Monday, June 22, 2020

How foreign authoritarian powers are stepping up their “disinformation game”

 Published by The European Post

The Covid – crisis has put the spotlight on attempts by foreign powers to manipulate public opinion in the West. Until this year, it was mainly Russia and sometimes Iran that was criticized for this. This month, for the first time, the EU openly singled out China, accusing it to be behind a “huge wave” of Covid-19 disinformation.  

The communication strategy of these non-Western authoritarian governments is not to openly promote the joys of authoritarianism. They have a different take. The core message they aim to convey is that not all is well in the Western world, so to undermine support for Western democratic institutions, with its legal constraints on executives and its independent courts.

Nothing new under the sun

Speaking at a webinar hosted by the European Foundation for Democracy, Bojan Pancevski, the Wall Street Journal’s Berlin correspondent, pointed out that this is nothing new. In the 1980s, the Soviet secret service KGB ran so-called “Operation Denver”, which was a disinformation campaign to promote the theory that the United States had invented HIV/AIDS as part of a biological weapons research project. “Patriot” magazine, a shady American newspaper, ran the story. The KGB bribed a German academic to come up with scientific proof, while pushing the story all across African media, as it went viral and appeared in 80 countries, including Britain’s Daily Express. After the U.S. pushed back hard, U.S.S.R. secretary general Mikhail Gorbachev, did, as part of his attempts to reform the Soviet system, the unthinkable and apologized to U.S. President Reagan.

Badmouthing non-authoritarian systems of government is what authoritarian regimes do and what they have done before. In 1945, in his victory speech following the surrender of Nazi Germany, U.S. President Harry Truman remarked that “the peace-loving nations have demonstrated in the West that their arms are stronger by far than the might of the dictators or the tyranny of military cliques that once called us soft and weak.” 


That Russia is engaging in this kind of activities should not really surprise, given how Russian President Putin is a KGB man at heart, but also China and Iran are active on this front.

The European Union has set up a task force aimed at monitoring this kind of disinformation. Despite some initial hiccups, whereby correct information was classified as “fake news”, it now comes up with regular specific updates on how authoritarian foreign powers attempt to influence the Western public.  

One example is pro-Kremlin propaganda outlet Sputnik News pushing the narrative that there would be “secret military laboratories” run by the U.S. in Ukraine, as well as in Armenia, Georgia and Moldova. Also China’s state news channel published an article on the topic, adopting the Russian narrative.

Ukrainian website “” looked into the story, concluding that it was inspired by a 2005 agreement between Ukraine and the US Defense Department, in the context of a U.S. “Biological Threat Reduction Program”, meant “to ensure that dangerous pathogens do not fall into the wrong hands”. whereby Ukrainian laboratories would be modernized. A local TV channel has published a video showing that the labs are completely open and transparent. Surely, the U.S. army wouldn’t be engaged in biological warfare so completely out in the open, but clearly, Russia was pushing its line so to back up its story line that U.S. relations with Ukraine are offensive in nature, rather than defensive. 

Another example is how on the eve of the French Presidential election in 2017, a hacking group dumped a number of campaign documents related to now-French President Emmanuel Macron’s campaign online. It was way too late to influence the election and the content wasn’t interesting in any way, but security experts claim it was executed by Russian hacking group APT 28, which is an arm of Russia’s secret service “GRU”. Only recently, German experts concluded the same group was responsible for a cyberattack on Germany’s Parliament in 2015, whereby also emails from Chancellor Angela Merkels constituency office were accessed. Clearly, the aim was to put whatever information acquired to good use to influence German politics at a convenient time.


New this year is that also China is stepping up its “disinformation” game, even if they’re doing it more clumsily. According to NBC, China has pushed out 90,000 tweets since the start of April from 200 diplomatic and state media accounts, in a bid to influence the debate about COVID-19. The latest of their propaganda lines is that the virus came from … a U.S. government lab. 

One of the first Chinese officials to spread the theory openly was Zhao Lijian, the spokesman and deputy director of the Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, in the middle of March. One of his posts to back up that the virus originated in the U.S.” linked to a post on Global Research, a Canadian blog with pro-Kremlin leanings. To be fair, China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, has called it “crazy” to spread rumors about the coronavirus originating from a military laboratory in the United States.

Some may retort that U.S. President Trump has been spreading equally unproven theories that the Corona virus would have escaped from a biolab in Wuhan. The difference is however that the first proven outbreak has actually been in Wuhan, where the so-called Wuhan Institute of Virology was engaged in research on bat coronaviruses. Sixteen years ago, the SARS virus actually escaped a Chinese lab twice and in 2018, U.S. officials have delivered two warnings about the lab in Wuhan, worrying about its safety. That the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention just concluded that the infamous “wet market” in Wuhan is not the site where the corona virus broke out does add to suspicion about the Wuhan lab.

