The European Commission revealed that Russian sources attempted to suppress turnout and influence voters during last month’s EU elections that employed a continued and sustained disinformation activity by Russia that covered a broad range of topics ranging from challenging the European Union’s democratic legitimacy to exploiting divisive public debates on issues such as migration and political sovereignty.

The Commission said in its report that the Russians even used the Notre Dame Cathedral fire incident to spread disinformation that it was caused by “malicious actors to illustrate the alleged decline of Western and Christian values in the EU”. Moscow have also been quick to attribute the political crisis and recent collapse of the government in Austria – which was spawned by revelations that Austrian politicians had received donations from Kremlin-linked sources to lobby on behalf of the Russian government and against European interests – was the work of “the European deep state”.

News outlets connected to the Russian government and who tow-the-line of the Kremlin also regularly  reported on the irrelevance of the European Parliament’s legislative powers and cast aside its relevance saying it was under the full control of lobbyists who care little for election results.

Labelling Russian propaganda network Sputnik “a pro-Kremlin outlet” the EU’s Security Commissioner Julian King, specifically cited stores spread by Sputik throughout the electoral campaign, including those that suggested that the EU would make Poland poorer than it was under Communism. King also mentioned the use of fake accounts linked to Russian and a pro-Russian Facebook groups, ones that were similar to those that emerged during the 2016 US presidential elections.

Working with platforms pays off results 

Online platforms will need to do more to combat disinformation, including sharing data, which will assist in tracking even more suspected attempts by a Russian or Chinese attempt to influence the democratic processes both in the EU and the US, particularly after Western intelligence agencies continue to uncover evidence of a sustained effort by Moscow to promote extremist views and polarise local debates through disinformation.

The European Commission’s progress report provided updates on the work done by online platforms such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter to combat such efforts, offering some rare praise for their progress, including for Facebook’s decision to set up a «war room» in its European headquarters in Dublin to coordinate its anti-disinformation response during the European elections.

“Ahead of the elections, we saw evidence of coordinated behaviour aimed at spreading divisive material on online platforms, including through the use of bots and fake accounts. This means that the online platforms have a particular responsibility to tackle disinformation,” the Commission’s report said. “With our active support, Facebook, Google and Twitter have made some progress…All of the platforms platforms took actions in advance of the European elections by labelling political ads and making them publicly available via searchable ads libraries.”

Google took action against more than 130,000 EU-based accounts that were found to violate its ad policies and another 27,000 that violated policies concerning original content.

Facebook identified more than 1.2 million incidents, but were often late in dealing with many cases. Some of the delays took as long as 72 hours in cases that dealt specifically with certain candidates. Facebook did, in fact, disable 2.2 billion fake accounts in the first quarter of 2019, including 1,574 non-EU based and 168 EU-based pages that were engaged in suspicious behaviour that targeted EU members.

More than 6,000 ads that violated Twitter’s business practices were rejected and another 10,000 that violated the platform’s policies were taken down. Those were also matched by Youtube, which removed over 3.39 million channels for that sent out spam and misleading information.

Moving forward in its defence plan

These efforts, while commendable and a move in the right direction for the Commission, still represent inadequate attempts to thwart an adversary who is better equipped to engage in cyberwafare and disinformation. If the EU’s security is to be guaranteed and if the Commission is to be taken seriously by malevolent power like Russia, Brussels must move away from attempting to be polite and diplomatic about aggressive disinformation campaigns that are aimed at undermining its legitimacy.