EU election anxiety shifts from Russia to domestic disinformation, US money
By MICHAEL BIRNBAUM | The Washington Post | Published: May 21, 2019
BRUSSELS — Days before crucial elections for the European Parliament, politicians, security services and social media companies that were bracing for an onslaught from Russia are surprised that, so far, they seem to have avoided one.
Lawmakers say they haven't seen what they once feared: a flood of hacked, embarrassing documents, or Twitter accounts calling for street protests that post only during Moscow business hours.
They are cautious about saying Russian meddling has been neutralized, especially since some far-right politicians welcome Kremlin help. Just this past weekend, Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resigned after a video filmed in 2017 showed him to be receptive to politically motivated investments from Russia.
But the anxiety has shifted somewhat inward, as many of the disinformation tactics pioneered by Russia have been domesticated, replicated on both extremes of the political debate in Europe. Meanwhile, with President Donald Trump and his allies embracing Europe's far-right leaders, centrists here also find themselves newly worried about the potentially distorting influence of the United States.
"It's not 2016. We are not seeing the automated, networked activity with an obvious Russian fingerprint across these elections," said Sasha Havlicek, head of London's Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which has been tracking online disinformation. "What we're seeing much more of is coordinated, transnational far-right information operations."
The European Parliament has long been a haven for odd-duck politicians outside the mainstream, since few European citizens actually understand the role of the legislature and fewer still turn out to vote. That has left an opening for people who can command a passionate minority, like Nigel Farage, the Brexit campaigner who has lost seven elections for Britain's House of Commons but has been in the European Parliament since 1999.
Euroskeptic politicians did well in the last election for the European legislature in 2014. But this week they are dreaming of an epochal shift - a wave of enough lawmakers to form a blocking minority inside the body and bring the workings of the European Union to a halt.
Centrist leaders figured that Russia wanted the same thing and that the Kremlin would pull out the stops to boost its sympathizers. European leaders commissioned reports about foreign meddling, enlisted intelligence services in efforts to be vigilant, and pushed social media companies to police their platforms. But the worst fears about Kremlin involvement have not manifested, officials and analysts said.
"We are not calm about everything," said Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, whose Baltic nation has a large Russian-speaking population and is on the front lines of tensions with the Kremlin. "We are trying to monitor each and every activity that could be suspicious."
Still, he said, "so far, there have not been alarms about something unusual."
He and others cautioned that it is challenging to monitor trends in real time across 28 E.U. nations, each with their own campaigns, being conducted in 24 official languages. And they said Russia has proved adept at adapting tactics to keep a low profile. But they said that if there was a major Russian effort to swing the elections toward specific parties or candidates, it was being conducted in a different enough manner from past cycles that they hadn't yet spotted it.
Russia is still working openly to promote divisive political narratives within Europe. The Sputnik news agency has offered wall-to-wall coverage of the "yellow vest" protests that have shaken France. The German-language homepage of RT, formerly Russia Today, recently featured a banner debunking "myths" that the former West Germany was superior to Communist East Germany.
There has also been apparent subterfuge: The E.U.'s official disinformation-busting team last month flagged an English- and German-language news portal with Russian fingerprints, including coding that showed videos had been posted from a computer folder named "Anastasia" in Cyrillic script.
Facebook this month said it took down 16 Russian-linked accounts, four pages and one Instagram account that were targeting users in seven E.U. countries and Ukraine. But the scale of what's been identified is nothing compared with the past - or with what the Europeans had anticipated.
Jana Kobzova, an adviser to the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, said Moscow may have calculated that these elections weren't worth the bother.
"Russia has limited resources," she said. "And if they already have people like Nigel Farage being elected, they don't need to help much."
But analysts say Europe also may have gotten better at thwarting Russian attempts to shake up its campaigns.
European politicians have grown savvy about protecting their communications and are less likely to fall for phishing attempts. Facebook has promised more openness about who is paying for political advertising in European elections. Twitter is moving faster to wipe automated bot accounts from its rolls. And citizens may also be more cautious about what they see online.
"Member states are much less ignorant than in 2016, and they're aware of the need to do something," Kobzova said.
The collective effort on the continent stands in contrast to the United States, where the discussion about Russian interference breaks along sharp partisan lines. After Trump spoke by phone to Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month, he tweeted that they had talked not about election meddling but about the "Russian Hoax."
Europeans, meanwhile, have been unsettled by how Trump, his envoys and ultraconservative U.S. activists might influence this week's elections. The fears about the United States are not as great as about Russia. But concerns have been growing.
Many centrist leaders in Europe saw a clear campaign message in the timing of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's visit to Washington last week. Trump said that Orban - who has been hit with official E.U. proceedings for rule-of-law violations - "has done a tremendous job in so many different ways. Highly respected. Respected all over Europe. Probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that's okay."
At the same time, some of Trump's envoys to Europe have been more overtly partisan than ambassadors from previous administrations. The U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, has slammed German leaders for their stance on migration, threatened them about a planned natural gas pipeline to Russia and praised German Chancellor Angela Merkel's rivals.
European politicians have also been alarmed by money pouring in from ultraconservative U.S. social activists, who have paid for lobbying and activism on issues such as migration and same-sex marriage. An OpenDemocracy analysis of U.S. tax filings found that at least $50 million had flowed into Europe in the past decade - a drop in the bucket by U.S. standards, but a significant cash flow in the lower-budget world of European politics.
That report prompted 38 European lawmakers to demand an E.U. investigation of money flows from the United States, looking at "the threat posed by Christian fundamentalists" and other "nefarious outside influences."
One American influence who has been more marginal than anticipated is Stephen K. Bannon, Trump's onetime strategist, who made much ado about organizing Europe's far-right ahead of these elections.
Bannon has appeared alongside Italy's Matteo Salvini and France's Marine Le Pen. But his pre-election effort to supply sympathetic candidates with polling data and campaign advice was thwarted by campaign finance laws and a lack of interest from far-right leaders. Bannon now says he will try to build coalitions among the far-right politicians once they have stormed the Parliament.
Far-right parties in Europe haven't needed Bannon, or Russia, in part because some of their domestic supporters have mimicked Russia's strategy of promoting disinformation and amplifying it with automated accounts.
Ahead of Spanish national elections last month, Facebook took down three networks that appeared to be spreading disinformation automatically. Avaaz, the activist group that flagged the content, estimated that the networks had almost 1.7 million followers. The pages shared doctored pictures of a left-wing leader giving a Nazi salute, made-up data about North African men being disproportionately responsible for rape cases in Spain and an inaccurate news item about "Catalan separatists" closing down children's cancer clinics in favor of Catalan embassies.
Separately, analysts have questioned whether automation may be playing a role in online support for the far-right Alternative for Germany party. In a sample of German online political content examined by research firm Alto Data Analytics, less than 1 percent of the users generated 10 percent of the posts, most of them in favor of Alternative for Germany. They acknowledge the difficulty of separating some automated activity from real users who are extremely enthusiastic.
"It is hard to tell, but I wouldn't want to underestimate European populistic right-wing communications strategies," said Judith Sargentini, a Dutch Green Left party member of the European Parliament and a foe of the far-right. "If we were to start blaming this on Russia or the U.S., we would let all these people in Europe that are sending out these racist, bigoted messages be less responsible for their own acts."