Disinformation and Foreign Interference: Speech by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the EEAS Conference

European External Action Service (EEAS)

European External Action Service (EEAS)


Brussels, 23/01/2024

EEAS Press Team

Check against delivery!

Good afternoon, bonsoir,

Minister [for Foreign Affairs of North Macedonia, Bujar Osmani],


Members of the Parliament,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to be here with you this afternoon, to welcome you to discuss one of the most significant threats of our time. It is not about a bomb that can kill you, it is about a poison that can colonise your minds – and how to address it. How can we address together the Foreign Information Manipulation and Interference (FIMI).

I hope, FIMI will become something familiar, something that people understand what it is about, as they learned to know what is COVID-19.

Four years ago, when I began my mandate, Russia and others had already built an extensive infrastructure for lying, manipulating and destabilising on an industrial scale and in a sophisticated manner.

Well, lies already existed. In Spanish, we say “bulo” – a “bulo” is something [such as] a rumour. You spread a rumour in the Middle Ages. The Jewish people were the victims of rumours, no? “Oh, the Jewish kill young children and they drink the blood, or they put poison in the [water] sources to kill people.” It has always existed.

But now we are much more vulnerable to this threat because information circulates at the speed of light, and manipulation and interference have become an industrial activity.

We have been working a lot in order to make our people wiser, to have information, to know. Coming from illiteracy, not being able to read, to have enough information in order to be able to discern, to be able to choose. And at a certain moment in time, in order to participate in elections, you had to prove that you were able to read. Now, everybody has the right to participate in the elections. But the problem is not to be able to read and to know, the problem is to be misinformed, to be facing systematically an information which is false and can completely trump your understanding of reality.

And then came the COVID-19 pandemic, and we saw how malign actors started to undermine trust in science and literally put our lives at risk – and not always ordinary people. You can remember someone who was not exactly an ordinary person, giving absurd advice about how to fight against the illness. Remember that people were saying “Drink that, do that”, putting lives of [other] people at risk.

And then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and with that, we have been facing a full-fledged instrument of war. A war that targets not only us, but our partners in the Western Balkans. That is why, we invited my friend, Minister [of Foreign Affairs] from North Macedonia, who can explain you case studies of how disinformation works.

And that is why also, we have here our distinguished Member of the European Parliament who has written an extraordinary book – a best-seller – about some misinformation, disinformation and foreign manipulation.

FIMI actors actively seek to undermine democracy, proposing an alternative model, making people mistrust everything – mistrust institutions and toxically infiltrating our societies, to poison them.

So, we had to respond. And I think that our response has been important, decisive, advancing our capacities from the Strategic Compass. When I presented the Strategic Compass and made the list of the threats, disinformation was there, and imposing restrictive measures – sanctions, colloquially, we say sanctions – against disinformation actors and banning disinformation channels in Europe.

Now, we are facing a new wave of information manipulation during the war between Israel and Hamas. Let me share a real-life example, something that happened.

On 31 October, people in Paris, Parisians, woke up to the sight of 250 blue Stars of David spray-painted on buildings across the city. Not one, not two, but 250, strategically located around the city of Paris, marking the homes where Jewish people were living.

This reminds us [of] the worst days of the Holocaust and some of the darkest times in European history, and this spread quickly on social media.

Well, in another genocide that happened in Africa, also the houses of the people that were going to be killed were marked the previous day in order to guide the killers. But imagine the shock in Paris when people saw, in 250 places, the Stars of David.

Some commentators immediately started blaming the Muslim community. “Oh, this is the Muslims. They are pushing hate against Jewish [people]”. And it immediately ignited a discussion in France breaking the social fabric, attacking political Islam and attacking multiculturalism. And these images reached many parts of the world, much beyond France.

However, a week later, the French authorities traced the incident – looked into it – and they found a Russian destabilisation campaign behind it.

It is a textbook example of Foreign Information Manipulation and Interference, because the Russian perpetrators – and I can say “the Russians”, knowing what I am saying because it has been proved and verified – identified a potential fault line in a European society. Stars of David marking the places where people are living. They pinpointed a subject that could generate divisive positions, and then immediately used over 1,000 bots to spread more than 2,500 posts on social media. As I said, many sources travelling at the speed of light.

The constant stream of lies is meant to plant the notion that all information is unreliable and not trustworthy. To disseminate the feeling that nothing is true, and everything is false. To make us suspicious about everything. That there is no such thing as the truth, and [that] there is nothing that can be trusted. This is a very uncomfortable society when you cannot trust anyone, anything.

