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East Stratcom Task Force and the EUvsDisinfo Budget – Too much or too little?

November 24, 2017

In late March 2015, the EEAS created the East Stratcom Task Force in response to the tsunami of Russian disinformation flooding the western media space (both MSM and social).

As a recent entry makes clear there is indeed a need for a response – even if knocking the stuffing out of obvious flapdoodle is only a part of how to deal with the problem.

As the entry made clear, none of what is currently labeled “information warfare” is new – and further the West has had a full, unedited copy of this playbook since the 1980s – complete with the proscribed cure – per the testimony of numerous Soviet defectors (and subsequent Russian leavers).

Awareness, and via awareness, the resilience that may hopefully follow, are not the prescribed cure offered by those once tasked by the Soviets with implementing the same playbook we see today.

As the likes of Yuri Bezmenov (to name but one) made clear over 30 years ago, the cure to cancerous information warfare is found in education, historical and political awareness, and critical thinking.  A generational cure to a subversive and destabilising playbook that to be effectively implemented can take a generation to reach desired outcomes.  An outline of the playbook “chapters” and time frames can be found in the aforementioned link.

All that has truly changed – and changed does not equate to new – it the speed and breadth at which dissemination now occurs.  Thus institutional and/or national responses require equal ability with regard to speed and breadth too.

That is not to infer that equal opportunity in any way equates to equal impact.  (Perhaps fortunately considering some the nonsense that passes as “wisdom” or “expert opinion” in the current discourse..  Indeed some what what is spewed forth is not only folly, but is in fact counterproductive.)

Whatever the case, East Stratcom Task Force does not fall within the “armchair expert” community, nor those pretending or aspiring to be the latest “IW gurus”.  It is not in existence to enhance individual egos or self-aggrandisement.  It is not reinventing, re-orientating, or purporting to be what it is not in order to gather in grants for the latest en vogue funding frenzy.

As an entity it will be fully aware, due to its composition and environment, that it is possible to disagree with others and still avoid reinforcing an enemy’s narrative.  It will be aware that there is a point at which public diplomacy becomes propaganda.  That nuance is needed in any meaningful analysis, and that nobody has the monopoly on being right all the time.  It is part of an EU institution – the EEAS.  (The effectiveness of the EEAS a reader can argue, and there is perhaps an argument to redirect what is does, but that is meander from the point of this entry.)

To be entirely fair to the East Stratcom Task Force and its impact thus far with regard to constituency awareness, it is necessary to understand its terms of reference – before looking at internal benchmarking and external impact.  There is quite a lot there given a current budget of approximately €200,000.  Certainly it is tasked with more than combating disinformation, though how much is spent upon what to deliver its remit is unclear.

It appears that the EUvDisinfo, a product of the East Stratcom Task Force has just been granted its own budget.  €1.1 million per over the next 3 years.

Too much, or not enough?

Well it depends upon what this budget is meant to finance.  “The Task Force draws on existing resources within the EU institutions and the Member States, including staff from institutions and seconded national experts from Member States. The Task Force works within the existing budget for EU Strategic Communication at headquarters and delegation level. It also collaborates closely with the Commission to ensure a coordinated approach in support of the EU’s overall objectives in the neighbourhood.” is what currently appears on the Stratcom website.

The East Stratcom team currently comprises of 14 people.  How many are on secondment and therefore have their expenses covered elsewhere?   How many are volunteers?  Interns (paid or otherwise)?  Local salaried staff?  Remuneration varies by role naturally.

Will the increased budget be required to cover overheads currently covered by other means, or is it truly “new money”?

The initial response from the East Stratcom team was the additional financing “will be directly dedicated to the unit to potentially hire more staff, to increase awareness in European Union member states, and to boost its media-monitoring work.”

OK, so what are the tasks?  “The team’s main product to raise awareness of disinformation is the weekly Disinformation Review. This contains a compilation of reports received from members of the myth-busting network. It can provide valuable data for analysts, journalists and officials dealing with this issue. The Disinformation Review also brings the latest news and analyses of pro-Kremlin disinformation. To receive the review each week in English by email, please sign up here . Please subscribe here to receive the Russian language version.

You can also see and search the full record of the Task Force’s work on disinformation on its website, www.EUvsDisinfo.eu/. You can follow the team on Twitter @EUvsDisinfo and like its Facebook page “EU vs Disinformation”.

The team also runs the European External Action Service’s Russian language website. Russian is spoken and understood by millions of people all over the world, including in EU Member States. The EEAS Russian-language website communicates primarily about the EU’s foreign policy by publishing information about EU activities, as well as EU statements and press releases with relevance to the Eastern Neighbourhood in particular.”

