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25th Jul 2021

Next year's EU election at risk of Russian meddling

  • Europeans will go to polls in May 2019 to elect a new set of MEPs (Photo: Sebastiaan ter Burg)

EU elections in 2019 are likely to be the next big target for Russian propaganda, MEPs have warned.

"Next year the citizens of Europe will elect a new European Parliament. This raises an uncomfortable question: how many seats will Russia get?", Danish centre-left MEP Jeppe Kofod said in Strasbourg on Wednesday (17 January).

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  • Russia also targeted the Scottish independence vote in 2014, recent studies showed (Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson)

"Let's not kid ourselves, Russian meddling in democratic elections is no longer the exception, it is becoming the norm," he added.

Kofod spoke at an EU parliament debate on what the assembly described in its press release as a "Kremlin-orchestrated" campaign of "leaks, fake news, disinformation campaigns, and cyberattacks" that stretched back to the UK referendum on leaving the EU in mid-2016 and which also targeted the French and German elections and Catalonia's independence referendum last year.

"The pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign is an orchestrated strategy - delivering the same disinformation stories in as many languages as possible, through as many channels as possible, as often as possible," the EU's security commissioner, Julian King, said on Wednesday.

He said a counter-propaganda cell, called Stratcom, in the EU foreign service had documented "more than 3,500 examples of pro-Kremlin disinformation" in European media in the past two years.

Pro-Kremlin parties lost in the French and German votes, but King added that "if we look at opinion polls measuring how many people accept obviously disinformation planted in pro-Kremlin media, then unfortunately we have to conclude that Russian disinformation can be extremely successful."

Stratcom has a staff of 22 people and a budget of €1.1 million a year, but Spanish centre-right MEP Esteban Gonzales Pons said Russia spends at least €1 billion a year on its state media.

German centre-right deputy David McAllister said Stratcom needed "adequate funding and increased personnel".

King, the EU commissioner, also said "we need to redouble our efforts to debunk this propaganda".

But MEPs from Ukip, a British anti-EU party, thanked Russia for giving them a platform.

"Russia Today [a Russian state broadcaster] gave Ukip a voice in the days when we couldn't get it from the BBC. So, perhaps they are defending freedom and a freedom that you lot want to close down," the party's David Coburn said.

Ukip's Gerard Batten said: "You're [the EU] seeking to create a scapegoat for your own unpopularity with the peoples of Europe. Don't blame the Russians for your own mistakes".

US giants

Other MEPs put the spotlight on US social media firms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, which have become leading conduits for fake news.

"Facebook, the world's richest and most powerful publisher, has replaced editors with algorithms, shifting societies away from critical thinking whilst making billions from our clicks," Latvian centre-right MEP Sandra Kalniete said.

Facebook, which recently said Russia spent just €0.97 on adverts targeting the UK referendum, promised on Wednesday to widen its search.

Simon Milner, the firm's UK policy chief, said the initial probe had looked only at ads bought by the Internet Research Agency, a former Kremlin-run troll farm in St Petersburg.

"We would like to carry out this work promptly and estimate it will take a number of weeks to complete," he said.

Senior executives from the three US companies also promised to do more at a US Senate hearing on Islamic extremism and Russian propaganda in Washington the same day.

Twitter's Carlos Monje, its US public policy chief, said the firm planned to send alerts to every user who had received bogus information from the Internet Research Agency in the US elections last year.

He said Twitter was now removing 4 million "maliciously automated" accounts or bots a week, even though most of the dodgy content was designed to monetise clicks rather than to make a political impact.

US hardball

"This [Russia's US campaign] was an attack on the very foundation of American democracy and we must do everything in our power to see that it never happens again," Democratic senator Bill Nelson said.

The US has imposed a package of sanctions to punish Russia for election meddling in a contrast to the EU's softer approach.

The US treasury and state department are currently preparing a list of several hundred Russian tycoons said to have Kremlin ties.

The list will be passed to Congress on 29 January, prompting a debate on whether to slap visa bans and asset freezes on some or all of those concerned.

"Will the EU go along with the US policy line or not? More formal coordination between the EU and the US would be desirable," Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington, recently told EUobserver.

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