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The phrase ‘battle of narratives’ was first used by the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, in a statement addressing the coronavirus pandemic on 24 March 2020. In it, he described how in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, a ‘global battle of narratives’ and a ‘struggle for influence’ is taking place. In order to ‘defend Europe’, the EU needs to arm itself with facts and guard against falling prey to disinformation. Since then, this ‘battle of narratives’ has become more intense, evolving into what has come to be known as an ‘infodemic’ – a dangerous surge of false, misleading information. With the EU struggling against skilled opponents such as Russia and China, authoritarian states steeped in the art of disinformation campaigns, can the EU get a hold of the plot before it spins out of control?
The EU’s Anti-Disinformation Efforts: The East StratCom Task Force
For the EU, the challenge of countering disinformation and misleading narratives is not new. In the aftermath of the Ukrainian conflict in 2015, the EU set up a team composed of communications experts recruited from various EU institutions, to address the threat of disinformation. Known as the East StratCom Task Force, its objectives were geared towards enhancing EU capacity to forecast and respond to disinformation activities by external actors. Specifically, the Task Force named Russia as its key opponent in the fight against disinformation, seeking to report and expose disinformation narratives coming from the Russian state and sources. Consequently, the Task Force launched its flagship project EUvsDisinfo with the key objective of increasing public awareness and building European resistance against the Kremlin’s disinformation operations. Consisting of a slew of awareness-raising activities such as the publicly available disinformation database and a weekly online newsletter, Disinformation Review, the EUvsDisinfo project is a concerted effort on the part of the EU to counter the threat of disinformation. By the end of 2018, the EU further enhanced their commitment to combating disinformation when they adopted an EU-wide Action Plan against Disinformation. New policies and initiatives such as the Rapid Alert System were introduced. This initiative aims to coordinate responses as a Union and keep member states up to date on disinformation trends.
With the advent of the coronavirus, the Task Force has expanded the EUvsDisinfo project to include a coronavirus section. Dedicated to assessing the narratives and disinformation on the virus as well as debunking mistruths about the EU’s handling of the pandemic, the Task Force has released reports on the Kremlin’s attempts at depicting the EU as a passive actor that stood haplessly by as the crisis struck. Besides naming Russia as a key instigator, the EU has also singled out China as one of the key actors in the spread of coronavirus-related disinformation. Specifically, the EU reported that several Chinese sources were continuously pushing to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic as well as increasing circulation of news highlighting China’s bilateral aid to countries in need.
Is the Task Force up to the Task of Defending Europe?
The East StratCom Task Force has been cast into the role of the main defender in this war against disinformation. However, is it up to the task of defending Europe in times of a pandemic? The birth of the Task Force and its launch of the EUvsDisinfo campaign is a quintessential EU response to most crises. More often than not, when faced with a new challenge, the common action taken by the bureaucratic EU is to convene a highly regulated and structured group to analyse and respond to the situation. While such a methodically organised process can be helpful in many situations, the infodemic facing the EU during this coronavirus crisis begs for a radically different approach. While the Task Force is painstakingly detailing Kremlin propaganda and fact-checking Chinese news on the coronavirus, their opponents have advanced by leaps and bounds in this ‘battle of narratives’. The Task Force may have created a rich trove of data relating to disinformation, but it is failing to reach mass audiences with its findings. Presenting factual reports on disinformation via a website and various social media accounts simply do not carry the same mass appeal as the multidimensional media approach used by Russia and China.
For the Chinese, the race is on to alter the narrative of the pandemic and present China as the solution, not the cause of the crisis. And Russia has used its more modest resources to create a lasting visual effect, capturing and projecting images of Russian military jets and vehicles delivering medical equipment to countries such as Italy and Serbia. At the same time, both Russia and China seek to discredit the EU’s efforts in tackling the virus, masterfully casting doubt on the effectiveness of democratic regimes in handling crises. The EU is facing adversaries who are going on the offensive to woo public opinion through the weaving of false narratives. If the EU persists in fighting head-on with its opponents in the informational space, it will find itself entangled in the never-ending narrative wars, and fighting on increasingly unfavourable terms dictated by its opponents.
The EU’s Fight Against Disinformation: Recapturing the Informational Space for a Common Good
How can the EU get a hold of the plot in this fight against disinformation? In the same statement, Borrell described the coronavirus crisis as ‘not a war, but a “war-like”’ situation which ‘requires the mobilization and direction of resources at unprecedented levels’. Thus, it is clear that the ‘battle of narratives’, especially in times of the pandemic, requires more than a task force to fight against the onslaught of disinformation. It calls for creative strategising and a more holistic use of the EU’s array of instruments and resources.
A prime example of this is the online summit hosted by the EU on 4 May 2020. In leading the charge and initiating a global pledging ‘marathon’, the EU demonstrates how it can effectively recapture the informational space by doing what it does best – bringing partners together for a common good. By focusing on raising funds to develop a coronavirus vaccine and further research on treatment of the disease, the EU moved the narrative away from the negativity of the ‘blame game’ and instead directed its resources towards engaging partners worldwide to find a solution to the crisis. In doing so, the EU is not only carving out a distinct narrative space that emphasises the strength of international cooperation, it also directly challenges the perception of a diminishing EU, showing instead how the EU still holds weight when it comes to influencing and rallying the world behind a good cause.
Although the intent behind the creation of the Task Force and the EUvsDisinfo project remains crucial in the fight against disinformation, in times of a pandemic there is a need for the Task Force to shed its defensive posture and expand beyond its monitoring role. If the Task Force is to remain at the front line in the fight against disinformation, it needs to actively publicise the work done by the EU, in ways that appeal to wider audiences. This might require them to develop greater cooperation with appropriate media outlets or extend more support to civil society initiatives. In this ‘battle of narratives’, the EU needs to effectively get its word in and recapture the informational space. The Task Force can help to achieve this if it intentionally expands its role. By positively changing the narrative and debunking mistruths, there is hope that the damage inflicted by false narratives can be blunted, making it harder for disinformation to take root in times of a pandemic.
Wendy He is a Research Analyst at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Josep Borrell is the current High Representative of the European Union. Courtesy of European Parliament/Flickr.