The EU commission said on Friday (14 June) that “Russian sources” had carried out sustained disinformation efforts to suppress turnout and influence voter preferences during the elections to the European Parliament last month.
Bots and fake accounts linked to Russian sources challenged the EU’s democratic legitimacy and aimed to radicalise political discourse, with EU officials identifying over a thousand cases.
“The evidence collected revealed a continued and sustained disinformation activity by Russian sources aiming to suppress turnout and influence voter preferences,” the commission’s report said.
“There was a consistent trend of malicious actors using disinformation to promote extreme views and polarise local debates, including through unfounded attacks on the EU,” it added.
Some of the disinformation, cited in the report, suggested that the April fire at the Paris Notre Dame cathedral showed the “alleged decline of western and Christian values in the EU”.
Another example in the report is on how some attributed Austrian political crisis and the subsequent collapse of the government to the “European deep state”, or “German and Spanish security services”.
But the commission also warned that it is almost impossible to link the online campaigns to one single actor.
The report warned that within the EU, “domestic political actors often adopted the tactics and narratives used by Russian sources to attack the EU and its values.”
Malign actors have also changed tactics, with more focus given to smaller-scale, localise operations that are harder to detect and identify.
EU justice commissioner Vera Jourova said also warned that “bad actors are constantly changing tactics and are in it for the long game”.
“It looks like a new normal, which is something we cannot accept,” Jourova said.
“The trend is that rather than trying to do big scale hack and leaks, it is to have customised, carefully targeted approach, to accelerate and amplify divisive content that is already out there,” EU security commissioner Julian King told reporters on Friday.
The commission also said online platforms must do more to combat disinformation, including sharing data on their efforts.
Despite progress by Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms, the commission wants them to be more transparent, develop tools to vet ads, and allow researchers and fact-checkers to access data.
The commission warned platforms that they risk regulation if they failed to do better. It will assess by the end of the year what firms have done, and whether it needed to regulate them.
Meanwhile, online disinformation campaigns seem to become a standard part of elections.
Alex Krasodomski-Jones, director from Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos said the aim of these information operations is to affect sympathetic changes in behaviour, reduce the quality of the overall communication environment and reduce the quality of information.
“It is about people feel different, this is the aim of the operations, it is an open question whether a fact checker is able to tackle that,” he said at an event in Brussels earlier this week.
“My fear [is] we will become more reliant on platforms to police this,” he added.
Jacob Davey, from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue warned that the problem is wider than the ‘Russian boogieman’ and the EU elections have shown a “widespread normalisation of techniques”, a part of which is the weaponisation of hate-speech and the pollution of the political campaign landscape.
“There has been a shift away from outright fake news, and we see a narrative competition on a range of talking points to spur polarisation,” he said.