Still, this is not sufficient proof, and as a result, the U.S. Army’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff refuses to confirm the virus stems from the lab, while adding it was probably not man-made. This balanced position stands in sharp contrast to the fact-free claims made in Chinese and Russian propaganda.

China adds public pressure to its game. “If you do something the Chinese government doesn’t like, they may blackmail you. For example, China threatened Germany its car industry would suffer and it issued similar threats to the Czech Republic”, Czech security expert Jakub Janda has argued, speaking at another webinar of the European Foundation for Democracy, referring to Gemany’s dithering over whether to ban Chinese company Huawei building its 5G network.

It looks like China’s efforts are not without success. Despite the EU’s “European External Action Service” publishing examples of “fake news” online, its own track record on dealing with China has been rocky as of late. According to the New York Times, the EEAS “bowed to heavy pressure from Beijing,” as “European Union officials softened their criticism of China (…) in a report documenting how governments push disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic”. Even after being caught out, the EEAS did not relent. A spokesman accused journalists of focusing on “small, petty, partial details”, dismissing suggestions the disinformation report was rewritten as per Chinese influence, while insisting all changes were made as part of a journalistic-style “editorial process”.

The incident was followed by EU ambassadors publishing an opinion piece in the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, China Daily, whereby the EEAS agreed to censor a reference to the fact that the coronavirus had emerged “in China”. Embarrassingly, a top EEAS official first defended the move, in order to be reprimanded later. Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee also slammed the EEAS, saying: “First the EU ambassadors generously adopt Chinese narratives and then the EU representation on top accepts Chinese censorship of the joint op-ed.” In other words: disinformation attempts can affect the highest echelons of European diplomacy.

How effective is it?

There are some legitimate questions about how effective foreign attempts to disinform are.

Probably, like with the theory in the 1980s that “the U.S. created HIV/AIDS”, most people don’t buy it. In fact, to exaggerate the actual influence may be playing into the hands of foreign authoritarian regimes.

Opponents of U.S. President Trump were obviously keen to jump on the story that the American electorate voted for Trump over Hillary because of Russian meddling, but that doesn’t make any sense. Trump got elected despite the wishes of the establishment in the U.S. and his party, his election was actually yet more proof that nobody can buy the U.S. election, let alone an impoverished former superpower like Russia.

Also Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has questioned that Russian attempts had much of an effect on the actual election, stressing that the aim of it is more to undermine the overall mood. Writing in the FT, he argues: “You can spend $500,000 on Facebook ads and for several years the whole establishment of a huge western country will go nuts about interference, even though its real effect is risible. The investments are minimal but they give you front pages and power.”

Also with Brexit, the UK Parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC) was unable to reach a conclusion about the extent or impact of Russian interference in the 2016 referendum. Again, the wrong question was asked. Anyone with a notion about politics should admit it’s incredibly hard, certainly for foreigners, to swing something as profoundly domestic as a U.S. Presidential election or a British referendum over EU membership. However, there is abundant evidence that there was a Russian operation. Twitter data have identified 3,841 accounts of Russian origin affiliated with the “Internet Research Agency”, a Kremlin-linked troll farm, as well as 770 potentially from Iran. These collectivelysent over 10 million Tweets in “an effort to spread disinformation and discord”, with a “day-long blitz” on the day of the referendum. Did this operation help amplify existing feelings of discontent? Also this is hard to prove, but again, sowing discord rather than actually swinging the referendum was the point.  

One element should be added to this. In countries with weaker democratic institutions, such as Serbia, foreign disinformation attempts seem to work a lot better. Then, of course, Russia dispatching equipment and 100 soldiers in March to help with the Covid epidemic worked quite well to influence Europeans, at least until it emerged 80% of the aid was “useless”, amid allegations of spying.

What to do?

Now what should be done about it? Policy makers may be seduced to try out censorship, but as the Romans already knew: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”, or “Who will guard the guards themselves?”. In 2017, a German law aimed at combating agitation and fake news in social networks, whereby fines of up to $60 million could be imposed if certain posts are not removed within 24 hours, was criticized by the likes of Reporters without Borders. The human rights body said it could lead to “excessive censorship” by “delegating the duties of judges to commercial online platforms and making them decide where or not content should be deleted.” New German legislation proposed this year even foresees forcing social media platforms to report illegal content to the police.

