Combating Disinformation Europe’s Tiny Band of Truth Warriors

In a small office in Brussels, there are 11 European Union employees fighting back against Russia’s massive, well-oiled propaganda machine. Their only weapon is the truth - and they’re severely outgunned.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is shown on the screen of a camera viewfinder at the headquarters of "Russia Today" television channel in Moscow.

There's a news website that's all the rage in political Berlin. Everyone is reading it, from members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet and their staffers, all the way down to the lowliest ministerial employees.

It’s a website that reports news which can't be found anywhere else - real humdingers. For instance, there was a story about 700,000 Germans emigrating because they couldn't stand Ms. Merkel or her policies, and another about thousands of Muslims setting one of the country's oldest churches in Dortmund on fire. Recently, they featured a red-hot scoop: The E.U. was planning to ban snowmen.

Yes, snowmen.

The website is called "disinformation review." It collects so-called "fake news" stories and deconstructs them. In the global propaganda war, it's doing its part to defend its readership against an army of liars.

"Fake news," false truths - however you label them, in the end they're all just lies. But they've become the most effective weapon in the battle to control the narrative. To be sure, lies have always been around, but they never really gained traction until the power of the internet was unleashed in all its anarchic fury.

"Fake news," invented in the workshops of state-sponsored and independent information warriors, aims at influencing elections and destabilizing countries, organizations and ultimately democracy.

At the European External Action Service, the European Union's foreign ministry and diplomatic corps, there are 11 employees whose sole responsibility it is to shed light on "fake news" stories. It's 11 Europeans against the lies of the world.

In March 2015, the leaders of all the 28 E.U. member states decided to establish a department for "strategic communication," known internally as East StratCom. Its explicit mandate was to counter Russian producers of "fake news."

The war in Ukraine was like a wake-up call for the European Union. It became clear in Brussels that the Kremlin was trying to besmirch the West's reputation with a targeted disinformation campaign.

The East StratCom Task Force, a sparsely staffed E.U. department, depends on a wide network to be effective. Around 400 journalists, university employees, civil servants, NGO employees and individuals in 30 countries scan the internet for "fake news."

The people at StratCom understand the danger of being accused of disseminating their own form of propaganda. With this in mind, the Europeans work with extreme care and precision. Their goal, they say, is to "put right" clearly misleading information put into the world by the Kremlin’s henchmen.

Readers of "disinformation review," for instance, learned why it was impossible for 700,000 Germans to have emigrated in a single year simply because they didn't like Ms. Merkel's policies, as Russia's RIA Nowosti news agency had claimed. According to Germany's Federal Statistical Office, no more than 150,000 Germans emigrate in any given year.

Or take the claim that 1,000 Muslims had burned Germany's oldest church to the ground in the western city of Dortmund, a story that was made up by the far-right extremist website Breitbart, which erroneously cited the local Ruhr Nachrichten newspaper. To counter the Breitbart story, all StratCom had to do was repeat what the Ruhr Nachrichten said after its name was splashed across the Breitbart website: We reported nothing of the sort.

A sensational story is always going to be more appealing (and thus shareable) than some dry, fact-heavy rebuttal.

The story about the European Union's alleged plans to ban snowmen was handled in a similar manner - by going straight to the source. The European Union clarified that it had no intention to forbid Frosty effigies.

East StratCom has a massively powerful opponent: the news and propaganda factory of the Russian government. The organization's name is "Rossija sevodnja," or "Russia Today." Its office is in a 600 meter-long concrete building on Zubovsky Boulevard in Moscow. The propagandists produce all kinds of media, from TV and radio shows, to news wires, websites, online surveys and even satellite programs.

Under the umbrella of Russia Today are RIA Nowosti and Sputnik News, which has a radio and internet presence in 30 languages. Sputnik operates in three dozen countries. The foreign broadcaster RT works with the same mandate, though it operates as an autonomous station.

Channels like these have little in common with the black-and-white Soviet propaganda of the past. Nowadays, the government's lies are packaged much more quickly and in a more engaging and interesting manner than many Western news outlets.

"Never be uncool again," Vladislav Surkov, the chief strategist to Vladimir Putin, once said. Today, Mr. Surkov works for the Russian president as his designated representative to Ukraine.

Russia's state-sponsored broadcasters are tasked with projecting the "Russian view" of things (read: the Kremlin's view) into the world. One way of doing this is by fabricating stories that serve the Kremlin's interests.

But the Russians aren't the only ones making up the news. The Russian media also fondly cite fake articles published by German extremists at "Politically Incorrect," "Compact" or the obscure "Bundesdeutsche Zeitung."

A recent report that got significant play on Russian airwaves was about U.S. tanks that were allegedly being unloaded in Germany for war against Russia. In fact, the tanks in question were part of a NATO regiment stationed in Poland. And there weren’t 3,600 of them, but 87.

The success of "disinformation review" rises and falls with its resonance. It can't compete with the Russian propaganda platforms, because it's not being updated by the minute or even by the hour. The content on the homepage is refreshed only every few days or so.

Extremist portals churn out content by the minute, turning the world upside-down. By the time the folks at East StratCom have discovered a false story, checked it, rebutted it and published their research, the original story will have already been shared thousands of times. And besides, a sensational story is always going to be more appealing (and thus shareable) than some dry, fact-heavy rebuttal - especially one on a website as bland as that of East StratCom's.

But the biggest problem facing the 11 employees of the European Union's anti-lie task force is the fact that consumers of "fake news" actually prefer to live in their own little world. It may be a virtual biotope that systematically shields them from the complex truths of the real world, but it's where they feel at home.


This article first appeared in Die Zeit, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: [email protected]