And that is why it is a danger. Because disinformation weakens the social fabric, poisons democracies, because only information makes democracy possible. Democracy is a system that works on the basis of information, good information. That is why, dictatorships, the first thing they do is to close the newspapers, install censure and block information, [only allowing] the ones that they consider good for them.

Liberal democracies cannot live without information, without reliable information and without trust in democratic processes, such as elections.

And if we want to defend democracy, if we want to defend ourselves from manipulation, we have to protect ourselves considering that as a security threat and go to this battle with the same capacity as the ones who are attacking us.

That is why, when we presented the Strategic Compass, which planned to strengthen the European Union’s security and defence policy, we made decisive actions against information manipulation as one of its pillars. We have to defend ourselves against the threats that are challenging us, and one of these threats is manipulation of the information.

If you go to the market and you buy a piece of meat, it will have a certificate saying: “This is good, you can eat it. It is not going to kill you.” But when you receive information and your brain will process it, what is the label of quality saying “This is true, you can believe it.” You are not going to be in a very bad shape because you eat bad information? There is none.

After the Strategic Compass, we created this Information Sharing and Analysis Centre (ISAC) to help civil society in our Member States and beyond to pool their knowledge about root causes, about incidents, about threats, and we committed to the creation of a toolbox to fight Foreign Information Manipulation and Interference (FIMI).

Two years after the adoption of the Compass – in the meantime, the war in Ukraine came – I can say that we have delivered, and I would like to explain to you what we have delivered.

The FIMI toolbox makes use of instruments such as restrictive measures against aggressors, which we used to ban the so called “media” of the Kremlin – Russia Today and Sputnik which have been banned here in Europe, not for example in other places like in the Sahel. The toolbox also provides for capacity building and works with civil society organisations to increase media literacy. Not only to be able to read but to understand which are the sources and which are the dangers behind some of the information you are consuming.

This comes at the right moment, as the Global Risk Report by the World Economic Forum has just ranked disinformation as the second biggest risk the world is going to face this year. That is difficult to believe, no? But the World Economic Forum considers that disinformation is the second biggest risk that we are going to face this year.

Additionally to that, artificial intelligence comes and has been making a real revolution on how you can manipulate content. It is much cheaper today to produce and much [more] difficult to detect an information which is completely false, making the asymmetric threats to our democracies still more dangerous.

And why this year? Because 2024 is a critical year to fight against FIMI because we have a lot of elections.

60 elections will be held around the world. Two billion people – 50% of the adult population of the world – will be asked to cast a vote. Half of the adult population of the world will be called to vote.

In the European Parliament, in the United States, in India, in many places around the world elections will become the prime targets for malign foreign actors, as we have seen last year in Spanish elections. In last year’s Spanish elections, Russian agents – once again – imitated the official website of the Regional Government of Madrid two days before the elections, warning people about ETA – the former terrorist organisation that, thank God, no longer exists but before it was finished, killed more than 1,000 people in Spain. That ETA was coming back and was having a plan to attack the polling stations.

So, time and careful planning are of essence to counter such Foreign Information Manipulation and Interference attacks.

How do we have to proceed? We have to focus on four venues:

Containing incidents, to avoid them from spreading further. To detect and stop them as quick as possible.

Minimising their effects. Redirecting audiences to verified information. Make people that are sensible to one information to understand that they can check this information somewhere else.

And, maybe the most important one is strategically ignoring them, to avoid escalating an incident [by] attracting unwanted attention to this incident themselves. So maybe sometimes, the better strategy is not to give a lot of importance [to it] but encapsulate it and avoid that people know about the existence of it – not falling on it, not looking for it because they were aware that something was happening about something.

All that allows us and the people – thank you for your work – at the [European] External Action Service (EEAS) to target measures that can help us to prepare and protect societies against potential interference in elections: exposing false stories beyond the strike; restricting the amplification of manipulated content; removing websites or channels associated with FIMI; giving visibility to reliable content; identifying and limit financial incentive to FIMI activities; or taking legal measures, including sanctions. We built a legal framework to sanction people who disseminate false information.

We have a Threats Report, a Response Action Plan. And the first step is always situational awareness of what is happening.

Now we have published our second annual FIMI report that sheds light on the current threat landscape, based on 750 investigated FIMI incidents and presenting countermeasures.

In the incidents analysed, we see that different individuals are being targeted. And one of the most targeted individuals are President [of Ukraine, Volodymyr] Zelensky, another one is President [of France] Emmanuel Macron, but also movie actors to amplify their reach.

