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21st Sep 2019

Nato Stratcom finds EU election manipulation 'loopholes'

  • Facebook was used to dupe Latvian soldiers into disclosing unit locations (Photo: portal gda)

Nato experts on online manipulation have identified loopholes that may have been exploited to influence voters in the lead up to the May European elections.

Janis Sarts, who heads the Riga-based Nato Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, said it remains unclear if the loopholes had actually been utilised, because social media platforms will not give them access to data.

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"The only data we can access is Twitter or Russian Vkontakte but it was not very extensively used," he told reporters on Tuesday (3 September).

Also known as Nato Stratcom, the centre is specifically tasked to research the way influence works on states, societies, and on individuals.

"We don't have the data [but] I know there were loopholes," he added, suggesting social media giants like Facebook cannot be trusted to reveal whether such loopholes had been exploited or not.

Sarts says the centre's researchers are currently looking into the matter but did not elaborate on what the loopholes looked like, only noting that outlets like Facebook, WhatsApp, and YouTube are often used as echo chambers to influence people.

Those comments appear to clash, in part, with the European Commission claims in June of "active support" from Facebook and Google to fight disinformation.

The commission had created a Rapid Alert System in early 2019 to raise the alarm on disinformation campaigns - but not a single alert had been issued as of July, and was ignored by most member states.

The Brussels-executive had also drafted a voluntary code of practice on disinformation under the threat of imposing regulation unless the platforms got serious in tackling the phenomenon.

Conflict of interest

But Rolf Fredheim, a principal scientist at Nato Stratcom, says Facebook has no real incentive to reveal the extent of fake news on their platform.

"Their [Facebook] share price is determined in large part by the number of active users on their platform, so there is conflict of interest, which means self-regulation is unlikely to be very effective," he said.

The social media giant had unveiled an Ad Tool in March to fight disinformation but it doesn't appear to work either. Researchers at Mozilla, the maker of the Firefox web browser, said the Ad Tool is rife with problems.

Another Nato Stratcom researcher, Sebastian Bay, said they are instead having to rely on metadata to trace the origin of things like bots.

"The only people who can do attribution is the platforms themselves," he said.

The centre has in the past demonstrated the ease of social engineering.

Last year, a small team managed to dupe Latvian soldiers during a military exercise to not only disclose unit locations but also abandon their posts by setting up fake Tinder accounts and creating a bogus Facebook group.

"The only cost of this experiment was the money we spent on Facebook ads and that was about €50," said Nora Biteniece, a Nato StratCom software engineer.

It took Facebook two weeks to remove the bogus page after being alerted by the Latvian ministry of defence.

Opinion

Six takeaways on digital disinformation at EU elections

For example, Germany's primetime TV news reported that 47 percent of political social media discussions were related to the extreme-right AfD party, when in fact this was the case only for Twitter - used by only four percent of Germans.

Russian activist warns on 'fake news' as EU backs action

In 2015, internet activist Lyudmila Savchuk went under cover to expose a troll factory in St Petersburg. As the EU summit endorses anti-disinformation action, she told EUobserver the Russian government is bankrolling many more.

Defending the 'European way of life' name splits MEPs

European People's Party group leader Manfred Weber defended Ursula von der Leyen's decision to rename a commission portfolio, partly dealing with migration, "protecting the European way of life". He said it means rescuing people in the Mediterranean.

Hungary claims EU 'witch-hunt' over rule of law hearing

Hungary was quizzed by EU ministers over its domestic crackdown on media, judges, academia and NGOs. Hungary's minister responded by saying the country had defended "the European way of life" for centuries, and it should be respected.

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