Europe has spent years preparing for an onslaught of election meddling, hacking, and disinformation from Moscow. But as voters head to the polls to vote in European Union elections on Thursday, EU officials say a greater threat may be coming from within.
In the months leading up to the elections, a diffuse network of far-right groups across Europe has flooded Facebook with disinformation and hate speech, copying Russia’s tactics and garnering hundreds of millions of views along the way.
“Europe is drowning in disinformation,” said Christoph Schott, campaign director at Avaaz, an anti-disinformation group. “The size and sophistication of these networks make them weapons of mass destruction for democracy, and right now they are pointed squarely at Europe.”
On Wednesday, Avaaz identified 550 Facebook pages and groups, and 328 profiles, belonging to far-right networks in six European countries that were followed by nearly 32 million people and had generated over 67 million “interactions” in the last three months alone. Thus far, Facebook has taken down only 77 of all the pages and groups reported by Avaaz.
These groups have pushed far-right candidates and parties across Europe, in part by stoking division by using hot-button topics like immigration, religion and security. For example:
- In Italy, a far-right group shared a fake video of a police car being destroyed, claiming it was attacked by migrants.
- In Poland, groups repeatedly shared a fake story about migrant taxi drivers raping European women, using a still from a Polish movie.
- In Spain, one network shared the unfounded claim that the Moroccan government demanded free education for Moroccan students in Spain in exchange for acting on illegal immigration.
- In the U.K., networks shared a beheading photo with the sensationalist headline: “A Billion Muslims Want Sharia Law.”
The deluge of disinformation coming from within Europe’s borders has caught Facebook and the EU’s elections security effort by surprise. Facebook didn’t respond directly when asked why its team and algorithms hadn’t spotted the offending networks prior to Avaaz’ report. Instead it thanked Avaaz "for sharing their research for us to investigate," and said it remained dedicated to protecting the EU elections.
More significantly, because the EU’s anti-disinformation task force has no mandate to monitor homegrown campaigns, their much-vaunted tools to combat the problem have been rendered virtually useless.
The timing couldn’t be worse: Far-right and anti-EU candidates determined to break up the European Union from within are set to win a significant number of seats, potentially dealing yet another blow to an EU already on the defensive.
"These elections are likely the most important ones Europe has ever witnessed," said Schott. “Anti-EU forces are trying to destroy an idea that we as people, no matter what language we speak or which god we pray to, can live together in peace and prosper."
The rise of the anti-EU party
The European Parliament has always been home to Eurosceptic lawmakers, but until now, these outsiders have wielded virtually no power.
Now, a group of powerful far-right, anti-EU politicians are attempting to create a pan-European coalition capable of winning enough seats that it can effectively take down the European Union from within.
"These elections are likely the most important ones Europe has ever witnessed."
This coalition was on display in Milan last weekend when Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of the right-wing Lega party, Matteo Salvini, took the stage with Marine Le Pen, of France’s National Rally (formerly known as the National Front), and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom, to rally support for the coalition. Also joining the coalition — which operates under the banner: “Toward A Common Sense Europe” — are Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) and Austria’s Freedom Party.
To rally support around their favorite candidates , these fringe-networks feed off fear-based issues like terrorism and immigration, and work hard to create the impression that their fake, stories have significant grassroots support, for example by creating fake accounts to inflate follower numbers.
“We see this as a shift from disinformation content to disinformation tactics, which makes people believe the hateful voices are actually very popular,” Schott told VICE News.
These tactics — fake and duplicate accounts, coordinated sharing, and amplifying divisive topics — come straight from the Kremlin playbook.
From Russia with Love
While Moscow may not be directly involved or to blame for the onslaught of disinformation and fake news this time around, EU officials say its influence is unmistakable.
“The Russians showed us how to do disinformation campaigns effectively, and now those same tactics have been picked up by an ever more diffuse network of actors, some of which don't even have direct ties to the Kremlin,” one EU official involved in combating fake news, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told VICE News. “This is how they have fooled us all.”
Since 2014, the Kremlin has conducted a disinformation campaign against Europe, led by the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, who pioneered the art of creating division and sowing distrust by weaponizing platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The group is accused of interfering in everything from Brexit to the Yellow Vest protests in France to the Catalan independence movement.
“The Kremlin has been spreading its anti-EU, anti-NATO, anti-Western narratives for the past five years,” said Jakub Kalensky, a former EU official who used to work with the East Stratcom task force, one of the European Commission’s only efforts to counter Russian disinformation.”What seemed to be marginal in 2014 is now slowly becoming part of the mainstream.”
Indeed, the Russian efforts have been so successful that the far-right networks currently spreading disinformation to millions of people across Europe are now promoting these narratives and “carefully and consciously” following the strategies developed by the Internet Research Agency, without Russia even seeming to being involved.
“The far-right networks are making use of these tactics and are making use of [Russia's] playbook,” Flora Rebello Arduini, one of the author's of Avaaz’s report, told VICE News.
Caught by surprise
In the months leading up to this week’s elections, Europe announced a major campaign to stifle the expected onslaught of disinformation from the Kremlin.
ln December the EU said it was more than doubling its budget to combat disinformation to over $5.5 million in order to “not allow anybody to spread disinformation that fuels hatred, division, and mistrust in democracy.”
Central to this was a much-vaunted Rapid Alert System, a bespoke online platform to allow all 28 member states to coordinate in real-time the sharing of information about attacks conducted by Moscow.
”No one [in the EU] is looking at this, it is like they are ostriches sticking their heads in the sand.”
But, according to an EU official closely involved with the system, it has been a total failure, serving “as nothing more than an intranet, a social media platform” for those using it to voice “exasperation, frustration, and annoyance with the inefficacy of the system.” European Commission spokesman Johannes Bahkre disputed this claim, telling VICE News the system was being “used exactly as intended.”
So where’s the disconnect? While the EU’s Action Plan specifically calls out foreign adversaries, it doesn’t have the same mandate to address what is happening under their very noses, according to a source with direct knowledge of the EU’s policies.
One official who works on the East Stratcom task force, which was set up in 2015 to combat Russian disinformation, told VICE News that they were not allowed to monitor any content that didn’t come directly from the Kremlin or a Kremlin-linked account.
“We are really obstructed from addressing a vast amount of content that is spreading like wildfire in some circles,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. ”No one [in the EU] is looking at this, it is like they are ostriches sticking their heads in the sand.”
Cover: European election. Paris, FRANCE-23/05/2019 (Sipa via AP Images)