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How can democratic societies cherishing freedom of speech effectively counter divisive Russian and jihadist propaganda in Europe? This question was at the heart of a public hearing organized by the Foreign Affairs committee on Wednesday. MEPs cautioned against opening a 'new Cold War front' with Moscow but urged the EU to find a swift response to these threats.

In his opening remarks Foreign Affairs Committee chair Elmar Brok (EPP, DE) noted that Russia’s annexation of Crimea has unleashed a disinformation campaign that is a part of its wider ‘information warfare’ against the West. Moscow is investing heavily in media targeting foreign audience, while the so-called Islamic State is recruiting European citizens on social media. Mr Brok emphasized that democratic societies are disadvantaged in this struggle and said that 'we have to find a way to dismantle propaganda within the context of pluralism'.

'Weaponized' information

Ana Fotyga (ECR, PL) the EP Rapporteur for the EU's Strategic Communication report commented that both Moscow and the so-called Islamic state 'weaponized' information and propaganda is a core element of their policies.

The quick spread of anti-migration narratives and the Dutch referendum are Moscow's most harmful recent propaganda success stories, Andrew Rettman, a journalist at EUObserver pointed out. He added that while the budget of Russian radio service Sputnik and international broadcaster RT might dwarf that of the EU's small task force within the European External Action Service, Western media's outreach is still much bigger by magnitude. Calling for a regulatory crackdown on online hate speech inciting violence, he suggested an update to the Audiovisual Media Services Directive.

Lost generation?

'If Europe failed to act now, it could quickly lose another generation of Russian speaking audiences in its Eastern Neighbourhood', warned Jerzy Pomianowski, director of European Endowment for Democracy, which recently carried out a study on Russian-language media initiatives in the Eastern Partnership and beyond.. Russia deploys an army of bloggers to create confusion in the European public, he said, but cautioned against fighting propaganda with propaganda as it would prove counterproductive according to their study. Mr Pomianowski suggested rather to support existing weak independent media outlets in the region and proposed a platform connecting initiatives and potential investors.

Interfaith groups could serve as 'one of the strongest weapons' against the influence of the so-called Islamic State in Europe, Mubin Shaikh, a former jihadist turned de-radicalization expert said. Talking about disillusioned foreign fighters returning from the Middle East, he advocated for making it compulsory for them to help in de-radicalization programs in return for peaceful reintegration.

Drawing a red line

Some MEPs were of the opinion that Western media could also do more to question the Russian state narrative. Others cautioned against opening a 'new Cold War front' with Moscow, but agreed that correct information on topical issues must be disseminated quickly. Many committee members highlighted that although reaching measurable progress might take years, the EU has to find a swift response to the threats that target the unity of Europe and its alliance with the U.S. A few MEPs also questioned whether self-proclaimed imams spreading hatred in Europe are sufficiently dealt with and called for drawing a red line. 'Tackling poverty and inequality are also essential because only successful societies can be resilient to propaganda', MEPs concluded.