Putin’s Propaganda Machine Hammers the EU While Brussels Sleeps – OlxPraca

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As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was set to land in Africa on Sunday, he published an op-ed blaming the West for a global food crisis that has pushed millions of people on the continent to the brink of starvation. . It was quickly picked up by several local media outlets. Thousands of people shared it on Facebook.

During the same period, Josep Borrell – the EU’s chief diplomat in charge of pushing back against his Russian counterpart – was a virtual ghost online based on data from the Meta-owned social media analytics tool CrowdTangle. It only got one mention of Africa on Facebook compared to Lavrov’s tidal wave.

The latest one-sided contest between Lavrov and Borrell for the hearts and minds of people across Africa highlights what many in EU political circles have known for years, but few have publicly acknowledged. are ready

In the fast-evolving disinformation war between Russia and the 27-nation bloc, Europe is outmatched, outgunned and under-resourced to counter the Kremlin’s latest playbook, which the country’s state-backed media has unleashed. , numerous diplomats spread across the globe and, on occasion, covert tools to cover up misunderstandings and outright lies to promote Moscow’s political ambitions to the four corners of the globe.

These tactics have come into their own since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February — and especially since Moscow misguidedly lifted Western sanctions to shut off the world’s grain supply to Ukraine. But have started to blame. For Lavrov, the blame lay at Europe’s door, and in his op-ed for an African audience, he reminded everyone of the “bloody crimes of colonialism.”

With Russia’s bullhorn tactics, it’s a strategy that could spread quickly as Russia’s shrewd foreign minister visits four African countries this week — tactics the EU can’t easily counter. Despite widespread sanctions against the country’s state-run media such as RT and Sputnik within the European Union, Russian outlets continue to reach millions of people globally with an openly pro-Russian message. In response, the 27-nation bloc has been unable to counter this full-court press of lies, often relying on staid press releases, inane photo ops and a small number of officials responsible for debunking Russian disinformation. Is.

“Russia’s ability to promote its own disinformation has been rampant in many parts of the world,” said Brett Shafer, head of the Alliance for Securing Democracies’ information manipulation team that tracks state-sponsored disinformation. she does. “His audience [in Europe] The war may have been less since it began. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t finding an audience elsewhere.”

While Russia’s message is everywhere in the four countries Lavrov is visiting this week, it’s not clear that it’s actually breaking through. Unlike during the Cold War, when many of the continent’s governments turned to Moscow for aid, many countries in the region now look to China rather than Russia for deep pockets and development aid.

Amanda Paul, a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Center, said, “The use of the evil colonialist narrative is nothing new as the Kremlin has used it for years as part of a broader strategy to expand its footprint in Africa. using.” had limited success. Ultimately, Russia has little to offer African countries beyond arms, security and energy – many deals remain on paper.”

Limited pushback from Europe

Russia’s ability to push its disinformation on the world stage while the EU largely overlooks it is not what Brussels hoped for when it cracked down on Kremlin-backed media after its invasion of Ukraine. .

For years before Moscow attacked its western neighbor, European countries had been divided over how hard to push back against Russian disinformation, with governments in places like Hungary and Italy sometimes siding with Vladimir Putin’s government. I was, according to four EU officials who spoke. on condition of anonymity to discuss internal EU negotiations. Yet after the attack on Kyiv, the West—including European governments that pushed back on Moscow’s efforts to dispel disinformation—united behind an anti-Moscow stance.

“We are living in a completely new era,” said one of the officials, highlighting how EU member states now speak with one voice about their opposition to Russia. , compared to earlier battles between those who wanted to take over Russia’s state media and those who didn’t, seeing the likes of RT or Sputnik as purveyors of misinformation. The EU has recently worked with the US and UK to debunk Kremlin lies, including that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a neo-Nazi, before they spread their influence across the West. can

Despite EU sanctions, Russian state media like RT continue to spread disinformation with new tactics. Misha Friedman/Getty Images

Still, Brussels has brought most of the knife to the gunfight in terms of its ability to counter Russia’s multimillion-dollar propaganda machine. This is especially true in the EU’s neighboring countries, such as the Balkan countries, and countries of strategic importance, such as the African states that Lavrov is visiting this week.

So far, Brussels has talked a good game, including repeated warnings from European Commission President Ursula van der Leyen about Russian disinformation. But it has failed to keep pace with the emerging threat.

Europe’s official Kremlin debunking unit, known as East Streetcom, which is housed in the EU’s diplomatic service, has an annual budget of a few million euros, compared with the roughly available to its main rival. Unlimited resources: Russian state media. The unit’s main objective is to expose the Kremlin’s missteps through a website According to data analytics firm SimilarWeb, which receives a fraction of the monthly views Russian state media receive. Despite recent EU sanctions, RT has also created new sites in German, French, Spanish and English to circumvent the bloc’s ban.

“Of course we are aware of attempts to circumvent sanctions,” Vera Jourova, the commission’s vice president for values ​​and transparency, told OlxPraca via email. “Especially in the online world, it’s somewhat of a ‘whack-a-mole’ game.”

Where misinformation meets foreign policy.

Russia’s propaganda playbook has evolved since the invasion of Ukraine five months ago — and is rapidly evolving geopolitically.

Lavrov’s latest trip to Africa follows state-backed media articles and posts on official Russian diplomatic social media accounts that have blamed the West, not Russia, for the urgent food crisis gripping the continent. For example, in his recent op-ed, the Russian foreign minister said that Europe and the United States have worsened food shortages in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, while also leveling Western sanctions against Moscow. She was responsible.

In reality, there are no Western restrictions on grain stored in Ukraine, even if some companies have expressed caution about working with Russia to extract it.

“They are using Russia’s anti-colonial stance to influence public opinion in its favor and ideologically with African leaders,” said Pauline Bex, deputy director of the Africa program at the International Crisis Group, regarding Moscow’s recent messaging. promote as a way to emphasize relationships.” “It’s mostly politics more than financial aid.”

In response, EU officials have pushed for the bloc’s so-called Global Gateway strategy, a 300 billion-euro public and private financial aid package for developing economies in the wake of the recent global pandemic. The proposed plan is It aims to help countries that may turn to authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia for support, although few strategic plans have yet to be unveiled.

In part, Europe’s tactics have been matched by Russia’s inability to get its message across to people around the world, many of whom see Kremlin-backed media as legitimate alternatives to local or Western outlets. are A number of domestic media outlets across Africa did not challenge Lavrov’s op-ed this week, or link to Russian state media, which has largely promoted the propaganda through its extensive social media presence.

For example, in Latin America, RT en Español, the Spanish-language outpost for Russian disinformation, has become the news source for millions of locals. In French-speaking countries across Africa, RT France has redoubled its efforts to promote Moscow-friendly alternatives, given that its access to France has been reduced as a result of EU sanctions. Based on a OlxPraca analysis of the organization’s social media. presence.

For Balkan fact-checker Tejana Svijitikainen, who has tracked the rise of Russian misinformation, pro-Russian local media also routinely pick up on things that appear first on the likes of RT and Sputnik, which These lies get a new lease of life. Methods that are difficult, if not impossible, for the EU’s limited resources.

“Most of these claims are unambiguously Russian in origin, either from their official sources – Putin’s speeches, the Foreign Ministry, his military generals, local embassies – or from Serbian-language sources like Sputnik,” he said. From Propaganda Outlets”. “Local sources are basically translating and republishing their claims, every now and then adding some local ‘flavor’.”

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