Election misinformation is making Europe 'anxious'. What can be done to limit foreign interference?

Concerns are rising that foreign actors like Russia or China may try to destabilise the democractic process in Europe in June.
Concerns are rising that foreign actors like Russia or China may try to destabilise the democractic process in Europe in June. Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Anna Desmarais
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Weeks from the European elections, there have been many public instances of foreign interference. This is what is being done to limit its impact.

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The Russians are looking to destabilise an "anxious" Europe by interfering in the European elections as the clock clicks closer to voting on June 6 to 9, according to security experts. 

While Russian foreign interference isn’t new, the Ukraine war is, according to Rolf Nijmeijer, research assistant and Russian disinformation expert with the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO). 

The invasion started on February 22, 2022, so was not a factor in the last European elections. 

"We have a Europe that is more anxious due to the conflicts surrounding it at the moment and a realisation that the world is currently chaotic and unrealistic," Nijmeijer said. 

"There is a conflict focus that foreign actors are very interested in influencing in order to advance their strategic objectives". 

Four weeks away from the European elections, there’s already many public instances of Russian-led foreign interference: everything from record-high GPS signal jamming, to pro-Kremlin bribes to politicians in Brussels and a fake website asking French soldiers to enlist in the ongoing Ukrainian invasion. 

So where is this interference coming from, what form does it take, and what’s being done to limit its spread? 

A 'fast-expanding threat'

The European External Action Service (EEAS) describes foreign interference as a pattern of manipulative, coordinated behaviour by states or non-state actors that "threatens or has the potential to negatively impact values, procedures and political processes". 

Foreign interference, although it has always existed, was described as a "fast-expanding threat" to the EU and international security in the EEAS' strategic compass strategy to 2030. 

That’s because new technologies and the Internet are changing their "scope, nature and reach". 

"We are joining forces and stepping up efforts to protect ourselves because it’s a threat to our societies as we know it," said Peter Stano, the Lead Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy at EEAS. 

The Russians and the Chinese are the biggest players when it comes to foreign interference in the European Union, according to Nijmeijer and the EEAS. 

Joseph Borrell Fontelles, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, wrote in the EEAS’ January report on foreign interference ahead of the election that the Russians are doing it as one tool of many "to justify its war" against Ukraine around the world. 

The revelation by French forces in February of a Russian disinformation network called Portal Kombat targeting European websites, the payment of Brussels officials to spread pro-Kremlin propaganda, and disruptions in flights across the Baltics due to GPS blocking, are some examples of suspected Russian interference ahead of the elections. 

The Russians didn’t step up their interference for just this election, according to Jakub Kalensky, Deputy Director of the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE).

In 2016 alone, there is proof that the Russians interfered in the US elections, UK’s Brexit vote, and referendums in the Netherlands and Italy, Kalensky said. 

But, Jamie Shea, senior fellow at Friends of Europe and retired NATO official, said there’s no "conclusive evidence" that Russian interference changes an election result. 

"Did it alone explain why [former US president Donald] Trump was elected in 2016? No," Shea said. 

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"It’s important to not over talk this, to say that politicians won… or lost because of Russia. The more you play it up, the more you show [Vladimir] Putin that he’s powerful". 

For the Chinese, they are continuing disinformation campaigns that look to advertise a better image of China around the world. During this election, Nijmeijer said, they are also actively targeting institutions that are China-skeptic by "using a similar rhetoric of the Russians". 

Russia and China are not the only actors trying to interfere in EU elections: the EEAS says there's 80 other countries involved along with some non-state groups, like the Wagner Group.

Impact 'can’t be shrugged off'

While intelligence officials know of the threats, all agreed that it’s extremely difficult to evaluate the impact of Russian or other foreign interference on the election but also on the beliefs of the broader public. 

"It’s like fighting COVID without knowing how many people are vaccinated," Kalensky said. 

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One of the only hints, according to Kalensky, is looking at how the public responds to polling questions that use common Russian misinformation talking points.

It’s like fighting COVID without knowing how many people are vaccinated.
Jakub Kalensky
Deputy Director, European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats

One-third of Slovaks agreed with the lie that the West provoked the war against Ukraine - a fabricated narrative by the Russians - according to a series of recent polls

The number is almost as high in Bulgaria at 26 per cent, and in Hungary at around 18 per cent. In Italy, 17 per cent of those surveyed blamed the conflict on NATO. 

The numbers could be even higher in Germany: two polls put the number at either 18 per cent or 40 per cent of the population agreed or partially agreed that the West was to blame for the war in Ukraine. 

"[The misinformation campaigns] don’t capture 50 per cent [of people], but 20 per cent is enough to elect a prime minister in Slovakia," Kalensky said. "I don’t think we can really shrug it off". 

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The long-term effect of misinformation, according to Nijmeijer, is the "erosion of trust" in political institutions and in how knowledge is being created. 

Foreign interference could mean apathy from voters, Nijmeijer said. Despite this, the 2019 EU elections had a 50.6 per cent turnout with a large percentage of young and first-timers making up that number. 

"People could lose interest in politics entirely because they believe it’s all lies and nothing to gain… or that electoral processes are futile because the system is corrupt," Nijmeijer said. 

Russian foreign interference also affects countries differently, Kalensky said. 

Kalensky said there could be less of an impact in the Baltics, Poland, and the Nordic countries because they all have "historical experience" with Russian influence campaigns and a strong foundational trust in public institutions and legacy media.

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Changing intelligence tactics

The EEAS is the European body that coordinates the response to foreign interference from the Kremlin with NATO and the member states. 

In 2015, the EEAS established an East StratCom Task Force that would expose attacks on the EU by "spreading awareness" of pro-Kremlin disinformation. 

A key part of the task force is the EUvsDisinfo database: a compilation of over 16,500 instances of Russian foreign interference or misinformation campaigns. 

The EEAS is also working with a Rapid Alert System (RAS) that lets EU institutions and member states coordinate and share information about foreign interference and disinformation. 

But, the EEAS’ January report on foreign interference threats says that activity will "gradually intensify" as the voting day gets closer. 

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Stano with the EEAS said the biggest battle will be on the ground in the EU member states, where most of the pro-Kremlin activity takes place: in the local language, referencing the local political debate and with local proxies. 

"The scope of the challenge is so big that there will never be enough work to counter it… but we are joining forces and stepping up efforts to protect ourselves". 

There’s also some techniques that heads of state can use. 

Shea from Friends of Europe said there’s a willingness now by heads of government to release what would normally stay classified information into the public discourse.

He pointed to the example set by French officials by telling the public they shut down a fake Russian website that encouraged roughly 200,000 nationals to enlist in the Ukraine war. 

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That’s one technique that Kalensky describes as "naming and shaming" the Russians. 

He believes this strategy, if used properly, can convince the Russians that their interference has less of an effect than they'd look for.

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