And the report also finds that Ukraine continues to be the country most often targeted by information manipulation – not by accident. It is not by accident that Ukraine is the most targeted country because, who is behind disinformation? Someone who is making war against Ukraine by the classical means of warfare.

Ukrainians are the most battle hardened, and Ukrainian civil society plays a major role in suffering disinformation and fighting against it, and we support them. We are doing a crucial work through the Foreign Policy Instrument, my services and the services of the [European] Commission, contributing to maintaining good information which is a good basis to maintain security.

For example, information that Ukraine tried to create a chemical incident in occupied Donetsk was immediately detected by social media users. They found that these images were created long before the [alleged] incident happened. But Russians immediately put this incident in order to make people believe that yes, Ukrainians in Donetsk were creating a kind of chemical weapon. Well, it is not the first time that we are being told that someone is having arms of mass destruction so, it means that the idea of sending lies to the public opinions worldwide has not been waiting until the social networks were covering the planet.

Rapid action is essential to prevent the manipulation of information from spreading, and it has to be debunked before it goes viral.

Then, we have to share information. What does it mean in concrete terms? Let’s go back to the example of the Stars of David.

This operation was uncovered by the French government agency Viginum. Viginum in French, I suppose it is “Vigile numérique”, on surveille le monde digital. Viginum, which is a digital watchdog that was created by the French government only two years ago.

Viginum shared its information with our Rapid Alert System, here in Brussels. We initiated this platform at the very beginning of my mandate. It will be part of my legacy. It is managed by the [European] External Action Service and brings together the Member States, the [European] Commission, Council and the European Parliament. This system is being used by members to alert of ongoing information manipulation activities.

And [it is] thanks to this communication between the French watchdog and our Rapid Alert System that we could discover which were at the origin of this Stars of David across Paris.

It is particularly important, because Russia, and others, are testing tactics in some countries before rolling them [out] in others. This was not by accident: it happened immediately after the start of the war in Gaza, in France, in a country with a strong Jewish community but also with a strong share of Muslim population. Let’s test it and if it works, we will use it somewhere else.

It means that we need to build a strong international cooperation in order to fight FIMI on a global scale.

We cooperate with the G7 partners through a [Rapid Response] Mechanism, coordinated by our Canadian colleagues, and with NATO.

We are also discussing with the United States in different formats, including through the work of the EU-US Trade and Technology Council.

We have agreed on a concrete methodology in order to create standards that can be used to face the threat between us – EU – and the United States.

Let me say something about resilience building.

We need to support the citizens, the institutions, the civil society and crucially, journalists, to be better equipped to tackle FIMI.

I hope that all of you know and use our website EUvsDisinfo. They started working in 2015. Since then, the team of EUvsDisinfo has collected about 16,000 cases of information manipulation. They have reached more than 20 million people just last year and now, including audiences in Africa and other parts of the world.

Every year, we are providing hundreds of workshops for journalists, for fact-checkers, for Ministries of Foreign Affairs [of] the Members of the European Union.

Because what we are doing is fighting against an industry that produces lies as Ford started producing cars: in a chain production. 24 hours a day, non-stop.

And we are doing that everywhere, outside the European Union, like in North Macedonia. And in an instance, in a moment, Minister, you will debrief us on some of the cases you have been living.

And we are training independent journalists globally. Needless to say, how important journalists are as a pillar of democracies, and they are too often targeted by FIMI.

We are offering training and legal aid to combat lawsuits aimed at pressuring journalists into self-censoring. Why create a censorship department if you can influence journalists to become each one of them a “censor” on itself?

And of course, we provide training on how to recognise and respond to information manipulation.

Another word about sanctions. Sanctions has become a very popular word. Everybody talks about the European Union imposing sanctions. In fact, the word sanctions does not exist in our Treaty. You go to the Treaties, you do a search – sanctions does not exist. What you will find is “restrictive measures”. You take a measure to restrict something. And we take measures to restrict the activities of the FIMI actors. I mentioned the activities of Russia Today and Sputnik.

Last July, we listed 7 Russian individuals and 5 entities responsible for conducting a digital information manipulation campaign called “Recent Reliable News”. They have a sense of humour, “Recent Reliable News” was a factory of lies.

“Recent Reliable News” was instrumental in spreading the images of the Star of David, through a large number of accounts affiliated with them on Facebook and the platform today called X.

Our FIMI Threats Report finds that 750 investigated incidents covered 4,000 channels [that] were activated almost 10,000 times.

