By Antoine Blua
Dozens of experts and stakeholders from across Europe gathered in Prague this week to discuss the nature of misinformation and disinformation, as well as find ways to fight against “alternative facts” that they said saturate the current media landscape and corrode public trust in democratic institutions.
As expected, speakers addressing the September 22-23 conference marking the first anniversary of the EU-funded, Prague-based Central European Digital Media Observatory (CEDMO) https://cedmohub.eu/, blasted Russia for being a major actor in spreading disinformation. But interestingly, two round tables touched upon the propaganda challenge posed by China, considered a relative newcomer in this domain, showing growing concerns over Beijing’s attempts to expand its footprint in the information spheres of European countries.
The conference, dubbed Europe Tackles Information Chaos, was co-organized by Adriana Dergam of CEDMO’s Project Executive Board, who is also a member of the Prague Centre for Media Skills (PCMS). Participants included European officials, academics, journalists as well as media, legislative and technological experts.
In her keynote address, Vera Jourova, the European Commission’s vice president for Values and Transparency, said that Russia has pursued a “massive” disinformation campaign since Moscow’s 2014 aggression of Ukraine, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, “attacking our brains, our hearts, our ability to trust out democratic institutions.”
Such a “threat” has only increased following this year’s Russian military invasion of Ukraine, with food and energy security taking centre stage in the Kremlin’s global disinformation campaign, she added.
According to Katja Drinhausen of the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, China is also using external propaganda to try to overcome “Western hegemony in global discourse power.”
“At least in the eyes of the Chinese leadership, Western liberal values have dominated international discourse and international organizations for long enough. Now it’s time to establish China’s own views, positions and framing of things.”
The goal is to “guide international debates”, especially when it comes to global policies and crises, or internal matters such as the situation in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang. Ivana Karaskova of the Prague-based Association of Global Affairs (AMO) warned that the narratives the Chinese Communist Party produces “may not be that effective, but it’s
definitely on a learning curve.”
Beijing has used “advertising companies, think tanks, other media to outsource its content production”, making it “more and more difficult to find out whether the real origin of the news is locally produced or whether it’s produced by another actors, be it China or Russia”, Karaskova said.
‘You Scratch My Back, I Scratch Yours’
Karaskova also pointed out a “confluence of Chinese and Russian narratives,” saying that Chinese official media, which are also operating in local languages in Europe, are “more and more citing Russian scholars, so-called Russian experts or people from the Russian administration”.
“On the other hand, Chinese media are also citing Chinese experts and professionals, giving the appearance that it’s not only Russia claiming something, but there are also other professionals who are saying exactly the same things.”
According to a recent briefing paper co-authored by Karaskova, China has used three main narratives in its messaging to Czech audiences on events in Ukraine. Judging from material produced during the initial phases of the Russian invasion by the Chinese embassy and media outlets, in particular China Radio International’s Czech service, these narratives included “the destabilizing role of the US and NATO, China’s neutral and responsible position during the crisis, and the economic and security impacts of the war on the European Union”.
Participants in the Prague conference highlighted that disinformation, nourished by the development of social media and successive global crises, is likely to continue to keep fact-checkers busy. France’s AFP news agency said it now employed 130 digital investigative journalists in 80 countries as it engages in an “existential battle between fact-driven
journalism and misinformation”.
In his opening speech, CEDMO’s Strategy Board member Vaclav Moravec slammed what he called a “fashionable, and at the same time absurd, concept of alternatives facts”, which he said “are usually fabricated facts that deepen crises such as pandemics or war”.
“These individual types of information disorders overwhelm not only the space of digital media but affect our everyday life in many forms”, Moravec concluded.
According to Alexander Stubb, Director of the School of Transnational Governance at the Italian-based European University Institute, fact-checking and fact-finding, along with increasing media literacy allowing people to assess online content critically, were crucial to combat the spread of disinformation.
Disinformation “is often linked to a crisis or tries to generate the crisis”, said Stubb, a former prime minister of Finland who also served as finance, foreign, trade and Europe minister.
“Without a basic set of facts we cannot have democracy or a democratic discourse. When there are alternative truths […] then we go into a world which becomes very chaotic.” Jourova assured her listeners that the European Commission is taking this threat seriously, citing new EU legislation, the Digital Services Act, which she said will make online platforms “more responsible and more accountable” with regard to manipulation or disinformation taking place on their services.
This will be reinforced, Jourova said, by the revamped EU Code of Practice that sets out commitments for online platforms and the advertising industry to counter the spread of disinformation online, which Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, TikTok and other tech companies have agreed to implement.