Strategic communications in the EU: public opinion, outside lobbying and propaganda
EU leaders are increasingly concerned about the destabilising effect of messages sponsored by foreign powers in what they consider coherent hostile ‘strategic communications’ campaigns. Both Russia in the east and the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the south are accused of infusing their communications with an agenda to influence the behaviour of a target audience in the EU or its sphere of influence, often using aggressive messaging and deceptive media campaigns.
The Russian government has been accused of sponsoring propaganda campaigns promoting Euroscepticism during the Brexit referendum or the French elections, promoting separatism in regions such as Scotland or Catalonia, or undermining EU enlargement and neighbourhood policies by shaping popular perceptions about the EU in candidate and EaP countries. The means they use range from official TV channels and news agencies to the so-called web brigades. In turn, with its slick magazines and videos, and effective use of social media, ISIL has quickly gained a solid reputation with regard to its strategic communications. With the ultimate objective of ensuring the organization's long-term political survival, its strategic communications are tailored to several audiences, ranging from those susceptible to the idea of a ‘clash of civilisations’ to active members of ISIL and potential recruits.
Strategic communication campaigns aimed at mobilising the public in order to influence EU policy-makers are neither new nor exclusive of foreign governments. So-called outside lobbying tactics, like organising public events and launching media campaigns, despite being largely discredited, are very important in granting interest groups access to EU decision-makers. News stories often portray outside lobbying campaigns as attempts to mislead policymakers by exaggerating public support or opposition to certain policies, and the idea that the "appearance" of a Twitter or Facebook spontaneous uprising can be purchased is so widespread that commentators are tempted to treat all of outside lobbying as misleading propaganda. Obviously not all grassroots campaigns are fake or unhealthy, which makes it all the more important for the EU to be able to assess the qualitative differences in their claims of popular support.
Finally, the EU is not a mere passive target of strategic communications activities, and runs its own information campaigns, both domestically and internationally. NATO's Riga-based Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence (StratCom CoE), opened in 2014, is just a recent step in the organisation's long history of involvement in information campaigns. The EU itself is also increasingly active in strategic communications, both domestically and internationally, from dissemination activities within the Erasmus+ programme to the creation of a Strategic Communications Division that works closely with its European External Action Service. These information activities have been vectored into defensive (react and respond) and offensive (probe and push) dimensions.
This course will be useful not only for those wishing to understand EU strategic communications, but also the wider context in which they take place. Academic debate among students of different nationalities may not only contribute to better mutual understanding among future leaders, but also to the development of a more critical public and stronger democracy in the EU and its neighbouhood. Focusing the course in Ukraine, a land that for centuries has been a battleground of rival empires, gives researchers and students a unique opportunity to discover the current day workings of strategic communications.
Hix, S., & Høyland, B. (2011). The political system of the European Union. Palgrave Macmillan; Kollman, K. (1998). Outside lobbying: Public opinion and interest group strategies. Princeton University Press; Greenwood, J. (2017). Interest representation in the European Union. Palgrave; Chalmers, A. W. (2013). Trading information for access: informational lobbying strategies and interest group access to the European Union. Journal of European Public Policy, 20(1), 39-58; European Union Institute for Security Studies (2016). EU strategic communications with a view to counteracting propaganda. European Parliament.