Kanzanira Thorington is a research associate in the Digital and Cyberspace Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
This week EU citizens will head to the polls to elect 751 representatives to the European Parliament, and by extension the leader of the European Commission. This election will prove to be consequential for the future of Europe. The rise of populism, economic stagnation, and post-Brexit turmoil have made the continent vulnerable to online disinformation campaigns. To tackle this issue, the EU must not only protect its institutions from third-party state actors, but also from threats emanating from political groups from within its Member States.
Online disinformation—the dissemination of false or misleading information on online platforms to influence the public—has been used by Russia in its hybrid war against the Ukraine, and more recently to disrupt western democracies. The EU first recognized this threat in 2015 by establishing the East Strategic Communication Task Force which responds to Russian disinformation efforts in Eastern Europe by exposing false Russian narratives and strengthening independent media in the region. In response to the Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, the Dutch referendum, and possibly the Brexit vote, the EU has developed a more comprehensive strategy to combat online disinformation.
Following a 2018 call to ensure free, fair, and secure European parliamentary elections the EU instituted a series of measures to tackle online disinformation, including establishing partnerships between EU institutions, Member States, and online platforms. The Code of Practice, signed by Twitter, Google, and Facebook, calls upon technology and advertising companies to agree to standards to address the spread of fake news. Signatories of the Code commit, on a voluntary basis, to report monthly on the progress of their actions in five key areas, including addressing fake accounts and improving transparency of political ads.
Furthermore, the EU issued an Action Plan to bolster its detection and response efforts. The 2019 budget for the Task Force and EU Hybrid Fusion Cell—an intelligence center established in 2016 to monitor and address disinformation in Europe—is expected to increase from 1.9 million euros in 2018 to 5 million euros. Additionally, the strategic communication teams will be provided with over fifty new staff members over the next two years, including experts in data mining and analysis.
The Action Plan also outlines efforts to strengthen coordination between EU institutions and Member States. One particular challenge of regulating online disinformation is designating which entity has the onus of regulating such speech. This is particularly an issue in Europe. While many countries debate whether the public or private sector is responsible for online speech, this issue is further complicated in the EU due to the shared competencies between Member States and EU institutions. Member states protect electoral processes; however, the pervasive effect of cross-border online disinformation requires EU-level action. As part of its joint-response initiative, the EU established a Cooperation Group with Member States to encourage national authorities to identify best practices and manage the risks associated with elections, such as cyberattacks and disinformation. A Rapid Alert System has also been created to allow Member States to provide real-time alerts of disinformation campaigns.
Some critics question whether the Russian threat may be overstated, causing politicians to ignore the underlying political, social, and economic issues that are dividing Europe. However, the threat of disinformation in the EU is very real. Since its establishment the East Strategic Communication Task Force has identified and analyzed more than 4,500 examples of disinformation efforts by Russia. Additionally, a Eurobarometer survey found that 85 percent of respondents believe fake news is a problem in their country, with half stating they come across disinformation once a week, and more than half of respondents in Greece and Spain stating they come across fake news daily. Still, reports suggest that this election cycle the primary source of disinformation may not be Russia, but from groups within the EU itself.
As European centrist party alliances weaken, fringe groups on the left and right are using Russian-style disinformation tactics to advance their Eurosceptic agenda before the elections. Populist groups in Italy are one of the main actors disseminating fake news. Earlier this month, Facebook took down numerous fake Italian accounts, as well as other Italian pages designed to spread false information, including anti-migration and anti-Semitic content. In February, Google discovered almost 21,000 EU-based Google Ad accounts, 4,200 of which were Italian, violated its advertising policy in order to deceive users.
The effectiveness of the EU’s measures remains unknown. Assessments conducted by the EU’s strategic communications teams, while shared between EU institutions and its Member States, remain classified. EU officials also cite institutional and budgetary restraints as limits to their response efforts.
Perhaps the most glaring failure of the EU’s strategy is the lack of effective cooperation with Member States. The European elections consist of a four-day period of simultaneous separate elections that take place in individual Members States, thus the failure of one government to properly mitigate disinformation efforts threatens the credibility of the entire electoral process.
The Rapid Alert System has been criticized as a “non-rapid, non-alert, non-system.” This is critical considering many national governments do not have their own disinformation monitoring systems. EU operations do not have the capacity to properly manage disinformation efforts across all twenty-eight Member States, and the lack of safeguards allows local and national actors to spread fake news more freely.
There is no one solution to end disinformation. This global threat can only be managed and the EU’s multilevel, cross-sector approach is a good start. Moving past the elections, it is imperative that the EU reform its strategy to address internal influence campaigns by encouraging its Member States to develop and enhance national defenses to effectively combat disinformation across the continent.