Fears about overreach are even more justified in Hungary. Hungarian academic Péter Krekó has pointed out how the Hungarian government has abused legislation supposed to combat fake news and hate speech to silence political opponents.

There are no shortcuts, so sacrificing freedom of speech to fight disinformation attempts carries great dangers. The only strategy is to remember that old wisdom: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” In this case, more vigilance is warranted on how authoritarian governments are conducting deliberate communication campaigns to undermine confidence in Western-style restrained governance. In its response, the West should simply resort to what it is best at: countering nonsense and propaganda with reasoned arguments.

Monday, June 01, 2020

The EU's shaky track record on environmental policy should serve as a warning for its “green deal”

Jointly written by Pieter Cleppe and Kai Weiss. A version of this article was published as a chapter of the 2020 book "Green Market Revolution How Market Environmentalism Can Protect Nature and Save the World " - page 124

The new European Commission, led by Ursula von der Leyen, wants to come up with a “European Green Deal”, which is only part of a whole range of new EU measures intended to protect the environment. The Commission is thereby truly presenting itself as a green champion. Past evidence, however, raises quite a few doubts about the EU’s performance when it comes to protecting the environment. Hereunder is an overview of the EU’s shaky green track-record:

1.      The EU’s Agricultural Policies: 

Apart from the considerable waste of financial resources the EU’s biggest spending area – agriculture – entails, there have also been major environmental downsides attached to it.  First of all, there has been years of overproduction, the antithesis of anything that should be understood as sustainable. This even persists until today, despite the changes that have been made.

Only recently, more than 2,500 scientists across the EU have urged the EU “to act on the science, and undertake a far-reaching reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) without delay.” They thereby argue that EU subsidies financially support the so-called “intensive” agriculture model, which they think harms biodiversity.

Whether one supports the current model of agricultural or not, it’s clearly a problem that those keen to try out what they consider to be a more sustainable model of agriculture, will be facing competitors funded by the EU for billions and billions of euros.

2.      The EU’s fisheries policies

Even more clear is how the EU’s fisheries policies have caused a major environmental disaster. For years, the EU has enforced policies requiring fishermen to discard perfectly fine fish in case they have reached certain quotas. According to opponents of the CFP, this is mainly the result of the EU’s choice for quotas, instead of opting for the US or Nordic model whereby all fish which has been caught should be brought on land, where it can be inspected.

To be fair, the EU has made a half-baken reform here, improving things, and the European Commission has even openly apologized, but given that the CFP was one of the longest standing EU policies, it doesn’t really inspire confidence in the EU as an environmental champion.

3.       The EU’s climate policies:

Long before Barack Obama came up with U.S. “cap and trade”, the EU had its own version, which is called the “Emission Trading System” (ETS). The fundamental idea behind it isn’t bad, but the way it has been implemented is. 

The central idea of ETS was to force companies that emit CO2 to provide compensation but at the same time allow them to buy the right to emit, so to make sure CO2 is emitted by those able to do it with the lowest economic cost.

In reality, however, major industrial firms often managed to convince politicians to provide them with free emission rights, threatening to scrap jobs otherwise. In this way, the ETS distorted fair competition as it ended up supporting big manufacturers that emit a lot of CO2.

This meant that a policy intended to limit CO2 emissions has ended up providing an unfair advantage to the biggest emitters of CO2. The problem is known for years, but reforms have proven very difficult. Anyone supporting great new EU schemes to benefit the environment ought to keep this in mind.

Also in another area of climate protection there has been large-scale EU failure. In its drive to designate climate-friendly and climate-hostile technologies, the EU has made major mistakes.

A first example is how the EU and European governments encouraged diesel cars over the years, through regulations and tax treatment. The EU promoted diesel, for example by agreeing to a voluntary CO2 target for vehicles that was largely in line with what diesel technology could meet. Partly as a result of this, diesel sales soared. In 1990, only 10% of new car registrations were for diesel cars. This increased to almost 60% in 2011.

Today, diesel has fallen out of favour, even if some argue that it actually may be a superior choice when it comes to CO2 emissions than petrol cars and even a better choice than electric cars.

In any case, even if diesel engines would be more fuel-efficient and would emit less CO2 than other engines, their emission of soot, particulates, and nitrogen oxides (NOx) is also a environmental concern

The point here is not so much who’s right and who’s wrong in this very technical debate, with serious arguments being made by each side. It’s mostly that top-down control of environmental policy has been leading to epic u-turns and great uncertainty, also imposing a great cost on industry. 

