Is the EU vs Disinformation website just another propaganda tool?

In September a video in which a lady is seen to throw bleach over men in the Saint Petersburg underground for what has been dubbed “Manspreading” went viral. “Manspreading” is the act in which men on public transport sit with their legs wide apart, not only taking up an uneccesarry amount of room, but also seemingly to reveal their genetalia. For some feminists this posture is deemed to be an expression of egotism and male preponderance and one that needs to be confronted. The video, linked to the Russian activist Anna Dovgalyuk, was within a matter of weeks flagged up as pro-Russian propaganda by the EU vs Disinformation campaign group and was then swiftly dismissed as such across large sections of the Western media.

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The EU vs Disinformation site implied that the video was part of a supposed Kremlin plan to destabilise the West. “Feminists are bats**t crazy and there are a lot of bats**t crazy feminists in the decadent West”, that was the message that the Russian state propaganda machine was supposedly trying to spread among naïve and impressionable young Western audiences. Although even among their coverage a lot of the language used evoked a sense of uncertainty, it nonetheless quickly translated into fact for many Western mainstream media outlets.

The Kremlin aim in producing such a video is said to be to inflame and radicalise its target Western audiences with an end goal of creating social subversion. But was the video really part of a Russian propaganda campaign? In this respect there seems to be some major doubt. A chronological look at the case is quite revealing. The video was posted on the 25 of September and went viral predominantly within Russian cyberspace. And although the video was published on YouTube, one must question why the piece was posted on VKontakte, a social media site whose target audience is based overwhelmingly in Russia and the post Soviet realm? This leads us to a further question: why, if this video is so divisive and destabilizing, are the Russians pushing in it into their own social sphere? Additionally, the story made prime time in the Russian Federation, having been picked up by all the major media outlets. By the 29th of September Anna Dovgalyuk s video had been run on national television and she had been invited to take part in a tv debate on the subject. It therefore seems a massive contradiction to portray Anna Dovgalyuk’s campaign as a form of Russian state propaganda when it received so much attention within Russia itself. If the EU vs Disinformation’s assessment is correct, would the Russian state not be trying to insulate itself from this debate rather than giving it airtime? Interestingly, on the 26th of September some Russian media outlets were beginning to question the videos authenticity. Those questioning the video included the Russian state funded TASS agency.

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So are we now supposed to believe that a Kremlin state funded media outlet is undermining the Kremlin state propaganda that was supposed to target western audiences, but overwhelmingly was viewed and given air time in Russia itself? It seems highly unlikely, to put it mildly. Indeed, an anonymous source close to the EU vs Disinformation group claimed that the EU and NATO linked group had simply lifted their story directly from Russian state funded media, but manipulated content to suite their own agenda. The EU vs Disinformation published their version not until the 8th of October some two and a bit weeks later.

Given the circumstances, their work with regards to Anna Dovgalyuk appears more than questionable. If anything, it would appear more likely that the young lady had injected Western feminist discourse into the Russian domain rather than vice a versa. After all her video in the transatlantic space is but a mere drop in an ocean of debate not only on feminism, but minority rights in general. Indeed, we would have to assume this is nothing more than self promotion, Anna Dovgalyuk for her part stated she made the video with like minded friends and considers those who call it Russian state propaganda “crazy”.

So what exactly is this EU vs Disinformation?

EU vs Disinformation is part of the EU’s East Stratcom task force and is closely interlinked with a host of other transatlanticist strategic organisations such as CEPA, NATO and the Atlantic council. They receive €1.1 million in funds annually. Their website states they were set up after “EU heads of state and government stressed the need to challenge Russias ongoing Disinformation campaigns” further their work is principally tasked with responding to “pro-Kremlin disinformation” but they seem to focus often on small Russian language publications from far flung places such as Crimea. Can it genuinely be claimed that a report in a small regional paper, that no European will see, in a language that most Europeans do not command represents a genuine information challenge?

