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Russiagate to Portal Kombat: The foreign misinformation campaigns shifting the European elections

These European elections have been marked by external interference.
These European elections have been marked by external interference. Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Anna Desmarais
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Foreign interference and misinformation campaigns have targeted EU and domestic governments ahead of the 2024 European elections. These are some of the biggest.

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EU-related misinformation by foreign actors is surging to its highest-ever levels as the clock ticks closer to the first days of voting in the European elections. 

The European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO), an independent fact-checking network, published research on Tuesday that showed disinformation about EU policies or institutions made up 15 percent of all cases they detected in May - the highest value seen since they started tracking EU misinformation in 2023. 

The study comes after the Guardian newspaper reported that EU leaders had put rapid alert teams on notice to deal with a “tsunami level” of disinformation and foreign interference. 

Most of the foreign interference in this election comes from pro-Kremlin forces that are trying to weaken European support for the war in Ukraine, experts have told Euronews Next. 

We take a look at some of the biggest foreign interference and misinformation campaigns that have targeted European and domestic governments ahead of the 2024 EU elections. 

Russiagate

On March 27, the Czech government sanctioned an individual news site called Voice of Europe, and its publisher Viktor Medvedchuk, on the grounds that it was part of a pro-Russian influence operation. 

"Medvedchuk uses the Voice of Europe media platform to run a Russian influence operation," the Czech ministry said at the time. "The aim of this operation is to undermine the territorial integrity, sovereignty and freedom of Ukraine".

Then, Alexander De Croo, Belgium’s prime minister, announced in April that Russia, through Voice of Europe, had approached members of the European Parliament and "paid them to promote Russian propaganda". 

De Croo told media at the time that Belgium’s federal prosecutor had opened an investigation into these allegations, saying that while “the cash payments did not take place in Belgium, the interference does”.

Poland’s Internal Security Agency announced on March 28, a day after the initial revelation in Czechia, that they recovered "large sums of cash" in a similar investigation and charged one Polish national. 

Germany then launched an investigation into Petr Bystron, a member of the far-right’s Alternative For Germany (AfD), for alleged corruption and money laundering, according to the Washington Post

The newspaper also alleges that Maximilian Krah, the party’s former leader, is also under investigation for alledgedly accepting payments from Russia and China due to his work as an AfD member of parliament. 

On May 27, the European Union issued sanctions against Medvedchuk, Israeli citizen Artem Marchevskyi, and Voice of Europe. 

Just days before the election, Belgian police stormed into the Brussels and Strasbourg offices and the home of one parliamentary staffer accused of playing a “significant role” in a Russian interference election. 

The Voice of Europe website is still accessible and publishing articles as of the time of publishing on June 5. A notice on the top of all their articles accuses European bodies of blocking the site in an "attempt to hide the truth aout the real situation in Europe". 

Portal Kombat

Long before the writ dropped, the French, Germans, and Polish authorities discovered an elaborate Russian disinformation campaign called "Portal Kombat". 

France’s VIGINUM, a state agency created in 2021 to fight foreign interference, analysed “information portals” between September and December 2023 and found 193 sites that spread false claims suggesting Russia’s war in Ukraine is a legitimate military exercise. 

The sites disseminate information from the social media accounts of Russian or pro-Russian actors, Russian news agencies, and local websites. Content on the sites also takes on controversial topics that could "contribute to dividing the Francophone debate," according to VIGINUM. 

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There are now 224 of these sites throughout the EU and the world, according to an updatedApril technical report from VIGINUM. 

The report said the actors behind Portal Kombat expanded their activities to form what they called an “information grid on almost all members of the European Union” ahead of the elections. 

Some 31 new domain names with "pravda" in them were created to target 19 EU member states. 

The websites post hundreds of articles an hour, a fact that EDMO researchers say shows there is an element of automation in their work.

The articles have common pro-Russian themes, like French troops on the ground in Ukraine or that Western elites "support a global dictatorship that wants the third world war against Russia," EDMO added.

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Fake military draft reports

Last week, authorities in Poland saidthe country’s national news agency was likely hacked by Russians set on interfering with the European elections. 

The text, published by Polish News Agency, claimed that Prime Minister Donald Tusk was mobilising 200,000 men to the frontlines in Ukraine starting from July 1. 

“Everything indicates that we are dealing with a cyberattack directed from the Russian side. The goal is disinformation ahead of (European Parliament) elections and a paralysis of the society."
Krzysztof Gawkowski, Poland’s deputy prime minister

It didn’t stay online for long: eight minutes later, the agency removed the report and issued a statement saying that they weren’t the source of the article.

A second hack happened the same day, where the wire quickly took down the post and issued another statement. 

"Everything indicates that we are dealing with a cyberattack directed from the Russian side," Krzysztof Gawkowski, Poland’s deputy prime minister, told the Associated Press. 

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"The goal is disinformation ahead of (European Parliament) elections and a paralysis of the society".

Poland is not the only country dealing with false draft reports. 

In March, French authorities discovered a fake website asking volunteers to join the war in Ukraine that resembled the the French army’s genuine recruitment portal. 

A source told Le Mondeat the time that the site bore the hallmarks of a pro-Russian disinformation effort. 

A similar hack happened in Czecheslovakia, where news agency České Noviny (CTK) was hacked. A false article posted to the site claimed Czech counterintelligence prevented an assassination on Petr Pelligrini, Slovakia’s prime minister. 

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Video editor • Ines Trindade Pereira

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