Fifteen years ago, the idea that foreign disinformation might be a problem for European countries seemed ludicrous, note columnist Anne Applebaum and Edward Lucas, a senior editor at the Economist. Free media looked as triumphant as free markets; Western television and newspapers had comfortable funding and big audiences. But the business model that once supported media across the continent, indeed all across the West, no longer works, they write for The Washington Post:
At the same time, authoritarian regimes, led by Russia but closely followed by China, have begun investing heavily in the production of alternatives. Because national media is often weak, it has become far easier for channels such as RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik (a Russian “news” agency) to establish credibility in smaller European markets. But even in larger countries, the Russian use of social media as well as a huge range of online vehicles — “news” websites, information portals, trolls — are beginning to have an impact.
There have been broader attempts to tackle the problem, they observe:
The European Endowment for Democracy (a much smaller counterpart to the National Endowment for Democracy) has carried out a comprehensive analysis of the Russian-language media, its reach and its impact. The European External Action Service, the E.U.’s foreign-policy arm, compiles weekly disinformation bulletins, tracking the activities of the Kremlin’s myth-makers.
But so far, the United States has failed to invest seriously in understanding or pushing back against this problem. There is no modern equivalent to the U.S. Information Agency, an organization dedicated to coping with Soviet propaganda and disinformation during the Cold War. Although there has been some extra funding for U.S.-backed foreign broadcasters such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty , they cannot provide a complete response.
Applebaum and Lucas are this week launching a counter-disinformation initiative at the Center for European Policy Analysis, where they are, respectively, senior vice president and senior adjunct fellow.