The organisation have in the past drawn criticism for what is an entirely non scientific approach, which relies overly on subjective views. In fact their classification of three Dutch news outlets (Genstijl, The Post Online and De Persgroep) as spreaders of fake news, lead to legal action until the EU vs Disinformation removed them from what is effectively a black list. The case underscored many of the methdological problems within the organization’s work, which ranged from the dissimination of an incorrectly translated document carried out by a Ukranian partner group, to simple internal biases within the EU vs Disinformation task force, not to mention the incredibly partial nature with which it’s affiliated NGOs work. Clearly the aim is merely to promote their common agendas. Additionally several commentators consider that the EU sponsored organisation may place anyone critical of immigration on their black list, hence defining them as pro-Kremlin. These concerns lead to a Dutch parliamentary vote on the 6th of March 2018 which resulted in the MP s requesting that interior minister Kajsa Ollonngren convince her european collegues to take down the site.

The Amsterdam journalist and Meer Democracy board member Arjen Nijeboer, in an article entitled “Why the EU must close the EU vs Disinformation“, succinctly posits that the organisation itself is what is undermining our Western principles: “Since the birth of the Enlightenment, most of us have not only come to accept the principle of democracy as a form of government where citizens – who are principally seen as equals – have the final say in politics, but also the principle of freedom of speech, meaning the natural right of free individuals to freely spread information and absorb information by others without interference by the state. Freedom of speech is closely associated with other classical citizen rights such as the right to run free media, to free assembly, free association, free education, and on.The democratic state should not interfere in these areas because if it does, it makes it impossible for the truth to emerge in the public debate leading up to democratic votes. Also, by crippling the mentioned citizen rights the state would kill the source for its own regeneration”

In addition to the more basic issues associated with the organization’s immediate misrepresentation of news, when we look at the figures, it becomes clear that they distort reality by magnifying an incredibly minuscule amount of stories they deem to be fake: there are after all 130 trillion webpages of which the EU lists 3500 as fake. There is often no recourse or right to appeal against a decision taken by the task force, thus transparency is compromised, judgment reserved to a handful of people deemed not to be fully competent in portraying a balanced opinion. This in turn cultivates a paranoid echo chamber of hyperbolic proportions, furthermore by targeting a youthful audience, they are generating a somewhat skewed ontological framework, which will undoubtedly lead to a perpetuation of East / West tensions for decades to come.

As the video with Anna Dovgalyuk appears to highlight, anyone who expresses an opinion that the task force consider pro-Russian is denied agency and is instantly tarnished with a sinister brush that implies they are working for the Russian state. Of significance is a disclaimer on their website “The Disinformation Review does not necessarily imply that the outlet concerned is linked to the Kremlin or pro-Kremlin, or that it has intentionally sought to disinform. The review analyses messages, not the messenger. If the message is a) false, which is determined by the facts and b) originating and in line with usual pro-Kremlin disinformation messaging, it is included in the product”. It’s a disclaimer that appears somewhat contradictory and for those who know the site well and by the language it employs they appear very much to portray people as pro-Kremlin, often they seem to be generating such opinion among other news outlets, therefore passing off as Russian propaganda news even where a publisher or media outlet insists they are merely expressing an opinion and where there is no Kremlin link. Principally you can be punished for having views the task force does not like.

The result in real terms means the group come across as nothing more than a propaganda outlet themselves, simply an anti-Russian propaganda outlet, as their more controversial work with a Ukranian NGO particulary testifies. All in all the EU vs Disinformation organisation becomes a Kafkaesque unaccountable body funded by a European superstate and representing the interests of the NATO military alliance, thus mimicking precisely the image they claim to be fighting. These issues have also struck an accord with Alberto Alemanno, professor of EU law and regulation at HEC Paris who in an article with the Financial Times noted that: “The approach taken by the EU on fake news is in breech of the freedom of expression and citizens rights to be informed” before adding that “the European Ombudsman should open an investigation and hold the European Comission to account for withholding critical information from the border public”.

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