The European Union is about to receive reinforcements in what has been widely described as an ongoing "information war" with Russia. Its foreign service is putting together a team of so-called myth-busters to counter Russian media spin and propaganda, according to the non-profit independent news site EUobserver.
A job listing that the foreign service sent to the embassies of EU member states in Brussels on March 20 says that it is looking for two to five Russian speakers to work on "correction and fact-checking of misinformation/myths." They will monitor the coverage of EU policies in Russian-language media and craft responses, including press materials in Russian.
Their mission will include the "development and regular updating of EU 'narrative' via key messages/lines to take, articles, op-eds, factsheets and infographics, with an emphasis on communicating the benefits of the EaP [Eastern Partnership]" — an EU initiative promoting closer trade and political ties with six former Soviet countries.
The myth-busters are being called up as part of a broader plan to counter Russia's "disinformation campaigns," which European leaders have asked EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to draw up by June.
"One of the priorities of the Kremlin's information offensive, I think, is specifically to target with Russian media the European journalistic system or the European understanding of journalism, simply by distorting stories, using fakes, using trolling," Nerijus Maliukevicius, a political science lecturer at Vilnius University in Lithuania who studies Russian media, told VICE News. The EU myth-busters program, he said, "is probably one of the ways to fight this whole barrage of fakes, simply by deconstructing those fakes and deconstructing propaganda strategies."
The Kremlin has been ramping up spending on state-owned foreign-language media as part of a campaign to challenge what it says is a biased narrative pushed by Western media.
In November, television presenter Dmitry Kiselyov, whose sensationalistic anti-Western monologues led to his appointment as director of state news agency Rossiya Segodnya, announced the creation of the website and radio service Sputnik News. The new service, which will replace the Soviet-era Voice of Russia, marks a huge expansion of pro-Kremlin publishing and will be produced in 130 cities in 34 countries around the globe.
The state-funded television channel RT, which broadcasts largely in English and has given talk shows to critics of Western governments, has received a boost in financing. Meanwhile, Russian state television is watched in many parts of the former Soviet Union. In Lithuania and the other two Baltic countries bordering Russia, First Pribaltisky Channel rebroadcasts state-owned Channel One, which boasts a worldwide audience of 250 million viewers — far more than Russia's 143 million people.
While most large countries fund state-run media as an important component of soft power, critics have questioned the journalistic standards of Russian state media. In reporting the Ukraine crisis, Russian media have described the new pro-Western government in Kiev as a "fascist junta" and aired claims that the massive Euromaidan protests that ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych were staged.
After Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down this summer over eastern Ukraine, where government forces have been battling Moscow-backed rebels, Russian media reports have repeatedly suggested that a Ukrainian fighter jet attacked the plane. In fact, a growing body of evidence points to a surface-to-air missile fired from rebel-controlled areas.
RT received a warning from Britain's broadcasting regulator in November for failing "to observe due impartiality" in four broadcasts about the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
In another example of misleading reports, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti published an article last November headlined "OSCE Employees Inspect Polling Places in Donetsk," even though the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe denied that it had monitored elections held that month in rebel-controlled areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
During Russian President Vladimir Putin's 13th annual call-in show, which lasted nearly four hours and was broadcasted on Russia's major news channels on Thursday, he argued that his country's recent economic woes were nothing compared to those in the EU.
"Yes, we have problems — inflation has gone up slightly, unemployment has risen a little bit, but not as much as in the eurozone, where it's more than 11 percent," Putin said. "We have 5.8 percent for now."
While those figures are correct, Russians wages have decreased for the first time under Putin after the currency plunged and inflation skyrocketed late last year. With oil prices having fallen precipitously and Western sanctions continuing to hurt, Russia's economy is expected to go into recession this year.
A piece on the EUobserver report published by the new Kremlin outlet Sputnik News echoed Putin's comments, sarcastically praised the EU for getting "its priorities right," and argued that Russia is only protecting itself from NATO aggression.
"Close to 24 million people in the EU are unemployed, the Greek debt problem is yet to be resolved, Islamic State fighters are blowing up things and kidnapping people less than 150 kilometers away from EU borders, but European leaders will readily spend millions of dollars to combat elusive Russian propaganda," the article said.
The two to five myth-busters being recruited by the EU foreign service will be hired for one year at a salary of 4,350 euros a month, meaning that the employment budget for the whole venture will be no more than about $282,000 over the next year. Meanwhile, the Russian government budgeted 6.48 billion rubles ($124 million) for Rossiya Segodnya, the state news agency that includes Sputnik News, in 2015. It has also allocated 15.38 billion rubles ($294 million) to fund RT this year — an amount almost 30 percent higher than what the 2014-16 budget had initially allocated to the network.
Although Maliukevicius welcomed the myth-busters initiative, he warned against the perils of launching a counter-propaganda campaign against Russia and fighting fire with fire and. Instead, the EU's program against Russian disinformation should focus on analyzing and deconstructing propaganda.
"I think Putin and the Kremlin would benefit extensively if we would turn this into the same propaganda battle, and I would say he would beat us by those rules, because he knows those rules best," he said. "We are stronger on other issues — in strategic communication, journalism, investigative journalism. We should tackle the Kremlin's corrupt money schemes in Europe, that takes good journalism. This myth-busters approach is to tackle those manipulations, explain how those manipulations are done and explain to audiences how to avoid being a target of this manipulation."