Greece (Brussels Morning) Harold Lasswell, a renowned political scientist, held the view that propaganda is a tool or weapon of contemporary technological society and that only competition results in propaganda winning out. The only effective weapon against propaganda in support of one program seems to be propaganda in support of an alternative, according to Lasswell: “Propaganda as a mere tool is no more moral or immoral than a pump handle.“
Disinformation campaigns are used to propagate false information and undercut democratic processes, but they are also a component of an ecosystem that is self-sustaining. Regarding influence in Europe, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia are at odds with one another.
Regarding influence in Europe, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia are at odds with one another. Most recently it has been noticed that Saudi Arabia and UAE are using their influence and friendly to them media platforms to harm the EU-Qatari relations amid World Cup.
Brussels Morning discussed with George Plevris, a Senior Policy Advisor to Dora Bakoyannis, MP, Foresight Advisor at the Special Secretariat for Foresight of the Greek Government, and Alternate Secretary of International and European Affairs at the Nea Demokratia Party. He is an MMF and TILN fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
AK: How, in your opinion, can Brussels protect its citizens, media, and democracy from this back-door diplomacy?
GP: There is no doubt, whatsoever, that diplomacy today has an array of tools, formal and informal, to achieve its objectives, with the bottom line being to influence the foreign policy of another entity. The media, a decade ago print, today social media more than any other, have always functioned as both an independent actor and as a tool in the hands of policymakers, journalists, and even the public.
When it comes to our case study, the rift between Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt with Qatar, in 2017 has evolved into a long-standing power play with the GCC and the greater region. Re-enforced by the latest developments in geopolitics and dynamics, the rift has evolved into a regional dispute, with two clear sides. The spillover of that dynamic into the regional and global chess board should not come as a surprise. The EU has long tried to cultivate and strengthen ties with the Gulf states, more so today that the energy crisis and geopolitical revisionism create new balances of power. Therefore, it [EU] is bound to be affected by the power dynamics on the ground.
The practice that is said to be observed by Saudi Arabia and UAE to influence the relations of the EU with Qatar, with the latter being labeled as a competitor and even, to the same extent, an adversary, shouldn’t come as a surprise. What the two Gulf states have been doing, is what many other states in the world, even the EU do; using public diplomacy to influence public opinion, frame and create specific narratives, and as such, achieve their foreign policy objectives. If we look back in time, this has been a significant practice since the early 60s by many.
AK: Should Brussels be concerned about the vulnerability of institutions and the way in which public opinion is influenced?
GP: The problematic in my opinion, and what should concern Brussels, is not that this is the case, i.e., the practice in and of itself. But the ease and accessibility by which any kind of information can be disseminated within EU media platforms, without checks and balances, and in some cases with no attachment to the truth. Exacerbated by the nature and use of social media and internet media today, where the majority of the public formulates opinions on mere tweets, “viral” pictures, and articles disseminated by social media, it is the most concerning issue. Misinformation, either by accident, or disinformation, either by intent, is at the heart of the problem for Brussels. For it is by these means that questionable ends are attained.
What is being noticed by Saudi Arabia and UAE, and this opinion piece is not examining or adopting either viewpoint, in principle and theory, according to many experts and academics such as Gilboa and Van Dinh, is nothing else -it could be argued- but public diplomacy by them towards the EU, its peoples and citizens. Of course, in a similar way, someone could argue that what Russia is doing vis-à-vis misinformation and disinformation in the case of Ukraine could also be a form of its public diplomacy strategy. The fact of the matter is whether it is accepted, counter-acted, and addressed by truths and fact-checking by us.
AK: How is this situation handled in your opinion and how is the future secured?
GP: Brussels and the EU should focus on the output of these efforts, their assessment, and above all focus on creating tools that will shield EU citizens from any such back door diplomacy that does not meet the standards of the EU on transparency, credibility, and truth. Key to that would be the education of the public, on how to process information today and deduct specific conclusions and narratives. The “CNN effect” of the 80s and 90s is now transformed into the “trending” and “viral” social media feed and mentions. What is more, raising the standards on media companies and public opinion advocates to apply scrutiny to all information and sources that advocate for a specific policy.
To conclude, media, with the broad definition to encompass a wide range of platforms today, acts by nature and by design as an influencer of values, beliefs, and preferences. They do leave a footprint- positive, and negative is subjective, and I will not argue on that- in societies and democracies. As long as we, meaning us, our democracies, meaning Brussels and governments, show care, diligence, and protection of our values and beliefs, we will be able to protect ourselves. Any backdoor policy then, by anyone, be it the Gulf States, be it other nations and organisations, would be filtered and assessed properly for what it is.