Then, we have to work with the Digital Services Act that sets legal obligations for online platforms to prevent abuses. And we have made use of these powers in the wake of the attacks on Israel of 7 October, when social media channels were flooded with malicious content, things that were false. And we have to identify it and warn people.

But all of that would be useless – well not useless but not efficient – without a public debate. We must ensure effective safeguards without slipping into censorship. This is a very delicate balance.

We cannot invent the “Ministry of Truth”, the one who says, “this is true, this is not true.” You can imagine what will be the world in which someone could have a stamp to say: “This is true, this is not true.”

Authoritarian regimes have enacted “disinformation laws”, but they disguise [it] in fact as a protection of public order or national security, but in practice they are being used to suppress dissidents and suppress freedom of expression.

What is the border between controlling the quality of information and going into censorship? What is the balance between security and freedom? This is crucial. The balance between security and freedom appears in every dimension of the public life, now also in information.

The European Parliament has already debated this issue, contributing with useful recommendations. I would like to thank the INGE Committee and its Chair, the Member of the [European] Parliament [Raphaël] Glucksmann who is here, for their important work and for your very important book.

But you have to engage all institutions in this democratic process, because in the end democratic institutions are the primary targets of Information Manipulation and Interference.

More than ever, we must amplify the truth, counteracting the industry of lies.

When we enact decisions or rules here in Brussels, they reverberate around the world, and they can sometimes be received negatively. We have to take care of that.

For example, the Deforestation regulation or the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), which some saw as protectionist measures. Which they are not, but you have to explain why they are not.

Because it is quite easy to present them as if they were. It is quite easy to present it and say: “Look, in the end, it is just Western protectionism. They want to keep us out of the competition because we have a certain economic advantage.”

If we do not explain what we are doing, we leave the door open for others to fill the space. And it makes it more important than ever the pedagogical activity in the political life. You have to explain what you do, what is your purpose and how do you want to get it. Otherwise, someone will manipulate it and present it with a negative bias against you.

So, the work is not only to create a good tool but to make the “service après-vente”. Il faut le présenter, il faut l’expliquer. Il faut dépenser plus d’argent et de temps, beaucoup plus d’énergie dans la pédagogie qui accompagne à l’action politique.

Par exemple, for example, in Beirut, we have our Strategic Communications Hub for the Middle East. This Hub communicates in Arabic because we believe that everybody around the world speaks English or French – well, in fact I speak Spanish but… We believe that they speak English or French as we do, more or less, and then, we do not take care ofre the people – millions of people – who speak Arabic or Chinese. And if we want to get to them, you have to talk in their language.

The other day at the Cairo Airport, it was full of advertising of Russia Today broadcasting in Arabic. Russia Today has arrived in the Arabic world and it is announcing themselves as the good source of information in Arabic. We have to do the same thing: to speak and to use the same language.

So, we communicate in Arabic, including through social media with the [channel] “EU in Arabic”.

This is more needed than ever. Sorry to say but we need people who speak not only English but Arabic, Hindi, Chinese and languages spoken by hundreds of millions of people which are not part of our traditional parameters [of] our linguistical culture.

This year, we have also set [up] a Task Force to combat disinformation in sub-Saharan Africa. Because we have seen images of people in Sub-Saharan Africa being clearly pushed by the Russian propaganda against the Western countries.

So, we are engaging on a “battle of narratives”, something I was starting to talk [about] just at the beginning of my mandate when we started discussing about masks, about vaccines and viruses – and about political systems. We are going to live in a battle of narratives, and this battle has to be won. And in order to be won, it has to be fought – and in order to be fought you have to have capacities, tools, and dedicated people. Once again, thank you very much to the ones who are doing this work. A silent work, but little by little, it is emerging, being known by the media, by the public opinion and will be an important actor of a future political life.

To conclude, this is a matter of security. I am in charge of foreign policy and security policy – and security is no longer just a matter of weaponry, it is not a matter of armies. It is a matter of information. It is a matter of the social fabric and how the citizens get fed with the ideas, the facts, that later will determine their capacity as citizens to choose their government and to mark the policy of their nations, and the policy of the European Union and influencing the history of the world.

Keep in mind: unchecked, malicious content spreads like a cancer and puts the health of our democracies at risk.

But we have the tools to effectively fight against this disease. We have the capacity – we need more but we have started fighting this battle. And this meeting, and this discussion today is part of this process.

Thank you very much.

Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-251572


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John Pike