of Russians believe, that they are under the threat of being attacked by another country.
3.9Therefore, it is important to continue engaging with the people of Russia especially with the young generation in order to support and maintain the contact with Russian society, and to preserve the European perspective. Building mutual trust and ensuring that Russian and EU civil society can interact freely and providing as much support as possible to Russian independent civil society organisations have never been more important17.
4.Current EU and national level actions
4.1The necessity to prepare a communication strategy countering the Russian disinformation campaign directed towards the EU, its eastern neighbours and Russia itself is already tasked by the European Parliament18, the Council19 and four Member States’ informal paper20.
4.2The European Council Conclusions on external relations of 19 March 2015 stress the need to challenge Russia's ongoing disinformation campaigns and invite the High Representative, in cooperation with Member States and EU institutions, to prepare an action plan on strategic communication by June.
4.3The British regulator Ofcom put TV Novosti (the Licensee of RT in the UK) on notice that any future breaches of impartiality rules may result in further regulatory action, including considering a statutory sanction21.
4.4The Lithuanian court upheld a move by a media watchdog to suspend the Gazprom-owned NTV Mir after it broadcasted a movie in which it lied about events in 1991, when the Soviet army tried to remove Lithuania’s pro-independence government22.
4.5The Latvian regulator restricted the rebroadcasting of the television channel Rossiya RTR on the territory of Latvia for a period of three months after strongly condemning Russian actions in Ukraine and claiming that Rossiya RTR, along with other state-controlled television channels, is disseminating tendentious information that has a negative influence on Latvia’s national security interests23.
4.6Nevertheless, the actions of Member States’ regulators against biased content and disinformation are limited by the level of implementation of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive in other Member States. The above-mentioned examples from the authorities in the Baltic States could not reach a tangible effect, as some broadcasters are registered in and broadcast the signal from another Member State, which has not fully implemented the Directive.
Brussels, 28 April 2015
Section for External Relations
José María Zufiaur Narvaiza
REX/432 – EESC-2014-07333-00-01-RI-TRA (EN) /3