"The likelihood of disinformation campaigns during the European elections is high”

, by Hannah Illing, Translated by Nora Teuma

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

"The likelihood of disinformation campaigns during the European elections is high”
Attempts of online manipulation pose a threat to the European elections. Photo: © Susanne Nilsson/ Flickr Creative Commons 2.0-Lizenz (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The European Parliament elections will be held in May. Like the presidential elections in the USA, this EU election is a potential target for attempted online manipulation, says Moritz Fessler, PhD candidate in International and European Politics at the European University Viadrina, in an interview with our German sister edition Treffpunkt Europa. The original German-language interview was published by Treffpunkt Europa on 27 February.

Treffpunkt Europa: The European elections will take place this May. Are you worried about disinformation campaigns on social media ?

Moritz Fessler: Yes, the probability of disinformation campaigns and manipulation attempts on social media in the context of the European elections is very high. Since 2016, every major political event – may it be Brexit, the Finnish elections or the French presidential elections – has been affected. And the European elections in particular could be an easy target.

Are the European elections especially vulnerable to such campaigns; and if so, why?

Two reasons, among others, make the European elections an easy target for online attacks, I believe. Firstly, efforts by right-wing populists to form an alliance could lead to a transnational list of anti-European parties. These parties particularly have great interest in turning public opinion against the EU – and have already been seen engaging in manipulation campaigns on social media several times in the past. The European elections therefore represent a welcome opportunity for them. Secondly, they are very likely to receive support: Moscow has previously attempted to make targeted use of bots and disseminate false information online to influence elections in EU countries several times. If – and it is indeed likely – the Kremlin continues to be interested in destabilising the EU, it could complement its financial support for anti-European forces with digital attacks.

Personally, I am very disappointed by this: Russia in particular has a strong interest in a stable Union, as the EU has long been the most important trading partner for the country, one of the most important sources of investments and the largest buyer of energy. A fruitful partnership would certainly be far more constructive for both sides than the Kremlin’s continued destructive behaviour.

Who spreads “fake news” about the EU online?

A simple answer to that question is downright difficult, unfortunately. First of all, there is no universal definition of “fake news” so far: Some already consider unintentional research errors as fake news, others refer to the targeted dissemination of certain political messages. The motivation behind fake news can differ as well, because false information can be spread inter alia for political or financial purposes. That is why I prefer to speak of disinformation: That means demonstrably false or misleading information created, published and disseminated with the aim of exerting political influence. So far, EU opponents in particular have used disinformation, for example in connection with the Brexit referendum.

What should the EU Commission and Member States do to take action against manipulation attempts and cyber attacks?

The European Commission has already taken some steps to protect the European elections from cyber attacks: In December 2018, it presented an action programme and initiated the establishment of an early warning mechanism, and it continuously sensitises national election authorities to threats from cyberspace. However, these steps come rather late.

National capitals, likewise, have shown little evidence of sufficient efforts so far. I believe that three essential steps should be taken. Firstly, Member States should secure their respective national digital electoral infrastructure – if a hacker attack were to succeed with distorting the results, the legitimacy of the entire election might be at stake. Secondly, we need a European strategy to raise voters’ awareness of disinformation campaigns. Thirdly, the Commission should also hold providers of online platforms responsible.

Should companies like Facebook and Twitter delete posts identified as “fake news”?

I believe that online platforms like Facebook and Twitter indeed have a duty to take action against targeted disinformation campaigns. Against this background, the EU Commission convinced these and other social networks to agree to a voluntary code of conduct in September 2018. Among other things, this code of conduct contains transparency mechanisms which, for example, require political advertising to be approved by the platform first and is always accompanied by a “paid by” disclaimer.

Whether the instrument will prove to be sufficiently effective remains to be seen. In general, however, it is not easy to expect the operator to directly delete posts identified as fake news. Apart from the technical difficulties (e.g. the sheer number of posts per minute), the concept of fake news is still not clearly defined. Where to draw the line: Where does the democratic competition for the better idea end and where does targeted propaganda with disinformation begin? Can we actually leave this decision to a machine? These questions will continue to provide much room for controversy.

How can EU citizens protect themselves from disinformation campaigns?

Nowadays, disinformation campaigns very often originate from websites that look like serious news sites at first glance. Thus, the first step has already been successful: in the limited time that is available to users when scrolling through their newsfeed, the impression quickly arises that it is a credible message. If then some acquaintances and friends spread the respective post further or give it a “like”, one is additionally inclined to believe the content. The best and safest way to escape this phenomenon remains, in fact, double-checking with a second source: If a post appears particularly virulent or even abstruse, a short search for further sources known to be respectable, such as daily newspapers or official government websites, pays off.

In the case of certain posts by some local branches of the populist party Alternative für Deutschland about an alleged travel warning for Sweden, which were identified as false messages in March 2018, a quick glance at the Twitter account and the website of the Federal Foreign Ministry could do the job: There, the allegation was immediately identified as fake news.

JEF member Moritz Fessler pursues his doctorate at the Chair of International and European Politics at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) and recently published articles on the European elections in the IPG-Journal.

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