Today, the policy consensus at the EU level is to promote electric cars. Few listen to dissident voices, like the International Energy Agency, which has warned that driving electric cars – which enjoy tax breaks - won’t make a dent in global carbon emissions, and may even increase pollution levels. Moreover, also the environmental impact is a worry, as senior researcher Elsa Dominish explains that "the mining of many metals used for renewable energy technologies and electric vehicles already impacts wildlife biodiversity”. It looks like once again, EU policy makers will need to make an embarrassing u-turn after having declared a certain technology to be environmentally friendly.

Another example how the EU got it badly wrong is by designing biofuels as “climate friendly”. Apart from the fact these were also blamed for higher food prices in developing countries, they have been accused of destroying habitats such as tropical rainforests. NGO Transport and Environment (T&E) has claimed that using biofuels is actually worse for the environment than traditional fossil fuels.

After the EU Commission had put its weight behind biofuels in 2003, an external report it commissioned to scrutinize its own policies, concluded in 2011 that the policy did harm the goal to reduce CO2 emissions, as it actually caused higher emissions, due to indirect land use changes tied to biofuels, with activities like clearing grassland and forests negating any cuts in greenhouse gasses. Meanwhile, however, tax incentives and subsidies had been introduced.

According to the damning report, the EU Commission cannot hide behind claims it wasn’t aware of the impact as it notes “There was little scientific evidence available in 2003 that supported the claim that a European biofuels target would be guaranteed to bring down greenhouse gas emissions.”  

A similar debate is raging when it comes to biomass. An EU target requires 20% of the energy used in Europe to come from “renewable” sources by 2020 and biomass currently represents almost 60% of renewable energy consumption in the EU.

It’s estimated that burning wood for energy, which is what biomass ultimately comes down to, typically emits 1.5 times more CO2 than coal and 3 times more than natural gas. Opponents argue that to qualify biomass as “renewable” energy fails to take into account the scientific evidence showing that forest biomass harvesting and combustion for energy purposes exacerbates climate change by causing deforestation outside of Europe. A court case at the highest EU court challenging the EU’s definition of biomass as “renewable” is currently pending.

Then there are of course wind and solar energy. It’s been widely documented that hazardous materials are needed to produce solar panels. Also the environmental downsides of wind turbines, as for example visual impacts, the noise produced by the rotor blades or the deaths of birds and bats that fly into the rotors, are widely known.

Unlike in the case of nuclear waste – there are no proper plans on how to deal with the waste stemming from the production of solar panels and wind turbines. This is expected to hit 78 million metric tonnes by 2050. Solar panels have been estimated to create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than nuclear energy. In countries like China, India and Ghana, this toxic waste is often burned, in order to salvage the valuable copper wires for resale. The resulting toxic fumes are known to cause cancer and birth defects.

In its climate policies, the EU has been consistently promoting the described technologies, while nuclear energy, despite its very low level of C02 emissions, has been on the defensive at the EU level.

The EU’s support for diesel and biofuels has already been revised and given the abundant evidence, it’s not excluded that in a number of years, also the policy choices to support biomass, wind and solar energy, as well as electric cars may be seen as grave errors, from the perspective of protecting the environment.

At the heart of the problem is that the EU has opted for imposing a fixed EU target for a certain technology to reduce CO2 emissions, in this case “renewable” energy, whereby defining what this amounts to isn’t very obvious. This has forced EU member states into expensive and unworkable policies and it has caused cheaper methods of reducing CO2 emission to be ignored.

Furthermore, the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, to which the EU signed up, foresees that the world’s developed countries provide developing countries with at least $100 billion a year until 2025, so to “ease the transition”. Also within the EU, a similar arrangement is being planned, in the form of a so-called “Just Transition Fund”, which would contain up to €35 billion euro, to support poorer member states like Poland, which is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

The track record of these kinds of support schemes is not exactly inspiring confidence: A study published in Nature in 2015, concluded that due to weak environmental oversight of the UN’s 1997 carbon credit scheme, there were “perverse incentives” for some industrial plants in Russia to increase emissions, so they could then be paid to reduce them. In other words: financially rewarding those that are lagging behind has proven to be a tricky strategy. Yet, the EU is enthusiastically doubling down on this, ignoring the lessons of the past.

Last but not least, in its climate policies, the EU is not above handing out EU subsidies to fossil fuels or withholding embarrassing reports on its own policies from publication until after the European Parliament elections.


In its brand-new plans for a “European green deal”, the EU Commission is pushing for more regulation, more spending, more taxes, more protectionism, more top-down control and picking winners in a complex technological environment. All of these approaches were applied by the EU in the past and they often harmed the environment. The question is whether an organization with such a questionable track record when it comes to protecting the environment should be trusted when it comes up with new grand policy schemes which basically amount to “more of the same”.