This appears to be collection, collation, analysis, and dissemination via a website and/or email subscription – notwithstanding the usual social media channels.

The collection, rightly, is multiplied via a network of contributors –  “The network comprises more than 400 experts, journalists, officials, NGOs and Think Tanks in over 30 countries reporting disinformation articles to the Task Force. To inquire about joining the network, please contact the Disinformation Review team on disinforeview@euvsdisinfo.eu.”  

The usual disclaimer/caveats apply when what is produced is not all your own work – “The Review is a compilation of cases from the East Stratcom Task Force’s wide network of contributors and therefore cannot be considered an official EU position.”

In sum an EEAS project, staffed by EU mandarins, seconded nationals, local staff, interns and volunteers, now specifically budgeted for by the EU/EEAS, that produces something that cannot be considered an official EU position.

That said, is there any reason that what it produces should be an EU official position?  The point here is to act as a central and trusted hub for the network, from whence a weekly consolidated list of Russian (albeit not always Kremlin) codswallop can be highlighted, and thoroughly eviscerated and/or mocked in the public realm.

The twitter account @EUvsDisinfo has a 31.6k following.  The website has currently has the following statistics:  123,412 monthly views, an average visit duration of 1 minute 27 seconds, 2.16 pages per visit and a bounce rate of 40.4% (statistics according to SimilarWeb).  Quite what the overlap between twitter followers, other social media channels, and website visitors is – who knows?

Whatever the case, reach is only one metric – and not the metric that really matters the most.  This blog is well aware of which embassies, capitals, think tanks, academics, and NGOs that read it.  It knows because diplomats, academics, think tanks, academics, journalists and NGOs make themselves known – often in person, or via invitation to sit on panels or partake in round tables.  So when it comes to decision makers and policy influencers, it knows its audience – and its audience very often knows the author, be they in State Dept, FCO, Brussels or sprinkled across European, or ENP member embassies, or otherwise within European capitals.

Therefore care is taken not to preach to the converted, but deliver snippets of useful tittle-tattle that may otherwise be missed on very busy radars whilst otherwise trying to entertain those with interests Ukrainian.

Thus with all e-generated statistics, it is necessary to get behind the numbers to understand the real effective reach, and even more so, any impact.

It is the impact that East Stratcom has upon the recipient that matters (no differently to the bilge Russia pumps out).  Preaching to the converted would be difficult to class as impact – it is the waverers and the converts that equate to impact.

Therefore, realistically, it will be years before the true extent and depth of impact in the “information war” will be fully understood once all of the numerous  and relevant academic lenses have been applied.  The results pondered.  Reflected upon.  Thrown out for discourse and peer review.

Back to the new budget.

Is this a matter of the politicians being seen to be doing something, without actually doing very much at all, and doing it on the cheap?  Perhaps that depends upon the politicians and whose politicians they are?  Ergo is the new budget a consensus and/or mutual appeasement?  The lowest common denominator whereby all if not happy, are equally unhappy?

Are some nation’s prepared to handle matters in a different way unilaterally?

Do others think it more a NATO remit than an EEAS remit and would prefer not to pay twice for the same awareness campaigns?

There will assuredly be politicians who view the budget increase as not enough, and others too much for an instrument that is entirely unproven with regard to impact, or via what they may perceive to be the wrong conduit.

Readers will also no doubt have differing views.

If, as the Soviet defectors who handed the cure to this disease to the West in the 1980’s are correct, is not such funding better employed beyond any awareness (and any resilience that it may bring)?

If so, how to go about it?

Education, political and historical awareness can and will only be taken so far by any EU institution, lest it clumsily tread on sovereign/national toes irking one or more Member State in the process – and inevitably losing support for the mechanisms for the awareness East Stratcom is tasked with promulgating.

However, the Soviet defectors cited not only education, political and historical awareness as part of the cure.  Reinvigorating and teaching critical thinking was also part of their cure against what is today called “IW”.

Critical thinking does not specifically appear in the East Stratcom remit – but it can be massaged in as part of its awareness/disinformation role – and without concern about accidentally irritating any Member State sensibilities.  The question then, would be how to teach and/or reinvigorate critical thinking for those poor souls that don’t know how.

To answer the question of the budget being too much or not enough?  It all depends upon impact.  Nobody will know how effective that is until the impact has been measured.  The impact will not be measured unless somebody funds the research.

However, perhaps a better question relates to risk/reward when it comes to funding in the short term and current disinformation awareness campaigns.

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