Foreign influence operations in the EU

Briefing 10-07-2018

Attempting to influence political decision-making beyond one's own political sphere is not a new phenomenon – it is an integral part of the history of geopolitics. Whereas hard power relies on military and economic force, the soft power of a state involves public diplomacy and dialogue on values, cultures and ideas, which should normally correspond with its behaviour abroad. Although the extent is hard to measure, democratic states whose values match the prevailing global norms – pluralism, fundamental rights and freedoms, the rule of law as a principle within states and in international relations – and exert this influence by contributing to the prevention and resolution of conflicts, traditionally appear more attractive, thus having more soft power leverage. However, influence can also serve purposes of interference and destabilisation. Authoritarian state actors struggle to project soft power while engaging in disruptive or destructive behaviour. Instead, some state actors see a means of reaching their goals by making democratic actors, systems and values appear less attractive, through a number of overt and covert instruments. The tools are constantly evolving. Today, social media combines the oral tradition with new electronic means of dissemination, enabling (potentially disruptive) messages to spread instantaneously. Disinformation can be, and is being, combined with other instruments in an increasingly diverse, hybrid 'toolbox' that authoritarian state actors have at their disposal. In recent years, awareness in the research community of online disinformation by state actors has increased around the world, not least in the context of the United Kingdom referendum on EU membership and the US presidential election in 2016. Although their visibility increases in the context of elections and referendums, influence campaigns are not limited to democratic processes.