The EU Was Accused Of Watering Down A Report About Chinese Coronavirus Disinformation. In Response, It Has Attacked Leaks And Whistleblowers.
This is not the first time that the EU foreign policy agency's handling of foreign interference has come under scrutiny.
The European Union’s top officials have responded to claims that it watered down a report about China’s global disinformation efforts and COVID-19 by lashing out at junior staff and blaming leaks.
On April 24 the EU’s foreign security policy agency, the European External Action Service (EEAS), published a report on disinformation around the coronavirus pandemic, which was softer than a version that had been leaked to Politico earlier that week. According to the New York Times, the document was watered down following diplomatic pressure by China.
At a parliamentary hearing on April 30, the EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, acknowledged that China had expressed concerns about the report after it leaked but denied that the EU had bowed to pressure and that the report had been revised. Borrell said that there were two separate reports, one for internal consumption and one for publication.
Responding to questions from members of the European Parliament, Borrell accused staff of damaging the EU by leaking. He also appeared to suggest that analysts’ views were biased and cast doubt on their credibility.
“I cannot accept that the personal belief or feeling of a member of staff leaking mails — maybe being written to be leaked — created damage to the credibility of the institution," he said, later asking MEPs why “more credibility” was being given “to the personal opinion of a member of a staff”.
Multiple EU officials told BuzzFeed News they were left angry and disappointed by Borrell’s focus on leaks and, in particular, his singling out of junior staff members.
Two officials said similar arguments had been pushed internally. A senior EU official told BuzzFeed News that Borrell’s closest advisers had said on multiple occasions at recent meetings of top EU officials that “it’s the leaks that are unacceptable".
The debate has also bled into discussions between member states’ diplomats, the official added, with more dovish governments focussing on the leaks and more hawkish ones claiming that the EU had played into China’s hands.
In an email to BuzzFeed News, Peter Stano, the EU’s spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, said publication of the report was neither delayed nor revised because of Chinese pressure. It was wrong, he said, to compare the two reports because one was for internal use and the other was for publication. The report, he added, was published according to internal processes and procedures and was not influenced by anyone on the outside.
In an interview with CNN, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, also denied that the report had been watered down after pressure from China, but she too appeared to indirectly question aspects of the research.
Asked about the allegations, she said: "No, this is an independent report done by the external service,” adding, "if there's one lesson we've learned, that is we did not have robust data.”
While it is true that there are two versions of the report, Borrell’s explanation doesn’t stack up, officials told BuzzFeed News. The content and timing of internal EU correspondence first reported by the New York Times and seen by BuzzFeed News indicates that a stronger version of the document was ready for publication on April 21 and that China had remonstrated with the EU’s diplomatic mission in Beijing, threatening to retaliate if the report was published.
The officials also claimed that publication of the report had been delayed, with three days passing between the leak to Politico and the revised version being made public.
The analysis that was published online by the EEAS does clearly reference state-backed Chinese misinformation and propaganda.
It states: “Official and state-backed sources from various governments, including Russia and — to a lesser extent — China, have continued to widely target conspiracy narratives and disinformation both at public audiences in the EU and the wider neighbourhood.” It lists several examples of Chinese misinformation in a final section titled "other selected activities that are reported".
Notably, however, specific references to a “global disinformation campaign” run by China were missing, as were some examples of Chinese disinformation. These included a post published by China’s embassy in France which wrongly claimed that care workers in Western nursing homes had abandoned their jobs, leaving residents to die.
The embassy’s blog post also said that French members of parliament had teamed up with Taiwan to cosign a declaration attacking the World Health Organization. There is no evidence that such a declaration exists.
On Monday, the head of the EEAS strategic communications unit, which drafted the report, stuck to the official line of the two versions of the report and appeared to suggest that bits of the report that had been removed didn’t classify as disinformation.
He said the two versions were quite similar. "Only a few things have been taken out, of which we were perhaps not entirely sure: Is it really justified to call it disinformation?” Lutz Güllner said.
Asked about the missing references and Güllner's remarks, Stano told BuzzFeed News that there was not “an original and a revised version" of the report. "The leaked report was an internal document which was not designed to be published at all," he said.
"The published snapshot overviews do not aspire to cover everything" and the snapshot published was consistent with previous reports published on March 19 and April 1. "If you read both of them you will see that we do not shy away from stating what we observed and support it with necessary examples," he said.
Stano said that since the public report did not have any preset date, it was impossible to talk about delays, arguing that it was wrong to make assumptions based on “fragments of leaked parts of an internal communication that do not capture the complex situation and are taken out of the context”.
He added: "What we published on 24th April was our regular updated snapshot overview of trends in disinformation related to coronavirus. These are two different products, with different purpose and different audience," he said.
Chinese diplomats and embassies around the world have pushed and amplified a range of conspiracy theories about COVID-19, including that the novel coronavirus originated in the US and was brought to Wuhan by the US Army. US intelligence agencies have also assessed that Chinese agents spread rumours of an imminent nationwide lockdown.
The EEAS report comes amid a global debate on the origins of the virus and whether China initially delayed communicating crucial information about human-to-human transmission of the disease. The US has also pushed unsubstantiated claims linking COVID-19 to a lab in Wuhan, as it seeks to deflect attention away from a rising death toll and the White House’s handling of the crisis.
The Chinese government has so far responded to calls for an international inquiry with economic threats. China has also been accused of silencing whistleblowers.
Amplifying unsubstantiated claims to spread confusion and panic is a method similar to that adopted by Russia in its widely reported disinformation operations. The UK's National Cyber Security Centre said this month that both Russia and China have targeted cyberattacks at British research institutions to try and steal COVID-19-related research.
This is not the first time that the EU foreign policy arm’s dealings with foreign interference has come under scrutiny. BuzzFeed News reported last June that the bloc’s diplomatic mission in Moscow had been hacked, but the EEAS didn’t disclose the incident, despite the belief that Russian entities were behind it. A spokesperson said at the time an investigation was “in progress”. Subsequent questions on how that investigation was progressing had received no response.
On Tuesday, Stano told BuzzFeed News: “The EEAS’ security investigation has been closed. No evidence was found to attribute the hacking to a specific state or actor. The investigation can be re-opened if new elements are brought by EU Member States that have conducted their respective investigations.”