Even the Russians don’t seem interested in the European elections

The spy who didn’t come in from the cold.
The spy who didn’t come in from the cold.
Image: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov
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Voter turnout for the European Parliament election has fallen steadily in the past four decades—from 62% in the first vote in 1979 to 43% in the last one in 2014. As the bloc begins its most critical vote yet, it seems to have lost yet another recurring and long-expected participant in European politics: Russia.

Giles Portman, leader of the EU task force that tracks attempts by Russia to mislead citizens during critical events like this, said on Monday (May 20) that interference by the Kremlin has so far been “less sensational” than in past European votes. The AP also reported this week that tech firms haven’t yet found signs of a large-scale coordinated operation by a foreign actor.

That doesn’t mean Russians are silent. Sites and social media profiles linked to Russia are “spreading disinformation, encouraging discord, and amplifying distrust,” the New York Times reports (paywall). And for months now, state-owned news outlets like RT and Sputnik have given extensive coverage with strong populist overtones to divisive issues like France’s Yellow Vest movement.  This coverage, says Portman, is a “continuation of a message that Europe is collapsing, that the elites aren’t paying attention to ordinary people, and that Europe’s values and identities are under threat.”

But nothing so far reaches the scale of previous coordinated campaigns (pdf) tracked by the EU. Trolls backed by the Kremlin spread conspiracies about protests ahead of the 2014 Ukraine election, flooded Twitter with messages supporting the Leave camp during the 2016 Brexit referendum, and amplified messages by extremist groups on social media ahead of the 2017 German election. Hackers linked to Russia also allegedly stole sensitive documents from Emmanuel Macron’s campaign (paywall) during the 2017 French election.

Nothing similar has happened in this election cycle. The EU’s task force on Russian disinformation says it’s too early to draw conclusions as to why, and with the elections ending only on Sunday, there’s still time.

The relative lack of Russian activity could be a sign that the EU’s program against disinformation is working. Launched in December, the plan more than doubled the funding of teams that track and refute misleading news stories. Its total budget, however, is still a fraction of the €1.1 billion ($1.2 billion) the EU estimates is spent by Russia to produce those misleading stories. The bloc also created an alert system to coordinate a response by member states to disinformation campaigns, a tool that hasn’t been used yet. And it increased pressure on social media platforms like Facebook to specify who is funding its political ads, and Twitter to be more effective in removing malicious accounts.

The absence of Russian interference might also be reflective of the general lack of interest in the elections, as many European citizens fail to exercise their voting rights because they feel distant from Brussels politics (and because voting is mandatory in just five countries). “The European elections themselves are not the hottest elections, and not as widely discussed on social media—certainly less so than previous national election campaigns we’ve monitored,” says Nahema Marchal, one of the authors of a recent report by the Oxford Internet Institute on disinformation in the elections.

Internal enemy

An even scarier theory for the seeming absence of concerted interference, expressed by some European analysts to the Washington Post (paywall), is that Russia doesn’t have to work as hard at spreading disinformation, because Europe’s far-right is starting to emulate its tactics. “We are not seeing the automated, networked activity with an obvious Russian fingerprint across these elections,” Sasha Havlicek, an analyst with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told the Post. “What we’re seeing much more of is coordinated, transnational, far-right information operations.”

The Times calls them “far-right copycats.” One of the tactics they borrowed from Russia involves disguising Facebook pages as focused on harmless topics like music or travel, but posting links to extreme political content. The Times found examples of that in Italy, with pages that support the far-right League party, and the populist Five Star movement. “Those groups often echo Kremlin talking points, making it difficult to discern the lines between Russian propaganda, far-right disinformation, and genuine political debate.”

The Oxford report (pdf) seems to back that idea. It shows that the majority of “junk news” posted on Twitter mentioning this week’s election came from “homegrown” and “hyper-partisan” news outlets, while just a tiny fraction of the stories came from Russian sources like RT and Sputnik. The study, published on Tuesday (May 21), focused on seven European languages, including English, German, and French, and examined almost 140,000 tweets shared in April with links to news stories.

The study also found that the most extreme and misleading articles that became popular on Facebook came from European sites like France’s Damoclès, Sweden’s Fria Tider, and Poland’s Publiszer. They center on anti-Islam and anti-migrant sentiment, and topics like terrorism and crime.

Worryingly, the Oxford report found that despite the fact that news stories from credible European sources on Facebook outnumbered “junk news” items, it’s the extreme and incorrect articles about the European Parliament elections that got the most likes, shares, and comments in April.

In focusing on external threats, the EU might have overlooked the noxious content being produced within its own borders. Europeans might not have to deal with the Russian problem this time. Instead, they have to deal with themselves.