Russian sources mounted a “continued and sustained” disinformation effort to “suppress turnout and influence voter preferences” at last month’s EU parliament elections, an initial review by Brussels has concluded.
Social media companies fell short in their efforts to tackle the malicious activity despite improvements in some areas, the analysis found, warning that they risked regulation if they failed to do better.
The document, due to be published on Friday, does not draw conclusions about who was behind the disinformation or how it was co-ordinated. But it says the polls faced wide-ranging attempts to mislead voters.
“The evidence collected revealed a continued and sustained disinformation activity by Russian sources aiming to suppress turnout and influence voter preferences,” said the review from the European Commission and the EU’s foreign policy arm, which has been seen by the FT. “These covered a broad range of topics, ranging from challenging the Union’s democratic legitimacy to exploiting divisive public debates on issues such as . . . migration and sovereignty.”
The election yielded a complex patchwork of results, in which far-right parties topped the polls in some countries but were held at bay by more liberal groups in others. Turnout at the polls reached a 25-year high.
Disinformation tactics had evolved quickly in response to countermeasures by countries and technology companies, the report found.
“Instead of conducting large-scale operations on digital platforms . . . actors, in particular linked to Russian sources, now appeared to be opting for smaller-scale, localised operations that are harder to detect and expose,” the report said.
The Russian government has consistently denied involvement in efforts to manipulate elections.
Disinformation cited in the commission report included the use of April’s fire in the Notre-Dame Cathedral to show the “alleged decline of Western and Christian values in the EU”.
Another example was how some sources blamed the corruption scandal that brought down the Austrian government in May on the “European deep state” and German and Spanish security services.
Stories aimed at suppressing voting included material highlighting the “irrelevance of [the] European Parliament’s legislative powers” and its “control by lobbyists”, the report added.
“There was a consistent trend of malicious actors using disinformation to promote extreme views and polarise local debates, including through unfounded attacks on the EU,” the review said.
The findings highlight areas of dispute over what constitutes disinformation. Some social media companies and free speech campaigners say it is important to distinguish between outright factually false claims and those that are misleading because they are hyperpartisan or stripped of important context.
The report credits technology companies with curbing misleading advertising, improving transparency on who places the publicity, and taking down accounts that spread disinformation and hate speech.
But it calls on the companies to be more transparent about the websites that host advertisements, co-operate more with fact-checkers around the EU and give researchers better access to their data.
The report said the commission planned to assess by the end of the year whether it needed to impose tougher standards for companies, rather than the voluntary reporting arrangements it currently has in place.
“Should the results of this assessment not be satisfactory, the commission may propose further initiatives, including of a regulatory nature,” the report warned.